Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 8 – What Not to Do

What Not to Do When Working from Home

Mistakes we’ve witnessed and how to avoid them

Over the past seven posts in our Coronavirus & Working from Home series, we’ve shared our insights for effectively working from home, covering childcare, technology, security, routines, flexibility, and distractions. As many of us try to cope with working remotely for the first time, however, and despite these best practices, the reality is that mistakes will be made.

Over the years we’ve worked with a lot of other companies whose employees also work from home. For this post, we asked Alliances Management staff to share the most glaring blunders they’ve ever seen or heard about.

Here are some final recommendations in this series based on the pitfalls we’ve witnessed over the years.

Unintentional video conferencing

Be careful not to hit the “share video” button when you just woke up to make that 5 a.m. call or just came inside from a sweaty run. If you’re using a new application for a call, show up several minutes early to the meeting and get familiar with the settings so your disheveled face doesn’t accidentally show up on everyone’s screens. A sliding webcam cover is another way to ensure you’re only on video when you want to be.

Pro tip: if you use Zoom for virtual meetings and want to use the video feature but aren’t looking your best, there’s a “Touch Up My Appearance” filter to help you look more polished even if you’re still in your pajamas.

Avoid awkward virtual meetings

  • If you just woke up, speak to someone for at least 5 minutes before opening a call. Others can tell when you haven’t shaken off that “just woke up” voice.
  • Make sure your Bluetooth is disconnected if you are using your phone, so that when your spouse leaves to take the kids to school, the car does not pick up the conversation, so that they can hear your meeting and you can’t.
  • Don’t share your screen until you’re absolutely ready—participants may learn way more than they wanted to about you. On a related note, don’t multitask when you’re sharing your screen, or people will see your email, Facebook feed, and more. Chat applications like Skype often have “Do Not Disturb” features you should turn on when you’re presenting so you don’t receive notifications, and collaboration software like Microsoft Teams allows you share only what you choose to.
  • Get used the fact that there will always be technical issues. The trick is being prepared to deal with them.
  • If you’re not a techie (and even if you are), learn how to check and adjust your mic. You don’t want to be “that” person who never said a word on the call because you couldn’t figure out how to get your mic working.
  • When there’s an echo on the call and you’re certain it’s one of the other 20 callers, check it out and mute your own microphone. Most likely, it’s you!
  • Make sure your room is lit when you do a video chat. It’s creepy if you’re totally in the dark.
  • Always double check to make sure you actually hit the “mute” button; otherwise, your sneaky bathroom breaks won’t be so sneaky, and everyone will overhear you shouting at your kids to shush. If your connection is wonky and you think you dropped a call, check again before you start swearing about your internet provider. Your coworkers can often still hear you, even if you can’t hear them.
  • It’s also important to make sure that you are NOT on mute when you’re wondering why no one is responding to your very valid points.

When kids, pets, and significant others are your coworkers

  • Make sure to discuss with your significant other that the timing of your daughter’s birthday party—with her 15+ friends—doesn’t start until after your last call of the day (or that they don’t play pin the tail on the unicorn just outside your office window).
  • Be sure your significant other uses her quiet voice when singing “Let It Go” in the shower after her mid-morning workout.
  • Teach your children to not use the bathroom right outside your office during morning calls, or at the very least, to shut the door.
  • Always close your laptop if you’re leaving your desk, even if it’s just to get a drink in the next room. Guess who loves to hang out on your warm keyboard deleting all your email? Your roommate’s cat.
  • If your daughter has a habit of bursting into your office to ask for something exactly at the moment that you unmute yourself, a lock on your office door might be appropriate.

