- Remote work and online collaboration technology are proving to be surprisingly helpful with hidden benefits like making teams work better together.
- Among those beneficial changes are higher attendance rates for meetings and more attentive managers.
- The staff at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art is working remotely so the director of the museum, Deborah L. Mack, encourages her employees to take breaks and that it’s ok to not have an eight-hour productive day.
- Head of sales at online grocery delivery company, Mercato, says she had to change her thinking about productive remote work and trust employees “to do their jobs and execute well and self-manage a little bit.”
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As the incoming director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Deborah L. Mack was excited to meet her new staff in person. But six days before her start date, the Smithsonian shut down all 19 of its Washington, DC, museums to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Instead of the in-person, all-hands meeting she had envisioned, Mack would have to settle for a videoconference call with her far-flung staff.
Mack was surprised at how well the call went – though not as surprised as her IT staff. “I said, ‘Wow that was great,'” said Mack. “And they said, ‘No, you don’t understand. We’ve never had 100% attendance at an all-staff meeting before. And we could see everyone!'”
You don’t have to look far to find the economic fallout from the COVID-19 shutdown. For many businesses and workers, telework simply isn’t an option.
But for companies that have made the shift to working from home, there have been some pleasant surprises. Though no one would choose the current situation, being forced to rely on collaboration technology has helped some companies and employees realise its hidden benefits.
Swapping crowded conference rooms for virtual meetings can, paradoxically, bring teams closer together.
“We’ve always had collaboration tools in place, but now we’re really putting them to use and developing good practices around them,” said Marissa Andrada, chief people officer at Chipotle. “When I talk to the mangers now, they’re like, ‘My God, I thought I knew my people, but now I feel like I really know them.'”
Part of that feeling no doubt comes from our tendency to band together during a crisis and the fact that office workers are now getting a window into one another’s home lives. But managers also say that the nature of virtual meetings forces everyone to become better listeners and to be more respectful of each other’s time.
“I think now everyone has become more intentional about objectives and outcomes of meetings,” said Andrada. “I see more efficiency that’s happening because now we really have to pay attention to each other.”
Starting on March 21, Chipotle has been holding weekly executive leadership meetings by video conference, allowing all 900 of its support-centre staff to interact with Chairman and CEO Brian Niccol and other leaders. The meetings are broken down into groups to give more employees a chance to be heard. “When you’re on a call like that, there has to be structure around that and etiquette and protocol, and we’re learning that as a group,” said Andrada.
Simplified communication, no matter the team size
But a company doesn’t need thousands of employees to benefit from the discipline that working remotely requires. Mercato, a San Diego-based startup that equips high-end grocers with online ordering platforms, has seen explosive growth over the past month – expanding its operations to 33 new states for a total of 43. Yet Justine Bockman, inbound marketing manager, said employee communication has become more streamlined, even as headcount has more than doubled.
“As a startup, we tend to be very heavy on ideation,” Bockman said, “Everyone is always thinking of a new thing we could be doing, which sometimes gets us off course and distracted in meetings.”
“That definitely happened a lot more in a regular workplace environment,” she added. “Now I feel like we’re doing a much better job to holding true to meeting times and coming to those meetings much more prepared and not allowing them to get too fluffy.”
Having remote employees who are under orders to stay home – and are terrified of losing their jobs – also helps boost meeting attendance. In regular times, remote workers are as likely as anyone to go off-topic during a meeting or blow off a call from their manager. When the whole country’s on lockdown, it’s hard to come up with an excuse for not being present.
Taking breaks is part of the new ‘normal’ work day
It’s a dynamic that isn’t lost on attentive leaders, who are reminding workers to avail themselves of another benefit of working from home: taking breaks.
“I’ve actually had to reach out to staff and say, ‘Be gentle on yourself,'” said Mack. “There may be days where two hours of productivity is all you can manage. And that’s ok.”
Gauri Munuswamy, head of sales at Mercato, had previously resisted letting her team telecommute, offering it only as a reward for salespeople who hit their goals. But as she contemplates life beyond the shutdown, she says she is reconsidering her position.
“I’ve always had this fear that people working from home just wouldn’t be as productive,” she said. “But you really do have to learn to trust them to do their jobs and execute well and self-manage a little bit.”
“I still miss the collaboration aspect” of being in an office, she said. But even she might choose to spend less time there once things go back to normal.