With the coronavirus spreading, managers should be preparing for the possibility
that their teams may have to work remotely from home. We present dynamic strategies for helping team members and individuals continue to collaborate effectively and meet deadlines.
They involve spelling out the goals and roles repeatedly as circumstances require
changes, making an extra effort to stay personally connected with people so they
don’t feel disconnected and lonely, and acquainting team members with each
other’s work environments and their constraints. We also show you how to set up a wonderful home office to support your remote work
How Teams Should Work Remotely
With the growing threat of coronavirus hitting the world full force, the
prospect of having to work from home is becoming increasingly likely for a wide
swath of workers. If that occurs, normal work patterns, modes of communication,
and team dynamics will be disrupted.
The increasing uncertainty and anxiety about the personal dangers from the epidemic and its impact on the economy will make the challenge of adjusting to these work changes even greater.
Here are some strategies that leaders can employ to ensure their teams continue
to collaborate effectively and maintain momentum in the business.
Spell Out Goals and Roles
Teams that suddenly change work patterns — particularly moving from co-located
to distributed — need to rethink how to accomplish their tasks and ensure that
everyone understands his or her role.
Clarify and re-clarify goals and roles.
The move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome. Clarifying roles among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck. This increased communication throughout the group also helps peripheral members stay engaged.
A disruptive event like coronavirus will generate new and competing tasks across
the business. As a result, leaders need to continually clarify goals at the team and
individual level to stay focused on key priorities. Watch out for an ever-expanding
list of tasks. And when you do re-prioritize goals, think carefully about who gets
the assignment and make sure the changing goals are communicated to the entire
Map skills and capacity.
Most people today work on multiple teams and projects at once. In these volatile times, it is highly likely that another project that involves some of your team members will face an unexpected shock, which could affect your group’s projects. To minimize the impact, think now about where you have skills redundancy built into your team or how to access capacity from outside.
Because of the number of new tasks that arise during a crisis, many of your team
members are likely to be pulled in multiple directions. Don’t add even more stress
to your workers by expecting them to handle these tensions on their own. Make it
clear that they can count on you to help manage the claims for their time.
Changing priorities may also require you to bring new resources onto your team,
such as an operations expert to assess how the epidemic might disrupt your
supply chain or a marketing expert to figure out how to launch a new product if a
trade show gets cancelled. Unfortunately, onboarding a new team member while
everyone is working from home can make it difficult to build team cohesion and
trust. So invest the time to formally introduce new team members, focusing on
the personal and professional.
Emphasize Personal Interactions
People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely,
which lowers productivity and engagement. Leaders, especially those who are not
used to managing virtual teams, may feel stressed about keeping the team on
track. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively
task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is
more important than ever.
Keep everyone in mind.
Inevitably, leaders have favorites on the team — people they are more likely to turn to in times of stress. Those tend to be people who are demographically like them — what researchers call homophily. Conversely, research in cognitive bias shows that some kinds of people will be “out of sight, out of mind”: women, minorities, and others who are on the periphery of a team are less likely to have access to information or resources and influence on the team leader.
To combat this tendency, make a list of the current core and extended team members with their photos and keep it in front of you while you’re working each day to help you make more conscious decisions about allocating responsibilities and information.
Schedule regular meetings.
Set times for the team to come together virtually; it is easier to cancel if the meeting isn’t needed than it is to pull together last-minute conversations without creating additional disruption. If you only meet on an ad hoc basis, you risk excluding some people who are either too busy to join or are out of sight, out of mind.
Create the virtual water cooler.
Set aside time on the agenda for personal updates, the kind of small talk you might start an in-person meeting with. This preserves the sense of camaraderie. In addition, set norms that people should regularly call one another as needed rather than wait for scheduled meetings.
Instead of relying exclusively on e-mail, which tends to limit the depth of debate, switch to richer, real-time media such as FaceTime, video conferences, web chats, or even phone calls. These forms of communication are more personal, allow team members to read one another’s emotions, and help to boost morale. They also improve decision making by more fruitfully bringing alternative voices into the conversation and allowing people to debate ideas more effectively and completely.
Normalize New Work Environments
Working from home creates new distractions and the potential for
misunderstandings. The more the members of your team know about each other’s
environment, the better they will be able to make sense of one another’s behavior.
Teams often ignore the advice to orient each other, because the idea seems hokey
or a waste of time. But the practice has a strong basis in social psychology:
Fundamental attribution error is the tendency to explain another person’s
behavior as a personality trait while discounting the impact of situational factors
(“He never speaks up, he’s uncommitted” instead of “He’s trying to stay on mute
to avoid the background noise at home”).
Take a virtual tour.
At the start of a project, encourage each person to take a few minutes to show the team his or her home workspace and share some personal context. What are the possible distractions — like barking dogs, noisy passing trucks, or kids coming home from school? The aim is to help colleagues develop an understanding of each person’s work context so they can be more sensitive to each other’s constraints.
Acknowledge non-traditional workspaces.
