The third in a four-part series on online meetings – the tech, the etiquette, the challenges

Since the arrival of Covid-19 and lockdown there has been a lot of discussion and articles about home working. Much of this has focused on home working from the viewpoint of the individual – should I use Teams or Zoom, isn’t it nice not having to commute and travel, how do I avoid embarrassing distractions such as the dog barking, etc. This article will focus on home working from the viewpoint of the manager and the organisation.

Initially, it was all about IT. Staff needed the right equipment which meant not only PCs and laptops but also cameras and microphones for online meetings. They also needed the capacity to access their organisation’s systems remotely. Bandwidth was also an important consideration. But most organisations have probably got well past the initial rush of sorting out the IT, apart from some of the longer-term system changes that many may still be pursuing.

Of course, IT doesn’t just allow people to work but it can also be used to manage that work. Some organisations will have considered putting in place more technology to monitor what their staff are doing and the time they spend working. Such measures may come with privacy concerns and the reaction of staff to such monitoring must also be considered. Many organisations, especially those comprised of professional staff, will simply be putting trust in their employees to put in the required effort.

IT capabilities and IT support are also key issues. There are still staff around who have hidden their PC illiteracy or who have relied on PAs or colleagues to assist. This is so much more difficult from home where people will now be finding themselves very much alone and for some this could be quite worrying.

This is where IT training and IT support will become even more valuable. HR teams and IT trainers will need to reconsider the skill levels of their staff and now may be a good time to undertake some new training needs analysis (TNAs). IT support staff too will need to sharpen their remote support skills.

However, the requirements of home working are not just about IT. Remember when some staff started working from home out of personal necessity or just convenience? Organisations where I worked were often very concerned about the health and safety issues of home working and would even send someone out to the staff member’s home to ensure they had adequate space and lighting and the right kind of chair to work safely. I haven’t heard too much about these concerns since Covid!

Understandably it hasn’t been safe or appropriate to visit people’s homes but it’s interesting to see how priorities have changed when the majority of staff have had to work from home rather than just a few. Sadly, there will be many who are perched on the edge of their sofa with their laptop on their lap – appropriate given the name but not very ergonomic or sustainable long-term. Health and safety desk assessments exist for a reason and long-term, inappropriate working practices will bring their own future problems.

Another important issue for organisations when it comes to home working is how to manage the remote worker. Anyone who has done an MBA will know there are as many definitions of ‘Manager’ and ‘Leader’ as there are people. But aren’t leaders supposed to be visible and available? Aren’t they supposed to encourage by example? Aren’t they supposed to communicate regularly and haven’t staff always appreciated face-to-face communication over other forms?

Yes, all of the above can be done remotely by phone or by video conference but it is more difficult. When you are not physically located together it is harder to pick up on the subtleties of how someone is feeling and to have an informal chat when you are ‘just passing by’.

As such, managers really need to be thinking about their staff both as individuals and in how they work together. This is especially true now as staff are having to adapt to unprecedented change not to mention dealing with work and family and home life all at the same time. Don’t fill your day with back-to-back group Zoom meetings without leaving some time for one-to-one meetings with your staff, whether by phone or by conference. You might find that you can use the current environment to drive through useful cultural change such as getting people to work differently, to work in different groups or to be more innovative.

In the early 2000s there was a real fad for ‘Office away days’ where teams were encouraged to go to country hotels for team bonding/blue sky thinking days. In the strange Covid-19 world we are hearing some firms talking of just the opposite – ‘Office days’ where teams get together for briefings, monthly meetings and opportunities to put some money back into the local café and restaurant economy!

Lastly, with the advent of widespread home working organisations as a whole should be re-thinking their strategies. Should you be lucky enough to be in a position of growth then now is a fantastic time to consider hiring staff who have traditionally found it more difficult to work in an office environment, such as parents with child care concerns and people with mobility issues. Should your business be struggling or you simply wish to grow then now is a perfect opportunity to expand beyond your traditional geographical regions as potential customers are likely to be less sensitive to where you are physically sitting. Be innovative too – the use of greater workflow could help you ensure staff are following proper process without having someone ‘standing over them’.

It could be that all of this is going to be fairly temporary. That said, I don’t think many of us see the current situation changing anytime soon and vast numbers are likely to be working from home well into next year at the very least. In addition, some organisations are already making the move to permanent home working and are giving up office space in the process. If this is the future then the ideas discussed above will become even more important – and organisations will need to identify, train and reward leaders who can manage and motivate their staff without being in the same room.

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