I’ve been studying remote work for years now, but under very different conditions—not under a crisis like this. We have to recalibrate our minds in terms of why we’re doing remote work now.
In this moment of panic, when companies and workers are trying to figure out how to be productive and how to be happy working from home, the most practical advice I can give is to find someone who is experienced in remote work tech tools. Find a colleague who has used Slack and Zoom and set up a tutorial and get a sense of how to use these tools and what their functionality is like. Hopefully the virus will go away soon, but those tools will stay helpful even if you choose to go back to the office when the virus is gone. This is an opportunity to learn Slack and Zoom and have a mentor teach you how to use these tools.
The second thing is, working remotely is very effective if you can also restructure the organizational processes for how communication happens, how socialization happens, and how coordination happens.
In a short time it’s not possible to do everything, so there are a few things companies can focus on. First, in a remote world, it’s very important to not only communicate synchronously on Skype or Zoom, but asynchronously, where you’re not face to face on a screen.
The easiest way is to use a Google doc or Slack. This is how virtual companies work. If you and I are working as a team, I can work in a Google doc and explain what I’ve done, and you can wake up in a different time zone or city, open it up, and see the work I’ve done. There’s less chance of losing communication, and people are on the same page.
The final thing I’ll say: Remote companies have well-established processes where people are socializing and no one is feeling isolated and falling through the cracks. That’s really important right now, especially with all the anxiety around us and schools getting closed and the fear and psychosis of the moment.
In my research, productivity went up when people went to remote work settings. But I would not like to compare those normal circumstances to this moment now, where general anxiety might affect productivity.
The isolation and mental sadness needs to be actively worked on by encouraging employees to develop a personal regime: Exercise at home, meditate, and make sure you reach out and talk to people, even if that socialization takes place virtually, just to make sure employees are happy, mentally relaxed, and productive to the extent that we can.
And managers should think: How do we survive this time and even get something positive out of this? One of those positives could be the use of all these cool tools that we should be using anyway. As time passes, workers may find that they like the flexibility of not driving every day and might be interested in making their own self-selection to continuously work from home. So companies should have the right processes and incentives in place to allow for that flexibility.
Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury (@prithwic) is the Lumry Family Associate Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.