Preparing employees for working remotely in times of crisis

Preparing employees for working remotely in times of crisis

  • COVID-19 has resulted in many organisations implementing emergency travel restrictions and requesting that staff telecommute
  • Major conferences, events and training sessions have been cancelled
  • The Resilience Institute offers specialised digital support for employees working remotely
  • The Resilience Institute publishes 10 tips for remote working success (below)

Over the past decade, flexible working arrangements have become standard practice around the world. Indeed, some distributed teams and freelancers of the gig economy may never actually meet their colleagues in person. For many organisations, it makes sense to allow office staff to telecommute. The arrangement saves money, reduces transit time and carbon footprint, increases millennial engagement and supports diversity. Gallup revealed that 54% of office workers say they’d leave their job for one that offers flexible work time.

Working from home – but not by choice

Flexible working may once have been considered a perk but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in what some have labelled the world’s biggest work from home experiment, forcing thousands of employees to work remotely if their job allows for it. Immediately after the outbreak, an estimated 60 million Chinese workers were placed under full or partial lockdown. As COVID-19 spread, organisations across South East Asia, then Italy and the USA implemented emergency remote working arrangements. Some employees are allowed into the office on roster, while others are being asked to work from home until further notice. Companies including Twitter, Google, Amazon and Apple have restricted employee travel and requested people stay at home where possible.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, is a proponent of remote working and optimistic about the shift.

This may be simple for a tech company with a young workforce, equipped with modern laptops and robust cloud infrastructure. But many organisations have been caught off guard. They have no business continuity plan for a suddenly distributed workforce. Most production lines can’t function without human labour and, as a result, China’s manufacturing production has fallen to record lows. Global supply chains have been seriously impacted and, with demand waning, the global economy is slowing, possibly towards a recession.

For security reasons, many jobs can’t be easily shifted to a remote arrangement. Miltary and banking are two obvious areas. Nevertheless, COVID-19 is going to trigger experiments that will test human, technological and organisational resilience and ingenuity.

Remote working to maintain productivity

Countries like Singapore are less vulnerable than many others. Flexible working arrangements are commonplace and have made it possible for top talent to deliberately balance their careers with lifestyle. Companies like Dell are also prepared, having initiated workplace transformation programs back in 2009.

Organisations of the future will be looking at these examples of flexible working success and reimagining business continuity. What happens in a future where COVID-19 is but one of many threats, ranging from virus to terror, climate to political unrest? Could your organisation continue operations if the office was shut down? Is your technology infrastructure capable of handling the shift? Can your managers lead remotely? Perhaps, most importantly, are employees equipped to deal with the challenges of being physically isolated, potentially for long periods of time?

Remote working is not a new idea

Opportunities for remote working have increased dramatically since the advent of the internet. Those with specific skills can live productive – even nomadic – lives equipped with just a laptop and wi-fi.

Working from the bedroom (or beach) is a dream for many but the reality may present a shock. Some people thrive in their own space, operating without the distractions inherent in the modern, open-plan office. A Chinese remote working study showed that employees were 13% more productive at home, mainly due to the quieter environment. As you may expect, they also requested less sick days. Think about our ancestors: we evolved hunting and gathering in small, close-knit groups. In the evenings the tribe would gather and tell stories around the fire, then rest and repeat at sunrise. Public transport, open-plan offices and densely populated cities are not our natural environment. A home in the suburbs might not be such a bad place to work after all.

In reality, however, most home environments are not optimised for serious productivity. There may be family members present during the day or no suitable area available for work. The dining room table is fine for the occasional email but video conferencing won’t work if there are toddlers crying in the background. The boundaries between work and home can easily blur and many employees will find themselves working late, suffering disrupted sleep routines, experiencing resentment from partners and kids, and feeling lonely.

Companies need to lead the way

Governments are understandably focused on the medical implications of a pandemic like COVID-19. Organisations will need to lead the way in terms of securing productivity and supporting the livelihood of those in their care during turbulent times.

McKinsey’s report, COVID-19: Implications for business, states, “Protect your employees. The COVID-19 crisis has been emotionally challenging for many people, changing day-to-day life in unprecedented ways. For companies, business as usual is not an option. They can start by drawing up and executing a plan to support employees that is consistent with the most conservative guidelines that might apply and has trigger points for policy changes. Some companies are actively benchmarking their efforts against others to determine the right policies and levels of support for their people. Leaders must communicate with employees with the right level of specificity and frequency.”

