COVID-19 changed the way so many people work. Although Gartner offers a lot of great advice about the technical challenges of remote work, I’d like to offer something a little bit different: How to work from home successfully as a human.
It happens that Gartner employs over 2,000 experts, the vast majority of whom have been working from home for years. I myself have been working from home for 20 years. And in case you’re wondering, I don’t like to work in monastic seclusion. I am a deeply collaborative worker and find it difficult to get work done unless it’s with someone else. This is all possible in a remote work environment.
On my team, collectively, we have centuries of combined experience working from home. (Out of kindness to my colleagues, I won’t tell you how many centuries, but it’s a lot.)
All meetings are not created equal. Each type of meeting requires a different approach
What we’ve learned over our centuries is a lot about remote meetings and how to make them effective. And all meetings are not created equal. Each type of meeting requires a different approach. For example, a team meeting requires one approach and a 1:1 quite a different one. Below we have gathered some of our best practices.
Caveat: One size does not fit all
One important caveat before we begin: everybody’s different. That sounds obvious, but here’s why it’s important. It’s our experience that remote working tends to exacerbate personal and cultural differences. Leaders need to be cognizant of that.
Working remotely tends to expose in-person practices that are already problematic
Let me provide a few examples of how this plays out, using my own experience: Many of my colleagues swear by having multiple monitors; I hate having more than one screen. Some colleagues love standing desks; I don’t. Some colleagues thrive on a really structured day. But some others among us need to mix it up, as routine messes with our creative brain.
So take the tips below and expect to personalize and change them according to what you and your team need. One size definitely does not fit all in remote work environments.
Remote meetings 101: Examine the culture
In a remote environment, meetings are your lifeline, your connection, your glue to the rest of the team. You don’t need in-person meetings to create social cohesion as long as you run fun, un-soul-destroying remote ones.
A good rule of thumb is that if the in-person meeting is terrible, the remote version of the same will be exponentially more so. This means that, in a remote working environment, the way you run meetings becomes crucial to the productivity and cohesion of the team.
If you’re thinking, “Yes, but this has always been true,” you’re right. But as noted above, working remotely tends to expose in-person practices that are already problematic. If there is one thing you should do right now, it’s to examine your meeting culture, and your assumptions about what good looks like.
Here’s some advice from our team on how to run good meetings remotely:
- Consider if you even need a meeting. Even in real life (IRL), I have never heard a client lament, “I just wish I had more meetings.” The opposite is almost always true — many people find that group meetings, whether remote or in person, interfere with their real work, are boring and unproductive, and are too numerous.
- Make meetings shorter and plan for distractions including, but not limited to kids, pets, spouses or technical glitches.
- Consider unconventional meeting lengths. Make meetings 50 minutes long instead of an hour, or 20 minutes rather than a half an hour.
- Reduce the meetings that include a dozen attendees or more. Stop the “invite everyone just in case” mentality and invite only those willing to work on a specific task and use the meeting time to get something done.
- Eliminate “admire the problem” meetings where everyone gets together to talk about the problem but not do anything productive. This looks something like a meeting where you state the problem, comment about why it’s a problem, lament the fact that it is a problem and move on to the next problem.
- As a leader, be cognizant of the fact that cultural differences get significantly exacerbated in remote situations; for example, how long a certain culture is comfortable with silence. As one teammate put it, “Leaders need specific handling/training/orientation. Especially in large global organizations, leaders may need to revisit the whole cross-cultural training paradigm if working from home continues for a while.”
Different kinds of meetings are affected in different ways by remote work. Let’s examine those.
The team meeting
Team meetings are a different breed than generic group meetings because they provide the team glue when you cannot rely on casual conversations, shared lunches or water cooler conversations.
As a leader, your goal in a team meeting is not only to inform. Your job is to make the team meetings as valuable as possible, which means making them a vector for social cohesion, as well as a place where hard decisions are made, especially now.
So use team meetings to cement relationships, get people talking and provide a space for all-way communication, especially during a time of crisis. But in addition, decide as a team that you are going to disagree, talk about the elephant in the room, make tough decisions and keep moving forward through this crisis.
Also, have at the ready ways to encourage people to talk. A good rule of thumb is to make the team meeting 50/50, whereby the leader of the meeting talks for no more than 50% of the time (at the outside limit, less if possible), and the other 50% is reserved for collaboration, conversation and discussion by your people.
If the team isn’t used to speaking up, try changing your approach. For example, encourage people to use the chat function to ask questions or rotate who leads the meeting. Use humor and informality to get people talking, but just like in-person meetings, don’t force anyone to speak or put anyone on the spot.
Other ways to improve team meetings:
- Consider adding a ritual or ceremony to your team meetings, like a fun way to start or end a remote meeting. For example, everyone might begin the meeting by saying what they can see out their window every day. This works best for geographically distributed teams, where one person is looking at snow and another at a palm tree. Any light-hearted way to start the meeting can help set the tone of exchange and feedback that you want.
- Given the current state of the world, many meetings will begin with everyone touching base about what’s going on. But be aware of the fatigue that can create in certain geographies. Check in and make sure everyone is okay.
- It’s your job as a leader to ensure everyone gets heard and dominant voices don’t overshadow the introverts on your team. This is just like in-person meetings, but this situation can be exacerbated on remote working channels.
- Don’t forget about the appreciation and motivation that should keep coming from managers/peers, even for small acts of success. Recently, one of the teams at Gartner celebrated an achievement by organizing a virtual party where the manager got everybody on a call, sent them a Starbucks gift certificate to get their favorite drink, and played music on the call so everyone could chill and unwind.
- Depending on the culture at your place of work, you might need to set some rules about video and what people should wear.
In this time of crisis, employee isolation is a real worry. Make sure you have meetings with each of your team members often. Let them set the cadence. Some people find more than once every two weeks is invasive and unnecessary, and others need multiple calls per week. Especially now, you might need to increase your individual meeting cadence to ensure everyone is okay and feels included.
Avoid jumping into business as usual
Work might not be what’s occupying your employees’ psyche at a given moment. More likely, employees are wondering if they are going to lose their house or their job, or whether an elderly loved one might fall sick. Instead of jumping into business as usual, copy the approach of a colleague at Gartner: Start by asking about their health, then their families and how everything is going, and only then their work.
If you’re geographically distributed around the globe, the chances are that different teammates are experiencing different circumstances, some in total lockdown, others emerging from it and still others yet to experience COVID-19 directly.
Consider that remote work is hardest for new employees
They cannot rely on casual encounters or lunch in the cafeteria to cement new relationships. Pay special attention to anyone who is new to the team and is suddenly working remotely. You might need to have more meetings with new workers or set up meetings between them and teammates proactively.
Remote work can be difficult, and remote work during a pandemic has its own set of needs. Ensure that your meetings are inclusive, effective, and well-run to reduce frustration and build team camaraderie during challenging times.