A Few Final Recommendations

  • Always set two alarms. It’s easy to take it too easy in the morning since you’re already at work.
  • Don’t sit hunched over your computer on your couch all day long; your health and productivity will suffer.
    ○ Change up where you’re working. A huge benefit of being at home is being able to change up your environment when you’re feeling stagnant. If it’s warm, sit on the porch outside if you’ve got one.
    ○ Take breaks often, walk a little and stretch.
    ○ Stand up when you’re working if you can. Try setting an alarm on your phone to help you get into a standing/sitting routine–30 minutes standing and 10 minutes sitting works for us.
  • Review your chat messages (e.g. on Skype) before you hit “send”.
  • Learn the right acronyms for emojis before you hit “send” in Skype 😉.
  • In the absence of a physical workspace where you can chat a bit and catch up with your coworkers’ lives, set up a virtual “watercooler” group to share pictures and goings-on so you don’t feel too isolated from your colleagues.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 7 – Security

Ensuring the Security of Data & Devices: Protecting Company and Client Information

Even in normal times, companies that allow their employees to work remotely should perform risk assessments of their remote workers’ computing setups, as this is essential to protect company and client information. For companies without such processes in place, now is a good time to implement them.

As general guidance, companies should consider the following:

  • Agreed security measures and tips should be incorporated into a company’s official employee and cybersecurity policies.
  • Dedicated training sessions should be held for new staff.
  • Companywide security awareness trainings should be scheduled, especially when companies update their security policies.
  • Newly remote workers should be given a quick refresher course about how the company’s official cybersecurity policies translate into a remote environment.

Secure devices

Companies’ IT and security managers should establish clear policies about how employees should connect to the company’s systems (and specifically to which parts of the systems depending on the level of sensitivity of the data). This policy should define which devices are allowed to access which systems and information. It is usually best for employees to use company-issued equipment only, whenever possible, be it laptops or wireless devices, for the following reasons:

  • As they will have configured it by themselves, IT personnel will be able to better manage and monitor company-issued equipment.
  • Security protocols enforced by professional software and technology are typically stronger than what is usually installed on personal devices — it’s best to use evaluated and certified tools such as encryption software, antivirus software and firewalls.
  • It is probably not a good idea to use the same computer that the kids use to play online games.

Once you’re working on an approved device, consider the following security issues and best practices.

Digital security while working remotely

  • Avoid public Wi-Fi; if necessary, use personal hotspots or some way to encrypt your web connection, for example use a VPN IPsec solution or activate point-to-point encryption on your home box.
  • Keep work data on work computers, as opposed to transferring data via USB drives or Bluetooth from or to other personal devices, typically for using a home printer or any other practical reason.
  • Use secured online backup systems (with proper encryption activated), as opposed to using your own local backup disk or non-controlled online solution.
  • Encrypt any sensitive data sent through emails or stored on your device. Many user-friendly tools exist for this.
  • Do not use random thumb drives, but rather, dedicated professional USB drives with proper labels, for any sensitive data transfers between computers.
  • Install security software and ensure software updates and operating system updates are turned on.
  • Use Virtual environment and/or VPN IPsec solution to access the company network.
  • Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication for enhanced protection.

Password security

Many employees take the easy route when it comes to defining passwords.  They want something that is easy to remember, so they select passwords that are simpler and apply them to numerous systems.  IT departments should, rather, insist that for all company hardware and online access, staff adhere to a well-defined and strong password policy. The following are considered best practices for passwords:

  • Never write down your passwords. If passwords must be written down, then they must be secured in a safe or a locked file cabinet.
  • Never send a password through a non-encrypted email or messaging platform (e.g. Skype).
  • Never include a password in a non-encrypted document.
  • Never tell anyone your password.
  • Never hint at the format of your password.
  • Never use the “Remember Password” feature of applications like web browsers and email clients.
  • Report any suspicion of your password being compromised to your company’s IT and security managers.
  • Only change your password if your company’s IT department explicitly instructs you to do so. Beware of emails asking you to enter or change your password, even if they look official.
  • Be aware of anyone who can see you type your password.

Physical security while working remotely

Workers who print documents or possess other confidential client information should take additional steps to physically secure that information in their homes:

  • Lock your doors as soon as you leave your work area.
  • Store any printed documents in a lockable filing cabinet.
  • Equip your home office with a cross-cut paper shredder (at least ‘DIN3’ compliant) to destroy any confidential printed information as soon as it can be disposed of.
  • When traveling, always take your computer with you and never leave it alone such as in your car while going shopping.

