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Our journey towards unconditional remote working began about 3 years ago. The truth is that even before that, there was occasionally the need to work from home for various reasons, such as because of mild indisposition and as a precautionary measure for our colleagues at the office, or for other personal reasons which usually had to do with our roles as caregivers and caretakers of other dependent family members. However, any solution put in place was ad hoc and there was no particular policy, best practice or structure to frame it.
The first attempt: approach remote working with caution
Moving forward we decided to implement a remote working policy applying a strict framework and quite a few restrictions trying to be as precise as possible and cover any and all scenarios. Restrictions at that time included a limited number of days per month, or the ability to combine these days with official holidays or leave days. Thinking about it retrospectively, I believe we did acknowledge the need, but we went about it with caution because of 4 main reasons basically:
- It was new territory and completely uncharted waters for us when it came to hired personnel.
- Having the majority of our team at the time in one location, we were very used to immediate communication and direct interaction, which we were afraid we would lose in a complete remote collaboration setup.
- When we did implement those ad hoc solutions, we usually encountered technical problems that hindered our daily workflow, not only for those team members that were working remotely, but also for their counterparts at the office who had to take care of what could not be handled remotely.
- We had to always conduct our business in a safe and secure IT environment to ensure the security of the information we are handling as part of our projects, and this was a challenge to do so with unstructured remote working.
However, as time went by people did make use of the remote working days all the more often, and we noticed that even with that strict framework – or because of it I will add now, years later – there was a relative commotion; someone had to track and monitor the use of the benefit for all team members, teams had to coordinate so that at least one team member was at the office when their counterparts wanted to work remotely – the reason for the latter was so that they could take care of what could not be taken care due to technical challenges remotely, and of course to take on any calls at the office – and in-team and across-company communication was impacted.
The realization: a misconception about remote working
What we realized some time later was that people wanted to use their remote-working days, but there was a misconception about it: that this did not entail much of ‘working’.
Therefore, on the one hand we had a misconceived benefit which strained our daily workflow, and on the other hand the definite need for time out of the office – at that time the majority of our team consisted of women, and mothers, who had to combine their work with parent-teacher meetings, childcare when schools were closed or when kids were ill etc.
Examining all aspects of the situation, we concluded that:
- Many times people had to take days off to handle a few-hour absence, still they were fully capable and available – but most importantly completely willing – to work for the rest of the working hours only from a different location.
- The absence of people from the office created a gap in production and strained the other team members who acted as back-ups; as we work on a continuous delivery model, it is not an option to have projects left behind schedule because of someone’s absence.
- Almost everyone would rather use their days off as part of their summer or Christmas holiday when they could dedicate themselves to spending time with family and friends, instead of spending one whole day of leave jut to have a 1-hour meeting at their children’s school.
The plan: debunking a misconception
So what could we do about it?
Well, first we had to debunk the misconception. How we did it? We eliminated all restrictions and we replaced our rigid policy with just one simple rule:
Everyone can work remotely at any time and for whatever reason – or no reason at all – as long as they are fully capable to perform whatever needed as part of their daily workflow, as if they were at the office, and not hamper or in any way impact the workflow of their counterparts.
We did not realize it at the time, but the change in perspective happened instantly. Remote working was no more seen as a mere benefit provided by the company with all the ifs and buts that usually go with official benefits, but instead as a measure that supported work-life balance and that enhanced the business continuity for improved results and the achievement of targets. This in turn led to a series of actions initiated from the team itself and not from the management of the company:
- Each and every one of us made sure their equipment and working set-up met the needs of the accounts and the projects they are handling – always with the support of our invaluable IT department
- On the part of the company management team, we tried different solutions to solve various challenges when it came to infrastructure; we upgraded our telecommunications and internet network to a fiber network for the highest possible connectivity speed, we migrated our intranet to the cloud to minimize or completely eliminate downtime in case of a power outage at the office premises, we installed an advanced firewall to ensure information security, we replaced desktops with laptops for maximum portability, we set up different channels to facilitate direct and quick responsiveness and unhindered communication
- On the part of the team, everyone provided their daily feedback and input on all of the above, plus any suggestions for improvement with our common aim being to create the smoothest and best remote working experience ever
It did take time, and it did take an effort, a joint effort, but here’s what we have achieved:
some of our team members have worked remotely from an island while their kids are vacating with their grandparents for the whole summer period while spending more time with their family and extending their vacation; others have worked remotely from home for a fix number of days per week to tackle childcare challenges since a school day differs from a working day and consequently reduce the expenses of childcare; some other however have made use of remote working to handle less pleasant circumstances, such as to take care of close ones with long-term illnesses or special needs.
- It all starts with mutual trust and cooperation.
- The first step is to take that step outside our comfort zone proactively.
Indeed, we are safe in our comfort zone; we know how things go, we know how to deal with them, we can safely predict what might go wrong and where, and we have our contingency plans in place. But what happens when something like COVID-19 happens?
The solutions were there long before we had to use them, technology is being developed long before we actually needed it, knowledge and know-how is already there in other industries and set-ups and ready for us to take it, adjust it and use it in ours. However, doing it amidst panic and in lack of any other alternatives can create chaos and cause system failures where they should not exist. For every new technology to be implemented and used, it takes research, testing, feedback, optimization and planning. Doing that in an emergency is not the best of options. We can do so much better than that just by not settling with the ordinary.
So here’s a quick guide on what to expect and how to navigate the remote working waters.
YOUR GUIDE TOWARDS REMOTE WORKING
…in the conception stage
- Transcend the ordinary and habits. Move beyond the here and now.
- Explore and assess different technologies for different needs and set-ups; the multitude of similar technological solutions can create confusion and requires careful examination in relation to our circumstances.
- Support your stakeholders during the transition.
…in the implementation stage
- Everyone will face a different challenge; personal set-ups vary.
- Communication amongst team members and/or between internal and external stakeholders will be affected
How to tackle them
- Through initiatives that welcome the participation of the entire team, cross-team projects and work groups on topics beyond their everyday workflow.
- By being flexible and understanding in supporting the challenges of your different stakeholders, so that they can in turn support their team and the company.
- By creating a set of best practices and a basic plan for remote working and collaboration to serve as a convention for a smooth workflow.
- By adopting a flexible communication model and being responsive in solving issues that arise.
What you gain
- You promote a culture of understanding, trust and transparency.
- You empower your team for greater autonomy and thus creativity.
- You engage your team by facilitating other aspects of their life and other roles they might have in parallel with their work.
- You increase the focused working time, thus boosting productivity.
- Reduced travel expenses to and from the workplace.
- Reduced operational expenses and freeing up of resources to invest in technology that will continue to support and enhance remote working.
- Flexible working hours -where this is feasible- to accommodate for other needs without ‘wasting’ leave days which are important for a healthy workforce.
- Possible replacement of a raise with the reduction of expenses (travel, childcare etc.) thanks to remote working models.