At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies were forced to throw together a hasty work-from-home arrangement to allow their workers to stay safe while staying productive. The expectation was that it would be a short-term solution and that workers would be back in the office before you know it.
Things didn’t exactly work out that way.
Months later, many companies remain fully remote, and others are partially so, with half of the employees working from the office while the other half works from home. And some have almost entirely returned to the office, with a few employees still working from home for the sake of safety or convenience. Staying connected is more important than ever — external circumstances are constantly changing, and when only some of your workers are working remote, it can be easy to forget about them and exclude them from communication and office culture.
Unfortunately, it looks like enforced remote work isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Reviewing and refining your communication strategies is an important preparation for more working from home.
Those accommodations you’ve been making? This is when they become policy.
As the pandemic began to rage, one heartening thing was to see how many offices were patient and understanding about the challenges facing newly minted remote workers. Dogs barked, children cried, spouses walked through the background of a Zoom call without pants on, emails weren’t always returned promptly, but colleagues understood. It was hard for everyone.
Unfortunately, it remains hard for everyone, and a lot of workers and companies are starting to struggle with Patience Fatigue. But with the pandemic still raging, children still homeschooling and spouses still Donald Ducking their way through teleconferences, it’s time to turn those ad hoc accommodations into actual work-from-home policy.
How have you been dealing with meeting scheduling, with everyone facing demands at home? What has been the unwritten policy for responding to email? Who’s the backup for a colleague if they’re suddenly pulled away by illness or obligation? Sit down and make a list of the workarounds you’ve been using, noting which ones worked and which ones didn’t, and turn that into an official policy people can refer to in case things get chaotic again in the future. Which, let’s face it, they probably will.
Review your communication tools and see if there are opportunities for improvement.
For better or for worse, technology has made it possible to get in touch with a person in most circumstances. (Sometimes, you just want to take a shower without your phone dinging every 30 seconds.) Teams have discovered that between email, collaboration programs like Slack, videoconferencing solutions like Zoom, cloud storage services like Dropbox and (ideally) a good cloud-based project management system, the idea of sitting in an office together seems almost quaint.
Now that you’ve been working with a remote team for a few months and observed people’s communication needs, look at what you’re doing and what you could be doing better. Maybe your remote workers need some features your collaboration program doesn’t provide. Maybe you’ve found you need to upgrade your cloud storage service to make more room. Maybe you’ve discovered a solution that integrates a number of tools you’re already using. Make communication the easiest part of working from home for your team.
Renew your commitment to openness and transparency.
In the best of circumstances, it can be easy to let good communication habits slip. This is an important time to keep it up. Make sure workers always know what’s going on in the (remote) offices of managers who are making consequential decisions. Solicit workers’ opinions on things that affect them. Let people know early on about questions being asked and possibilities being considered, so they can prepare as best they can. Have regular check-ins and status reports to keep everyone on the same virtual page as they sit geographically scattered. No surprises ever.
Maintain office culture in an online environment.
Or if you didn’t have much of an office culture to begin with, take this as opportunity to develop one. Find creative ways to replicate in-person activities in a virtual setting. Gathering around the coffee maker in the mornings? Watching soap operas together in the breakroom during lunch? Even playing Pictionary behind the boss’s back when you’re supposed to be working can have an online equivalent, if you’re willing to put some creativity into it. Remember the things you used to do that made you feel like a team, and don’t feel obliged to let them go just because you don’t happen to work in the same location at the moment.
At the same time, though, don’t feel beholden to past in-person activities as a way to maintain office culture. Culture is as much about the benefits to the workers themselves as it is a to-do list of get-togethers and birthday cards. Maybe watching TV together at lunchtime was also, underneath it all, a way to make sure everyone actually got to take lunchtime off and no one tried to force work into that precious hour. Maybe people gathered around the coffee maker in the mornings in part because they felt isolated during the workday without enough opportunity for casual interaction. Being aware of those things can make work-from-home life better and make office life better, too, once we’re all able to get back to the office.
Hang in there. This won’t be forever.