The term remote work was first coined in the early ‘70s by NASA engineer Jack Niles. The concept, however, has been prevalent a lot longer, spurred on by the first Industrial Revolution.
Craftsmen in trades such as carpentry, smithies, and food sold their wares from their homes. The mass-production of such goods resulted in factories with automated technology to speed up the work and reduce the number of manual hours and effort involved.
In the 1960s, IBM project manager Fred Brooks saw the potential for an advanced operating system that could be deployed in aviation, retail, and consumer industries. He didn’t want the IBM System 360 project to slow ongoing work down by remaining confined to the workforce on-site. Instead, he collaborated with a global programming workforce, where members were located in different time zones and worked on individual components. The team was remote and reported to both Fred and their line manager with the communication technology of that era.
Today, however, the advent and subsequent growth of internet technology have given rise to a platform for remote work. We are half a year into the Covid-19 outbreak and many companies are considering making remote work permanent for their employees. The success rate for remote work differs based on business agility.
In simpler terms, a company’s ability to adapt to dynamic shifts in the landscape. In spite of the challenges, a Remote Work report by Usefyi showed that 96 percent of remote workers would recommend it to a friend. The flipside being, the same study said that 27 percent of respondents reported struggling with communication, while opportunities to socialize came second.
Given how most companies are offering permanent work-from-home or other telework options to their staff, now is a good time to look in on remote work etiquettes that your policy should include. These are:
1. Standardize and structure meetings
Let’s admit it, we all hate getting into an unscheduled agenda-less meeting. There’s a reason for that meme that says,’ this meeting could have been an email!’ First things first, remote work doesn’t mean everyone is glued to their seat and screen all day long. The worker you’re trying to reach could be on a break, having a meal, or simply be unavailable due to his or her absorption in work. This is why it is important to standardize meeting times and divide them by agenda into virtual stand-ups, one-one-one check-ins, and group calls. They should enable team leads and managers to set expectations and make it easy for everyone to follow. For example, the purpose of stand-up is to collect updates from everyone on the work they’ve carried out so far. If one or more members can’t attend, provisions to record the meeting should be taken so that they can revisit a particular catch-up later.
2. Tap into a “productivity window”
Productivity fluctuates in line with attention spans. Some people find that they are sharper during the day while others work better towards noon and evening when there are fewer distractions. When working remotely, techniques like the Pomodoro can help you tap into a productivity window. Rather than insist on everyone working core hours, set aside time to plan out priorities, i.e. what needs doing first and by when is it required to be completed. This lets whoever assigned to the task focus on it. They can set a timer, take breaks, and lengthen their breaks according to how close they are to finishing it.
3. Align expectations with accountability
Communication, while important, is also cited as a top challenge with virtual teams. Members are physically scattered in different locations. If a teammate is behind or ahead of you by a few hours, time zones realistically determine how soon you can get reports and updates from them. Hence, when setting expectations, everyone’s work hours in the time zone that they are in should be known beforehand. While managers should communicate deadlines, clarify task lists and assignments, remote staff should update their manager or supervisor if they are running late, ahead of schedule, or unable to make the deadline. This prevents having to repeatedly follow-up.
4. Moderate virtual socializing
Make time for virtual catch-ups and online watercooler talk. Organize potluck lunch or bingo, anything that helps remote teams bond better! Even social meets should be arranged after speaking to team members so that they can clear their schedules and be available for it. It helps to appoint a moderator who can ensure discussions are civil, work-appropriate, and keeping track of the hour so that everyone can recharge and go back to work afterward.
5. Review past processes and policies
Remote work policies should put people, processes, and tools in the heart of the work culture. The guidelines have to be revised to build trust, encourage productivity, and offer supportive assistance to remote employees. Run through processes that worked and didn’t work in the physical office. You can enlist the help of your team and use their feedback as a means to weeding out practices that cannot be migrated to a remote set up.
6. Ensure audio and video connectivity
Poor internet connectivity causes remote workers to lose an average of 30 minutes a day. And when the internet is down, it brings everything else down with it. Invest in a remote team management platform with built-in audio and video transmission so that your calls can be recorded, saved and uploaded onto the cloud for offline workers. While the ideal is to have uninterrupted connectivity during work hours, we have to be realistic and invest in a tool that has offline capabilities to help a team member who unexpectedly dropped from a call pick up where he or she left off.
7. Take calls in designated quiet places
An oft-overlooked etiquette, but always ensure your surroundings are conducive for meetings and that you’re unlikely to get distracted. Depending on your living situation, arrange to be in a designated spot and inform the people you’re living with that you’re expecting a work-call in a such-and-such hour. Tools like Krisp.ai and freedom can help you mute a noisy environment, such as traffic, children, or pets. Avoid taking calls in public or crowded places that force you or whoever else was speaking to repeat themselves because the background noise drowned them out earlier.
8. Use time trackers and productivity apps
A time tracker within employee monitoring software can prevent you from giving in to too many distractions. You can even use website blockers to prevent going on social media when you’re working. This helps you stay on top of your workload, take breaks, and resume work when you’re back. Such tools come with idle-time detection that can be set to turn on and off automatically so that the exact hours you spent on an activity are captured.
9. Avoid work-switching on calls
We’re all guilty of using the opportunity to mute ourselves on a work call to cook, shower or exercise. But switching between tasks, be them work or non-work related, doesn’t work long-term. Not only is it a disservice to the person who is speaking and presenting something but also causes your attention to waver. When on a call, focus on it and it alone. Do not keep multiple tabs open or respond to emails and texts unless they are related to the meeting you’re part of. Remember to bookmark your progress so that you can return to work after the call ends.
10. Unplug and destress
Whether you advocate for work-life balance or work-life integration, neither work techniques should come at the cost of your health and well-being. As a manager, avoid reaching out to your team and expecting immediate responses after they log out. In some cases, they may appear to be online even if they aren’t actually working, on account of forgetting to change their settings. The expectation should be that your team is responsive during work, not before nor after. Remember to destress from work woes every once in a while. Be open to trying out a new hobby or recreational activity, or invest your free time in one you practice regularly, such as meditation or Yoga. A relaxed mindset is a productive one, and you’ll ultimately find yourself more energized!
Remote work is the future, and many popularly frontline work will be taken up virtually. Following etiquettes can prevent expectation mismatches and a breach of trust. It, in fact, helps employers and employees come to an understanding overwork policies, wellness activities, and productivity markers so that everyone gets a fair and equal footing when their ethics and performance are appraised!
Aakash Gupta, founder, SorryIwasOnMute