Finally, social engineering is a particular risk that could give rise to successful attacks from hackers if employees are not properly warned. It consists of luring unsuspecting workers into retrieving confidential data from them. In order to avoid this, proper training of remote workers about such techniques (e.g. phishing) and ways to avoid being tricked should be a key facet of your company’s overall security practices. It will also allow them to be conscious of security risks and to take ownership of the more global security measures enforced by the company to apply them in the best way possible.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 6 – Staying on Task

Working from Home — Staying on Task & Being Productive

“I could not do that,” many tell me after learning that I work from home. Some fear they would get distracted by that next load of laundry (“I’ll just get it started”), which leads to discovering the handle to the cabinet needs adjusting (“This will just take 5 minutes”), which leads to ordering a replacement handle online (“Glad to have this quick task taken care of!”), and the next thing you know, little by little, a chunk of your work day is gone and your work to-do list remains. It’s like an adult version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”

On balance, one of the biggest perks of working from home is the freedom to manage your own time as you see fit. But working from home doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you let yourself get too distracted by the little things around your home, you may find it difficult to be productive. So how can you ensure that starting a load of laundry (a 5-minute task) doesn’t turn into a compulsion to then fold it all and put it away (a 30-minute task)?

Inertia

I find that you are more likely to keep doing the thing you are already doing. Leverage inertia by starting your day with work tasks no matter how much needs to be done around your home (see Part 5 of our series for tips on getting your day started). If you don’t start the laundry at all, you’re less likely to get sucked into the related follow-on tasks around your house. Additionally, if you start your day with your work to-do list, without many of the typical office distractions, you may become engrossed in a project and be surprised to look up and find that you’re able to finish in record time.

Environment

If you are new to working from home and you do not already have a dedicated office space, try to avoid working in the most distracting part of your house. If your kitchen has a stack of papers you’ve been meaning to go through, consider not sitting at the kitchen table so that it doesn’t feel like the pile of papers is staring at you.

Airplane Mode

Whereas an office colleague could previously stop by in person with a “quick question,” you may see that these “quick questions” are migrating over to your emails or chat platforms instead. The dinging of new email and chat message notifications may be more distracting than usual. In the physical office, you might close your door to shut out those distractions. In this remote world, consider incorporating the door-shutting equivalents: “Airplane Mode” or “Do not Disturb.”

And let’s be honest, the internet – available to you whether you are at home or at an office – is one of the deepest distraction rabbit holes there will ever be. We live in a world where you can google anything at any time, and it can be easy to lose yourself mindlessly researching whatever happened to that friend who moved away in 8th grade. Switching your computer to airplane mode is like a virtual locked door that prevents those distractions from getting to you in the first place. And if you’re already in airplane mode, the act of moving your mouse cursor over to the button to turn airplane mode off may be enough to stop you from going down that rabbit hole to begin with. There are more sophisticated tools available as well. For example, StayFocusd and WasteNoTime are some popular Chrome extensions that actually track and/or limit the amount of time you can spend on certain sites and will block you from accessing sites that may challenge your self-control more than others.

Don’t hesitate to use these tools to block out digital distractions for a period of time so you can focus on a work task. But, as always, communication is key. If you are going on airplane mode, let relevant colleagues know so they aren’t left hanging wondering why you aren’t responding to their urgent need (“Hey, I need to focus on finishing this project. I am going on airplane mode, but I’ll be back in an hour.”).

Long-Term Projects & Discipline

Each day, once your list of immediate tasks is taken care of, it can be tempting to decide that tomorrow is a better time to start on that long-term project. Starting is often the hardest part. There may not be enough time to finish the project today, but if you get it started, you’re more likely to see real progress tomorrow. No doubt this requires discipline but will help tremendously in moving projects to completion.

Be a Leader

Use this time to shine in your newfound workspace. When the face-to-face brainstorming sessions are replaced with faceless conference calls, it can feel difficult to be productive, particularly on collaborative projects. Demonstrate leadership by offering a strawman proposal to get projects moving. Sitting in a vacuum in your remote workspace, it is often much easier to tweak or refine a concrete proposal than it will be to generate something entirely new. Be the leader and move things along by offering the initial strawman proposal that enables your colleagues to better do their jobs as well.

