Remote Work Practices for The Long Term

by Niamh Brady, Productivity Coach

If you have been working remotely during COVID-19 then you may want to continue doing so even after offices reopen, whether that is full-time or for a couple of days during your working week.

Research from NUI Galway’s Whitaker Institute and the Western Development Commission found that 78% of participants would like to work remotely when the crisis is over.

COVID-19 resulted in a global, unplanned remote work experiment for many industries and companies who had no plans to do so. If remote working is going to continue then we must pause and learn from what has worked well, and what has not.

The Whitaker Institute study received 7,241 responses and found that 48% find it is easy or somewhat easy to work effectively remotely. At the same time, I was completing my own research into productivity and a better workday. When I asked people working remotely how COVID-19 impacted their productivity, just over 50% of the 70 respondents replied with a positive or neutral statement. Whether you ask 7,000 people or 70 the answer is the same; some people simply find it easier than others.

The factors behind that are complex, and many are temporary. A rapid move to remote working meant that the technical infrastructure was not in place for companies who did not already have some distributed working arrangements in place. Anyone with young children or other people to care for had to do their best without their normal supports. And the additional stress of living through a pandemic is going to have an impact, some days more than others.

Now, as we move forward, the key to sustainable remote work lies in understanding the factors we can control.

Swap Meetings for Phone Calls

With the move to remote working, it is suddenly no longer possible to pop over to someone’s desk with a quick question. This was welcomed by many, with a reduction in interruptions being one of the benefits of working from home. However, it has resulted in a situation where you can’t “just talk” to people and the calendar is now the gateway to having a conversation with someone. These calendars are now filling with video conference meetings and, with the default duration being in increments of 30 minutes, it is not long before the day is filled. This makes people who were already hard to reach even less accessible to their teams and crowds out time for deep work.

Tools such as Teams and Slack offer an alternative through instant messaging. But, depending on the type of work you do, these could be seen as even bigger sources of interruption than a tap on the shoulder in the office. If we expect everyone to reply immediately on these tools all of the time it will again prevent us from spending the time needed on high value activity. Never mind the fact the some people find it easier to communicate verbally rather than in writing.

If you are planning to work remotely for the long-term it may be worth looking at how well you use the phone as an alternative to meetings and instant messaging. One meeting could be replaced with a couple of shorter phone calls and avoid back and forth messaging. The key lies in a little bit of planning.

If you already put blocks in your calendar for times you are not available, I suggest you now do the opposite for phone calls. This time can be used for email, messaging and making or receiving phone calls. By putting it in your calendar it lets people know that this is a good time to reach you; you are inviting them over to your desk even if you are no longer in the same room. It also sets an expectation around response times for email and instant messaging. Then use the time to pick up the phone and speak with your colleagues.

Introduce Team Routines

If the team you work in is going to be distributed for even part of the week from now on, then it is critical to understand what supports are needed. When I asked how COVID-19 impacted productivity, 70 people gave me 70 different answers.

People who are prone to procrastination struggled to motivate themselves. People who had an increased workload found themselves working longer hours. Some people said they got more done because they had no distractions, while others found themselves regularly distracted and putting tasks off.

Remote working means that that natural hum and momentum typically found in a co-located team does not always reach everyone. Flexibility needs to be balanced with structure so that each member feels supported and is set up for success. Team routines can be one element of this structure. It might be a regular morning stand-up to report progress or a 5.00 pm wrap-up message to signal the end of the working day.

Many teams have adopted a routine during COVID-19. Now is the time to consider whether this will work well in the long term or does it need to change. If you are not working as part of a team you can still benefit from this practice by setting up an accountability circle. The group could be made up of people from other parts of the business or your wider networks as long as there is confidentiality. Working alone does not have to mean working without support.

Treat Commute Time as Golden Time

One of the main benefits of remote working is the time saved from commuting. The average travel time in Ireland for commuters is 28 minutes. This means many of us are finding ourselves with almost 2.5 extra hours each week, if not more. The temptation is to let this time blend into the rest of day without taking full advantage of it. Without attention, this time could quickly get lost.

If remote working is going to be an option then it is an opportunity to use this golden time on high value activity, whether that is work related or personal. One thing all of us can do is identify an important area of focus, whether at work or at home, and decide whether we want to use this time to make progress in that area.

As we look to return to offices over the coming months there will be some of us that will want to be the first in the door and others who would prefer to stay remote for at least part of the time. The next day you are working remotely set a timer for 5 minutes to think about what COVID-19 has taught you about your workday, what new things you want to bring forward with you and what will need to change from now on.

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