What have we learnt about mass remote working?

2020 has been the year of work from anywhere. It has certainly taught us a lot, balancing a full-time job and educating our children – all whilst attempting to maintain a social life via video. And as the threat of local lockdowns becomes more likely across the country, many are preparing for lockdown series two.

With this in mind, it seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on what the last twelve months have taught us about ourselves, our working styles and our ability to adapt. Not only that, but it is also a good time to explore what learnings we can take forward and what can be improved to ensure we continue to thrive both in and out of the home office.

Barriers against distractions

Whether it’s a family home or a shared flat, they’re always bustling with activity. Whilst this is what life should be about, it’s not always conducive to concentrated working. When you’re in the midst of an important meeting, the last thing you want in the background is the noise of a partner/roommate singing, kitchen cupboards rattling or the sound of the TV.

When working from home, it is important to set boundaries and create the right conditions for the task at hand. Even if a physically separated room is not available, there are other ways to fade out the surroundings and ensure your colleagues have your full concentration. These include pre-warning family members/housemates of concentration phases or important meetings to minimise disturbances and reduce the risk of arguments (or tears from children).

Weird and wonderful virtual backgrounds have become a common source of entertainment for remote workforces across the country. But they can also serve as a valuable resource for those wanting to create barriers against distractions and get themselves in the workplace mindset. By utilising virtual backgrounds, remote workers needn’t worry about messy backgrounds, instead creating a calming, distraction free space, that benefits both them and their fellow meeting attendees.

Creating a work environment that feels permanent, even in the state of uncertainty that is the current covid climate, is essential to a productive mindset.

Learn that less is more

When widespread remote work became the new normal back in March, for many this was the first time they had faced the trials and tribulations of a fully remote workforce. And the inevitability that with distributed teams, more meetings are often held and not all of them are necessarily wanted or needed. Employees often find meetings annoying. They break up the working day into smaller parts, meaning people have to keep rearranging their days, when in reality people are most productive when they have uninterrupted time to devote to a given task.

To counteract the proliferation of meetings and the increasing frustration of employees, teams should make a conscious effort to draw up a list of all meetings. Together they can then decide which meetings to keep and which are no longer necessary. If new meetings for individual employees are added, a previous meeting should be discontinued. In this way, there is no longer a meeting surplus. Not only does this free up employees’ time to get more work done, it also creates a culture of trust and respect.

Do not limit the working day

With limited experience of remote working for many sectors, the start of this year saw many employees exceeding their contractual working hours, often working crazy amounts of overtime. A study of 3.1 million remote workers found that employees’ working days increased by an average of 48 minutes, and they attended more — albeit shorter — meetings. For some, this was a side effect of additional childcare that had to be provided. Others felt they had to work more at home to show presence and commitment to their employers.

However, this should not have to be the case. Instead, remote workers should be making the most of the work from home culture for the flexibility that it offers. For many employers, the global pandemic has been a much-needed awakening and forced the realisation that they do not need to enforce a strict 9-5 regime to get maximum output from their teams. One of the huge benefits of working from home, is that it is more conducive to a flexible work schedule and accommodating of commitments such as appointments, meetings and deadlines.

Employers and employees should be mindful that whether the day starts at 7am or 9am makes no difference, so long as the weekly workload is completed. Only then will they truly unleash the power of a purpose-driven and productive remote workforce.

Being kind counts

Another, perhaps unexpected but nonetheless welcome, side effect of the move to widespread remote work is the outpouring of compassion we have seen for each other in the past year.

In the traditional office-based culture, to an extent, we are expected to leave the outside world at the door. Instead assuming a professional persona. But when your professional and private worlds collide in the way they have done this year, that is almost impossible.

Even for those with previous experience of a remote working lifestyle, it is unlikely that you were used to working remotely with kids, spouses and elderly parents around you. You probably weren’t used to scheduling times for meetings in your home office around the other people who needed it, or sharing internet bandwidth with children doing online coursework or teenagers wanting to facetime their friends.

Each of our situations was different, but none without their own challenges – and this has pushed our colleagues, managers and potential customers to be more understanding. To leave their bias at the virtual door and accept that these distractions might occur.

Arguably this has been the most important ‘take home’ from this worldwide work from home experiment. Learning to respect our co-workers, understanding that we all face our own challenges and working together to create a more trusting and cohesive workforce, are all working practices that we can take forward regardless of what’s around the corner.

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