Seven questions about remote work, answered

April 8, 2020


Companies around the globe have rolled out mandatory remote work. Whether you’re a work-from-home newbie or a veteran, an employee or a manager, here’s what you need to do to stay productive.

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to fundamentally alter the way organizations operate for the foreseeable future. As governments and businesses around the world ask those with symptoms, and many who are not, to self-quarantine and everyone else to practice social distancing, it’s realistic to assume remote work will become a new norm for many.

Some employees are working from home for the first time, which means figuring out how to stay focused in a new environment that may not lend itself to productivity. But there are ways to deliver results and avoid going stir-crazy.

Through this edited Q&A, executives and HR directors offer guidance on how to work productively at home, manage virtual meetings and lead in times of crisis.

What’s the first thing leaders and department heads can do to help their employees get ready for remote work?

Get the infrastructure right. Do people have the essential technology or access to it? Who has a laptop? Will those who do be able to dial in to their organizations easily? Direct managers have to very quickly ensure that every employee has full access, so no one feels left behind.

Human Resources Director Ahmed Samir says SODIC made sure in a week’s time it had a list of all employees paired with codes of their IT supplies, ensuring that their laptops were VPN enabled or provided them with laptops. “We also ensured that the entire company is Zoom-enabled and that each department has a Zoom account for hosting a daily web meeting for each department,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alexandre Froment-Curtil, CEO at Vodafone Egypt, advises connecting employees to their company’s database using a dedicated virtual private network. He adds that updating collaboration tools, ensuring reliable mobile and data connectivity, and videoconferencing tools are vital.

What should people who aren’t accustomed to remote work do to get psychologically ready for it?

Get out of your pajamas, says George Dervakos, group organizational development senior manager at Titan Cement. Try to adopt “working practices” while at home. Schedule a start and an end time that mirrors the office environment, says Emad Nasr, human resources director at Lecico Egypt. Froment-Curtil of Vodafone Egypt says working from home can tempt employees to procrastinate, so employees should try to stick to their workplace schedules.

Set up a dedicated workspace, if you can. This could be a spare room or kitchen table, Dervakos adds. Have a rhythm and set deadlines throughout the day, says Salma El Saeed, managing editor at Enterprise. Create a daily to-do list of tasks to be done arranged by priority and estimated completion time. Indicate a specific period of time for lunch and breaks to help you stay grounded and balanced, she adds. You already know how a typical day goes in terms of workflow. It’s still the same job, so ask yourself:  “How will I protect myself from feeling lonely or isolated and stay healthy, productive and vibrant?”

Remember that you can actually enjoy working from home. Whether you need music to help you concentrate or complete silence, change your environment accordingly, Dervakos notes. Managers need to periodically check in to make sure employees have a rhythm to their day and contact with others in terms of communicating work plans, timelines and deadlines, says Samir of Sodic. He suggests asking, “What can I do to make sure that this sudden and quick transition is working for you?” Employees should check in daily with managers by phone or online meetings rather than email or via a chat application.

How should those check-ins happen? As a group? One-on-one? Phone calls? Video chats?

Coronavirus or not, the key to working from home is clear communication with your manager and knowing exactly what’s expected of you. Communication is key to remote working, regardless of the platform, tools or techniques used.

“We are social beings and need to feel that we have opportunities to share and collaborate even if we are not physically in the same place at the same time,” says Nasr of Lecico Egypt.

Nasr recommends organizing daily short calls with direct reports for 10 minutes at the start or end of the day to maintain human interaction. Managers can encourage employees to share their highlights and concerns while they are fresh, Nasr adds.

It is important for each team to align on objectives every day, says Amr Soliman, CEO at Mountain View. “We have daily Zoom meetings, where every morning there is a general meeting with the top managers, and then managers schedule meetings with their teams to ensure each person knows what needs to be done that day,” Soliman adds. There’s always another meeting at the end of the day to update what has been done, review the day’s biggest achievements and pave the way the next morning.

In a remote environment, frequent contact must be maintained. If you’re used to having meetings, continue to do so. In fact, contact should probably go up for the whole team and its members. Newer employees, those working on critical projects, and people who need more contact will require extra one-on-ones, Nasr adds. Other than that, a proprietary instant messaging system such as Slack will suffice, says El Saeed. “We use that to communicate daily tasks or staff announcements,” she says. “It’s a great way for a quick update or a chat without clogging up emails and creating long threads.”

