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Remote working: Strategies for long-term survival

Remote working has received an unprecedented boost in the past couple of weeks as the world moves into a phase of semi-quarantine. With no way of knowing how long this might last, we can productively view it as an opportunity to test and fine-tune new ways of working. This particular crisis will pass, but only the foolish would bet against there being another one, probably sooner rather than later. Whether our challenges come in the form of floods, fires, snowstorms, strikes, or pandemics, they are certain to come—and when they do hit, supporting remote work is one way to mitigate the consequences.

It’s not only in times of crises we should be thinking about remote work, either. Setting up systems to enable employees to work happily and productively from home or other remote locations, at least some of the time, could lower stress and carbon footprints simultaneously by slashing the amount of time people spend commuting. It could reduce office costs in expensive locations, lower travel costs, and ease the burden on those who need to balance their work with raising children or caring for family members in need.

Remote work can be a net benefit, then. But to truly make it work, appropriate systems need to be in place for both technology and humans.

On the technology side, the first prerequisite is secure, reliable offsite access to all the systems employees need to do their jobs. This means protecting both systems and data, perhaps through a VPN or by locating as much as possible in well-managed and securely credentialled cloud services. It’s also important that everyone has appropriate devices for access – an aging home computer might not make the grade for example, so it may be worth investing in laptops for all, or implementing one of the increasingly sophisticated remote desktop services. To avoid spiking your support costs and undoing all the potential productivity gains, make sure the solutions are easy to use—which may mean offering a menu from which individual users can choose their favourites.

These infrastructural adjustments need to be supported by clear policies, clearly explained. It may also be useful to provide quick start guides and channels for peer support. Many calls to official IT support are avoided because everyone knows that one person in the office who can probably solve their problem. When it’s not possible to wander over to that power user’s desk and ask “hey Jo, do you know how I can…?”, some other channel needs to become available.

This brings us to the second and probably more challenging dimension of the remote office: supporting the humans. Transitioning to more physically isolated ways of working wipes out all the unmeasured, casual interactions that underpin a lot of culture, learning and teamwork: the spontaneous chats in the hallway, after the meeting, over coffee or in the smokers’ ghetto. The loss is likely to be particularly hard for the more extrovert and gregarious members of your team.

Even those more introverted types who are delighted by the idea of less social interaction may find themselves initially at a loss when they are cut off from the regular rhythms and routines of the office. It’s critical to acknowledge that not all productive activity looks like work on the face of it, and to make official space and time for casual chat.

IT strategist Dion Hinchcliffe refers to the need to develop specific skills for remote working, including the ability to co-ordinate work and choose the best methods of collaboration. These can’t be learned overnight, but naming the fact that these are new skills, and providing lists of approved tools for particular tasks, can help. Allow people time to learn and experiment and encourage teams to set aside time for focussed assessment and knowledge sharing. A forum where employees can share useful tips and strategies, for example on how to manage interruptions or switch off at the end of the day, is also useful. Anything that make the remote office feel more like the office people are used to will help.

In the end, the coming months will be a test of our ability to embrace and adapt to change. Let us stay flexible, stay focussed on learning, and continue to improve.

As published on AccountingWeb - March 2020


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