Remote control: how to make a success of home-working

By on 27/04/2020

In advance of a free webinar on the topic, three experts discuss how civil servants at every level can adjust to home-working – forging new skills, relationships and reputations in the furnace of the COVID-19 crisis

For years, technologists and organisational development experts have predicted a future of flexible, autonomous, remote working, in which teams are geographically dispersed but digitally connected. And public bodies have steadily reshaped their workspaces and ICT kit around this goal, with real-world working practices and office cultures trailing a few steps behind. Then, a few weeks ago, workers around the world were abruptly pitched headlong into that future – asked to work from home as their governments imposed COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The task of equipping and managing the millions of civil servants now working remotely presents major strategic, technological and management challenges – explored last week in a Global Government Forum feature, which focused on the roles of employers, national leaders and the centre of government. But this is as much a micro as a macro crisis, affecting each of us directly: senior executives and team leaders are experiencing just as much unexpected, dislocating change as their staff. Below, calling on experts in psychology, technology and organisational dynamics, we present advice on how civil servants at every level can develop the skills, networks and working methods to find success and satisfaction in this new world of work.

Understand the shock, manage the constraints

Nancy Doyle

First, says Dr Nancy Doyle, an occupational psychologist and CEO of neurodiversity consultancy Genius Within, civil servants must recognise how the shock and disruption presented by COVID-19 is affecting them. Imminent threats prompt “a ‘reptile brain’ response: the bit dealing with food, safety, sleep – fight or flight,” she explains. “We’re frightened about the survival of people we love; how to get food; personal safety. There’s less opportunity for human connections, we’ve had to sacrifice our freedom, and suddenly we have to share our home with work. This isn’t easy, and it’s perfectly normal to feel upset or angry, or to find it hard to concentrate. With this latent trauma all around us, you’re going to have off days – and that’s okay.”

And of course, for many people the home is a particularly difficult working environment right now: with partners, children and flatmates also confined to the property, civil servants face challenges such as caring and home-schooling responsibilities, lack of space and background noise. “This will be the era of flexible hours,” says Doyle. “If your kids are teenagers and get up late, then rise early to get work out of the way and spend time with them in the afternoon.” Managers should ensure that staff “know they have permission to do things differently,” she adds, “creating flexible routines, and having conversations about how to manage them when people have different needs.”

Foster good habits, watch bad ones

Building new routines, says Doyle, is particularly important during this period of global disruption. “The ‘mammalian brain’ deals with emotions, connections, values and beliefs – and all of those are being moved around at the moment,” she explains. “The best way to create a sense of security is to build new structures. So set some rules in the house, such as when you can be interrupted. And put some regular events in your weekly diary: team meetings, or informal catch-ups with colleagues.”

Given people’s conflicting responsibilities, the time they dedicate to their work, family and leisure lives is bound to become more fragmented – with parents teaching their children for part of the day, for example, then ploughing through work tasks in the evening. And this creates a new risk, says Doyle: “There’s a higher rate of anxiety among home-workers than officer workers, and one plausible theory is that it’s because they’re ‘always on’: the separation between work and home life is harder to manage.”

Almuth McDowall

In response, says Professor Almuth McDowall, head of the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, “it’s really important to protect time for recovery and respite, building it into your day.” Exercise, good nutrition and hydration are crucial: “You have to take care of your body to take care of your mind,” comments Doyle. And staff should think carefully about how they use their leisure time. Watching the news, engaging with social media, and having a drink can all help people to relax – yet they can also be destructive, increasing stress levels or forming bad habits. “Everyone needs some downtime and to let off steam,” says Doyle. “But avoid getting into a vicious cycle. And if you get it wrong, don’t give yourself a hard time – but do the right thing tomorrow.”

Create the space, equip it well

To delineate the physical boundary between work and home life, says McDowall, people should try to create a dedicated workspace – ideally with “a visible ‘anchor’ to help you connect to work: I use my staff card from Birkbeck.” And workers must be provided with the right equipment, says Dr Nasser Siabi, CEO of Microlink: a UK business providing systems and technologies that help people address or compensate for any physical or mental problems – installing equipment in both workplaces and employees’ homes.

Nasser Siabi

In the current environment, Siabi explains, the company’s experience and services can prove invaluable across the workforce – addressing many of the challenges of home-working. At the most basic level, this involves ensuring that people’s workstations don’t foster common problems such as back or neck pain: home-working staff need separate screens, mice and keyboards, for example, plus risers, wrist rests and suitable chairs. “But many of the technologies developed to boost productivity and to ensure physical and mental safety among disabled people can also be really useful to able-bodied people working in busy, noisy, crowded homes,” he explains. “Working in a home where there’s background noise, say, is rather like suffering from hearing loss – and the same technique can help both sets of people to remain focused and productive.”

AI speech recognition systems, for example, can provide instantaneous subtitles during teleconference calls: “If you upload the terminology first, accuracy is virtually 100% even for very technical language,” explains Siabi. “So if you’re holding a teleconference but there are kids playing in the next room or the neighbour is doing DIY, you can read what’s being said.”

Similar technologies are able to rapidly transcribe conversations or voice recordings, says Siabi. There are even sensors that can monitor people’s mental health – encouraging them to break for breathing exercises when they’re getting too stressed, and letting employers know if staff are becoming depressed or anxious. “Then managers can get in touch: sometimes, all the employee needs is for somebody to reach out,” he comments.

The skills to be productive

Alongside specialist equipment, new skills can prove invaluable in supporting effective home-working. In many offices, for example, people frequently switch tasks – with ongoing project work constantly interrupted by meetings, phone calls, colleagues’ queries and tea-rounds. But at home, workers must learn to concentrate for long periods – and to understand how best to break up the day in order to retain their mental focus.

