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The latest Tech Leaders’ webinar organised by Nigel Wright gathered IT leaders to share experiences of their approaches to remote working and the effect on staff.

A lot has changed in the last nine months. Working from home is now normal and working in the office is not. The table has turned so it’s important that businesses continue to adapt to the new environment! 

The points below summarise the discussion:

  • Onboarding remotely is harder. Simple things like getting a new starter’s laptop set up and working correctly can be difficult. Is it user error and a technical problem that is restricting the new starter? Training is more difficult when it involves collaboration. Remote onboarding could necessarily return to office based onboarding because it can be seen as a better use of management time. Apprentices need close managing so they don’t have downtime where they don’t know what they should be doing.
  • Harder for new recruits to integrate. There are new recruits who have never been into office. There is a slightly different culture developing between those new to the business who have not met colleagues face to face. And, of course, it’s harder for them to get to know people at work. There is less informality in virtual meetings because those chats by the coffee machine are lacking. Face to face contact helps build relationships more quickly. There is some concern that this could get exaggerated in time rather than resolve itself, so this needs monitoring.
  • Difficult to assess people’s mental health. Remote calls provide little idea of how people are feeling and how they are coping with remote working. Staff are permanently at their desks working and lack informal conversations that help people connect and talk openly. In some cases these chats have to be planned as meetings so often don’t happen.
  • Gradual social apathy. Social events on Zoom were popular initially but have largely stopped as people lost interest. These worked well initially when everyone was involved but aren’t effective once attendance loses its mass.
  • Virtual meetings can be easier. When teams worked across different offices, meetings required people who were present in the same room to video conference with others in varied locations. Conversations would often tend to favour those people who were present in the room together. Now, everyone dialling into the same meeting avoids this and makes it easier to manage.
  • Non-attendance can undermine trust. It can be difficult if people don’t dial into meetings that they are expected to attend. Their non-attendance can seem more serious than being late for a physical meeting.  Waiting colleagues have no idea if they are OK or otherwise engaged or just late. It is difficult to know how to address this in the moment because they may have personal distractions at home that would not interfere within an office.
  • Back to back meetings. Natural breaks between meetings can be limited when working from home. Virtual meetings can run back to back without even the travel/walk time between them to break up the sessions.
  • Multi-tasking in meetings. It is easy to get distracted in virtual meetings when laptops are pinging with received emails and staff multi-task between programmes whilst in the meeting.
  • Tech adoption has accelerated company-wide. Projects are implemented in weeks/months rather than being planned over many additional months to implement at some years in the future. Circumstances demanded the changes so acceptance of the tech changed behaviours and enabled fast tracked implementations. Testing time is often minimised so testing happens during the live rollout by the initial adopters. Top down implementation at speed enabled less involvement with stakeholders who previously may have been over-consulted about whether the project should go ahead. 
  • No detriment to productivity. Productivity has improved in any cases because people can get on with their work uninterrupted. There is a general feeling that people are working more hours than before but that this may not be sustainable. There is some evidence that those within the highest locked down tier 3 were more productive because they didn’t have a social life to go out to. There are early signs that creativity is being limited though because there are less opportunities to brainstorm and share ideas.

Solutions to create a better virtual culture

  • Virtual break-out rooms. Some companies have set up virtual break-out rooms at specific times during the day so anyone can drop in and chat about anything. MS Teams has released a ‘break-out room’ feature that should facilitate this further. It will take some bravery to join a room when you don’t know who is in there. Especially if it’s for the whole company rather than for each team, with people and faces who are known.
  • Managing performance. Teams that performed strongly pre-lockdown continued to perform well, whereas poorer teams tended to get worse. Companies need to get everyone aligned on the strategy and objectives if remote working is to be consistently successful.
  • Involve everyone. Active efforts are needed to bring everyone into conversations on Teams. Dominant personalities naturally talk more and can talk over others in virtual meetings.
  • Plan regular social interaction. The formal start times of meetings have been delayed to encourage informal conversations at their beginning. Attendees are told that they will be starting meetings 5 minutes but to login on time. This enables people who join on time get to talk casually. Phone calls with colleagues are also encouraged to last longer so people can catch up with each other on the call by taking the chance to have a social conversation.
  • Personal touches. Virtual calls can help managers ‘enter’ their staff members’ houses so they are provided with ways to see and talk about things on a personal level. It relies on them taking these opportunities though.

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