March 28, 2023

Remote Working Lessons Learned from Covid

I was watching Season 2 of the Morning Show on Apple TV a few months ago, and it was fascinating to watch them weave Covid-19 into the season. It went from some low-newsworthy event in China to completely transforming the broadcast news industry.

For those of us who were leaders and managers from March 2020 through the Spring/Summer of 2022, our skills and imagination were tested every day. We all learned how to use new essential collaboration tools such as Zoom, Teams, Slack, and other software applications. Cloud-based enterprise software and data services for accounting, human resources, budgeting and planning, sales, and marketing – became must have essential tools in all functional areas. Organization-owned, server-based VoIP systems and other ‘essential’ services became costly artifacts of the pre-Covid, in-office work environments. If you weren’t in the Cloud, you were in for challenges to continue meeting customer and stakeholder requirements.

Now we are in a new normal, with remote working continuing to be an important element of the human resources programs and expectations. A Gallup survey in June of 2022 found that 8 in 10 people are working hybrid or remote, while only 2 in 10 are entirely on-site. They updated the survey in January 2023, and they stated the work from home experiment will reach equilibrium with:

  • 55% hybrid workers
  • 22% fully remote workers
  • 23% fully on-site.

Equally startling, fully on-sites do not feel closer their organization’s culture. In fact, hybrid workers identified most positively to the organization’s culture.
And an AT&T study found the hybrid work model is expected to grow from 42% in 2021 to 81% in 2024. Employees are eager to continue working remotely or hybrid (Dec 8, 2022).

So, most of us will need to continue to effectively manage our teams in some form of remote environment. I thought it made sense to identify the six key lessons learned to operate successfully when your employees are not in your direct line of site every day, all day. There are several great lists on the Web, and I encourage everyone in a leadership position to continue to browse periodically for new ideas.

In our nonprofit organization, we found the most significant impacts of remote working were in the areas requiring face-to-face meetings with individuals outside the organization. Meetings with potential donors in the earlier stages of relationship building became extremely challenging. Similarly, meeting with pharmaceutical industry researchers in one-on-one or peer meetings came to a near standstill. Drug trials requiring patient visits in-person to hospitals or research centers were paused except for the most critical trials.

The focus of this article will be more inward focus with respect to the organization. We found, with some experimentation and continuous research, that the following six management techniques were essential:

  • Watercooler virtual meetings
  • Project deliverable focus with each employee
  • Extra effort to reach peers, to avoid creating silos
  • Schedule periodic in-person meetings for groups
  • Cloud technology essential, for continuous remote working and cybersecurity
  • Less hovering, more collaborative management style.

We will briefly explore each technique.

Watercooler Virtual Meetings
On the surface, remote working was presumed to make it challenging to maintain close social relationship with fellow workers and impede effective employee-manager communications. We found the exact opposite to be true with regular, transparent meetings. We held two or three ‘social’ virtual watercooler meetings each week that ran 30 minutes in length. We explored fun topics, and saved time for gossip. Eventually, we discovered people were more forthcoming with personal information than what we had experienced when fully in the office. Trust and confidence in another person or group is required to share some of the appropriate but personal details we learned over the 18 months of remote working.

Lesson learned: there is more to work and high morale than to-do lists, KPIs, and project meetings. Morale, collaboration, and effectiveness increased as our team became closer and more trusting.

Project Deliverable Focus with each employee
Successful remote working absolutely requires that each employee have specific project goals for the year, with intermediate deliverables identified by quarter. The manager and their employee are then able to have weekly status meetings to discuss progress and identify areas where the manager will be able to bring resources to the employee as they face roadblocks. Status meetings do not become ‘how are you doing’ checkups, though taking an interest in their personal morale is desirable. Managing by objectives allows the entire organization to move forward in a synchronized process to achieve organizational goals by targeted deadlines. We were surprised how we were able to move almost seamlessly into the remote working tatus quo in 2020. In hindsight, we realized we had developed a culture of managing to objectives, and most of our staff continued at or exceeded their previous performance levels.

