Tricks for working remotely in a professional way

Marcello Russo July 29, 2020

Smart working

“Giulio is presenting a project for a very important client, a project on which all his team has been working hard for the last few months, when suddenly his two children rush in the room shouting and dropping toys on the floor. Despite the presentation having been now handed over to a colleague, Giulio must intervene from time to time to explain some details he worked on directly, but the background noise, although lower, has not stopped completely. This situation annoys the client who brusquely suggests ending the call and rescheduling it at a quieter time for everyone!”

What would you tell Giulio if you were one of his colleagues or, even better, his boss? What feedback would you give him and what would you do to avoid a similar situation from happening again in the future?

We’d like to start this short case-study presenting a very frequent occurrence of the past few weeks because -in my view – it is typical of the need to enter a new phase in the management of remote work, which requires new arrangements and organizational solutions.

We all remember with a smile the scenes of TV hosts who, while illustrating the news of the day from their sitting room, were interrupted by their children, just like Giulio. In the same way, clients showed great tolerance and understanding for these scenes at the beginning of the lockdown, when all of a sudden we had been locked inside our homes with our children, as not everyone is lucky enough as to have an office at their disposal or a more structured role allocation.

However, a few months later and being more tired, we are also certain that the clients’ understanding could rapidly decrease, faced with a situation that for many is destined to go on for some time, if not forever. Several consulting companies have indeed instructed their employees to work from home until further notice. Many companies do not accept at their premises external consultants, who must carry out their activity from home.

How to organize our work from home in a way that is more efficient for us, for our organization but also for our families?

Here follow a few tips and practical advice:

1. “Do not disturb mode”

Almost all our phones have a “do not disturb” function, that in some cases sets in automatically when our device recognizes in our calendar a meeting that was booked or when we are driving. It is a very helpful function because it allows us not to be disturbed by notifications and messages, keeping our concentration focused on the tasks at hand. Similarly, in the past weeks, we read of several “working parents” who adopted similar tricks to inform the rest of the family that it was important not to disturb them during a call or a key task. In a creative way, some hanged a symbol on the handle of their home “office” to show the rest of the family that an important conversation was about to start, just like they do in radio studios when they switch the “on air” button to signal the beginning of the live broadcast. Besides increasing productivity and the satisfaction of all connected participants, this small trick also allows defining clear boundaries between the working activity and private life severely put to the test during the lockdown.

2. Coffee Briefing

Another very efficient strategy many adopted, in particular dual-career couples, consists in meeting for breakfast for a sort of coffee briefing “before rushing to the office” and sharing with the partner and the rest of the family the activity plan. It is a very efficient strategy that strongly reduces the risk of work-life incompatibility and that allows increasing the perception in the family that everyone’s commitments are just as important. If there are adolescents, the advice is to involve them in this time of sharing, which is particularly helpful also to establish the allocation of technological resources (computer, broadband, desks) also considering the school activity schedule (of course hopefully this won’t be necessary in the months to come).

3. The importance of rituals

In an article published on April 1st, 2020 on the Harvard Business Review blog, Sabina Nawaz suggested to all smart workers to introduce little daily rituals, to provide stability and pace to their working day. An example could be: quick, regular staff meetings to perform checks on team projects. The Business School I work for has its own ritual, i.e. every Monday morning they organize a staff meeting open to all employees. It is a relevant opportunity for sharing and to exchange views, which may be the occasion to share problems, exchange opinions and express gratitude for the efforts made in these past months. These meetings also enabled participants to get to know better all the other members of the group, who in the past had not had the possibility of interacting with such frequency and “closeness” with the top management team. These small rituals could contribute, at the organizational level, to create cohesion, alignment, and engagement, that are crucial in this phase. The ritual though should not become an element of rigidity, for example by introducing real or social sanctions for those who miss one of these meetings for personal reasons.

4. Flexible but not too much

One of the main difficulties felt by workers in these first months (almost 6 now!) of remote working has been that of stopping and ending their work activity. Many, many of them, on social media or during their online conversations stated that going back home after work was an important, symbolic moment, when listening to music or reading a good book they tried to recharge their psyco-physical energies. Now this is impossible, and many people are working longer hours, at unlikely hours. Many acknowledged of skipping lunch or eating at work rather than having to go on working after dinner or early in the morning, with peaks of 12-16 working hours per day. Even though the crisis required extraordinary energies to be deployed and a heavier workload, perhaps we are faced with the risk that this condition becomes chronic and habitual for many. Therefore, even though flexibility is an important and commendable value, more stability as for working hours too could be a winning solution over the long term. Bologna University, during the emergency phase, made the choice of regulating remote work in the same ways as work at the physical premises, inviting employees to respect from home the usual working hours, asking for authorizations as if they were in their offices, etc. Although this choice might seem to clash against the principles of working hours and location flexibility, typical of smart working, it turned out to be a winning choice during the emergency stage, to provide stability to the system and avoid the entropy that an uncoordinated work management would have generated for all stakeholders.

5. Working by objectives and not by times

Various workers complain of not having enough time to work and complete the fundamental tasks defined during the meetings because they spend their day on back-to-back meetings. Therefore it is fundamental to try and promote an evolution of remote working being inspired by the principles of the “Result-Only-Work-Environment” a managerial philosophy introduced a few years ago in the United States: workers enjoy greater autonomy in carrying out their activities and they’re responsible only of achieving the objectives they themselves have contributed to identify with the company. This means that workers could organize their work in a way that best suits them, starting at 6 in the morning if they are early risers or in the evening after putting the children to bed, for those who prefer working late at night. Of course this way of organizing the smart work is possible if it’s not necessary to obligatorily guarantee hours of FaceTime like in the case of teachers during the time they need to teach or staff available at specific opening hours to the public.

This article does not aim at having a regulatory value as for what is necessary to implement for a correct work organization. The aim was to provide a few suggestions that could foster a more correct and rewarding work organization for workers, their families and, most of all, their companies.