Back in March 2020, when more than 40 percent of Americans began commuting to their kitchen tables and makeshift home office nooks, few believed they'd still be there now, nearly a year later. And yet, here we are.
The big question looming in many employees' and leaders' minds alike is, what does it all mean for the future of work? Some argue that the great work-from-home experiment of 2020 will lead to the end of offices forever. Others say the last year, in fact, proved we need offices for the collaboration, the creativity, and simply the excuse to get out of the house they provide.
Setting aside the task of predicting the future, we can be certain of one thing: We all got a lot clearer on the reality of remote work. How well you're able to run a company, manage employees, and accomplish your own work goals, of course, depends heavily on your particular circumstances. And while perhaps you can't change your circumstances, you can better set yourself up for success, whether it's simply for the remaining months of uncertainty or for a future in which flexible working arrangements are the norm. Below, we've rounded up some of our best lessons learned over the course of the pandemic on how to make working from home work, well, better.
1. Get more intentional about the things you do.
Commutes, coffee breaks in the office kitchen, grabbing a sandwich at a nearby deli--you probably never fully realized just how much these normal routines structured your workday in the Before Times. Without those natural pauses that offer physical and mental breaks, you're liable to feel both like you're working 24/7 and yet like you're not accomplishing as much because your focus is shot. What's missing is intentionality.
Beyond doing the obvious, like carving out a dedicated, comfortable workspace--preferably one with a door you can close--and setting a schedule you stick to, be thoughtful about how and when you create space between you and your work. For instance, if commuting used to be a crucial way for you to gather your thoughts at the beginning and end of each day, recreate that ritual by going for a walk before you jump into work and then again after you finish. This separation is key to helping you switch contexts during the day, which is especially challenging when your biggest change in perspective might be moving from the bedroom to the living room.
2. Hone your relationship-building skills.
By now, you'd be forgiven if you have a love-hate relationship with tools like Zoom, Slack, and the like. They serve their purpose but they cannot, on their own, truly make colleagues feel connected. If you've been on at least one awkward happy hour Slack meeting, you know what I'm talking about. (Though there's an argument to made that turning on your camera goes a long way toward helping people be vulnerable with each other and connect.) What's missing is a genuine interest in and care for one another as human beings.
It's as simple as starting with how you make small talk with your colleagues and employees. Do you remember their kids' names? Or that unusual hobby they've taken up during their off-hours? Instead of asking "Did you have a good weekend?"--a leading question if there ever was one--get specific and really learn about how each other is living. How was Kevin's first day of kindergarten? How's your meditation practice going? This is emotional intelligence at its best: Instead of going through the motions and ticking boxes, you build a relationship that is empathy-centered, which is crucial no matter what the work arrangement.
3. Show your team you trust them.
Working together effectively works only when you actually have faith that your teams can get their jobs done, wherever they are. This may require a shift in leadership style if you previously put a lot of stock in seeing your people do their jobs in the office. For instance, when Siemens made the rather unremarkable announcement in July detailing how its teams would incorporate remote work two to three days per week as the new normal, CEO Roland Busch went out of his way to say that the new model required a different way of measuring employee performance: The company would focus on outcomes instead of time logged.
If you're already thinking you're going to need to address or establish a remote work policy in the future, here's a suggestion: Keep it simple. Don't obsess with the particulars of how and when and what to do with unusual situations. A two-sentence policy (similar to Siemens's) might be all you need: Don't measure success by how many hours your employees work. Instead, focus on what they are accomplishing.
4. Make writing skills your new superpower.
That's according to Chris Herd, founder and CEO of Firstbase, a platform that helps companies supply and manage the physical equipment their teams need to work remotely. He says that while email, Slack, and all the other real-time communication apps can be useful tools, they're only as effective as the messages they contain. "Documentation is the unspoken superpower of remote teams," says Herd. One of the easiest ways to up your collaboration game is to focus on how you use the written word: If you're explaining how something is done, are the steps clear and easy to follow? If you're giving feedback, how will your tone be perceived? If you're establishing a new relationship, are you conveying trust and confidence? These questions all become more important when you're not right in front of someone.
5. Find out what individual employees need.
This advice goes both for right now and in the future, regardless of where your employees will get their work done. Maybe it's time to revise your perks and benefits and adjust them to the new normal, such as adding stipends for virtual fitness and wellness classes and meditation and sleep apps. If people are struggling with feeling like they always need to be "on," consider no-meeting days and create clear guidelines around digital availability company-wide. The goal here is to head off burnout before it becomes a problem. And don't just think of the employees who are juggling little kids and work, as difficult as that may be. Words of acknowledgement for the people who might be picking up the slack can go a long way. So, too, can emphasizing the benefit of taking time off to get a change in perspective.