In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, working from home sky-rocketed in China as companies told their employees to stay home. Around 200 million people were working remotely by the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. While this arrangement has some benefits, such as avoiding long commutes, many employees and companies found it challenging. On the personal front, employees found it difficult to manage kids’ home-schooling via video conference while coordinating with remote colleagues. At a company level, many felt that productivity rapidly tailed off if not managed properly.
As remote work will become the new normal and many companies are still struggling on how to manage remote employees effectively, Chinese leaders and executives compelled tips and tricks on how to respond to the situation and address challenges that might never be seen before. Done right, remote working can boost productivity and morale. On the contrary, it can breed inefficiency, damage work relationships, and demotivate employees if leaders fail to manage them.
Here are eight points we can learn from China on how to work remotely:
Teams or whole business units shift to remote working can quickly result in confusion and a lack of clarity. Being isolated leads to uncertainty about who to talk to on specific issues and how and when to approach them, leading to hold-ups and delays. That’s why establishing a structure and architecture for decision making and effective communication is key.
Smaller cross-functional teams can be helpful, each with a clear mission and reporting line, where directions and tasks are easy to implement. This also simplifies onboarding new hires, who can integrate faster in a tight-knit group, at a time when the broad sweep of the organisation is not visible or easy to feel. With fewer in each team, there is more time to get to know each other and build the trust that would grow more organically in the office.
Lesson to take: Setting up small, cross-functional teams with clear objectives and a common purpose keeps everyone on the same strategic course.
Managing people is one of the most difficult elements of remote working, not least because everyone will respond differently to the cultural shift and challenges of the home-working environment. Leaders need to energize the whole company by setting a clear direction and communicate it effectively.
Offering a strong vision and a realistic outlook can have a powerful effect on motivation across the organisation. It’s essential to foster an outcome-driven culture that empowers and holds teams accountable for getting things done, while encouraging open, honest and productive communication.
Lesson to take: Determining how you communicate is just as important as what’s being said, and it needs to be done confidently, consistently, and reliably.
As companies transition to the new normal, it is important to acknowledge that some employees might be facing other pressures at home. Business leaders need to respect and address these additional needs. Empathy is a crucial tool here, offering a way to connect, promote inclusiveness, and create a sense of community in a void of physical interaction. Increasing social interactions within the team, particularly through one-on-one catch ups, guards against feelings of isolation and demoralisation and creates space for people to speak up and share their thoughts.
By creating a sense of psychological safety for colleagues, being inclusive in decision making, and offering perspective in challenging moments, managers can stay closer to what is going on, surface issues, and help their teams solve problems effectively. A similar approach is important when dealing with customers and clients, providing valuable stability and enabling them to navigate unknown waters with confidence.
Lesson to take: Connecting on a personal level and instilling empathy within the culture is doubly important when working remotely.
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Moving to remote working risks disrupting the office-based flows and rhythms and it can be easy to hit the wrong note or miss important virtual meetings due to packed schedules. Spend time with your team addressing the nuts and bolts of how you will work together. Cover the daily rhythm, individual constraints, and specific norms you will commit to and anticipate what might go wrong and how you will mitigate it.
How companies plan and review their workflows needs to change to reflect new routines. The challenges of the new working pattern and of not being in one room together can be overcome by creating a digitally facilitated cadence of meetings.
Lesson to take: Establishing robust working norms, workflows and lines of authority is critical, but all too easy to skimp on.
Poor communication is one of the key reasons remote offices are not productive. How staff interact needs to be completely rethought using a full arsenal of channels and tools. Getting it right is tricky and requires experimentation. Choosing the right channel matters. Video conferences are great for discussing complicated topics in real-time and for creating a sense of community, but they require team-wide coordination and focus. Channel (chat) based collaboration software is great for quick synchronisation or easily answered questions, while email can be used to record outcomes and communicate more formally. Backlog management tools can be used to keep on top of tasks and processes.
Lesson to take: Choosing the right channel is critical to getting it right. If you pull your employees from topic to topic, you’ll interrupt their workflow and drive down productivity.
Effective remote working starts with the basics, including a fast, stable, and secure internet connection, as well as setting up an ergonomic home office environment. Expanding VPN (virtual private network) access and bandwidth is one of the first steps many CIOs took to enable their employees to access systems remotely. Remote working is also empowered by a suite of SaaS (Software as a Service) technology tools that allow teams to effectively co-create, communicate, share documents, and manage processes.
Lesson to take: Using technology can be vital in keeping everyone on track, but it’s important to get the basics right.
Security concerns add a layer of complexity to the technological side of remote working and can have serious consequences, in particular when employees are not aware of safe practices or switch to unauthorized tools to get their work done. Adopting a strong yet practical approach is not easy. Doing it right requires giving employees the tools they need to be productive while managing data confidentiality and access. For example, sensitive information such as customer data can be displayed with watermarks so that any leaks are traceable.
Lesson to take: Make it easy for employees to comply with security requirements while investing in strong safeguards.
Leadership teams that continuously learn, actively identify best practices, and rapidly set up mechanisms to share ideas across the organisation tend to be most successful in the long run. Embracing remote working allows companies to define a new normal that drives productivity and employee satisfaction into the future. Alibaba launched TaoBao, by now the world’s biggest e-Commerce website, while staff were working remotely on quarantine during the 2003 SARS outbreak. For Trip.com, a remote working experiment in 20149 established the foundations for great customer service and flexible working culture. Hence, bringing together all the elements can enable a new way of working that will make your company fit for the future – whatever that might hold.
The last but not least lesson to take: Being ready to recognise what is not working and changing it fast.
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