At the Resilience Institute, we work with organisations around the globe to provide assessment and training – often delivered digitally – that equips individuals with action plans to improve their resilience and leaders with insights on how best to look after their people in times of crisis. Reporting on 60 factors of resilience we believe the future lies in providing targeted, relevant support, at the right time, wherever employees might be.

As such, we have prepared the following guide to help organisations equip their teams and leaders for success.


10 Tips for Remote Working Success

1. Set up a dedicated workspace

Employers are probably aware that most employees work from home even if they have not signed a flexible working arrangement. A report by Fortune reveals that 68% of people check work email before 8 am, 50% check it while in bed, 57% check on family outings, and 38% regularly check at the dinner table.

If we expect employees to be productive in the home environment it is necessary for them to create boundaries, both physical and time. Most organisations will be unable to ship standing desks to every staff member’s home but some simple tips will improve safety and wellbeing.

A clear desk and dedicated workspace improves focus and productivity.

Considering that staff will primarily be using laptops it is important that they learn optimal posture and take regular breaks. If budgets allow, companies may choose to ship a laptop stand plus external keyboard and mouse to each employee who is working from home.

To assist with focus in a potentially noisy environment, employees might choose to wear noise-cancelling headphones. For those in sales roles where client interaction will be required it is worthwhile investing in quality USB headsets that transmit and receive clear sound.

Encourage employees to blur their background if necessary during video calls (Skype has a setting for this) and to use an appropriate lighting source if client communication is necessary. A small, clip-on LED ring light can provide excellent illumination for a few dollars.

2. Encourage communication

Many employees enjoy the social aspect of work. Being suddenly isolated can result in feelings of loneliness. Motivation may decrease.

Use group conversations to stimulate formal and informal communication. Consider a “virtual watercooler” where employees can discuss a range of topics. Create a thread called “Working from Home” so people can share anecdotes, tips and success stories.

Encourage video calls whenever possible. Being able to view faces will reduce ambiguity and build a sense of connection. Equip employees with some guidelines around video call best practice, especially those who may be new to the technology.

For calls with large groups, nominate a conversation facilitator who ensures each person has an opportunity to contribute. Some people may interrupt or speak out of turn so create some protocols for group call etiquette.

Keep virtual meetings short. People will often multitask (that’s why having cameras on is useful) and they’ll almost certainly zone out of anything beyond an hour. Allow rest breaks for meetings longer than an hour.

Don’t see COVID-19 as an excuse to roll out more systems and software. Starting a Slack board may seem cool but how distracted are your employees already? Can you make use of existing tools, like Yammer, Skype, Hangouts or Sharepoint?

Encourage employees to have virtual coffee breaks where they can openly discuss non-work topics. Using technology effectively can help maintain and even build company culture. It will be integral to human success in a physically disconnected future.

3. Be empathetic

Employees will be working from the sanctuary of their home space and this brings with it all kinds of challenges, from the White Tennis Shoe Syndrome (finding any distraction more appealing than the current task) to the lure of the fridge, to kids who also happen to be locked down at home.

While running remote working experiments you’ll connect with employees who’ve just woken up after a rough night. You’ll hear screaming in the background. Some people will be hyperproductive (take note) and some will be wallowing in procrastination and doubt. Managers are not immune to this – they may feel the pressure more than most.

Everyone responds differently to challenge so ask people how they’re doing and show them that you care. Emphasise the importance of the organisational mission and how much their contribution counts towards the greater goals.

Be really clear about performance objectives but allow space for adaptation to the new arrangement.

4. Create a culture of recognition

High-recognition companies have 31% lower voluntary turnover than companies with poor recognition cultures. Use remote working as a way to encourage recognition, both peer-to-peer and from leaders.

A simple first step is saying thank you. The next step is public recognition. When teams are distributed geographically they miss the small wins – things that went well but don’t deserve a group email. Take the opportunity to recognise small wins by broadcasting daily or weekly group updates that are dedicated to good news, gratitude and success stories.

5. Hold virtual training sessions

When group workshops and conferences are impossible due to the risk of infection, employee training does not need to stop. Most training companies can offer webinar versions of their content, enabling employees to dial in remotely.

Tools like Zoom enable video meetings and webinars, with advanced functionality like chat and breakout rooms for one-on-one discussions. Zoom’s share price increased by 67% in 2020 with several large conferences switching to digital-only format.