Keep an eye out for our next post where we’ll take a more in-depth look at the security-related implications of transitioning the workforce to home offices. Now get back to work.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 5 – Creating and Maintaining a Routine

Creating and Maintaining a Routine

An Employee’s Guide to Maximizing Work-from-Home Productivity

COVID-19 is creating a new frontier, with mass closures, cities on lockdown and travel bans on a global scale.  Each day is starting to feel more like Groundhog Day.  You may now find yourself working remotely, possibly for the first time and foreseeable future.  Whether this is new to you or not, you may be in for a bigger catch:  Your spouse is home, your kids are home and your pets are under the impression that it’s still the weekend.  How do you manage work productivity given the changes and distractions?

As a telecommuter for the last 13 years, with young children and a spouse that has an irregular military work schedule, I have often found myself working through important projects and conference calls while my spouse and children have been home.  While it may seem like a bonus day off to them, it’s still work as usual for me.  Creating and maintaining a routine has helped me get focused and down to work, so the chaos around does not distract or tempt me.

Loss of Boundaries

A traditional office setting creates natural work boundaries.  During the time spent within the office walls, you are open to assignments, discussions with colleagues and general work activities.  When you leave the office, your workday comes to a close and you are able to dedicate your time to personal matters.

The same connected world that makes remote work possible can blur the boundaries between work and personal.  At one end of the spectrum is the prospect of a never-ending workday; at the other, homelife can prevent you from finding quiet, space and uninterrupted time.  Routine can help establish boundaries while maintaining some separation and sanity in the process.

Where to Start

In general, you likely start your day with some combination of helping family members get ready and off to school or work, getting yourself ready for work, and then actually going to work.  With many of us no longer leaving the house, these routines may be lost.  Here are some tips for creating a routine to focus your work energy and improve your ultimate productivity:

  1. Start with an activity to signal to yourself (and others) that you are beginning your workday. Maybe you still get dressed in something beyond loungewear, or maybe it’s completing a morning workout, walking the dog or simply pouring that first cup of coffee.  Whatever it is, it should be something that works for you and gets your mindset ready to say “goodbye” to the family and transition to work-mode.
  2. Head to your workspace. If you have a home office, this is simple.  If you do not, finding that physical separation is sometimes easier said than done.  Any space will do as long as it has the technical requirements (desk, computer, internet access and preferably a comfortable chair) as well as the mental requirements (quiet, non-distracting and ideally, a door).  If you find yourself needing to work remotely with young children and no other adult support, I suggest waking up early or focusing critical work during naptimes or after your children’s bedtime.  In a pinch, I’ve setup a movie or game and forged ahead.  It’s never easy and not ideal, but again, can be manageable if needed.
  3. Map out your day. Without an office setting, you may not be receiving the assignments or direction you typically rely on to carry out your day.  Working remotely requires a certain amount of self-motivation, direction and autonomy.  To maximize productivity and my momentum through the day, I start each morning by reviewing my calendar, skimming my email inbox and creating a checklist specific for that day.  This way, I can plan my schedule around any conference calls and work efficiently in the time I have between.  While my email inbox will certainly add to my daily to-do list, I always have recurring projects and tasks.  I have found that the latter are best managed (and remembered) through a checklist app, accessible from any connected device.  My app of choice is ToodleDo, but there are many available.
  4. Schedule time for breaks, lunch and especially an end to the workday. Without the “water cooler” in the office or casual conversation that starts in passing, breaks may not naturally occur when working remotely.  However, they are needed for self-care, to mentally recharge and avoid burning out from a never-ending workday.  It’s also a great way to take advantage of the fact that your family is just a room or two away and find some time to connect (or help).  Then, at either the end-time set by your employer or the completion of your checklist, leave your workspace behind for the day and mentally unplug.

Kids need a Routine Too!

If you are finding yourself working remotely with kids that are out of school, create a routine for them as well.  Children need and crave structure.  Not only does it help them to understand what is happening next and what you expect from them, but it provides them with a sense of security.

Considering the age gap of my own children, I’m finding myself in the somewhat new territory of working remotely while potentially running a homeschool and preschool of sorts for my 11 and 3-year-old.  To get us all ready, we spent some time creating a schedule together for the upcoming weeks.  Doing it together helped them to understand what we are going to do (and why) and set some expectations and ground rules.  Including them in the process also allowed them to have some ownership and control.  As a starting point, we used the excellent schedule resource provided here, but in all honesty, the next few weeks will be a combination of the schedule and a free-for-all.

