How one analyst approaches the "soft" challenges of remote work

Here are some ways organizations can tackle trust, shifting corporate culture, employee morale, and critical processes.

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Many people have worked from home and many for a while now—but doing it in forced isolation is a whole different ball game. The technology for remote collaboration has been around 30 years but until recently, adoption was slow and steady, said David Coleman, an industry analyst who tracks collaboration technologies. Now the adoption rate has shot up to almost 100% in recent weeks as all nonessential industries are working remotely to help flatten the COVID-19 infection curve, according to Coleman, writing in a blog post. This rapid adoption raises all kinds of challenges, he said.

The ones that most immediately come to mind are drains on bandwidth, especially with the increased prevalence of video conferencing, figuring out how to use collaboration platforms like WebEx and Zoom, and getting the right software, said Coleman, who is also the author of "Collaboration 2.0" and "42 Rules for Successful Collaboration."

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Technologists can help smooth the transition to remote work (TechRepublic)

"But by now, after more than a week to deal with these problems, my guess is most organizations have solved those issues," Coleman said. "The big challenges that remain are: learning to trust those working remotely, dealing with a rapidly shifting corporate culture, keeping up the morale of remote workers, and how to adapt critical processes to the technological limits we're currently working with."

Recreating critical processes

Companies that have always had their employees work remotely have designed their processes to be technologically compatible, Coleman noted. This has eliminated paper in favor of using e-signatures and workflow and project management tools to track progress being made.

But when you're used to being in an office recreating processes to fit the technology is no easy task. "In my case, since I do a lot of training, and can't teach in-person classes or workshops anymore, I have had to adapt my curriculum to what is available in the technology," he said. "This has meant I needed to convert many of the sources I use to documents that everyone in the meeting can view through a screen share."

Mostly this has meant Coleman has converted things to PowerPoint or Word documents, but he has also had to use survey software in some cases when giving tests and making most questions multiple choice, he said.

Approaching an upended corporate culture

If you're used to micromanaging people, that's not easy to do with remote workers, he notes. "I have heard of programming shops that insist on having the video camera on whenever anyone is coding, or doing things like paired coding, but for most of us that's not only unfeasible, but it rapidly lowers productivity, he said.

A better way to deal with this is to break down tasks to small components, with a short time span to complete, and then checking your project management tool(s) to see the status update for the task and review the attached documents, Coleman advised.

"Not being a micromanager myself, I hate having someone looking over my shoulder. The best boss I ever had when I worked at Oracle used to say to me, 'I hired you because you are smarter than I am, and can probably figure out a better way to do this, so go do it, and let me know if you have problems or challenges I can help you with.'" Today, that boss is today a millionaire venture capitalist, Coleman added.

Another suggestion is to have people on a team volunteer or agree to do tasks, rather than just assigning them, he advised. "In the first situation you are collaborating and getting the agreement and consensus, in the second, you feel more like an indentured servant being assigned work by the master. Most employees bridle at this kind of treatment, and productivity diminishes as a result."

There will always be the tasks no one wants to do, Coleman pointed out. "The best way to deal with this is to lead by example and take on some of these onerous tasks" like  tedious paperwork or reporting yourself.

Also, remote work means no one can know everything you do, or are working on, so it is a good thing to over-communicate, he suggested. "Make sure your boss and others know what you are working on and when. Especially if you are doing tasks that are precursors to tasks others will have to work on after you."

Because the way we work has shifted, the way we communicate is shifting, and so our corporate cultures are shifting, Coleman said. "It will remain to be seen when this giant social experiment is over, if companies shift back completely to the way they did things prior to working remotely. My guess is no one will," he said. "Some will find that remote work gave them a better and more efficient process, which they will continue to use, and some of the other processes will revert back to the way they were done prior to remote working."

Boosting remote worker morale

People are social beings, and even though we can't be with all the people we care about we have technology to help us cope. Coleman said he attends at least two Zoom meetings a week with friends and other people. Some choose to do family-wide video conferences so everyone can check in with one another. This helps to deal with a lot of the anxiety that comes from being isolated, he said. 

"The same thing works for remote workers. A video team meeting for a project team is not only a great place to socialize, update each other…but also a way to build morale, and help people feel like they are not in it alone," Coleman said.

Typically, there are technical issues to contend with at the beginning of video meetings, but once those are resolved, it's nice to start by having people share work appropriate things about themselves that their teammates may not know, he said.
"This helps to build both trust and social connection. One of the best things I have shared was, 'Did you know I have only been skydiving once, and on that first (solo) jump my parachute failed?'"

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