Virtual summits and training sessions make sense, both environmentally and in terms of limiting the spread of viruses. They may not be quite as fun as a face-to-face event but they can certainly still be effective.

The Resilience Institute offers introductory webinars and deep-dives into specific areas including bounce, sleep, focus, emotional intelligence and high performance.

6. Encourage transparency

In times of crisis, transparency builds trust. From a team productivity perspective, shared task lists can help groups collaborate more efficiently. Tools like Trello (free), JIRA (paid) and Microsoft Planner (included with Office 365) enable the quick creation of boards (projects), tasks and delegation.

Highly visual, shared boards become the central repository of work in progress and are much easier to manage than email. Leaders can quickly identify which employees need additional support, based on the number of tasks assigned and forthcoming deadlines.

Consider letting teams explore agile ways of working. You may discover an emergent workflow that forms the basis for future business continuity planning.

From the perspective of company communications, it is important that leaders maintain contact and share important updates as swiftly as possible. Crisis situations are an opportunity to strengthen relationships and practice real-time resilience. Transparent and authentic communication creates a foundation of workplace trust.

7. Offer virtual wellbeing training

Employees will take time to adapt to a completely new way of working. Some will take advantage of the extra time and go for walks or attend group fitness classes. Others may lack the motivation to get out of their pyjamas.

Working from home is an opportunity to save money and improve diet by preparing meals at home. Encourage employees to move throughout the day and provide them with resources to encourage mindfulness and calm. Promote healthy sleep habits and discourage working late.

Keep training sessions short and focused. Encourage the use of self-assessment tools to build personal insight.

The Resilience App contains a comprehensive diagnostic assessment plus over 55 micro-learning videos designed to improve individual wellbeing and resilience.

8. Establish daily rhythm

The remote working experiment is an opportunity to develop high-performance habits, both individually and as a team. How about reserving the first 90 minutes in everyone’s diary for Flow State – the most important task/s for the day. After this, we share a collective break (meet at the virtual watercooler / Slack), then batch process emails and make video calls.

Some might schedule a second “flow zone” for the afternoon, followed by a break and time for recovery.

Bear in mind that some people will have kids arriving home in the afternoon, so they will compensate by working late. Be empathetic and discourage extremely late nights and weekends online. Leaders will need to model these behaviours because remote-working culture starts from the top.

The dangers of long hours are well documented and a study showed that upper-level managers who used their phones after 9 p.m. experienced decreases in quantity and quality of sleep.

View the Master your Day guide for suggestions and resources.

9. Mental health check-ins

Whether conducted by leaders, peers or internal wellbeing ambassadors it is worthwhile scheduling mental health check-ins to make sure everyone is coping with the change to remote working.

A guide to leading mental health is available here.

Many organisations choose to focus on cultivating mental wellbeing – or mental fitness. In this context, the check-in becomes an opportunity for coaching and support.

The Resilience Institute’s downward spiral provides a clear framework to help leaders and employees describe and sustain their mental fitness.

10. Train leaders to identify risks

The remote working experiment is fraught with risk. Some areas to consider include:

  • Conducting flexible work risk assessments and defining remote work policies. Duncan Cotterill have produced an excellent guide.
  • Employee wellbeing – sleep, fitness, relaxation, balancing home pressures.
  • Expenses – is an allowance available for working in cafes or for use of the home internet connection, especially if video calling is required?
  • Security – does the employee live with flatmates or others who can gain unauthorised access to company information. What security protocols can be established?
  • Mental health – be aware of behaviours that signal resilience failure.
  • Employee engagement – how can leaders maintain employee morale.

Coaching for Team Flow

Coaching for Team Flow

A practice guide for coaching exceptional teams

We have worked hard to help people be better team members and leaders to be better at supporting their teams. Yet the team is clearly an organism in its own right. Team performance is in the spotlight. We know that team behaviours determine performance. How might the science and practice of team flow help us deliver results without compromising personal wellbeing and resilience?

The Context

First, when a team works well, it achieves extraordinary results. For those who have been part of an effective team the experience is ennobling and the memory is rich. An outstanding team can change the fortunes of an organisation or mission. They have enormous value and they are rare. Many, including MIT and Google, are asking what exactly determines team performance. McKinsey estimates that it is reasonable to expect a doubling of team productivity with a small lift in flow.

