Working virtually? You're not alone

Leaders and employees alike find themselves thrust into a new world of work where communication and collaboration are key

  • External events have forced big change before. The coronavirus pandemic means a complete reset of how we work.
  • It will take thought and skilful execution to make working from home work. Consider the technology and human elements together for the best chance of success.
  • The potential for better ways of working and improved performance is high but it won’t happen by chance. Leaders will have to be thoughtful and brave.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended everybody’s expectations almost overnight. The perhaps illusory “steady state” of the workplace has been disrupted in a way that would have been unthinkable even a month ago. Locked out of offices and instructed to work from home, millions of people are faced with the alternative reality of remote working for the first time.

How should leaders approach this inflection point – an opportunity to change the way we work for the better, but equally, a moment where a lot of mistakes could get made?

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and the author of The 100-Year Life and other bestselling books on the evolving workplace, joined Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship to discuss this in the first of a new series of webinars, Leading through a pandemic. (A poll of the webinar audience revealed that 88% were watching from home – no doubt a new experience for many.)

As Professor Gratton points out, the question of working away from the office is not a new one. Since the arrival of the personal computer and (by today’s standards) bulky laptops, the possibility has existed of working from home or from other locations far from the office. But the practice had not become hugely widespread. 

“This is an enormous opportunity to experiment,” Professor Gratton says. It’s time to reset the way that we work. We can change our bad habits. We’ve been having too many meetings. We haven’t spent enough time with our kids. Our carbon footprint is unsustainable. We have suffered too much wear and tear. There has been a cost to our mental health. 

“We will have more flexible working at the end of this, perhaps moving to a four-day week,” Professor Gratton says. “We could come out of this in a better place, more resilient.”

There are three central elements to remote working: the technology, the social aspects and the work itself. 

The pioneers of working from home were freelancers, exploring what was possible on big and unwieldy personal computers in the early days of the internet. They made the most of the emerging technology. The social issues quickly became prominent: some people soon felt lonely and isolated, and leaders were not confident that good creative or innovative work was being done. People missed face-to-face collaboration. 

Then there was the work itself. The sort of work you do in an office with people around you is not the same as the work you do on your own. Virtual working has to be considered (and managed) differently.

The encouraging news is that this current pandemic is not the first time that big external events have forced a change. There have been different waves of virtual working since the 1980s.

In the first wave, in the 1980s, companies like Elance (later Upwork) grew up, platform companies which experimented with taking work out of the office. Independent consultants and freelancers may have loved the new-found autonomy and flexibility, but worried about being part of a community. They recognised that you learn by watching others in the workplace, Gratton argued, picking up tacit knowledge working in proximity with others.

The second wave in the early 2000s saw virtual working becoming integral to the corporation. We all started to have virtual corporate colleagues. And again external events such as 9/11 or the Sars outbreak of 2003 made a difference to the way we saw the workplace and our need to be rooted in it. “We never went back to exactly how we worked before,” says Professor Gratton. “Today is not a blip.”

As virtual/remote working matured other questions arose. “Work anywhere anytime” sounded great. New collaborative communications tools such as Slack arrived and some managers were comfortable about having colleagues at home. But were they less engaged? Did productivity suffer? Was it a case of “out of sight, out of mind”? The pressing concern was: how do you manage people who are working from home and how do you measure their productivity and performance?

Professor Gratton described a substantial experiment conducted by the UK telecoms company BT in her book The Shift. BT studied two groups of workers, half of whom were based in the office and the other half at home. And they were measured for levels of engagement, retention and productivity.

Very quickly, at home, workers’ productivity deteriorated. They didn’t know how to use the technology, and didn’t know how to work together. This got better over time. Collaboration improved. And in some teams their performance was higher. Working from home could actually boost productivity. The lesson is: you have to learn very quickly how to make working from home work.

The most recent wave of virtual working (as Professor Gratton explored in this 2013 Harvard Business Review article) was marked by the widespread adoption of low-cost collaborative tools, with companies joining everybody up and forming armies of virtual co-workers. This
would not have been possible 10 years earlier as it was prohibitively expensive, and slow.

But again the problem of loneliness and isolation arose. Co-working hubs were established in smaller towns, recreating (in a sense) mini offices away from the main office. People like to work together. We are social animals. There are implications for our mental health and relationships with others in being too isolated.

We’re now at the start of a mass experiment. “We’ve had asynchronous home-working in the past: some people doing it some of the time,” says Professor Gratton. “Now it’s everybody all of the time – a synchronous process.”

Six actions for leaders to take now

Follow these six steps today, suggests Professor Gratton, to make remote working a success for you and your organisation:

  1. Invest in intuitive technology. Make sure it’s easy to use, match the tech to the task and use video as much as you can. Experiment with ‘big conversations’ – invest in bringing people together at scale. 
  2. Consider the social aspects. Perhaps some home-workers are already feeling isolated after just a few days. How will they feel in three months’ time? 
  3. Reimagine the home workspace. Find a place to work with few distractions – a dedicated space – and leave it when work is finished. As the BT experiment showed, it helps to get working conditions right as soon as you can. Talking about emotions is going to be important. Use emojis!
  4. Make it human. Use “high-fidelity” (high quality) communication channels as much as possible. Video is especially powerful, recreating the face-to-face experience. And build in virtual “water-cooler conversations” that are not about work. Why not establish a regular coffee break which you share together, or a Friday cocktail hour?
  5. Establish a rhythm. Have a group meeting at 9am, perhaps again at 4pm. Team meetings are going to be really crucial. Build in structure. (Just as projects also need structure: a kick-off phase, onboarding and milestones.) In projects carried out by virtual teams people need to get to know who the other colleagues are. There is also the issue of childcare. Work might need to be scheduled to fit around family as opposed to the other way around.
  6. Focus on collaboration and trust. The question of culture inevitably arises. People don’t necessarily trust each other at first. So build it in. Trust your co-workers until they are proven to be untrustworthy. 

One of the reasons working from home did not truly take off in the past was that leaders didn’t do it. They feared people were skiving. But now leaders are working from home too.

As a leader, you need to understand what your people are doing. Listen on a daily basis to the stories they are telling you. Show empathy to yourself and the people you are leading. Change protocols, reformat work, reformat the home, to create more resilient working practices. 

“This is our opportunity to do that,” Professor Gratton says. “Trust that people are doing the best they can.” She feels confident that changes introduced now will last. Habits form over a period of time and three months is long enough for new habits to form. Video will get established. We are just not going to be in the office so much. 

“Bigger issues are at play here,” as she points out. “Where does the post-pandemic world want to be?”