It has been over a year for many workplaces world over working primarily from home due to Covid-19. Even as offices begin to open up, many office-workers appreciate the flexibility of working from home. Much has been written proclaiming that flexible work from home is here to stay — I very much hope it does. For me personally, it means saving time from commute and having a more ergonomic home-office setup.
In the past, even when the option to work from home was given, employees would be viewed unfavorably for using that flexibility. Now that work from home is mainstream, employers have a choice to make when people are allowed to come back to the office:
- they could continue to view those choosing to work from home unfavorably, or,
- they could actively take steps to create a remote-work-friendly workplace
Why should any manager or employer bother with the latter?
- To maintain an engaged workforce in the face of restrictions on work from office.
- To create a more inclusive workplace, especially for employees offering care to children or the elderly — often women.
- To allow employees to choose the work setup that is most effective for them.
- To be able to hire fully remote employees, allowing them to choose among a much larger pool of applicants.
I would like to share some thoughts on what companies might do to create remote-work-friendly workplace. Many of my thoughts come from my experience working in the Bay Area at a start up, about 50% of whose work-force was fully remote, although most new employees spent some time at the head office in person from a week to a couple of months during the onboarding period.
There are three non-negotiable pre-requisites to even begin to create a remote-work friendly workplace:
- fast and reliable internet connection
- excellent communication skills of the employees
- mutual trust between employers and employees
The most important step towards building a remote-inclusive workplace is to encourage people to use video in meetings. A lot of communication happens through facial expressions, and using just audio is like cutting out half the communication signal. It is ok to turn off video occasionally if there’s really a good reason, but it shouldn’t be all the time!
Video conferencing is especially important for small group meetings or during deep discussions. Keeping video on during one on one meetings is especially important — it is a sign of respect towards the person you are talking to, and without mutual respect, no meaningful discussions can happen. Lastly, video during all-hands meetings or town-halls, even if only for a short duration brings the group feeling back of seeing everyone gather together in a room.
Employees who choose to keep video off are missing out on having more effective communication. They may be subject to sub-conscious biases from their colleagues that they do not care about good communication or are not really interested. However, it is important that employers not use video as a surveillance tool to monitor how many hours employees are working, as this would violate mutual trust, a pre-requisite for a remote friendly workplace.
A common concern I hear against using video is privacy but what additional privacy does one give up when turning on video? The audio stream already carries the words, and in a professional call no one is expected to be saying or doing something inappropriate. While keeping video on may need some getting used to, it shouldn’t be difficult for today’s tech-savvy work-force. In fact, from a privacy standpoint it is more important to have a physical cover for your camera, so you don’t end up sharing video when you don’t intend to.
Other valid reasons often cited for not using video are poor internet, lack of a professional background and incompatible video camera but these are all solvable problems, perhaps through a small allowance to solve the problem. For companies, the cost of low engagement due to audio only remote work would far outweigh the costs of solving these technical issues through new equipment, software or services.
One on One meetings
A common practice in my previous partly-remote workplace was that the CEO encouraged everyone to welcome new employees by having one on one meetings with them to get to know them. While most onboarding happened in the head office, remote employees also pitched in to do such one on one meetings, over video. People were also encouraged to have weekly, biweekly or monthly one on one meetings with others if they wanted to, even if they weren’t working on something together. For me, this was a route to catch up with my remote colleagues whom I did not have water cooler conversations with.
This is even more important now in the times of work-from-home. In Singapore, due to limits on how many people can be at work at one time, often different teams come to the office on different days, meaning no face-time or conversations with people across teams.
The key argument of employees against such one on one meetings is that it means even more meetings in a time when employees are facing zoom fatigue. But the hope is that these interactions should be pleasant and more open ended, rather than focused on a specific work-related topic. An employee who is hungry to learn and collaborate will have a lot of gain from such interactions.
An employer might view such meetings as a waste of time since they are not meant to focus on a specific work-related topic. But the increased engagement and creativity stemming from cross-team collaborations would reap benefits for the company.
Use of online whiteboards
An important feature of in-person meetings is the ability to work together on a whiteboard. Online whiteboards are offered by conferencing platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams which can be used in remote meetings. Again, these need some practice but as long as there is willingness of the parties involved, this can work quite well.
Everyone at the company knows something that others can learn from or might find interesting. This is true not just for senior team members, but the junior-most employee may have something interesting to share. A standing weekly meeting slot for a sharing session is a great way to give everyone the opportunity to speak up and to feel valued. For junior employees that don’t often get the limelight, it is also way to build face recall among colleagues and management. Sharing sessions are useful whether your workforce is remote or in the office.
Again, these sessions need not be strictly work-related, but something that the sharer or listeners are passionate about. Here are some topics on which I have witnessed talks from fellow employees:
- A book review
- How to grow chillies (with a chilly tasting session)
- Machine learning in the semiconductor industry
- Writing an academic paper
- Experiences from user-research
- A demo on using JMP visualization software
Employers cannot afford to simply let things run their own course— it is important to take a stand, to actively take steps to create a remote-work friendly workplace, and be willing to spend the company time or resources needed for it.
These steps can go a long way in countering the problems posed by Covid-19 restrictions on working from office. At the end of the day, an engaged and friendly work-culture helps both employees and employers.