Opinion | 04 August 2020

Ground rules for a successful and happy remote office culture


Ground rules for a successful and happy remote office culture hero

In March, when thousands of businesses sent their teams home to remote work due to the global pandemic, just how prepared were office workers to face this shift in their working lives? With widespread remote working likely to remain, we look at how you can ensure a successful and happy remote workforce.

As Head of Delivery at Distinction and someone that gets involved in the day-to-day delivery of projects, I’ve been able to see and experience first-hand how the way in which we work has been totally transformed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s some research that suggests that these new ways of working are potentially here to stay, as some industries, businesses and organisations have actually seen a number of benefits, increased productivity being one of them.

“I’ll just send you a Zoom invite…”

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The only way you'll see a colleague right now

One such mechanism that has enabled this seismic shift and empowered more people to work from home is the use of online communication tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and GoToMeeting, to name but a few. There’s been a significant need in our professional and personal lives to use this technology, not just to stay in contact with work colleagues, but also to contact loved ones (some of whom haven’t been able to see close family for months of shielding).

Not only does it change the way in which we communicate with people, it changes how we work collaboratively, the office culture itself and also how we interact with people external to our business. Our Head of Partnerships, Emma de Maudave, wrote recently about some of the ways in which this has forced her to change how she engages with her clients.

But if we fundamentally believe that this way of working is here to stay (I for one think it is), we need to set some ground rules for how we interact, behave and think of our own (and each other’s) time to ensure we work effectively and, above all, respectfully with each other.

“Can I just ask you something?”

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Are you busy?

Throughout my project management career I’ve often been the recipient of (and also the person doing the asking on many occasions) the dreaded question, “can I just ask you” from a colleague that’s suddenly appeared at your desk. So you look up from whatever you’re currently focusing on and see that someone in the team is stood next to your desk and needs to ask you a question there and then. Naturally, I’ll often stop what I’m doing and politely talk to the person and see how I can help them. However, although this will normally allow the query or problem to be resolved, this can often have a bigger detrimental effect on both the person asking the question and the person answering, than either might realise. The person asking the question fails to consider the value of the activity that the person was working on and will continue to act the same way in the future. The person who answers the question loses their ‘groove’, will take time to get their head back into what they were doing, and unintentionally endorses disruptive behaviour. Does this behaviour change (and should it) when you move into a world of purely virtual communication where the desk ‘drive by’ is no longer possible?

Rules of engagement

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Ground rules help everyone know where they stand

When we translate this scenario into a world of virtual communication, we lose the ability to disturb others with as much ease as we might otherwise have had. Yes, we can send a direct message, an email or request a ‘quick’ call, but the recipient is under no obligation to answer until it’s convenient for them to do so. This therefore forces both parties to consider different ways to engage with each other. Enter rule #1 – respect each other’s time. Check the availability of the person you’re trying to reach, by looking at their calendar to see what’s booked in their day. Ask yourself what do they have on their task list and what value-added activity are they likely focusing on right at that moment? It goes without saying that your calendar should be visible and kept up to date each day to show your availability but with remote workforces this is essential. Plan your day to ensure there’s time to focus on value-added activities and time that others can request your attention should they need to.

Enter rule #2 – structure your own time. It isn’t rude to tell others that you’re going to be offline for a while (or putting the Do Not Disturb status on) to focus on something important. You’re actually managing their expectations and encouraging positive behaviour in others – they should proactively look for availability in your schedule, for convenient times for both of you to talk and not get frustrated if you don’t have time there and then. We all need focus time to remain productive, but we also need to give time to our colleagues. It’s simply a matter of structuring your day and making it clear when you’re available to others.

In addition to how and when we allow others to communicate with us, we need to consider how we come across to the recipient. Enter rule #3 – consider your tone, behaviour and setting.

When email became widely used in business there was the unwritten rule never to write in capitals and certainly never in red as this was interpreted as angry and rude. Now there are a plethora of online communication tools so it’s never been more important to think about how it will be construed by the recipient of your message.

You should consider:

  • Language – try and keep it short, clear and concise. We often receive tens or even hundreds of emails or direct messages in a single day, so to get the reader’s attention we must clearly convey critical information and any desired actions required of the recipient.
  • Tone – consider the way that you write to others. A direct message or email lacks the physical presence and accompanying body language had it been delivered in person. Don’t expect others to read something exactly in the way you’d meant it.
  • Behaviour – think about how you’d be in the office and reflect that accordingly on video calls. If your dress code is smart in the office, then adopt similar attire when working from home. Be respectful and attentive of others on the call. Allow all the attendees to be involved in the discussion and encourage people to speak up. Give people your full attention.
  • Setting – consider what your background tells about you. Think about what you’re happy to share about your home and personal environment with others. If it’s common for you to communicate with others outside the business, remember you’re a representative of that business even when sat at your kitchen table.

Above all, regardless of the medium used, ensure that you fully engage in the discussion. Enter rule #4 – engage with others. If you just show a picture rather than having your video on during a video call, does it demonstrate that you’re engaged in the discussion? How do you truly work collaboratively with others (especially in a digital business like ours) if you’re not showing that you’re actually present rather than doing something else whilst your static profile picture is on the screen? There are occasions where it’s acceptable to not have your video on – webinars or training environments for example. But if you’re invited to participate in a meeting, your video should be on to indicate you’re present and fully engaged.

Remember the remote working ground rules

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Communicating the right way is essential to a successful remote working culture

We all have behaviours that we’d expect of others in an office environment and the remote world is no different. Next time you need to communicate digitally, remember to:

  1. Be respectful of your time and that of others
  2. Structure your day with focus time and available to others time
  3. Consider tone, behaviour and setting when using digital communication tools
  4. Show that you’re fully engaged in a virtual meeting by having your video on

Regardless of whether we continue to work remotely in a full-time capacity, part-time or even not at all, we need to consider carefully how we work effectively with others. And, as the dynamic continues to evolve, make sure that we’re tooling ourselves up correctly with the right instilled behaviours.

If you have a project you’d like to discuss then drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you.