The Enduring Advantage of Remote Work
I recently discussed remote work strategies with our IT partner, Heinan Landa of Optimal Networks.
Lots of people have shared work from home productivity tips, but I invite you to think beyond "surviving" remote work, and instead use this time to gain a more enduring productivity advantage. We know from experience that productivity soars when you unshackle it from the synchronized everyone-in-one-place-at-one-time working formula. (But admittedly, your mileage may vary depending on who else is home with you.)
Getting back to "normal" productivity shouldn't be your goal, remote work can be far more productive than typical office work. Our team has always worked from home, so for 18 years, we have continuously deployed new technology and adapted our workflows to keep increasing our personal productivity. As a result, we are doing twice as much work today with a smaller staff than we had 5 years ago.
If you are just starting this journey, here are a few thoughts:
- With so many people juggling family needs, work must be more asynchronous now, but making changes now will bring benefits that endure beyond the pandemic. Here are a few examples:
- Small stuff. Some tasks need no meeting, conversation, or even an internal email. A simple text chat inside of Microsoft Teams or Slack is more efficient. Instead of sending a group email to announce, "I just did my part of the project and passed it along," You can share that information in a chat, link to a shared document, and all your readers can acknowledge receipt of that information with a quick "thumbs up" icon. This turns out to be an astonishingly large part of the managerial day, and processing these small items together is a massive time saver. Instead of a clumsy string of email interruptions, every status update can be grouped together by project, and organized in one place. Anyone on the team can look at them, quickly skim several status updates on the same project, offer a quick comment or acknowledgement to each, and move on without triggering another round of email exchanges. Nobody has to read, file or try to remember your email response--it's already right there in the channel for posterity. (To make this work, just have your team agree on what response constitutes a "polite" answer, in our case a "thumbs-up is fine.)
- Thinking work. Some medium-complexity tasks need to move away from meetings into thinking time. For example, "Give us your input on this idea, and then pass it along to get input from others." Instead of scheduling a meeting for this kind of work, we find that we get much deeper thinking when we allow people to do their thinking on their own schedule. (Just set a clear deadline.) We recommend that our team block out time on their calendars for thinking tasks - we're big fans of "Time boxing" - without it, the small urgent tasks steal time from the big important long-term work.
- Collaboration work. Some kinds of tasks do require meetings. But remote work meetings have some serious advantages over office-based meetings.
- Our meetings are mostly on the phone not on video, it's less draining.
- Meetings should have an agenda and a note taker. If the meeting goal is unclear at the beginning, any attendee should be allowed to ask "What outcome are we trying to achieve in this meeting?"
- If something needs to be read and discussed, include the attachment in the meeting calendar invite, then leave time to read it DURING the meeting and BEFORE the discussion. (Otherwise people feel compelled to comment as they read the information on page one, when the answer is often found on page two.) If the material was presented in advance, I always double check if it was thoroughly read or just skimmed.
- If something is being decided, or needs to be remembered later, we have a note taker capture it. (We use Google Voice Typing features when we are brainstorming and don't have a fast note taker. We find it to be the most accurate.)
- Because we are already "at our desk" for all our meetings, we call up the shared documents so we are quite literally, "On the same page" when we review things. If something needs to be done, we often take the necessary actions during the meeting, not "Later" or "When you are back at your desk." We don't want to use our meetings to accumulate more work to do later.
- Our goal for meetings is to leave very few action items for later. Either complete the task, or create action items with clear accountability for very few people. Most people can leave the meeting with nothing else to do or remember, knowing the highlights were recorded and saved in a shared location. Bosses should not waste energy worrying about whether their instructions were followed, and employees should not be worried about forgetting, or dropping the ball on something important.
- We've found that tightly-coordinated deadline-driven team projects benefit from transparent real-time online coordination tools. You gain efficiency when you reduce the need for status meetings and status reporting. It can be as simple as a shared Google Sheet with project due dates, accountabilities and color coding. The key is to build trust in the tracking tool, so people never need to ask about the status of the work - they just need to bookmark it and look for themselves.
- Transparency and information sharing should be systemic, and not rely on memory. Our conversations happen in "channels" in MS Teams. We can easily go back and see what decisions were made and what key elements we need to keep track of. Relying on human memory is not wise in a pandemic. And relying on the serendipity of informal, stop-by-my-office kind of chats will not create predictable outcomes in a remote environment. We find that increasing our documentation and having shared information at the ready supports our team members who are struggling to maintain focus.
- For routine work, we either automate the steps or map out the workflows and triggers to action so everyone know when it is their turn to take action. (We use a combination of color-coded documents and status codes, with the occasional "nudge" in Teams, and very rare email for the truly urgent work. An unscheduled phone call is practically DEFCON 2 for us, a truly rare occurrence. But we do reserve a few standard blocks of time every week when our team can schedule a last-minute huddle, and we know everyone will be available.
For a deeper dive into what's possible with remote work, I highly recommend the following: