Can you work at home and in your office at the same time? The answer is not only a resounding “Yes,” but it’s likely businesses will soon discover the overlooked advantage of the information age.
And not a moment too soon. (More on that in a moment.)
You and your coworkers are no doubt creatures of habit. Each day you travel from afar to share an office space, share a lunch conversation and share in the day to day activities of your business. Until now, you’ve probably assumed the most effective way to accomplish this is through an in-person face-to-face setting.
What if this assumption is all wrong?
We’re about to find out over the next several weeks.
It’s long been felt only a centralized working environment could produce the most efficient results. This may have been true in the industrial era where factory workers required close proximity to keep the assembly line flowing smoothly. It’s not true in the age of information.
Some businesses have already discovered this.
“We stopped working from our office at the end of 2016,” says Joel A. Larsen of Navion Financial Advisors in Davis, California. “We have clients in 22 states and had only had 6 meetings in our office all year. Following our (ironically enough) Pandemic Preparedness Plan, we moved all data to the cloud, set up standardized ‘offices’ in our employees’ homes and have been happily doing this ever since.”
Larsen uses the Teams function in Microsoft Office 365 to facilitate communications between his employees.
The Ides of March has historically been connected with the death of Julius Caesar. In the future, it may be best remembered as the week which launched the beginning of the end of the traditional office desk farm.
Soon, the orchard of cubicles may be seen as an anachronism of inefficiency. Home-based employees reduce a company’s fixed and variable infrastructure costs while maintaining the same level of revenues. And if you haven’t been paying attention, corporate bean counters will likely soon be most interested in ways to cut costs without cutting revenues.
Thibaud Clément is the CEO of Loomly, a provider of a web-based brand success platform headquartered in Los Angeles. He is an expert on this topic of a decentralized home-based workforce.
He and his wife/co-founder run Loomly from home. All their employees work from home as well). He says, “At Loomly, as a fully-distributed team which has been operating from home since Day One, we manage all human resources processes through a platform called Gusto, which allows us to streamline payroll & benefits in the cloud seamlessly for all team members, wherever they are, particularly when they work from home.”
You might not have the experience of Larsen or Clément. Still, you can benefit by looking at the way they run their businesses. First, however, you need to deal with the harsh reality of the sudden departure from the daily habit you and your coworkers have become accustomed to. Fortunately, you don’t have to learn anything new to address this.
“This is not the time to under-communicate,” says Debra A. Dinnocenzo, President of VirtualWorks! In Pittsburgh. “Use all available methods to keep in touch with home-bound workers: email, chat, video calls, telephone. Use live voice-to-voice connections as often as possible, even if just to check in with a ‘how goes it?’ contact. People need to feel they aren’t isolated or forgotten during these days of separation from each other.”
As with all other organizational endeavors, the transformation from a centralized office layout to a decentralized network of home-based employees requires planning. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) treat it like a massive strategic planning session, but you shouldn’t allow it to proceed haphazardly. If you’re the manager, you do have a certain advantage here.
“Set your employees up for success as they transition from a more structured work environment to an unstructured environment,” says Racheal Cook, a productivity expert and business strategist located in Richmond, Virginia. “This may include giving training on how to use virtual tools to work from home, setting up one-on-one calls to get support from management and help prioritize projects, and clearly communicating what priorities are for the business as a whole to departments.”
Think of it as issuing an FAQ that includes expectations and measurables. You will find it easier to hit the ground running in a new environment (yes, your home is a “new” place to work from) if you provide templates, to-do lists and task schedules. These support materials are all the more important when you want to insure a group of employees will continue to maintain efficiency.
“Create a communication playbook that outlines the who, what, when, and how the team can expect to interact,” says Brian Zotti, SVP Services and Operations at Contek Consulting in San Francisco. “The effectiveness of remote teams is rarely the misdiagnoses that people are somehow inherently less productive when they aren’t being monitored in person. Instead, the lack of clear expectations leads individuals to make assumptions about what his or her manager wants and needs by way of communication. If expectations are set upfront as to the meeting cadence between managers and team members both parties will find they can focus on their work while still feeling appropriately connected to each other.”
Zotti likes to use Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Adobe Connect for video communications and prefers Skype, Slack and IM for text. He says, “Communication tools are critical to enable open, ongoing, direct and real-time interactions for employees and their managers to discuss any number of topics that range from informal check-ins to formal meetings.”
Dr. Jo Webber, CEO and founder of Pod in Hawthorne, California, recommends daily group video calls. “Google Meet is free and works really well for groups of 25 or less,” says Webber. “This adds a bit of structure to your daily routine. You can also use group chat. Apps like Pod include free group chat – this allows working groups to stay connected and easily chat with each other.”
“There are a lot of ways to keep the staff in the loop when they work from home,” says Morgan Taylor, CMO of LetMeBank in Los Angeles. “We use Zoom and Slack. Zoom is great when one person needs to communicate with a group visually, and Slack is like a private message board for the company. We have the Slack threads segmented into the various groups that need to work together, with oversight able to enter all threads and point groups in the right direction. Of course, email is also a great way to communicate, as is the phone.”
Remember, communications alone will not insure efficiency. You’ll need to incorporate flexible and intuitive web-based team management tools to keep your group running at peak effectiveness. These project platforms can provide the scheduling mentioned earlier. Trello is a good example, but there are others. You’ll find that using these tools will recreate the office environment without the burden imposed by enduring rush hour traffic.
“As teams move virtual, make sure they are supported with access to project managements systems like Asana and messaging systems like Slack,” says Cook. “Teams can and should have regular ‘all hands on deck’ conference calls especially as everyone is transitioning to work remotely. Teams need to understand what the priorities and deadlines are, how to clearly communicate (and the chain of communication), and most importantly, what changes need to be made given the current climate.”
Beyond the technology, there is also the leadership. Firms that have successfully decentralized have leaders who embrace the strategy. Don’t think you’re “hip” if you know how to use email. That was so Twentieth Century.
“You can’t run your empire by email alone,” says Wayne Turmel, co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute in Las Vegas. “Get used to using your webcams. If the senior leaders don’t use them, the rank and file won’t. The number one factor in whether a team uses a tool is if the boss uses it. Also, try not to do separate messages for folks in the office and those remote. Be all one team and send that message.”
Finally, aside from work, there’s another reason to maintain regular and consistent communications. As a song once said, “people need people.” So, don’t be afraid to show your lovely mug. You don’t need a fancy camera, either. You can just use your phone.
“Email just to reiterate the conversation or plan you may have had,” says Kyle Winkfield, President of Finley Alexander Wealth Management in Rockville, Maryland. “If you don’t hear back in a day, send a reminder. Some people are panic stricken by all the news and certain items tend to get lost in their daily shuffle. I still believe face to face through a platform like Facetime is the most effective. They’re subject to quarantine like the rest of us, they want to see a friendly face throughout this time.”
And a welcoming smile might be worth a lot right about now.