Remote working: 10 lessons leaders should apply in 2021

In 2020, leaders wrestled with everything from digitizing processes to setting boundaries. How can you apply these new lessons about remote working in 2021?
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remote work lessons learned

In 2019, the Enterprisers Project made a number of end-of-year predictions: One of them was that remote work would increase in 2020. It did, though none of us wanted or imagined a pandemic prompting the near-overnight remote shift. I haven’t been in the office since March, even though I love my office.

Like many of us, I’ve been scrambling to adapt to my own changed circumstances while providing guidance to my team. Here’s what I’ve learned during the past year.

1. Digital process is important

The rise of remote working has wiped non-digital processes out of the workplace and accelerated digital transformation.

We already knew digital was important, but we didn’t realize quite how fundamental it was until the alternatives vanished. The rise of remote working has wiped non-digital processes out of the workplace and accelerated digital transformation. Things may return to normal in 2021, but digital isn’t going away.

To emerge stronger, continue to invest in digitizing processes, and once that’s done, switch to automating them entirely. Some of my team had a ten-week wait to get access to client’s systems - on a ten week project. The business impact of this kind of overhead can be calamitous.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

2. Tools matter more than you think

Tools have a major impact on employee morale; people are more likely to quit if their employer is a tech laggard. What’s different now is that remote working needs different tools. I’ve left video calls exhausted because someone’s voice was distorted or muffled or otherwise inaudible, and listening to them was a strain. If people are expected to be on video calls, supply them with an adequate external microphone, and a webcam that they can put directly in front of them, at eye-level.

If you have to choose one, sort out the sound first. Headphones are a courtesy to others, since they eliminate the possibility of echo. Gaming headsets combine headphones and a microphone and are designed to be comfortable for extended wear. Look for ones with a mechanical mute.

3. Gamers are leading the way

Longer term, the smart CIO should be watching this community closely.

It turns out that many of the emerging requirements of remote work are well-established among the gaming community. A while ago, gamers discovered the need for low-latency streaming, chairs that were tolerable for twelve hours of intense sitting, comfortable headsets, clear microphones, cameras, and balanced lighting. How does this impact us? Companies that cater to the gaming market are making products that happen to be ideal for the needs of business consumers. I’m not a gamer, but my home office is now filled with kit designed for gaming.

Longer term, the smart CIO should be watching this community closely. Gamers are pushing the state of the art on streaming tech, UX, and AV equipment. They’re also driving software innovation.

Twitch and Discord have crossed over from gaming, and Discord is notable for its comfortable UX and resilient voice communication. Twitch is now used as a platform by brands, politicians and educators, while Discord is used by virtual conferences, gardeners, and some cybercriminals. (Having that last user base isn’t a recommendation, but it does show the expanded reach of the platform!) Some companies are now hosting their meetings in VR worlds, and using tools like Oculus Quest to create a fully immersive collaboration experience. More generally, trends like gamification and serious games show the influence of game theory in all parts of the business, while the rise of e-sports is evidence of the economic impact of games.

4. Not everyone has the same house

When we all started working at home, I noticed that our more senior staff were working from pleasant studies, much like mine. Our junior developers, in contrast, were sharing a common room with other home workers, or squeezed into a cramped bedroom next to bed, or actually in a bed. The office gave them privacy and space to work, which they lost when they started working at home. We can’t fix the price of accommodation in London or San Francisco, but we can recognize that remote working may feel less comfortable for some.

5. Work to establish respectful boundaries

How do we balance professionalism, privacy, and connection?

How much of themselves should employees bring to work? In 2020, employees brought themselves, their dogs, cats, children, domestic commitments, and sometimes startling decor to work. The potential for discomfort and possible over-sharing increased dramatically. I’ve had an architecture review disrupted by a developer who stepped away to give a twenty minute fractions lesson to his daughter without muting himself first. I’ve had eye-popping glimpses of the underwear of people who were practicing waist-up dressing …. and then accidentally stood up.