To some extent, we are all dipping our toes in uncharted waters.  Whatever your circumstances, a routine will help.  Hopefully, the experience and knowledge we’ve acquired over the years at Alliances Management will help you navigate these new times and offer some relief, clarity for moving forward and, at a minimum, knowledge that you are not alone.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 4 – Key Technology Platforms

Key Technology Platforms

From Employee Collaboration Tools to Cloud-Based Systems

For more than a decade our company has worked remotely.  Our clients  live in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.  “Remote work” is a way of life for us and our clients.  However, we’re aware that most employees still go into an office.

Writing a set of technology recommendations for all employers and all employees in all industries is impossible; the aim of this  article isn’t to suggest a one-size-fits-all set of applications, but rather, call attention to the types of functions that will be necessary for employees to be successful while transitioning to work-from-home mandates in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Employee Resources

Employers should be prepared for the moment when an employee says, “I can’t do my job unless I have X.”  Employers should consider empowering employees to make purchases or sign up for services they deem necessary to fulfill their job functions.

There are a host of technology-related equipment and services that knowledge workers are accustomed to but may be taken for granted at a traditional office but, depending on an employee’s job function, may need to be implemented at home, for example:

  • Computer
  • Headset
  • High-speed Internet
  • Telephone line
  • Printer
  • Shredder
  • Shipping services
  • Ergonomic chair & desk
  • Locking filing cabinets (if confidential storage is required)

Employee Communications

With no watercooler, break room, or common area, employees will need different types of applications and resources when working from home.  Many large employers already have these tools in place—an Intranet or employee portal with all information, common collaboration systems, and more.  For these employers, the only need is to ensure that employees have the necessary credentials, training, and access rights to use these technologies at home.

For employers without existing companywide technology platforms, ensuring efficient employee communication will be essential.  Employees need to have access to the same platforms, know where and how to find each other, and understand company expectations for how to leverage these systems to complete company work. Functions that should be considered are as follows:

  • Email – Many employees are accustomed to accessing their email from their work computer, whether through Outlook or another desktop application. Employers need to ensure that employees have credentials to access email remotely via Web-based platforms, such as Office 365 Online.
  • Common Chat Function – Whether they use Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or a proprietary company application, all staff should create accounts on the same messaging platform so that they can send quick messages, either individually or in project-specific groups. These applications can help transmit information quickly without having to bring everyone into a meeting.
  • Meeting Platform – The chat applications referenced above also allow meeting functionality, with voice and chat and sometimes video. Some of these applications are best for smaller, impromptu discussions; other platforms—such as GoToWebinar, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom—are more effective for larger meetings or broadcasts.  As other articles in this series have discussed, employers should establish expectations for arrival, meeting length, agendas, and more.
  • Mobile – Each of the applications referenced above exists for both desktop and mobile applications. If employees will not be desk-bound, they should ensure that these applications are synced on both their home computers and mobile devices.

File Storage

As with employee communications, many large employers have cloud-based file storage implemented for staff.  If this is the case, employees need access instructions and training but should otherwise be able to work normally.

For companies without such an easy solution, consider the following:

  • Leveraging the Company’s Existing System – Unbeknownst to employees (and perhaps even senior management!), many companies have already implemented technologies that can be used remotely. Many employees may be accustomed to using Office 365 or G-Suite, but these tools are configured for their work computers.  For these companies, the good news is that work-from-home opportunities already exist; the challenge is for the IT department to provide staff with explicit instructions on how to access these resources remotely, where to find each familiar application, and whom to contact for assistance.
  • Shared File Storage – For companies without existing storage systems, employers should immediately select a single file storage service (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iDrive, etc.). The company’s IT manager can establish a corporate account and distribute credentials or employees can create their own accounts and link up with team members.

