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THE SIMPLE DOLLAR • BY TRENT HAMM
Right now, many office workers all around the world are working from home. Many of them are doing more or less the exact same tasks that they would have been doing at work, with a few changes. They're figuring out how to actually be productive in a home environment rather than in an office. They're conducting a lot of meetings using video conferencing, conference calls and so on. They're losing some elements of office camaraderie, like water cooler talk.
As we look forward from here, however, the big question on the minds of many is how all of this will change office work going forward, when stay-at-home restrictions and gathering rules are lifted. Will this period cause any lasting changes in how many of us work?
I've worked from home for many years and have quite a lot of personal and professional friends that are currently adjusting to working from home, as well as some supervisors trying to figure out what it means for their staff to be working remotely. Over the past few weeks, this has been a major topic of conversation among us, and based on those conversations, here are the changes I foresee for many office and technology jobs moving forward.
This depends enormously on an individual's personality. Some people can create an environment to work from home that makes them more productive than ever (after some adjustment). I'd put myself into this category — I remember working in an office environment, and I'm extremely confident when I say that I'm more productive working from home than I ever was in an office and if I were to return to an office environment, my hourly/daily/weekly productivity would slip dramatically.
Others will find the opposite to be true. They may find it very difficult to ever be highly productive at home, and they thrive in an office environment for various reasons.
During this period, I think a lot of employers are going to see that some employees are taking to these changes incredibly well, while others are not. This doesn't mean that the ones struggling from home are at significant professional risk, but that many managers will see that some of their employees do really well working outside the office — in many cases, even better than at the office.
This period is going to provide real evidence for a lot of employers that at least some of their staff functions much better outside the office, and once this is clear to them, they'll want to take advantage of that.
If a worker is more productive (or even similarly productive, or even just slightly less productive) working from home (or from some other environment outside the office), then it makes a ton of business sense to have that person work outside the office as much as possible. This eliminates the money that needs invested in a space for that person to work and also reduces hands-on management time as well. It's simply less expensive for a business to have a stay-at-home employee than having an employee in the office.
The big advantage of having a worker in an office environment is that it allows easier oversight of what workers are doing and more communication and collaboration between workers as well as between workers and managers. If you're working remotely, then those lines of communication are much weaker than they would be in an office environment.
Thus, as we move into an area where more people than ever are permanently working from home (or outside of an office environment), it will become even more important for people working outside the office to have clear channels of communication with their supervisors and with their coworkers.
There are already a lot of tools in place that facilitate this. Many offices use Slack as a tool for communication and collaboration, for example, and there's been an absolute boom in video conferencing over the last couple of months as companies and organizations have been trying to integrate those services into their work.
However, the question still remains how these tools will be most effective in keeping lines of communication open.
My belief is that in the coming months and years, there will be a lot of rapid evolution in terms of finding structures and communication tools that enable remote workers to collaborate well with others in their office. As I noted above, some tools already exist, but there's a lot of flux in terms of how to use them. I think that the use of those tools will change in the coming months and years in such a way that makes it easy for people who work from home effectively to work from home and still communicate clearly with those in the office.
In her organization, they used to have a daily "scrum" in which people would gather around once a day, standing up, and have an informal meeting where they would share what they were working on and request resources and help as needed. This has migrated almost perfectly to online video conferencing, though they have shifted this to twice a day (once in the late morning and once in the late afternoon). Aside from that, all communication in their office is done by email.
Another feature that they've added is that each person has some "office hours" each day — usually 2 or 3 hours — where they're monitoring email closely and available for one-on-one or small group videoconferencing. Outside of those "office hours," they can work on their own on tasks without checking email or anything else.
So, for her, the workday consists of a 15-20 minute videoconference twice a day with her team, a two hour "office hours" period, and then the rest of her daily schedule is defined by her.
According to my friend, this structure was basically developed on the fly by a manager who has wanted to try this out anyway, and this was a perfect opportunity to try it. She reports that this is going exceedingly well for her and that even with the challenge of distraction that comes from working at home, she feels more productive than she ever was in the office and hopes that this becomes her more permanent mode of operation most days out of the week.
I suspect that many offices are discovering structures like this that work really well for many of their workers and, when things return to normal, there will be "hybrid" structures in many offices where people work from home most days with a structure like this and then work in the office perhaps one or two days a week, if at all.
If office work moves in a direction where working outside the office is not only normalized but sometimes encourage, what does this mean for you? Here are some things I'd strongly encourage people working from home right now to think about.
First of all, the investment you make right now in figuring out how to be as productive as possible at home will pay off greatly over the long run. If you prefer working from home, you're building your case for doing this much more often. Whether you prefer it or not, if we are moving to a much greater acceptance and use of people working from home, demonstrating the flexibility to be able to pull it off will be a big career asset for you.
Second, if this is a completely new approach for your workplace, make suggestions and give feedback. Make it clear to your supervisor what's working well and what's not working well in terms of working from home, both for you and for what you see from the office in general. This is a new era for a lot of organizations, and your supervisor is likely figuring this out as they go. Be communicative about all of this.
As you're offering this kind of feedback, however, a few things are really important. First, make sure you acknowledge the challenge of this shift and the hard work that people have put in to make this even work at all. A lot of people have been thrown out of their comfort zone in the midst of a trying time. The fact that anything's working at all deserves some acknowledgment and praise.
Second, make sure to identify things that are working well as much as things that could be worked on. It's often harder to notice the things that are working well, so think about that and look for those things and make note of them.
Third, if you see problems, try to think of potential solutions for them and suggest them. Don't just complain about what's not working; rather, suggest ideas for how they might work.
Finally, be humble about everything you share. Don't act as if you have a lot of great answers and solutions. Say things like "After some thought and reading, here are some ideas I had for how we might make this work better. I'm not sure about all of the logistics on your end, but these seem like they would work well from my end."
Feedback written like this is invaluable – it helps keep egos in check and offers genuinely useful information that might see action.
Another good strategy for preparing yourself for this changing environment is to start documenting your work efforts. Start keeping a log of the work you do outside of the office each day. It doesn't need to be perfect, but approximate time each day you spent on different projects, meetings, email, and so on is really useful.
Finally, work on your written, video, and audio communication skills. The clearer you can communicate outside of face-to-face environments, the easier it will be for you to get things done and the easier it is for others to collaborate with you. Work on writing better emails; a good place to start is to notice what you find annoying and frustrating about emails from others and avoid those things. Come to audio and video meetings prepared with the points you want to talk about or may be called on to talk about – just making some notes in the 15 minutes before a meeting makes a world of difference. Before communicating with coworkers (outside of chatting to build camaraderie), ask yourself what value you're adding by what you're sharing so that people come to see your words as useful and valuable and worth listening to.
These are all skills and tactics you can be working on now to put yourself in a great position for the post-social distancing office working world.