Extra effort to reach peers, to avoid creating silos.
In conjunction with the Project deliverable focus, not everyone is able to accomplish their objectives on time when they are dependent on other individuals. Collaboration seems to have an effectiveness quotient much like the intensity of audible sound the further you are from the source. If I remember the formula correctly, the intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. In other words, collaboration effectiveness probably declines significantly if you require assistance from within your team, and even more sharply as the organizational distance increases across departments, functions, and time zones. We found that while most individuals will complain about ‘too many meetings’, it was important to embrace Zoom & Teams meetings to overcome collaboration inhibitors. As we became more proficient, we discovered that in many cases many employees had always been ‘remote’ to each other as they worked in different states and time zones. In the pre-Covid era, the use of Zoom and Teams was rarely used and therefore face-to-face meetings only occurred on those rare occasions when people traveled to a common location. Using technology, the idea of universal remoteness became a reason to meet frequently, as needed, with video meetings building a level of teamwork that overcame that square root intensity factor.

Schedule periodic in-person meetings
It took a few months, but eventually the Covid lockdowns eased, and it became possible to get together in person. We probably all remember that first meeting after lockdowns vanished. We had hired several employees during the lockdown period, and that first in-person meeting included several ‘you are taller than I imagined’ or similar comments. We became right-sized individuals, and the casual nature of being in-person built a ‘stickiness’ to what had previously been virtual relationships. As organizations continued remote and hybrid scheduling, we believe it is important for all employees to get face-to-face in real settings for enhanced morale and teamwork effectiveness.

Cloud technology essential, for continuous remote working and cybersecurity
We had a mixed data and application environment in March 2020. Fortunately, our CRM, accounting, and payroll processes were all converted to cloud solutions before we more to 100% remote working. For smaller organizations, the cybersecurity risk of maintaining proprietary databases and hosted applications creates I believe an unacceptably high-risk level – given the alternatives. Why host your own hardware-based data service requiring firewalls and VPN access maintained by your very small IT team when you could use cloud-based data services offered by Google Business, Microsoft Teams and One Drive, or other solutions? They can afford large, sophisticated cybersecurity teams protecting your data. And they offer much more user-friendly remote access tools available 24/7 and not dependent on the availability of your limited IT staff when there is a connection issue.

We looked at cloud alternatives with our outsourced IT service provider and elected to consolidate on Microsoft Teams for collaboration and cloud services. It worked. We had continuous debates on the preferred video service between Zoom and Teams. Depending on the size of the audience and video quality, you probably need both. A real benefit of moving to Teams was dropping the increasingly ineffective server-based telephone service. No one was in the office to use those desk phones tied to a PBX, and their softphones were a poor second choice to real voice and video solutions built for the cloud.

Conclusion: go cloud for connectivity, collaboration, and cybersecurity sleep-at-night results.

Less hovering, more collaborative management style
Controlling, hovering managers are a consistent source of employee complaints and lower morale. We found going remote reduced, not eliminated, the impact of those hidden control-centric managers. I included ‘hidden’ in the previous sentence, as some of the more successful senior managers are tyrants in the eyes of their employees. There was always a gray-area when contrasting ‘attention to detail’ versus ‘I must review and approve everything’ management styles. For some reason, staff members seemed more willing to highlight and not tolerate excessive hovering when we moved to remote work. And turning to a more positive feature of less hovering, team members do need their manager to assist them to improve collaboration across department and functional lines. Remote working quickly identifies teams and managers who prefer silo versus teamwork environments. I believe we will see a permanent, generational reduction in excessively hovering management within the department. Managers who hover and are less effective in collaborative models will likely find their performance appraisals will suffer.

I’ve worked in manufacturing, research, sales, field, and customer services organizations. I understand that remote working applies to a subset of the total workforce. Remote workers will continue to comprise the minority of workers. I believe the lessons learned during remote and hybrid working have direct and indirect benefits for most industry sectors. As the US finds most jobs and job growth in the service’s sector, becoming world-class with remote working is a skill all organizations need to develop.

In this article:
In this article we will discuss six Remote Working Lessons to Remember and apply in all work modes.
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