In less than a week, companies around the country have scrambled to transition their operations from traditional offices to — in some cases — entirely remote-based workforces. That swift transition coupled with the chaos of a global pandemic can wreak havoc on workflow and productivity.
“Businesses should expect a period of adjustment as people develop new routines, norms and shared understandings about how work will progress through a new medium,” said Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. He offered the following advice for managers and employees for working through this unprecedented time.
What should businesses expect from their employees during this time?
AK: Although many people have worked remotely intermittently — or at least dealt with the intrusion of work into the home — this large-scale shift to remote work will disrupt organizational practices and shared habits. Employers must be open to questioning old ways of doing things given the new situation.
What are some best practices that managers can implement to support their employees and encourage productivity?
AK: The most important best practice would be having a means for gathering and sharing new best practices that employees are learning. Rather than presuming that they know what will work best, managers should instead structure a mechanism (such as a brief morning briefing or an online community) for people to share with one another what’s working, what’s not working and what needs changed. This type of “bottom-up” adaptation will be most effective because this is an unprecedented situation.
A good example of this is the Army Center for Lessons Learned, which emerged as a way for soldiers to share with one another their knowledge and experience as the “boots on the ground.” Managers should similarly defer to the experts — the employees — on how to be most productive.
What recommendations do you have for leaders to support communication and collaboration during this time?
AK: Zoom is a wonderful technology for getting people together for a shared experience. Teams can use this technology to continue to coordinate. However — and, frankly, this advice would apply to in-person meetings as well — managers should be reticent to overschedule synchronous meetings. These often are not productive uses of people’s time. This is particularly the case for web-based meetings.
When using synchronous meetings, leaders should adhere to a set of principles, such as the ones that Google uses:
- Meetings should have a single decision-maker/owner … “someone whose butt is on the line.”
- The decision-maker should be hands on (e.g., set objectives, determine participants, send agenda).
- Meetings should be easy to kill — if it’s not useful, kill it.
- Meetings should be manageable in size — no more than eight people.
- Attendance isn’t a badge of importance — if you aren’t needed, leave or excuse yourself ahead of time.
- Timekeeping matters — respect biological needs, leave enough time to summarize actions, and end on time.
- If you attend a meeting, attend the meeting — multi-tasking doesn’t work.
When coordinated work can be accomplished without a meeting, it should be. This is facilitated through file sharing (Box, Dropbox) and shared documents (Google Docs). For leaders to support communication and collaboration, they have to ride the line between giving sufficient information and overloading people with email blasts. Having a rhythm to communications is important: a Monday brief, a morning brief … depending on the rhythm of people’s work.
What are some best practices for employees to work successfully from home?
AK: The most important practice for people who haven’t worked remotely is to experiment with different approaches, take stock in a systematic way and adjust as needed. Applications like Rescue Time can help people figure out whether they need to be physically isolated to be productive or whether working from the living room couch with a partner or child in the room can work.
The important thing to remember is that people differ in their preferences for whether to integrate their home life with their work life. Some people are “segmenters” who prefer having work and life separate. For these folks, having a defined space and time in their home will be preferable. Others are “integrators” who are comfortable with and even enjoy bringing these two spheres of life together. These folks may be most productive with work and life activities coming together.
How do you think this experience will impact businesses going forward? Will we return to “business as usual”?
AK: This is a tragic event with respect to health outcomes. At the same time, as it is forcing people to work and live in new ways, it can also provide a stimulus for development, learning and growth.
I hope that employees, employers and society take this situation as a way to get better — as a way to work and live in more productive and meaningful ways. I’m not sure what we’ll learn; however, I suspect that we’ll learn (a) we’re resilient; (b) some aspects of work or ways of working aren’t as “critical” as we thought; and (c) we need social connection to thrive.