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Working from home - keep calm but don’t just carry on

Keep calm but dont just carry on

Guest Blog from Bettina Wink - Stoneseed Project Manager

As I write the schools are set to close from this afternoon due to government measures to address the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. Thousands of companies up and down the country are forced to make difficult choices about home working, staff levels, finances. Paradoxically some areas of the IT industry are now busier than ever as especially our work and shopping behaviours migrate online at an increasing rate.

In the IT industry, we have the advantage that even before the outbreak homeworking became normal for some. However, most companies will still need to adapt to have an entire workforce work remotely for extended periods of time. For the inexperienced, the immediate reaction might be to schedule an 08:30 Monday morning ‘catch up’. It might work, it might not. At a time when the success of your business is literally on the line and everyone working from kitchen tables and spare rooms, can we really afford to just keep calm and carry on?

Now more than ever it is imperative that we as project managers, as line managers and as leaders motivate our teams. Let me, therefore, share some ideas on how we at Stoneseed have successfully managed an entirely remote workforce that has over 100 employees spread across the country with a single head office in Nottingham.   

Setting ground rules

It is obvious so let me get it out of the way: set some ground rules about home working and contact-ability. Ensure everyone understands that there is an element of discipline required of each individual and apply it consistently. Use the tools you have, whether that is Skype, Teams, Slack etc. think about how communication can and should happen and what hours teams are expected to keep. This has to come from the top-down, otherwise, each team will do something different and communication will be frustrated.

  1. Be clear about working times. The fact that the commute has now reduced, does not mean that those 08:30am calls I mentioned are automatically accepted by your teams?

  2. Use Skype statuses or your internal messaging or outlook calendars consistently. Answer the following questions for your employees on how they can let others know:
IF I’m working and should not be interrupted? (e.g. for Skype “Do not disturb”)
IF I’m not busy, away from my desk but still available to work if called by phone? (“Away”)
IF I’m working and ok with interruptions (“Available”) or with a small interruption (“Busy”) 
  1. Consider the response times expected from employees. Ask yourself this: if they currently have limited or even no work and are still able to leave to the house; are you ok with them to go for a run or to get groceries if they return a call within an hour or so? If the answer is yes, then please tell them, it will be appreciated.

  2. Be sympathetic to the odd mishap on conference calls. You probably remember the BBC interview where a child marched into the carefully laid out office space of the interviewee with what seemed like the entire household scrambling in the background to retrieve said child from view. That is going to happen, as are dogs barking and doorbells ringing. It is important to try to limit these interruptions during calls but impossible to stop them entirely. Postmen are going to be delighted that someone is home to take a delivery, I for one have a nurse and shop assistant as neighbours and am currently taking various deliveries for them too.

Assigning meaningful tasks

Business may be slowing down but seizing the opportunity to get your teams involved in generating new business is important and critically provides them with meaningful tasks to divert attention from the news pages right now. Consider if you could implement the following:

  1. Reviewing internal processes. We all know this too well: we have lessons learnt logs stacking up but never enough time to implement the recommendations. Now is the time. Tackle the process inefficiencies by setting teams a weekly challenge to come up with creative ideas on how to improve processes and internal systems. Critically, get them working together not in isolation, so there is a need to reach consensus. Once your projects begin to kick back into action, ask them to measure the level of improvement so they are invested in making the improvements work. 
  1. Get employees involved in marketing. Now, you cannot commandeer their LinkedIn profiles to promote your company however you can ask them to contribute into bids, write blogs for your website or provide case studies of their recent projects. The research they do will inject new ideas and energy into your company. If you publish it on your website, you won’t have to ask them to share it on their profiles, they will do it with pride. 
  1. Internal (cross-)training. When things are quiet it is also the perfect moment to foster interdisciplinary learning. That bright new starter might benefit from spending time with a senior DevOp, whilst your project managers might want to work with your business analysts.

There are so many more things to add to this list. Your teams will have ideas about what they can do to support the business, ask them for suggestions too. 

Keeping in touch

“Keeping in touch”, a “catch up” – words that fill every one of your employees with dread. You know why? Because they usually don’t know what’s coming. The meeting invite is blank and only the person setting up the meeting knows its often genuinely harmless purpose. This is where most creativity will be needed if you have a workforce distributed over spare rooms and kitchen tables.

  1. Use meetings wisely and ALWAYS add in an agenda or talking point. In these troubled times, you do not want to add undue stress to your employees. 
  1. Use a social butterfly for check-ins. Try sending in a friendly face who are able to pick up the phone say ‘hi’ and leave the person at the other end smiling at the end of the phone call. It may be the only phone call they receive, and it will be appreciated. 
  1. Encourage fun at 4 or lunchtime. There is lots of technology that allows you to be socially close even though physically separate. Tonight, I am attending a virtual pub, we all stay at home but will still raise a glass and host a pub quiz over WhatsApp. Just because you are physically distant, it does not mean that you cannot be social. Hold a competition of ‘best office view’ (expect lots of sleeping cats), healthiest lunch, or hold a contest “I have 5 ingredients in my fridge what am I having for tea”. 
  1. Keep track of birthdays, work anniversaries and retirement dates. Depending on your company culture these may be low key with only a mention at certain meetings. Consider in these times to make a little more effort. If you can, support a local small business by sourcing small gifts and cards. Another nice option is to book a meeting without an agenda *gasp* that others know to attend and sing Happy Birthday, handwashing is optional. 
  1. Organise whatever you normally would. Bake off? Cutest pet photo competition? Best DIY bug hotel? Bingo? Pictionary? All possible, and they will help keep the teams gelling even if the sanitizer runs low.

 Be willing to adapt

You won’t get it right first time, please accept it. The ground rules will be challenged, and you will have to make exceptions and perhaps add a few more to the list. Some tasks you consider meaningful might not benefit the business, some of the suggestions your employees come up with could be brilliant or not viable. There is simply no one size that fits every business and collectively teams will need to work out by trial and error what works. So be open to constructive feedback and take it on board.

In other words: keep calm, but don’t just carry on.

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