Most of us have worked remotely, whether for an occasional home repair or as part of a regular schedule. Late last year, during a three-month office renovation, our firm experienced what it’s like to have the entire staff working from home. While the perks were many, we also had to navigate several unexpected challenges. Here are some tips for those who are transitioning to a virtual office set up in the face of COVID-19.
Audit your office technology
Now is the time to check for updates on every laptop, since it can be a lot harder for those to run at home. Also check the limits on your remote capacity. We overtaxed our virtual private network (VPN) at first, because it had never had so many simultaneous users.
Ask staff to audit their personal technology
Your Wi-Fi might be just fine for occasional remote working, but you will discover its limits when you’re forced to count on it every day. Mine gave out during the opening minute of a national webinar, where I was the main speaker. After that, I plugged into a hard line for any critical meetings. And think about how you will print, because you will have to more than you think. We didn’t realize how often we used our office workhorse printer until we had to rely on home inkjets.
Many remote workers say their success comes from having a regular schedule that starts with wearing something besides pajamas. While that was true for us, we also found it helpful to encourage use of webcams for meetings, rather than just the phone. Seeing each other seemed to spread a sense of engagement and responsibility each day, and it was a good way to curb participant multitasking.
Know your limits
The first week or two of remote working will feel incredibly productive. After all, you’ve eliminated your commute, and you’re likely starting your active work day earlier. However, the flow of a day in the office can be very different from a remote working day. In the office, you come in on time. You get up for coffee. You stop by a colleague’s desk. You might even step out for lunch. There are natural breaks to your schedule. It’s important to build similar breaks and limitations into your remote work day. Otherwise work bleeds into life pretty quickly. Many of us were feeling a little burned out early in the process, because there was no separation between work and home.
Establish new meeting rules
The usual meeting etiquette doesn’t really apply in the virtual office environment. We spent a lot of calls accidentally talking over each other, then apologizing. Use the mute button until you’re ready to talk. Since sometimes only three or four participants at a time are visible on a web call, when you unmute, start by saying “This is (name) …,” which gives notice that you’ll be talking next.
Find tools for innovation
The activity we missed most was brainstorming. There’s no true replacement for the energy and coordination that comes from an in-person session. After our experience slogging through them virtually, we learned that they worked best when the meeting format allowed for space to think and opportunity for written comments. Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack offer several features to help get the creative juices flowing, including polling and virtual sticky notes.
Transparency is key to a successful virtual office. Your colleagues can’t see you having a late lunch in your kitchen. Post your schedule every day for colleagues and send a quick note if you need to make a change or step away. Tell clients that your office is working remotely for a while and let them know all the new ways to get in touch. We found that clients made the transition easily, and they didn’t seem to mind being interrupted occasionally by a dog who got a little too excited by a passing garbage truck.