Second, as millions of jobs – manual, process and professional – fall to machines and artificial intelligence, good teams are one of the last bastions of human dominance. Those who can work well in teams have a greater chance of finding sustainable roles in society.

Third, working in a highly functional team is massively rewarding. From our hunting and gathering days, human work has often been done in teams. We are designed for teaming. We have survived and thrived as a consequence of the attributes required – self-mastery, empathy and perspective taking. Not surprisingly, to be on a good team is enjoyable, engaging and meaningful. We can become much better coaches of our teams.

Clarify thinking and assumptions

Performance traps: business is in the very early stages of applying the performance sciences. We frequently fall into the trap of performance as “always on”. Long days, missed meals, compromised sleep and abandoned families. Elite performers in sport, combat, arts and chess do not make this mistake. Teams who deliver the goods do not compromise on their foundations. They work in intense bursts and know how to rejuvenate fully. Their coaches (they all have coaches – often a coaching team) help make it possible. Teams must use science and deliberate, purposeful practice to succeed.

Second, elite performance is achieved through flow – not a desperate grind. McKinsey found that executives in flow achieve a five-fold lift in output. What we forget is that a day of flow requires at least a day of rest. Elite performance absolutely depends upon structured recovery, rest phases and careful preparation and conditioning. Teams must learn how to call downtime and enjoy “play-time”.

Third, there is too much focus on psychological safety. I don’t buy it. High performing teams are intense, demanding and vigorous. Read up on Apple, Nike or professional firms. Someone who needs psychological safety will not thrive. Resilience is a far superior mantra. Each individual must be confident that they can bounce, show courage, connect and create. They must be able to trust that team-mates can and will demonstrate resilience. If we focus on resilience, candour, respect, empathy and social skill follow. If we focus on psychological safety, people demand sympathy and justify withholding the truth. We want to think of our colleagues as resilient. Not vulnerable!

The Solution

To coach a team to exceptional performance requires deliberate focus on core skills. These are the skills we believe will accelerate team development in order of priority:

Personal Mastery: every team member must have the basic skills to take care of their life. Wellbeing – physical, emotional and cognitive – is essential. Make sure your teams have the basic skills, metrics and support to cultivate their resilience. Exceptional teams will endure periods of extreme pressure and must know how to maintain themselves through it and take the necessary time to recover and rejuvenate after bursts of intensity. Teams must learn how to support each other. In a pressure-cooker world, personal mastery is tough. Support of each other can make a big difference. Stay fit, sleep consistently, eat well and maintain the ritual. Daily stand-up meetings must be used as a personal check-in before addressing business.

Tactical Calm: every team member must be able to calm and focus through pressure and conflict. Conflict is necessary to extract creative problem solving. When a team member has emotional outbursts empathy, trust and creativity collapse. Teams that can maintain the calm, focused and connected state can thrive through chaos. Just as athletes and soldiers have specific training in how to stay calm in critical moment, so must teams. Pause, breathe out, stay curious and open, and respond calmly and firmly.

Empathy: a range of studies now shows that empathy is the single best predictor of contribution to team performance. We must be specific with our training of empathy. We can build empathy through very specific practices. At the base it requires a degree of cognitive empathy. Teams must increase their emotional literacy learning how to recognise, name and express the different emotions skilfully and appropriately. Second, teams must learn to pay attention and tune into the feelings (affect) of each other. Third, they must practice perspective taking. Learn to explore and express diverse points of view.

Build time in Team Flow: the flow state is super-charged and is the state of exceptional performance. In flow the brain is functioning in a very special condition – focused, immersed, connected and accelerated. Flooded with dopamine, endorphins and anandamide, thinking stops and real-time, accelerated processing takes over. Flow become more likely when teams engage directly and face-to-face. Communication is concise, direct, candid and expressed in short bursts. All team members contribute evenly. No one dominates.

Remember that flow is exhausting. Celebration, rest, rejuvenation and careful conditioning must follow before attempting to deliver another burst of flow.

After action review: well tested in military and team sport, we can apply this to our teams. After key actions, stop, reconnect and review performance with candour. What went well and what can be improved? How can we improve this next time? What specific actions can we each take to prepare, practice and execute next time around?

Time to practice: high performing teams create a culture of deliberate practice. Set specific development goals, make time to practice with support and use coaches to provide specific feedback and skill rehearsal. The focus must be on “how to execute like experts”. Research what experts actually do and learn to master these skills.