However, we also see under-sharing, which creates its own problems. Many people are reluctant to turn on video at all, or only turn on video if high-status people are on the call. This is a nightmare for teachers and facilitators who need facial cues to do their job, and it can dampen collaboration. Keeping video off can say “I don’t trust you”, which doesn’t feel great for others on the call, especially if they’re making themselves vulnerable by broadcasting their faces.

What’s the solution? A coercive ‘cameras-on’ policy certainly won’t create an atmosphere of trust, and more intrusive workplace monitoring will actively poison it. Employees should have a right to privacy, and that includes keeping cameras off, either as a short break to relieve Zoom fatigue, or permanently. Although the tech can cause distracting visual artifacts if used without a green screen, virtual backgrounds are a great way for people to show their faces without sharing their whole house.

How do we balance professionalism, privacy, and connection? Reconciling the three is not easy, but mutual respect is a good starting principle.

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

6. Maintaining a sustainable pace isn't easy

Boundaries are about space, but also about time. The rise of home-working has led to an increase in already-long working hours. As well as being tiring, these extra hours aren’t necessarily great for productivity. Paradoxically, avoiding over-work needs a lot of work. Be disciplined about modelling a sustainable pace, and avoid rewarding digital-presenteeism rather than outcomes.

7. Mix communication modalities

Part of the reason for Zoom fatigue is that it’s the same all day; the repetition is wearing. In a physical workplace, people interact in different styles throughout the day; there are structured meetings and pair-programming sessions, and also lots of hallway chat, discussion over tea breaks, and lunchtime banter. The real team-level problem solving often happens during the post-meeting walk to the kettle or over lunch. There’s a similarity to how individuals solve problems in their sleep or in the shower, when the unconscious is free to percolate away on a solution.

Mix your communication technologies to include video, long-form text, voice-only, collaboration tools like Mural, shared documents, and messaging. Include planned activities, drop-in zones, and passive telepresence-style communication. Try and build in some activities with a non-work focus, such as watching comedy videos together, or playing online games as a team.

[ What roles are you adding in 2021? Read also: Digital transformation teams in 2021: 9 key roles. ]

8. Remember, fun is the glue

One of the things many of us missed when we switched to remote work is the fun. Fun makes us feel good and it makes us more effective. The challenges of planned-fun-on-Zoom became obvious at the end of last year as many of us contemplated the disheartening mechanics of a Zoom office party. A layer of office-party-fun won’t work unless a team already has a culture of fostering happiness. Build time into the beginning of meetings for casual chat, and create #off-topic on the office slack for watercooler conversation. Find ways to replicate casual kindnesses, like bringing sweet treats into the office (care packages by mail are almost always appreciated).

9. Encourage exercise

With no commute, no shared tea-breaks, and not even any trotting between meeting rooms, remote workers risk not getting as much exercise as they did in the office. This affects physical health, but also mental performance. Short breaks of exercise, such as the walk between meetings, can improve attention and cognitive ability. Rather than scheduling meetings back to back, build in five-minute buffers for leg stretching. Encourage staff to stand regularly and take walks during the working day.

10. Level the playing field

One of the things which helped 2020-style remote working is that everyone was doing it. In the past, being the only remote participant in an in-person meeting is a miserable experience; unless there’s been a serious investment in AV, many participants will be muffled or completely inaudible, the remote person is the only person who’s missing out on body language, and the in-person participants aren’t allowed to use the whiteboard.

Going forward, many workplaces will be adopting a flexible approach, with a mix of in-person and remote work. This is clearly a sensible approach, especially since we’re all a lot better at remote working then we used to be. When adopting a hybrid strategy, take care to work in a way which doesn’t exclude those who choose to stay remote. Leverage the benefits of remote working to expand the talent you can hire, improve flexibility, and reduce carbon footprint. At the same time, make sure to preserve sustainability and the human connection.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Dr. Holly Cummins is a Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM. Holly’s job is to help clients innovate. As part of the IBM Garage, Holly has used technology to enable innovation, for clients across a range of industries, from banking to catering to retail to NGOs.