What We Can Learn From People Who Worked Remotely Pre-Pandemic

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For anyone unaccustomed to working from home, the last few months have been a rough transition. With more companies each day announcing they’ll allow remote work for the indefinite future, it’s time to make another shift: from seeing work-from-home arrangements as temporary to considering them a long-term reality.

Organizations where work-from-anywhere is the norm can offer tips on how to make this not only bearable, but pleasant and productive, says Barbara Larson, a professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. She has three takeaways—and an important caveat.
 
Set clear guidelines
Work-from-anywhere teams are more explicit about their processes and norms—things such as how they handle conflict or make decisions. In an office, these norms often go unspoken. But in a virtual setting, they can take some effort to establish.

Larson suggests that remote workers document how they do things in, say, a team wiki that’s revisited regularly. It may sound forced or hokey, but without organic cultural cues, such a document can be a helpful touchstone, particularly for newer employees.
 
Tailor communication tools to the message
Successful virtual teams tend to follow clear procedures for communications. Highly interactive tools such as videoconferencing tend to be tiring, while interactions on apps like Slack tend to be short and to the point. Although you can’t be overly prescriptive—people will get prickly about that—teams can benefit from gentle guidance about when to use which.

Remote teams should establish healthy, sustainable habits to forestall burnout from hours spent on Zoom. Instead, you might use video calls for regular team meetings, Slack for free-form chatter during the day, and email for important decisions or instructions. And for urgent after-hours communication, many teams make it a rule to call or text, so there’s no expectation of constantly checking email, which gives everyone a chance to unplug.
 
Be flexible—and transparent—about scheduling
Work-from-anywhere teams are open about their work hours, and when they’ll be unavailable. This prevents confusion, especially when colleagues are on different schedules or live far from one another.

With kids still out of school and parents often working in shifts, many employees may be unavailable for hours at a stretch during the typical workday. “Don’t assume, even if you’re in the same time zone, that you can all have the same work hours right now,” says Larson. “Give people latitude to define their hours.”

The key is transparency about when everyone is working. That way, if you get emails from a colleague at 6 a.m., you’ll know it’s because she’s shifted her hours earlier, not because she expects you to be awake and on-duty at that hour.
 
Be careful when the office opens again
All-remote teams tend to communicate more smoothly than those with some members at their desks and others at home. On mixed teams, those at the office “become closer and share information among themselves,” Larson says. “People who are remote feel left out—and often are left out,” she adds, even though that’s usually unintentional. As workplaces begin to reopen, clear communication will only become more important in keeping teams running smoothly.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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