Remember too, that you can do fun things virtually: be it coffee breaks or lunch together. Such things can help maintain the connections you had at the office. Dervakos of Titan notes that managers can set up virtual office hours by using online meeting software that allows people to pop in and out for real-time conversations. It’s the equivalent of an “open-door policy.” He also advises scheduling a team coffee hour via video links to talk about all those work and non-work things you might typically discuss around a water cooler.

How does working from home affect psychological health?  What can employers do to make sure that people stay focused, committed and happy?

Employees tend to lose the unplanned water-cooler or coffee-making conversations with their colleagues in remote work. These spontaneous meetings can be valuable to an employee’s day and have a direct impact on performance, according to a study by Buffer, an online brand development agency. Working from home can feel unstructured and isolating. Last year, the study of 2,500 remote workers found loneliness was the second-most reported challenge experienced by 19 percent of respondents. Loneliness can make people feel less motivated and less productive.

During this time, it is more important than ever to realize that each person is important to the company, says Soliman of Mountain View. It is key for managers to appreciate like never before  employees’ roles to ensure business continuity and sustainability. That allows a sense of belonging regardless of titles. Froment-Curtil says maintaining two-way communication makes employees feel they are heard and their opinions matter.

“Showing appreciation or praise in cases of achievement or when hard work is obviously exerted and, most importantly, guiding them when they are handling difficult projects or facing a crisis is all the more important,” he adds.

One more piece of advice: Exercise. It’s critical for mental well-being, Soliman says.

CEOs and managers also can go the extra mile and share short recorded videos for employees to boost morale. Employers can even send flowers or simple gifts to show they care and are supportive, says Nasr of Lecico Egypt.

How can remote workers protect their workspace boundaries?

The boundaries at home are a little challenging. From the doorbell ringing every five minutes to landline phone calls, working at home can be distracting. However, getting yourself in the work mindset and setting up a structure for the day will help you stay on track, says El Saeed, managing editor at Enterprise.

“Create boundaries that your family members understand and demand your privacy, says El Saeed. “‘When the door is closed, pretend I’m not there,’ I might say at times I have to take an important call or need to focus a little extra on something. There has to be a general understanding that you will not attend to house duties during certain times,” she adds. Soliman adds that much like a traditional workspace, your home office should include elements that inspire you. For privacy, work from the same spot every day to allow the rest of the household to pursue their routine, limit interruptions and give yourself a productive space.

If social distancing policies go on for a while, how do you measure your employees’ productivity and eventually review them on that work?

To every manager out there: Trust your employees. This is a time in which we have to adhere to Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” You can’t see what people are doing. But equip them in the right ways, give them tasks, check on them and hope they produce in the ways you want them to. You can’t monitor the process, so your review will have to be outcome-based, says Nasr. Employers should practice managing by objectives. At times of crisis, leaders should know how to confront and incentivize.

Top management should not micromanage and leave managers and employees to hit those targets independently.

“It’s all about agility, resilience and trust at this point,” Nasr notes. Samir agrees, adding that “a true manager would know the caliber and performance rates of an employee regardless of their location.” To keep track of the outcome, employees at Mountain View share a Trello document (a time tracking tool for tasks and projects) to update each other on their daily tasks, Soliman says.

Moreover, managers shall understand that people work differently. This means that what you do perfectly could be a total mess for someone else, says Shady Samir, president of Select Group International. Therefore, a relationship of understanding, encouragement and appreciation creates a bond of mutual respect between employee and manager, which reflects on the credibility and transparency between them. This has to be complemented by online check-in systems, communication and agreed-on deadlines for each project.

Nasr further adds that teams can use these times as an opportunity to test and experiment with new products or ways of working. “You may find that when this is all over, you actually enjoy this new way of working and will adopt parts of the experience more frequently,” he adds.

Do you see this crisis changing the way teams and organizations operate going forward?

It’s up to the credibility of the employees, as well the company, Samir says. “Previously, there were stereotypes that remote work is a ‘Netflix and chill kind of day,’ but now companies are thinking outside of the box and have no option other than implementing strong remote systems,” says Samir. “I think it’s going to broaden their repertoires.”

Organizations, teams and people will experiment more with virtual work, Nasr says. “It’s not that people are going to permanently adopt this new format, but the experience will expand their capacity. If there’s a positive aspect to this mess we’re finding ourselves in, it’s that we’re developing certain skills that could be helpful in the future,” he adds.