Security

Proper “security” protocols vary wildly by industry.  At the office, a lot of thought has gone into both physical and digital security.  Employers should consider how remote workers need to alter their workflow to follow proper protocol.  Consider the following:

  • Physical Security – Does your industry require compliance with certain physical security standards? These can range from requiring locks on office doors to mandating that computers be physically attached to desks.  Other common requirements include locked file cabinets or procedures for shredding documents.
  • Digital Security – Larger companies may require use of a VPN and employees can work mostly as usual. However, cloud-based information requires different levels of security.  Office 365 or similar enterprise packages offer some support, but employers should consider whether the company needs to modify its processes for security reasons.  If your company stores or distributes confidential information, this information should be encrypted before being transmitted and should be stored on encrypted drives.
  • Operating Systems – IT departments should ensure that remote employees’ devices are running the most up-to-date versions of software.
  • Device Security – Companies should establish policies requiring, at a minimum, strong passwords to unlock work devices. Newer mobile devices or computers offer biometric and/or second-factor authentication, which add further layers of security.

As noted at the outset, different companies will have different needs, but hopefully these ideas will help.  Until tomorrow…

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 3 – Flexibility and Adaptability

The Importance of Flexibility and Adaptability:

Playing to Remote Work’s Strengths Instead of Caving to its Weaknesses

Here at Alliances Management, our entire U.S. and international workforce has been working remotely since 2006.  For some perspective, that was before the launch of the iPhone and the boom of easy, continuous connectivity.  Suffice to say we are career remote workers and have had the opportunity to work through its various challenges and pitfalls.

As COVID-19 spreads and many of our most visible institutions close, more employers are exploring remote work.  For those employees who are adapting to a work-from-home setting for the first time, it is important to acknowledge that this is a new work dynamic that requires new management approaches, means of project or assignment execution, and a period of adjustment.

Over the years (and trials), we have learned that working remotely can be a significant employment perk, but it can also be an albatross.  When the office walls come down and the physical work environment dissipates, lines and boundaries begin to blur.  Some flounder in the distraction of being home or lack of oversight, others may even burn out from overreach and the seemingly never-ending demand of emails around the clock.  Flexibility and adaptability are crucial to making remote work not only feasible, but efficient and successful for both the employee and employer.

Avoid “One-Size-Fits-Mediocre”

Most jobs have a natural ebb and flow.  You’ll find peaks when deadlines are approaching, meetings and conference calls stack your schedule, or “fire drills” emerge.  Lulls tend to surface when all that remains on your to-do list are the long-term projects.  In a traditional office setting, employees are essentially stuck there to ride out this ebb and flow.  During the quieter times, not only is productivity down for the employer, but employees are often wasting their own time.  In sum, the typical work setting creates a one-size-fits-mediocre approach.   However, if both the manager and the employee embrace the flexibility created by remote work and adapt to it, everyone can reap the benefits.

Allowing employees to flex their time to accommodate surges in workload increases timeliness of work and overall productivity.  Here at Alliances Management, we have clients working in a dozen different time zones.  When employees flex and adapt their schedules, we can truly offer round-the-clock global service.

Embrace an “Extended” Workday

9-to-5 work allows employers to assemble everyone at key times and allows employees the opportunity to “check out” from work.  However, remote work offers employees the opportunity to improve their productivity and better enjoy their personal lives by embracing the flexibility and adapting their working hours.  It is true that you may find yourself working potentially long or atypical hours during the peaks, but ultimately, working remotely also allows you to take charge of and master your time and schedule.

By not being held hostage by the office, you can leverage the downtime.  Depending on the nature of your position, you can even create your own ebb and flow by intentionally working during off hours (maybe while your children are napping or off to bed for the evening) so that you carve out time for something non-work-related during traditional working hours (maybe a daytime workout while you still have the energy).

Make Sure to Communicate with Your Team

Remote work isn’t a license not to work, and it’s important that your boss and colleagues are onboard with the flexibility and approach.  Don’t sneak around: be upfront with your boss and ensure that all critical meetings and deadlines are communicated and understood.  In this way, you can ensure that flexibility does not hurt the company.  Even more, your colleagues know that a traditional workday has lulls, and many will appreciate how flexible working hours will enable an entire team to get its work done more effectively.  One example of how remote work can facilitate this better than an office environment: imagine completing a draft project at the end of one’s day—and then seeing feedback and contributions when you arrive the next morning, all because a team member’s flexible schedule facilitated “off-hours” work.