Here, says Doyle, the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ can help: “Do a period of focused work, then take five minutes for a break or some physical exercise, then back to focused work,” she says: people should work out their concentration span for different kinds of tasks, planning their day accordingly. “Super-reading techniques” can also help, adds Siabi: over a month, one system enables people to boost their reading speeds by 3-5 times – making more space for people’s social and family lives.

The challenges of managing a shift to home-working – of overcoming the stress and disruption, creating a workspace, forming routines and developing new skills – affect everyone, from apprentices up to the departmental head. But as employees adjust to their new reality, senior executives, team leaders and delivery staff must adjust their focal points and working styles in different ways.

How remote leaders can stay close

Senior leaders, for example, will need to provide direction and maintain staff confidence in the fast-changing, unpredictable environment of a global crisis. “In the absence of certainty, reassurance around process can ensure that staff feel cared for,” explains Doyle. “There’s sometimes a preference not to go out with messaging until there’s certainty – but nothing is certain right now. The organisations doing well are those saying: ‘This is what we know so far, and this is what we’re doing next.’ They’re honest about what they don’t yet know, and explain how they’re working on an answer.”

For team managers, remote working presents new challenges around retaining contact with all of their staff (covered in more detail in GGF’s previous remote working feature) and managing people’s contributions to shared projects. “We have so many channels of communication,” comments Siabi. “In a distributed system with non-integrated platforms, getting visibility of everybody’s outputs is a real problem.” The use of “mind-mapping or spider diagram” systems can help, he adds: “People feed their work into different spaces in a programme, and you can link and regroup them in any way you like.”

Mutual support & solo working

As employees get to grips with working from home, adds McDowall, it’s best to “set quite short-term goals, and to focus on two or three things at a time – setting expectations very clearly about who’s doing what.” Team leaders should make allowance for a drop in productivity, and foster systems of mutual assistance: “There’s no way managers can check on everybody all the time,” says McDowall. “They need to rely on networks so people can support each other.”

These networks can also help compensate for the loss of chance encounters: as McDowall points out, “there’s no opportunity to bump into people in the corridor and have a chat.” Yet while there’s a risk that team members disengage from one another, this can also be “a good time to strengthen relationships with people you’d like to get to know,” says Doyle. “People are showing different sides of themselves; we could be much better connected after this.” And don’t forget to stay in touch with furloughed staff, adds Siabi: without a job to focus on, they may be having the most difficult time of all – and if their relationships with managers and colleagues atrophy, their eventual return to work will be all the harder.

Finally, team members must walk a fine line in their communications – being clear about their availability and priorities, while avoiding the temptation to bombard people with emails to demonstrate their productivity. “People can’t see if you’re busy or have been pulled onto another project – so keep people informed of what you’re working on,” advises Doyle. “Make sure you deliver without needing to be chased. And if you need to ask for help or support from your employer, be aware that you’re one of many – and that right now, your employer probably has less control of resources than ever before.”

Immersive training for the future of work

As people work their way through these issues, they’ll adapt to working life in a time of COVID-19. But don’t forget to raise your eyes to the horizon, cautions McDowall: “Do some scenario planning, because at some point we’ll go back to work – and forward-thinking organisations are thinking now about how to manage that transition.”

The future working world will, however, look very different from its forebear. “Right now, employers are dealing with the fact that every home-working employee has different circumstances and constraints, and adopting technologies and working methods that enable everyone to contribute,” says Siabi. “There is no artificial dividing line between the disabled and the able-bodied: managers are helping everyone to cope with the unique challenges they face. If employers carry that mentality into the post-corona world, they’ll improve productivity and staff engagement across their workforces.”

We’re unlikely to see a wholesale return to office life, adds Doyle. “There’s evidence from China that while manufacturing is back up at 80% of its pre-corona level, commercial property is at 50%,” she says – suggesting that many former office workers have made a permanent shift to home-working. “Taking the long perspective, the idea of working somewhere separate from where you live is an invention of the industrial revolution – and we can go back the other way if we want,” she adds. “There are a lot of wins to be taken here: the reduction in commuting and pollution are great for our quality of life.”

Such gains represent the silver lining of an intensely traumatic and costly period, and people will not easily give them up. Having developed the skills and tools to work anywhere, many employees will want to retain their new autonomy and flexibility even after their offices have reopened. Employers will have built the infrastructure and working practices to make that possible. And organisational and team leaders – who’ve often been reluctant to let people work out of their sight – will have learned that, with the right support and responsibilities, employees can work more productively and effectively at home.

Viewed in that light, lockdown represents an opportunity for civil servants to prove themselves – demonstrating that, with their organisation under strain and management scrutiny relaxed, they have the skills and dedication to keep on serving elected leaders and the public. With the distorting filters of office politics and personal chemistry stripped away, it will be more obvious who’s able to deliver – and who’s been blagging it. And as we emerge blinking into the light, the effective operators should find themselves winning far greater control over how, where and when they work.

“The ones who’ve survived in this environment are going to come through with flying colours,” concludes McDowall. “They’ll have much more flexible, autonomous working lives – and, hopefully, they can teach the rest how to do it!”

Dr Nasser Siabi and Dr Nancy Doyle will be hosting a free webinar on these topics at 2.30pm UK time on Thursday 30 April, exploring the issues in much greater depth and answering questions from the audience in real time. The event will also feature Carl Ward, head of assistive technology training and workplace accessibility assessor at Microlink. To sign up, please visit our registration page.

This article was produced by Matt Ross of Global Government Forum for the workforce productivity and assistive technology specialists Microlink. To learn more about Microlink’s expertise and services, please visit their website https://www.microlinkpc.com/

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