Michael, a millennial working in New York City, lives in an apartment with multiple roommates and doesn’t have private office space for working at home. If some of his roommates are also working remotely, he is likely to face the challenge of people walking or talking in the background during video calls. Let Michael know you appreciate his challenge and are open to discussing alternatives like flexing work hours so that calls happen when it’s quieter for him.
Keep your assumptions or stereotypes in check.
Sarah, an executive participating on a conference call, received a text message from a colleague: “Mute yourself. We can hear your baby crying.” She replied: “My baby is napping. That’s Matthew’s son you heard.” The ambiguity inherent in in having team
members working from home can lead to biased assumptions about focus and
commitment to work.
Threats like the coronavirus will create disruption. But you can use strategies to
respond effectively and continue to deliver against your business goals.
Disruption also creates opportunity. Use this time to explore new ways of working
and revisit old assumptions that will likely benefit you in the long run.
How to Set up a Great Home Office
Just because you don’t have a lot of space, doesn’t mean you have to work hunched over your coffee table. Here’s how to carve out a workspace when space itself is at a premium.
When most people envision working from home, they picture a well-lit, spacious home office. Your fantasy office might have a sleek desk and a high-tech ergonomic chair. Or maybe an antique oak desk and a cushy leather chair is more your style.
But when you look around your studio apartment or small, cluttered house, you quickly come to terms with reality. Is there even enough room for a real desk? How much work can you really get done on your couch? Maybe you should just work while sitting on your bed, the way you did homework in college?
The prospect of carving a home office out of a tiny living space can seem impossible. But with some creativity and resourcefulness, you can build an office space that will help you enjoy working from home even more. Here’s how to do it.
Check Out Natural Light
As you decide what part of your living space you’ll use for work, there’s one thing we want you to keep in mind first: natural light.
Without natural light, you’ll quickly feel bored, tired, or shut-in. Your brain will have a hard time tapping the energy it needs to focus. So, no matter where you decide to put your home office, make sure it has a clear view of a window. The bigger and brighter the window, the better, but work with what you’ve got.
Consider Your Needs
Now, consider what your home office will need.
For most people, a desk and a place to sit will do the trick. But how big will your desk need to be? Do you work with two large monitors regularly, or do you work from an ordinary laptop? Do you need a place to spread out lots of papers, or can you work with a single notebook?
As you think about this, make sure to separate needs from wants. Maybe you want a big, pretty monitor to work with, but a laptop will work just as well. Look for creative solutions, too. Perhaps you can hang that large monitor on the wall, so it doesn’t take up any desk space.
Identify the Right Space
With that in mind, it’s time to identify the place you’ll put your home office.
Unless you have a real need for lots of space, you truly don’t need more than a few feet. However, depending on how cramped your living situation is, you might need to rearrange some furniture to open up that office space.
Look for or create a spare corner, stretch of wall, or space under a window. Move things around as needed until you have an open space where you can fit a desk of some sort. If there’s no spare wall space, you might be able to tuck a desk up against the back of your couch instead. You could even use an extra closet as an office (but let’s be real—how many people in small living spaces have a closet to spare?).
Your office can also be in your hallway, entryway, kitchen, or even your bedroom. Anywhere with a few extra feet of space works. If you put your desk in your bedroom, try to face it away from your bed, so you won’t be thinking about naps all day long or work when you’re in bed.
Choose Your Desk and Chair
Now, you have a place to put your office. It may only be a few feet wide, but all you need is enough space for yourself and your most essential work supplies.
Next, find (or create) a desk that will fit that space. Use a tape measure to see what you have to work with. Then consider what kind of desk will work best.
Most people don’t need a full, traditional desk. You can put up shelves or buy standalone organizers to take the place of desk drawers. So, in addition to shopping for desks, consider ordinary tables. Thrift stores often have old desks and tables in many different sizes at great prices.
The chair you use is up to you—just make sure it’s comfortable enough for every day. You can also help a small home feel less cluttered by carefully choosing your desk and chair design. Styles with thin legs and clean lines, or even clear acrylic that blends in with the background, don’t add much visual noise to a room.
If you’re still struggling to find a space in your home that will work just for work, you can create a dual-purpose space instead.
Maybe you just need to rearrange your dining table so it can easily convert into a worktable after breakfast. A few rolling drawers to keep your work supplies close at hand might do the trick.
Or maybe the new desk space you built can do double duty as a coffee nook. Just make sure you can easily pack your work stuff away when you want to use the space for relaxation.
Your home office isn’t just about practicality. It should also have some fun, personal touches that make it an integral part of your home.
If you don’t need to hang shelves for storage up to the ceiling, you can hang your favorite art prints above your desk instead. Looking at them will inspire you on dull days, and they’ll make the space feel less utilitarian.
You can also stack your favorite books on your office shelf, set a couple of cute plants on your desk, or buy office supplies in your favorite colors. Do whatever it takes to make your home workspace feel like, well, home.
Creating a home office in your small living space might inspire you to find other ways to use your area more efficiently, too. But most importantly, it will provide you with a place where you can quickly get into “work mode” and get stuff done.