I was speaking to a friend last week who works for a large software company that, in pre-pandemic reality, had no remote work options. In the last staff update, the CEO admitted that with 100% of the staff working remotely, there has been no significant drop in productivity (other than the first two weeks of the “adaptation” period).  

There is a pervasive belief or perception that if you can’t physically see someone sitting at their desk doing work, you just don’t know if they are getting anything done. Seth Godin said it simply in one of his last blogs: there is only three ways to tell if people are hard at work:

  1. The boss can watch them go to meetings and they can watch each other in meetings
  2. The boss can watch them sit at desks in an office or
  3. We can make promises to each other and keep them.
  4. I will add an insidious fourth way, inspired by a recent New York Times article stating that demand has surged for employee monitoring software that can track online and network activity.  (Umm... ok)

Trusting in the promises we make to each other seems to be the most intuitive and human-centric approach, yet it has been the biggest cultural hurdle – even now. Even as we have been abruptly forced into a new reality that can no longer rely on command and control to monitor and enforce. Rather, this new reality necessitates a “sense and respond” model, based on, wait for it... TRUST.

Trust must shape the future of work. As Aaron Dignan describes in his – highly recommended book - Brave New Work- we have failed to recognize that organizations aren’t machines to be predicted and controlled. But rather they are complex human systems full of potential waiting to be released. The book provides concrete examples of organizations that are inventing smarter, healthier and more effective ways to work.

Here are four concrete strategies you can implement or at least start to explore, now:

1. Establish a team charter or a code of conduct

When are we expected to be online? What if one of us is a very early bird (hard at work at 5 am.  I’m not crazy, you’re crazy) and one of us is up until 1 a.m.

When do we use chats?
Why do we write emails?

At what point do we pick up the phone?

What is our rhythm for virtual meetings and how are we measuring progress on our joint responsibilities?

This takes a bit of effort but start slow and don’t leave it to chance. As employers, talk about it with your team and give them the freedom to flesh out the answers in a joint effort that serves the team first and foremost.  Dignan has a whole chapter on the idea of “membership” covering this in more detail.

2. Don’t let Technology distort intention and humanity.

Let’s say you’ve entered into a state of flow (meaning you’re killing it) on a specific task and do not want to focus on anything else. A colleague “slacks” you during this time, followed up by an email but you don’t respond. This can easily be misconstrued as a lack of responsiveness.  A simple note to the team letting everyone know you’re going to be working uninterrupted for the next 90 minutes makes a world of difference. Over communicating is always better than making assumptions.

3. Resist the urge to hash it out in writing.

When communication starts to get nuanced or even heated, jump to video chat. The same way that you would seek out a face to face office conversation. Remember, people are complex, not complicated. Things are not always cause and effect… there’s a million reasons why someone is not “getting” what you’re putting down via email. After all, research shows that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and only 7% is the actual words spoken. Wow, my communications degree is really coming in handy here. Boom.

4. Put people first, not technology.

Tools matter more in remote work because they are the foundation for communication. You can’t walk up to someone’s desk to talk to them; you rely on tools to become your “virtual office”. But make the technology work for you.There is rarely a one size fits all approach.  You might use Slack for transparent communication, Zoom for video calls, and Trello for collaboration and status updates. I realize this might be out of your control as the tech stack is likely dictated by your company’s IT department. Use what works with your team and leave the rest. (And don’t forget to provide feedback to those making technology decisions).  Tools only work if everyone decides to make them work.

How will we use this time for growth?

Remote work is presenting not only a shift in business but also a shift in operating model and society in general. It might begin to create new opportunities for everyone. Think about the benefits of inclusivity for those who cannot afford to move where the work is, those who need special accommodations or people who cannot adhere to typical workday hours because they care for kids, aging parents or a disabled family member.  

We are shaping the future of work in real time and it’s on us to make sure we use this human crisis as a catalyst for growth and resilience.

Sounds daunting? Just start.  Learn from imperfect action vs. inaction. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just in motion.

About the author

Isabelle Perreault

Isabelle is the Founder and CEO of Differly. She has spent her career helping business leaders understand the major drivers of change and helping them survive and thrive in a digital economy. She brings deep expertise in business transformation, corporate and business model innovation and go-to-market planning.

For over 20 years, she has been helping leaders in a wide variety of sectors develop and deploy human-centric, tech-enabled growth strategies. Passionate about entrepreneurship she also serves as a business coach to Startups with several incubators. Prior to launching Differly, she led one of the first Digital Transformation Practices in Canada and was head of Digital Strategy and Marketing for the Ottawa Senators, NHL Hockey Club. Isabelle is Chair of the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau Foundation and a champion for women entrepreneurs.

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