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Mastering Remote Work Productivity in the Pandemic Era

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Pandemic Remote Work

Even before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept across the globe at an explosive rate, remote working arrangements were accelerating in the United States. According to Quartz, citing the last U.S. Census report, 5.2% of workers in America worked at home in 2017—or roughly 8 million people. That share had risen from 5% in 2016, and 3.3% in 2000. Now that we’ve been thrust into isolation and, in some instances, imposed quarantines, virtual offices and telework are rapidly becoming part of the nation’s burgeoning “new normal.” The challenge is that for many people, performing their jobs from home is anything but normal. So let’s explore some tips and best practices that can help you and your employees weather the transition — whether you're an employer, a staffing provider, or a managed services company.. After all, even though most of us may not return to the norms of office life anytime soon, we're still in this together.

Remote Work Isn’t Business as Usual for Many

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 29% of U.S. workers have jobs conducive to remote arrangements, including one in 20 service workers and over half of those in the IT space. “The coronavirus outbreak has triggered an anxious trial run for remote work at a grand scale,” wrote The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. “What we learn in the next few months could help shape a future of work that might have been inevitable, with or without a once-in-a-century public-health crisis.”

“Even before the pandemic struck, remote work was accelerating in the U.S.,” he added. “The share of the labor force that works from home tripled in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve. Two of the accelerants are obvious: living costs in metros with the highest density of knowledge workers, and technology, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, that moves collaboration and gossip online. But online communications can be a minefield for psychological safety,”

The loneliness, disconnection, and lack of face-to-face interaction (depriving us of important context through observed body language and tone of voice) can present unfamiliar obstacles to our talent. So let’s examine some approaches that can smooth the way.

Best Practices for Remote Employees

Tom Popomaronis is a leadership researcher, commerce expert, cross-industry innovation leader, and VP of Innovation at Massive Alliance. In his article for CNBC, he illustrates some common issues and solutions for overcoming the hurdles of teleworking.

Dress for Success

“The most productive people don’t wake up and instantly start working while still in their pajamas,”  Popomaronis said. “Instead, they get ready for the day the same way they would if they were heading into the office — which, yes, involves dressing up in presentable clothes.”

Feeling good about yourself will increase your confidence and attitude. We have become accustomed to dressing for business-related purposes and adhering to company guidelines about our appearance. This attire holds a sort of symbolic meaning. We associate clothing to activities: work, play, lounging, and more. Dressing for work mode will help influence your behavior. Your attitude, as it affects your manner of speaking, will project this to customers and colleagues.

Create an Actual Workspace

Our virtual office setup represents the same symbolism as our choice in apparel. Working from a bed or couch lends itself more toward relaxation than productivity. “There is no one-size-fits-all setup that works for everyone,” explained Popomaronis. “It will take some trial and error to find a workspace layout that supports your needs, but the key is to have it resemble your office setup as much as possible. You don’t even need a private room; it can be a designated area in your home — far away from the bed and couch, if possible — that basically says: ‘NO RELAXATION ZONE.’”

Stay in Touch

As Popomaronis emphasized, “Even on the slowest days, successful people who work from home always make it a point to overcommunicate.” To replicate our office environments at home, we should rely on the same habits and routines.

  • Check emails, voicemails, and company messaging systems regularly.

  • Ask your IT department for mobile apps that allow you to monitor communications through your phone, not just your computer.

  • Establish times with your managers or supervisors to check in each day for updates and input.

  • Don’t hesitate to initiate dialog with coworkers. Everyone is in the same boat and you may need to be the one who starts the conversation until the team adjusts to the new model.

  • Add tasks or calendar reminders to informally schedule communications.

  • Encourage the organization to host cultural get-togethers through video conferencing systems. These meetings foster engagement, cohesion, unity, team orientation, and socialization. We’ve been hosting virtual lunches and happy hours to maintain the feeling of unity and camaraderie that flourished prior to the social distancing orders. It’s a great blueprint for others to follow, if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the situation.

Maintain Physical Health

”When you aren’t in the office, there’s usually even less physical activity: No conference meeting rooms to walk to, no coworkers to go on a coffee run with and no long hallways that lead to the printer or bathroom,” Popomaronis observed.

It’s essential when working at home to carve out time for physical activity, whether it’s walking the dog, going for a run, doing yoga, exercising, or others. Research has consistently demonstrated that 30 minutes of activity a day dramatically lowers the risks of illness.

Establish Boundaries

As you acclimate yourself to the new world of telework, it’s critical to establish and uphold a sense of structure. That means consistent schedules, strict routines, making to-do lists, and eliminating distractions. That also means no TV, no video games, and no indulging in online pursuits that you couldn’t do at your office desk.

”Maintaining structure also means setting boundaries,” Popomaronis explained. “Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as if you’re a single parent with a newborn. But for the most part, be clear with your partner, friends or those you live with about your work schedule. Consider setting a ‘Do Not Disturb’ window of time where you can work freely without unnecessary interruptions.”

Focus on Clear Communication

In a virtual medium, things get lost in translation. A joke that otherwise would have amused you in person may come off as confusing or offensive electronically, especially in the absence of context. In addition to staying professional and using appropriate language, clarity matters a great deal.

Avoid sending emails or digital messages that lend themselves to misinterpretation: no sarcasm, no ambiguities, no implications or insinuations. As Joe Friday used to say on the old “Dragnet” show, just the facts. Parenthetical explanations and emojis may help, but if you feel the need to leverage them to make your point, then you probably haven’t made your point clearly. It’s better to reword the message to ensure that your audience will understand your intent immediately.

Image courtesy of United Nations Covid-19 Response