Several months into working remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown, many employees have awakened to the possibility to continue working from home. Others have discovered they prefer working in an office and being around colleagues.
Employers, too, have had their eyes opened to what works and what doesn’t in terms of productivity. So what can we expect going forward?
Ultimately, the new normal will be different for every company. The trick is finding your balance between accommodating people, addressing safety concerns and keeping a company’s productivity on track.
Here are a few observations based on my experiences over the past several months.
Working Remotely Is Not for Everyone
Although call centers in some of the regions where we operate were permitted to remain open during the pandemic, we opted to send everyone home for their safety even prior to the general mandates. For the first month, productivity soared as our reps were excited to try something new and wanted to prove they could work from home.
However, in the second month, reality set in. For some, working from home was too comfortable; they failed to put in the hard work. For others, there were too many distractions and interruptions. For example, you cannot assume that your employees will have a room to themselves or be able to separate themselves from their children. They may have to work from the kitchen table and share space with kids who are supposed to be doing their homework.
Because we drive all activity through our IT system, we could spot the problems. We can measure the time put in versus the output and track this over time. We are also able to compare team members’ results to identify top performers and laggards.
As time passed, a few employees reduced the amount of time they worked. Because productivity suffered too, we had to talk with them about their options. They could either take extended leave until our offices reopened or we could let them go.
We reopened our office when we felt it was safe to do so. Then, we brought people back in three phases, starting with people who presented the lowest risk – those who travel by private car, have no children and no spouse or significant other working in a high-risk environment.
A few employees didn’t want to come back to the office, either because they were afraid of infection or preferred their home environment. Once we made returning mandatory, however, only a few opted out.
In Europe, we are now all back in the office. In Tampa, we started to return, but once the COVID cases started to rise again in our area, we reversed our decision and kept reps working remotely. Again, it’s all about being flexible.
Communication Is Critical
Working remotely should not mean working in a vacuum. We needed our staff to interact. That meant having teams communicating and managers working closely in groups and with individuals.
We created a virtual communication environment, which includes technology to make the job easier and encourage communication and teamwork online.
While most managers are self-starters and able to function remotely, they need to stay on top of their reps’ activities. So, we instituted Monday kickoff meetings and Friday wrap-up meetings to review team productivity. Plus, our managers hold team meetings and work one-on-one with their reps.
By the third month, everything seemed pretty normalized. But we realized technology could only go so far. Nothing can completely replace the immediacy of leaning over a partition wall and sharing a call experience or talking through a problem face-to-face with a peer.
Don’t Lose Your Company Identity
My teams overachieved during the last two quarters and outperformed all our targets. Results have been better than we could have hoped for up to this point in the year.
I attribute our success to the fact that we sent existing teams home to work. They know each other personally, are comfortable working as a team and find it easy to maintain virtual communication. Most importantly, they understand who we are as a company.
Sooner or later, however, we all need to bring on new employees to accommodate growth, new projects and attrition. You can do online training and set them up with communication and conferencing capabilities. But how do you onboard someone and make them feel part of a team or company when they are working remotely? How do you leverage best practices and the collective knowledge of other employees? How do you instill team spirit? These are questions we all have to grapple with if we are to master the virtual work world.
When working remotely, building a new team for a project, or in our case, a new client, can be challenging. That’s because you have to start from ground zero, learning new products, solutions and how to represent them. You can provide all the information and bring everyone together online, but the sense of team is difficult to foster. It often emerges more strongly on a coffee or lunch break where people talk about personal life as well. Face-to-face, they can gain an understanding of who the other person is as an individual. Working is also less stressful when reps can share their experiences with understanding peers.
We want our reps to have a strong sense of the company and to develop a team spirit. While you can incentivize reps when they are working remotely to meet and beat their individual quotas, it only goes so far. Once they’ve reached their goal, they may think there’s no reason to push further. Most people achieve more when they feel they are part of something bigger – when they have a desire to further the team’s success.
Also, if you have a strong culture, you will likely want to maintain that connection. You may also find it challenging to instill that company culture remotely.
So, success in the workplace comes back to something I speak about frequently – the human touch. It isn’t easy to build relationships when you can’t sit across the table and talk. That’s why we felt we needed to have as many reps as possible come back to the office as soon as it was safe.
The Future May Be a Hybrid Solution
When iHire surveyed employees for its report, The State of Online Recruiting 2020, just 7.6% of employees wanted to work 100% remotely and only 13.3% wanted to be 100% on-site. The majority fell between those extremes.
We may benefit from being flexible and seeking a balance between employees’ needs and maintaining company productivity and growth. A hybrid virtual and workplace solution could be the answer. To create such a work environment, you may need to adjust your policies and processes with the following considerations:
- While most employees are honest and self-motivated, you’ll still need to pay close attention to how you incentivize productivity. You’ll likely need individual and team incentives.
- Set clearly defined expectations. Also, explain how you’ll track and measure success, including key performance indicators (KPIs) and minimum goals.
- Be willing to let reps go if they are unable to meet those KPIs and maintain productivity.
- Develop policies for working at home. For instance, stipulate meetings that must be attended in person and any other face-to-face interaction you feel is critical. Schedule in-person “check-ins” as needed. Establish metrics that determine who is qualified to work from home perhaps a couple of days a week.
- Invest in the virtual platforms and hardware necessary for people to move between office and home. Employees also need adequate bandwidth to connect remotely.
- You also need to make sure your IT security protocol is top-notch. Don’t rely on the word of your IT department heads also. Also run independent vulnerability assessments to protect your company and clients.
Accommodating a hybrid office-home workforce requires flexible thinking. You don’t want to forgo your company culture or human touch in the process of redefining the work environment. Companies thrive and grow when employees feel connected to one another, their teams and the company itself.
Jeff Kalter is CEO at 3D2B, a global provider of sales and marketing services.