Work styles have changed more in the past few months than in the preceding decade. Looking at the best ways to communicate to allow flexible working does not necessarily mean hours stuck to a video call.
Flexible working, where you choose the location, time, and amount you work, is rapidly moving from a discussion of how to get it, to how will companies manage it on mass. The companies that succeed in empowering their workforce to be effective whilst flexible will have a tremendous advantage. Expect companies to be investing in how they can realise new work styles and compete for the best talent that will demand it. Office hours plus Zoom need not apply, says Eric Evans of Duome.
Company interests are now aligned. Initially, working remotely in response to the various global lockdowns was an exercise in resilient working and how quickly companies could transition their operations to a fully distributed workforce. Quickly it became apparent that people could work remotely and be as effective, if not more. With the corporate world not grinding to a halt, companies are very quickly looking at the cost of real estate on balance sheets and thinking about how to save costs whilst enabling a workstyle employees are demanding.
It was in April that Barclay’s boss Jes Stanley declared they would be rethinking the bank’s “location strategy” and having thousands of people all in one building would possibly be “a thing of the past”.
More recently, Japanese technology firm Fujitsu, announced it will look to cut its office space as part of a new “Work-Life Shift” campaign. And these come off the back of announcements by Twitter, saying their employees could work from home permanently.
The companies that excel at remote and distributed teams will unlock new markets for talent by having access to resources that were previously not willing or located within commuting distance of their office. Imagine being able to hire people from quite literally anywhere without the expense of a regional office. For workers as well, looking geographically further for work opportunities will be an increasing theme.
Remote working needs more flexible hours
Not everyone has found remote working straight forward though. Exhaustion from being on constant video calls, the blurring lines of home and work, social isolation, or my new found profession of homeschool teacher have highlighted issues that will require focus to fix.
One area leading companies will take deliberate steps to improve is the ability for employees to choose the hours they work. This is often highlighted as desirable by employees, shown to improve trust, which in turn increases workplace productivity.
Operating effectively with people working different hours challenges many core workflows of how teams operate. Understanding how to make more of what you do asynchronous (not occurring at one time but an exchange of information done as each person’s schedule allows) and enhance how you use technology will improve your remote capability.
Fewer, not more meetings
Consciously enabling people to choose if they should attend a meeting by providing an agenda in advance and ensuring meeting outcomes are documented is a huge step in the right direction. Not only is the culture of large meetings expensive for companies, they seriously impact productivity. That’s not to say all meetings are bad, in fact well-planned meetings with just the right contributors are super effective. Meetings that are just providing updates or have participants that don’t contribute are prime for making asynchronous.
At Gitlabs, an all remote company, they make all meetings optional, insist on an agenda in advance, and document the discussion plus outcomes using Google Docs.
Google Docs lets team members collaborate on the notes in real time during the meeting. Part of the responsibility of hosting a meeting is to ensure outcomes are documented and made universally available. It’s the price for setting up a meeting and is a nudge towards: do I really need this?
Reducing the need for people to attend as many live meetings whilst still having the ability to catch up later is key to unlocking flexible hours and the full productivity of remote teams.
The right tools for the right kind of communication
Visual, verbal, and written communication is part of daily working life but the move to more remote needs intentional choices to be made about how best to communicate. The tools we use to facilitate have a huge impact on the way we work and certain tools lean towards a particular style or way of use.
Video conferencing has taken centre stage and is incredibly powerful to maintain social connections whilst bringing the use of visual cues to what is being discussed. With that though, comes the exhaustion many are feeling being on video calls all day. The additional cognitive load of waiting to talk at the right moment and showing focus towards the camera have a cost. I’m already seeing a backlash towards everything being a video as some contacts are requesting voice calls only and saving video for when it is most impactful or you want to engage more socially. Video also tends to create a poor record of what’s occurred as rewatching recorded sessions takes time and, as the engagement is towards the camera, written records tend to be less of a focus.
One type of video that is seeing a surge in use is short screen sharing videos from services like Loom or Soapbox. These are pre-recorded so can be asynchronous and even let the user speed up the playback to be more efficient. I’ve been using them to give feedback, being able to visually show my screen and talk feels natural, although keeping them short and to the point is a skill.
Chat-based communication like Slack or Teams are useful for informal, community, or quick check-in discussions but the instant message style removes the deliberate thought about what’s about to be said. That’s not always an issue but often the act of thinking about what you are trying to communicate moves the communication and the topic or subject forward. Additionally, for planning or activities that require accountability, it’s far too easy to miss what’s relevant in the stream of discussion from many participants. Some chat-based comms that are well managed can avoid this but in general, trying to piece together actions from chats is a recipe for things to be missed or done poorly.
Long-form shared communication
Long-form shared communication, whether that’s in a wiki, blog, or online document, is frequently highlighted as positive for remote working. It is asynchronous by design, requires thought about what to communicate, and lends itself to debate or comment being added by those who review. People don’t have the time to make every discussion an essay, but if the topic is important and will gain value from feedback, more often than not, written is the way to go. Amazon has a meeting ritual of reading a written overview of what’s to be discussed at the start of the meeting so all attendees are on the same page. Writing takes thought and if you want to get the most out of peoples limited time, having a well constructed view is key.
Making the most of the change towards more remote and flexible working will require companies to evaluate how they work. Tech will become more instrumental but we need to ensure it is the appropriate platform, which will involve constant monitoring. On the positive side, we may see increased efficiencies and meetings with a real focused agenda — ones that drive progress rather than meetings for meetings’ sake. Communication is likely to become much more considered and purposeful, which could result in employees feeling more empowered and aligned with the overall purpose and mission of the business .
Eric Evans is co-founder of DuoMe, a Flexible Working company that helps organisations use technology to support their staff working remotely, flexible hours, or in job shares.
This article first appeared in the Breathe issue of The Homeworker magazine. Read the full issue by subscribing to The Homeworker magazine.