Leading a business in the “new working from home” age
One thing has become clear during the past eighteen-plus months of lockdowns and other measures associated with the pandemic: Working From Home (WFH), or, as it is increasingly becoming known, Working From Anywhere (WFA) is going to remain a central feature of the “New Normal” business environment.
It rapidly accelerated a movement that was slowly gaining momentum, so companies must ensure they can benefit from its many potential advantages – including reduced office costs, the ability to utilise a wider range of talent globally (no more immigration/visa issues), and, potentially, a happier and more productive workforce.
It’s arguably this last point that is the most challenging for business leaders today. Although it means largely eliminating the costs and time associated with commuting to work each day, potentially reducing living costs and improving quality of life, remote workers often find themselves unable to function as effectively as before. There are many reasons for this including management ones and the lack of workplace interaction and sense of camaraderie. In fact, recent research shows that only around a quarter of workers want to work remotely all the time.
So, how can SME business leaders ensure that they can reap the benefits associated with WFH while minimising the downsides?
One place to start is by producing a Work From Home Policy to set out the parameters and expectations from both sides. Eliminating, so far as is possible, areas of doubt is key.
The policy should cover such areas as:
who is eligible to work from home (not everyone is, of course, depending on their roles)
the approval process to be followed for those who are eligible and wish to work from home
the working hours expectation – whether time-based, task-based or some combination of both – and how to keep records of this
communications channels and which should be used for various purposes (e.g. Zoom for meetings, Slack for team channels, email for longer communications – along with rules on who should be copied and when)
the need for security standards (perhaps a company-wide VPN for all work functions)
dress code (yes, to keep up work standards a dress code is recommended), and so on.
It will, of course, be important to get feedback (ideally anonymously) on the policy when circulated so that any appropriate changes can be made, and to have acknowledgement of receipt by all staff so that it forms a record (digital signatures are a good idea here). This needs to be a “living document” that will change as circumstances require, so constant feedback from staff and management is essential.
It’s also a good idea for WFH staff to be given a “How To” guide as, for most, it will be a new and, sometimes, unsettling experience. Apart from specifying the equipment they need to have available (much will be company supplied of course, so there will be setup costs for additional equipment), it should provide information that includes:
the importance of morning routines before starting work
how to make the best of what had previously been commute time
why working in very casual clothing such as your PJs is a bad idea
how to maintain focus and energy with the right nutrition
the importance of taking short breaks to move around and, preferably, getting some fresh air
the need for a dedicated workspace away from distractions like the TV, bedroom and eating areas, along with some information on seating, lighting, etc.
From a leadership perspective, maintaining ongoing personal contact with your team is critically important when WFH. Although keystroke monitoring software is widely available, this is not recommended as it indicates a lack of trust. Having always-open communication channels such as Slack, and regular online team update sessions (at least weekly) are key to ensure everyone still feels part of an inclusive team and knows what is happening.
Ideally, leaders should check in with each team member on a daily basis, using video to keep face-to-face contact as much as possible. Use these sessions to not only see how their workload is progressing but also to understand any issues they’re facing so problem areas can be reduced.
And don’t forget the usefulness of ad hoc virtual “pop-ins” – a sort of virtual Management by Wandering Around – although this is often best done using asynchronous tools such as Slack to avoid interrupting a current task. Of course, communication is very much a two-way street and the team should know to involve their management whenever necessary – remember the best leaders are much more mentors and coaches to their team members than managers.
The key is setting expectations, measuring results (not just hours) and ensuring open bi-directional communication, while understanding that not everyone wants to work remotely and being able to accommodate the differing needs of the workforce.
Ultimately, the WFH environment should be a win-win: happier and more productive staff with lower rates of absenteeism and staff turnover, coupled with lower operating costs for the business.
About the author
Guy Whitcroft is the founder of Business Fitness Courses. He has almost 50 years’ experience across 3 continents covering technical (IT software & hardware), marketing and sales fields, culminating in 25+ years on boards at C-level. He is now bringing his unique set of experience, skills and knowledge to bear helping others, working with select SME clients to build businesses of lasting value.