If you have switched to remote work during COVID-19, you may want to continue doing so even after offices reopen, whether full-time or for a couple of days during your working week. NUI Galway’s Whitaker Institute and the Western Development Commission found that 78% of participants would like to work remotely when the crisis is over. COVID-19 resulted in a global, unplanned remote work experiment for many industries and companies. If remote working is going to continue, we must pause and learn from what has worked well and what has not.
Does remote work increase productivity?
The Whitaker Institute study received 7,241 responses and found that 48% find it easy or somewhat easy to work effectively remotely. At the same time, I was completing my research into productivity and a better workday. When I asked people who are working remotely how COVID-19 impacted their productivity, just over 50% of the 70 respondents replied with a positive or neutral statement. Whether you ask 7,000 people or 70, the answer is the same; some people find it easier than others. The factors behind that are complex, and many are temporary. A rapid move to remote working meant that the technical infrastructure was not in place for companies that did not already have some distributed working arrangements. Anyone with young children or others to care for had to do their best without their usual support. And the additional stress of living through a pandemic will impact some days more than others. As we move forward, the key to sustainable remote work lies in understanding the factors we can control.
Swap Meetings for Phone Calls
With the move to remote work, it is suddenly no longer possible to pop over to someone’s desk with a quick question. A reduction in interruptions is one of the benefits of working from home. However, it has resulted in a situation where you can’t “just talk” to people, and the calendar is now the gateway to having a conversation with someone. These calendars are now filling with video conference meetings, and with the default duration being in increments of 30 minutes, it is not long before the day is full. Too many meetings make people who were already hard to reach even less accessible to their teams and crowds out time for deep work. Tools such as Teams and Slack offer an alternative through instant messaging. But, depending on your work, these could be bigger interrupters than a tap on the shoulder in the office. Expecting everyone to reply immediately on these tools will prevent us from spending the time needed on high-value activities. Never mind that some people find it easier to communicate verbally than in writing. If you plan to work from home for the long term, it may be worth looking at how well you use the phone as an alternative to meetings and instant messaging. One meeting could be replaced with a couple of shorter phone calls and avoid back and forth messaging. The key lies in a little bit of planning. If you already put blocks in your calendar when you are not available, I suggest you now do the opposite for phone calls. This time can be used for email, messaging and making or receiving phone calls. Putting it in your calendar lets people know that this is a good time to reach you; you are inviting them over to your desk even if you are no longer in the same room. It also sets an expectation around response times for email and instant messaging. Then, pick up the phone and speak with your colleagues.
Introduce Team Routines
If the people you work with will be remote for even part of the week from now on, it is critical to understand what supports are needed. When I asked how COVID-19 impacted productivity, 70 people gave me 70 different answers. People who are prone to procrastination struggle to motivate themselves. People who had an increased workload found themselves working longer hours. Some people said they got more done because they had no distractions, while others found themselves regularly distracted and putting tasks off. Remote working means that the natural hum and momentum typically found in a co-located team does not always reach everyone. Flexibility must be balanced with structure so that each member feels supported and everyone is set up for success. Team routines can be one element of this structure. It might be a regular morning stand-up to report progress or a 5.00 pm wrap-up message to signal the end of the working day. Many reams have adopted a routine during COVID-19. Now is the time to consider whether this will work well in the long term or does it need to change. If you are not working as part of a team, you can still benefit from this practice by setting up an accountability circle with other people you trust. Working alone does not have to mean working without support.
Reclaim Commute Time
One of the main benefits of remote working is the time saved from commuting. The average travel time in Ireland for commuters is 28 minutes. Working from home means many of us have almost 2.5 extra hours each week, if not more. The temptation is to let this time blend into the rest of the day without taking full advantage of it. Without attention, this time could quickly get lost, and remote work could erode boundaries between work and your personal life. If remote working is going to be an option, then it is an opportunity to use this time on high-value work-related or personal activities. We can all identify an area of focus, whether at work or home, and decide whether we want to use this time to make progress in that area.
As we look to return to offices over the coming months, some of us will want to be the first in the door, and others would prefer to work remotely for at least part of the time. The next day you are working from home, consider what COVID-19 has taught you about your workday, what new things you want to bring forward with you and what will need to change from now on.