Make it a Strength, Not a Weakness

Remote work can either be a strength or a weakness.  If employers work with their employees to allow flexibility and embrace the ability to work from anywhere at any time (while maintaining some sense of balance and boundaries), you can enjoy a highly productive and satisfying career, while still enjoying a bit of freedom.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

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Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 2 – Childcare

Working from Home & Childcare

Hand Signals, Help, and Being Free Solo

We’ve all seen it – the professor masterfully navigating an interview while his children waltz into his office making an unwelcome guest appearance on a live international news program. I’ve watched it a million times and may watch it a million more – It. Never. Gets. Old. It’s comedy gold, but for anyone who has ever worked from home with kids, it’s a very real concern.

COVID-19 has been a tragedy, and the most important thing is for people to stay healthy.  Figuring out childcare obviously pales in comparison to tending to sick loved ones, but many employees are struggling to figure out how to work from home while their kids’ school and extracurricular events have been curtailed or cancelled. To all of you I say, “Welcome to my work life for the last seven years!” As mom to three rowdy boys – ages 10, 8, and 3 – I’ve got some tips to help navigate this uncharted territory (even if you won’t be conducting any live international television interviews any time soon).

Hand Signals

I’ve heard all sorts of awkward noises on group conference calls. There was the time when someone forgot to mute themselves before shouting, “KATIE, STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!” And there’s also that telltale distracted pause in a person’s voice where you can virtually hear them actively shooing someone away. Let’s try avoid that, eh? Insert HAND SIGNALS!

My kids have grown up with me working from home – they know it no other way. Over time we’ve developed some key communication protocols. My office door is not locked – the kids can come in and out as they please – but they know to use hand signals when they walk in. Here’s the protocol: They walk in and silently move their hand in a way that indicates talking (like the motion you’d make if you had your hand in a puppet and you were making it talk). If I am already on mute and it is fine for them to go ahead and speak, I simply tell them to go ahead. Otherwise, I put up my finger to signal that they should hold on for just a second, mute myself, and then tell them to go ahead. This has saved me from countless instances of embarrassment. And the kids actually kind of like it; it’s like our secret code.

In-Home Childcare

While hand signals have been great with my older children, my 3-year-old hasn’t quite mastered the program. I can get some work done with him around, but an important conference call is difficult. Conference calls aside, efficiency is greatly hampered when your workspace is shared with a toddler (#shocker).

For times when the children are routinely home, such as over the summer, I have coordinated for a caregiver to be there to keep the children at bay. If you have access to such help during these social-distancing times, I recommend it.

But the key to success will be clear communication between you, the caregiver, and the children. Make sure the caregiver and the children know the extent to which you are, or are not, available – if you are just quietly working, maybe you’re ok with kids coming and going. Maybe you’re doing a live TV interview for the BBC and your space should be strictly off limits. Whatever it is, clearly communicate the rules.

Another key to success is to make it clear who is in charge and when. Dear child, if you need a bowl of cereal, need to tattle on your brother for ruining your epic Lego creation, or want to ride your bike to Sam’s house, GO SEE THE NANNY! If you require an immediate trip to the ER or the house in on fire, then come and get me (with hand signals, of course!). The point is that kids need to know when the caregiver has the reins. And  the caregiver needs to feel empowered and in charge. It can be awkward for a caregiver to determine what authority she has when you are also in the home. My typical last words before heading into my office are “Ask Maggie, she is in charge,” and I make sure everybody hears me.

Free Solo

For a multitude of reasons – cost, quarantines, etc. – you may not have access to the glory that is in-home childcare. How can you best cope? A teacher friend wisely recommended maintaining structure. Ask your kids to help set a schedule for the day and then stick to it. And, consider altering your work hours when possible – maybe this is the time to start waking up at 5 a.m. to be productive while your house is still quiet. It might allow you to schedule some playtime into your day with your kids.

If all else fails, and I’m just being honest here, we all know that screens will help keep them out of our hair. But, the quality of the screen content matters. Lots of online learning portals are offering free access herehere, and here. Personally I am intrigued by these virtual museum tours and this art studio offering live daily art tutorials. Finally, a Mom’s group has compiled a Google doc here.

