OPINION12 March 2020

What can leaders do to make working from home, work

Opinion UK

As the nation gets ready for widespread homeworking, Jeremy Hollow shares his advice for how market researchers should adapt to this mode of working.

The idea that large parts of the UK’s workforce will be asked to work from home looks increasingly likely in the next few weeks.

Apart from the apparent need to stockpile toilet paper, it begs an important question. How can we keep our businesses running smoothly when our whole way of working is set to change?

Full disclosure. I’m a bit biased. My agency is remote by design, has been since we started nearly a decade ago.

Our view is that insight and creativity need deep thinking. Distraction kills deep thinking. Offices are full of distraction.

The past few weeks have seen lots being written about the ‘system’ part of working from home (firewalls, VPNs etc.), which is important. But they don’t cover what, from our experience, is the hardest part of wide-ranging home working – instilling the right trust, culture and energy.

Here are some thoughts about what’s worked for us. A starter for ten to consider – before you have no choice.

Trust

Trust is the keystone idea. Without it, whatever else you do just won’t stack up. When we talk to people about how we work, I’ll often hear things like ‘Oh, but I need my team to be here’. You don’t.

It’s just the way we’ve been taught to manage from the generation before us – those that didn’t have a choice. To borrow from Jason Fried (co-founder of Basecamp), we should focus on managing the work rather than where it gets done. 

This can be hard – at a personal level. It’s easier to feel in control when you can roam your domain, watching everyone at work. This doesn’t mean they’re working any harder, it’s just making you feel better. It gives you a tangible sense that they must be working because you can see them.

When this is gone, we can feel out of control. This is when it becomes really important to focus on the work. Set your expectations on task completion and what you can do to help your team achieve it. This is all the control you need.

If you need to see someone to trust that they’re working, perhaps you shouldn’t be letting them into the building in the first place…

People can feel it when you trust them. They’ll feel respected, grown-up. They’ll be more empowered; they’ll have space to grow and develop.

Loosening the reins is a powerful way to show people you trust them. Focusing on the work is a good way to keep everyone aligned.

Culture

You’ve spent time consciously and unconsciously building your company culture. The idea of your team dissipating and working from home feels like a threat to this.

How do you maintain your great culture if you’re not together?

There’s no doubt, it’s easier to do this when you’re in the same space. There are more social cues, symbols and incentives for you to use to help promote the behaviours you want to see.

But, it’s far from impossible. You just need to work with the tools you have and adapt them to what works best for you. Trial and error. Here are a couple of practical examples of what we do.

  • We started with audio-only calls (my hair’s a mess in the morning), but we soon changed when we realised the value of seeing each other. It’s hard to put your finger on, but it makes you feel more connected. Video on, always.
  • Another thing we have is a clear culture around instant messaging / group chat. We’ve developed our own set of informal norms. These cover how to interrupt someone, when it’s ok to go silent, and the right level of banter.

Energy

When I first heard someone talking about energy at work, I thought it was all a bit frivolous.

I’ve learnt the hard way to take it more seriously. There’s a buzz to office life, a lively energy that fills the void. It’s someone laughing, the meetings, people moving about, a colleague popping over to say hello, the general hubbub. Your day is full of noise and distraction.

When you’re working from home all this disappears. Most of your energy now needs to come from you. This can be a bit daunting.

You’ll have empty space in your day, maybe for the first time. Office life is so full of interruptions that we forget the natural ebb and flow of our energy and concentration.

When you’re working from home this stares you right in the face. It’s ok for the first few days, then you start to notice it.

It can get a bit depressing. It’s up to us as leaders to recognise this, normalise it and help people manage it. We need to help them develop their own vibe. They’ll be stronger for it. Encourage them to create peer relationships that are broader than just sitting next to someone.  

Everyone needs breaks otherwise their concentration levels will drop dramatically. We need to give permission. Sanction it, be a role model for it.

Encourage time away from the laptop. Get the washing on. Have a cup of tea away from your laptop. Enjoy the perks of not having to commute. Exercise. Don’t feel guilty that your energy has dropped. Take five and you’ll be back, fresh and ready to go.

Logistics

“Ah! But we need to be together to collaborate”.

Not really. There are lots of different collaboration tools out there. I think getting the mindset right is the most important.

Then a screen share tool where you can all make and share notes in real-time (like Google docs) is usually enough. You need to work out what enables your team to be creative (ask them to come up with some ideas).

What do they need in front of them? What do they need to move around? What do they need to share? What do other people need to see?

Does this all need to be in real-time? We’re used to the 60 min meeting, grabbing some post-its and getting stuck in. Does this always have to be the way?

One way we’ve adapted, is to have much shorter sessions, like sprints. Individual deep thinking, break, show and tell, question probe, agree/disagree, break, back to individual deep thinking on the next phase. Rinse and repeat.

This can be democratising. It makes it easier for quieter voices to be heard.

One last thing, we’re all super deferential on conference calls. Our norm is for the senior people to defer to others if they both speak at the same time. This way everyone gets heard.

What to do now the genie is out of the bottle?

Working from home doesn’t suit everyone, but it can offer significant benefits for those it does and the organisations they work for.

Distractions kill deep thinking. Research is deep thinking. Offices are full of distractions.

If working from home becomes the norm, start thinking about what your policy should look like post-coronavirus.

The genie’s out of the bottle. Will you return to what you did before? Or will you adopt a more flexible attitude? One thing’s for sure, it’ll never be quite the same again.

Jeremy Hollow is founder and managing director of Listen and Learn Research

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