What to do when work is no longer a place.

Three Business Blog Team
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On: 4 Jun 2020
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As the past two months have shown, even the most resistant of businesses are realising that working remotely can work. But now that the restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19 are starting to lift, how will the emergency measures give way to a more sustained model of flexible working? A recent Three Ireland webinar looked at this subject for answers.

Titled ‘Work is no longer just a place: How to master the culture, policy, technology and practice of remote working’, the webinar was co-presented by Carol Boyle and Stephen Mulligan of Three Ireland. The virtual event featured guest speakers Tracy Keogh, co-founder of Grow Remote, and Adam Coleman, CEO of HRLocker – both longstanding advocates of remote and flexible working.

From 2019 to Covid-19.

Stephen Mulligan opened the webinar by contrasting the situation in September 2019, when 59% of workers in Ireland said they would be more productive if they were able to work remotely or from home. The figures came from research commissioned by Three Ireland, which also found that a similar percentage of people were not allowed to do so.

That’s all changed dramatically since. “If we fast forward to the world we’re living in now, we’ve found from the CSO stats that 69% of Irish companies have implemented remote working, and 31% of Irish companies had the majority of their workforce working remotely,” Stephen said.

He made the point that the current situation is “enforced working from home” rather than true remote working. Yet despite the constraints involved in working from home while confined with a family, more companies and individuals have realised the benefits of a more flexible work schedule.

Tracy Keogh, co-founder of Grow Remote, then spoke about how her grassroots organisation had been actively canvassing organisations to provide “location-less” work. Before the Coronavirus restrictions forced everyone’s hand, it wasn’t a priority because there was a lot of work involved in making the transition.

Remote working benefits.

Tracy talked about many of the benefits for companies when they enable remote working. These include making it easier to hire highly skilled people because businesses are no longer limited to recruiting someone who lives within commuting distance of a company’s office. Other companies are considering whether they need to lease large office space if they can enable flexible or fully remote working for some staff members. Some companies have also seen productivity increase since they started remote working.

One of the biggest challenges for many companies is where there’s a hybrid model that involves some people working in the office while others are based off site. The risk is that people who aren’t in the office aren’t seen, and as a result, that their voices aren’t heard as loudly, or they miss out on promotion opportunities. Everyone needs equal access to the same information no matter where they are, Tracy said.

Changing the culture.

“Hybrid can work, but hybrid is more difficult than just being in the office or being fully remote… When you’re setting up a culture that’s inclusive of remote teams, you need to work much harder on that,” she added. In practice, this means taking simple inclusive steps like having everyone log on to a meeting app no matter where they’re working. This puts every employee on an equal footing and avoids “water cooler conversations” where decisions get taken by a small group of people who are always physically in the same place, thereby excluding others from the process.

Getting this right isn’t easy, which is why Grow Remote launched a training course in remote and flexible working for employees and for managers. “The employee needs skills, but also the company does too – the two sides need to come together,” she said. There are many online resources available to help businesses of all sizes to adopt remote working policies and practices. Grow Remote runs a training course for employees and managers and has a help page on its website for getting started. Other sources of information, advice and templates for remote working policies include Workathome.ie, Remote-How and Workplaceless

Learning to lead a remote team.

Adam Coleman took up the theme of leadership in his speaking slot. He explained how his company HRLocker had operated a dual working model since it began in 2004, combining some employees working from home, others remotely and others in the office. Yet the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 restrictions meant that going fully remote still took some getting used to. “Most of the issues that people will have faced with Covid is how you manage people… Culture is 100% important when you’re managing a remote or a hybrid team,” Adam said.

When a company wants to implement a remote working policy after Covid-19, or allow dual and hybrid working, it needs to give its people the skills to make it work by training them, he said. That involves practicing empathy with employees and changing to managing by productivity based on people’s output, not on the number of hours worked.

This takes practice and doesn’t always come naturally to people who find themselves in management roles. “People aren’t inherently managers or leaders and when you stretch it to remote, it’s a learned behaviour to manage people remotely,” Adam said.

Frequent communication feeds connectedness.

HRLocker increased the amount of communication with employees while everyone has been working remotely. That means an ‘all hands’ call for the entire team every Monday, and a rapid-fire sales call at 9am every morning. On Thursday evenings, the communication becomes more social, with people encouraged to bring ideas to liven up the meetings. “Checking in with people is really important but you also have to put an emphasis on fun,” Adam said.

The consensus from the webinar was that technology is an essential building block in enabling remote working, whether that’s broadband access, conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and cloud telephony services like 3Connect that can forward calls to an office number directly to a person’s smartphone no matter where they happen to be.

Lessons learned for remote working in the future.

Summing up some of the key takeaways, Stephen Mulligan said: “We know that technology is an enabler, but it needs to be supported with policy, people and practice. By taking a remote first approach, you’re supporting all employees equally.”

The tools, in other words, are widely available. What will make remote working ensure long past lockdown will be an emphasis on culture and policies that are inclusive of flexible working options.

Closing the session, Carol Boyle of Three called again on anyone managing teams remotely to become leaders, and to manage based on outputs. “Communication and touchpoints. They’re fundamental to making remote work, work in a lasting and sustained way past this year,” she said.