Grace

At the end of all this, I would like to think we will all give each other the grace and understanding the situation warrants. I have a feeling people are going to be pretty forgiving overall. Take it from the professor.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]

Coronavirus & Working from Home: Part 1 – It’s Initially Disorienting

Working from Home: It’s Initially Disorienting

Tips for Employers on Successfully Transitioning to Remote Work

If you’re an employer concerned about the spread of COVID-19, you’re likely encouraging your staff to work from home.  The Internet abounds with articles espousing the benefits of remote work: increased productivity, heightened employee engagement, improved morale, etc.  As COO of a consulting company with a 100% distributed workforce, I can tell you that these benefits are real.

But there’s a catch: the truth is that working from home can be extremely disorienting.

I last held a traditional office job eleven years ago.  Back then society was on edge because of the financial crisis: jobs were being slashed, homes were being foreclosed, and stock markets were tanking.  Hopefully we will avoid the deep sense of despair that we experienced in 2008-2009, but it’s prudent for today’s employers to think about ways for professionals to stay home and avoid the office.

I vividly remember my first week working remotely.  I was excited, motivated, caffeinated, and ready to make my mark on a new company and with new clients. But each morning, after getting through the email backlog and then periodically throughout each day, I remember sitting in a quiet room (no kids back then!) and wondering now what?  It wasn’t that I didn’t have scheduled calls or work to do.  What was missing were the millions of little cues about how my day was going.  I had always naturally absorbed that information at the water cooler, at lunch, or simply by walking past a coworker’s cubicle.

I had plenty of work to do, but not having that information was disorienting.

Eleven years later our staff of three has grown more than twenty fold.  As coronavirus-concerned employers send their professionals home, I would encourage them to take steps to increase information flow among staff members.  Here are four general ideas:

Establish Clear Working Hours & Communication Expectations

Though most employees will welcome the opportunity to work remotely, managers should be very clear about when employees must be “in the office,” the expected time frame for responding to colleague and managers’ communications, and, importantly, the conditions under which an employee may ignore such communications to focus exclusively on a deliverable.  Increased time for intense, focused work is one of the greatest benefits of working remotely, so it needs to be encouraged—but encouraged in such a way that team members don’t feel ignored or dismissed.

“Check In” with Staff and Colleagues Frequently

In the office, your employees get dozens of points of feedback throughout the day: a casual comment at the cubicle about an email or a deadline, a thumbs-up from across the room, and more.  With the office gone, good managers need to “stop by” virtually to ask if staff need help or if they have questions about a project.  The problem is that the office check-ins are natural and unobtrusive, whereas the virtual ones can feel forced.  Managers should go out of their way to offer help, express support, and stress that the reason for increased communication is to replace some of what is lost in a face-to-face environment.

Minimize Large Meetings and Manage Them Efficiently

I’m not a big fan of meetings.  They have their place, but managers should always have a clear agenda, invite only those participants who are truly needed, and efficiently drive the meeting toward its objectives.  Remote meetings can be even more disruptive than face-to-face meetings.  All new remote workers will intuitively try to find new ways to efficiently interact with one another.  They will send additional email, hop on impromptu video chats to work through an issue, and manage several group chats to get the information they need.  That workflow—different from the office but designed to transmit the same information—gets disrupted when everyone is pulled into a virtual room.

Encourage “Mini-Deadlines” for Projects

Managers should always establish clear expectations about when deliverables are due.  However, in a face-to-face environment, staff and colleagues get more informal feedback on a project’s status, see each other working, and have a greater sense of where things stand.  When everyone is working from home, managers worry more about a project’s progress, colleagues don’t see progress being made, and there is heightened overall anxiety about deliverables.  Establishing smaller deadlines for projects—whether to review an outline, draft, phase, or other—can increase confidence all around, not to mention provide each team member with valuable feedback on how to improve results.

Alright, those are our work-from-home thoughts for today.  In the coming days, we’ll examine different topics, ranging from technology platforms, to childcare, to the importance of flexibility, and more.

[About this Series: Since its inception in 2006, Alliances Management (www.am.consulting) has operated as a 100% virtual, distributed workforce; today its staff members work in a dozen U.S. states, Europe, and the Philippines.  In light of employers reconsidering face-to-face work because of the proliferation of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we decided to write a multi-part series to share some of our thoughts and best practices about remote work. Read the entire series here.]