How to Make Working Remotely a Success – For Managers and Employees

A Q&A with Alan Kearns, Founder and Head Coach at CareerJoy.com

Do you think any businesses can make working remotely a success?

There’s a complexity to remote working. I think any business can make it work, but not many can make it work well. It’s a question of behaviors and systems. Many people are very self-sufficient and disciplined and don’t need to be in an office to get their work done and be motivated. For others, it can be more challenging.

In terms of infrastructure, businesses can turn it around on a dime if everything is in the cloud and the entire firm is designed with tools, systems, and documentation accessible on demand. But, not everyone has their systems set up for remote working. There may be issues on the admin side of a hospital, for example, where employees need access to a network. Technically, it can be done, but there are complex issues around security and confidentiality.

There are a lot of moving parts to remote working and, to be honest, many companies are behind the curve in the way they operate their businesses.

What are some of the myths about working remotely?

The biggest myth is that most people won’t be productive. They’ll go home and walk the dog and do laundry and clean. But this isn’t usually true. Most people want to do the work and most employees are good employees.

In the wake of COVID-19, what do you think could be the long-term impact of remote working on businesses?

For some businesses it will be negative. If their operating model isn’t set up for it, they can lose momentum and market share. For many, I think it will be very positive. Some businesses will reinvent themselves and cut infrastructure costs. Having people in an office every day is really expensive. But in my personal experience, managed well and with the right tools, having employees work from home can be very efficient.

[Many] companies will find, wow, we didn’t realize things could work so well this way. We can reduce our operating costs, and our travel times. We can recruit people better. Many would trade $5000 per year or more to work from home or take that as an option instead of a raise. There are so many benefits. Many statistics also back that people can be more productive working from home.

FOR MANAGERS

How can managers best prepare their employees to work remotely?

Sometimes you just have to do it as a reaction to crisis [like COVID-19]. But part of that readiness is getting [employees] to buy-in. Why are we doing this? Some people enjoy working at the office. You need to explain what support they will get. We will we use X to support you. It’s important to give guidelines about availability and communication. What is expected of them, what they will have control of, what hours they are expected to be working or reachable, or at the very least communicating with their manager.

How can managers ensure their employees are remaining productive on a daily basis?

If you have to ensure it, you don’t have the right people. Better to ask, how can you support them? How are you hiring them and leading them? We need to assume most people want to work diligently and not otherwise.

It’s important to be checking-in, especially during transition times like we’re in now.

Millions of North Americans are working from home this week and that was unexpected. If you had Wednesday meetings, keep those going. Keep the same schedule and rhythms as you had at the office, just do it with whatever platform you’ve chosen. It’s about continuity, community, and connectivity.

Are video meetings important or are regular conference calls OK?

I think it’s whatever works for your company, but practically and pragmatically there is a benefit to some teleconferencing. When you see someone’s face, there’s an energy that you don’t get over the phone. Part of our reality is that we won’t pick up so much information tonally. Seeing someone look awkward in a meeting maybe a good way to gather information.

How can managers create a positive culture for remote working?

It’s about creating community. Determine how you can move those rhythms offline. What will make your employees feel connected, on the same page, and good about things? At CareerJoy, we have our head office with teams coast to coast. For core meetings, we order lunch or coffee using a delivery service for the teams across the country and all eat “together”.

FOR EMPLOYEES

How can employees get themselves psychologically ready to work from home?

First of all, there are some practical things like getting an office set up, even if it’s part of your dining room or bedroom, and finding a space that’s yours, where you can work productively, and have an element of privacy especially if you have kids, or other family members around. It’s important to remember that your partner, dog, and kids are all affected by [you working at home].

Second, if you’re talking to clients, let them know you’re working in a home office. So, if they hear the dog barking, they know why. I have found that when I tell people I’m working at home they say, I wish I could do that!

Third, build breaks into your day and decide what they will be, like taking the dog for a walk or having a coffee. Make sure to establish some good digital boundaries when you will shut off your laptop. When I’m not working, I use my iPad instead of my laptop so that my head knows, psychologically, that I’m off.

Finally, make your workspace nice for yourself, get yourself flowers, a picture, personalize it. Set it up with a proper chair.

How can employees feel less cut off from their day-to-day operations?

The beautiful thing about working in an office is that you see photos of colleagues’ families, their dog, their kid’s coloring. How can you create other ways of connecting with each other instead? You can reach out to your peers to touch base through messing apps like Team or Slack, for example. Or, set up a work from home committee that looks at ways to make things better for everyone in the short or long term.

Any final words of reassurance for managers and employees about working remotely?

In turbulence we look for leadership that acknowledges it, lets people know what we’re doing to work through it, and communicating a plan. Anxiety lives in the unknown. Myths are amplified, problems manifest and they can become big very quickly. It’s like when you’re on an airplane during turbulence and you hear, “This is your captain speaking, and I want to give you an update.” There’s something very comforting about hearing this on an airplane, and in the workplace. It calms most people down and reduces their anxiety.

It’s a turbulent time organizationally moving 5 million people to work from home in one week, but at the end of the day there will be a lot of good that comes out of this.

Alan Kearns is a leading thought leader on all things work. Author and contributor to The National, The Globe & Mail, National Post and CBC Radio, he shares the latest trends and changes in the Canadian workplace. Voted one of the Top 40 under 40, he is the Managing Partner and Founder of CareerJoy, an award-winning national boutique HR services firm serving 2,300+ leading Canadian organizations including World Vision, Shopify, The United Way, Toyota, CHMC and The Government of Canada.