The economic and human impact of the lock down in South Africa will be felt for years to come, notes Tarryn Swemmer, Group HR Executive, Decision Inc. Of course, the immediate priority is heeding the brave leadership of our President to ‘flatten the curve’ and minimise the spread of the corona virus.

Inevitably, for all of us, this is introducing new ways of remote working to ensure companies remain operational during the next three weeks. For those teams and companies that excel in this accelerated reality, it could result in lasting changes to the way that we work and collaborate long after the lock down ends.

Businesses that have been focusing on digital transformation are contending with much less physical and technological disruption. Their information workers are more easily able to make the transition to remote working. But even so, it does come with its share of challenges, especially on the human aspects of becoming a virtual team and maintaining a collaborative, inclusive environment where teams can still deliver effectively.

When there is no face-to-face interaction, technology becomes a mission-critical enabler requiring engagement through video conferencing, virtual meeting solutions, and virtual activity planning and tracking tools.

Thinking differently

These accelerated shifts in our everyday work reality will see many colleagues and managers out of their comfort zones. Part of this can be attributed to juggling the responsibilities of work with family duties. This might even include doing home-schooling. And then there is the physical distancing from team members that must be accounted for. This will be a true test for managers – requiring a very thoughtful balance between trust, control, structure, flexibility, empathy, and results.

As managers, we should keep our focus on enabling three major success factors in our teams – productivity, collaboration, and engagement.

In terms of productivity, there needs to be a shift in managers’ thinking from intensity of visible activity and busy-ness to an outcomes-based way of driving momentum and progress towards delivering results. Because employees are no longer sitting with their teams, there is the risk of a loss of clarity or focus on what each person is supposed to be doing as well as an inability of managers to have the kind of visibility that they may have been used to.

For younger, less tenured team members who are not used to shaping their daily responsibilities, this will be a challenge. These individuals will need real hands-on guidance on what they must achieve daily. Of course, managers must be cautious not to micro-manage but to instead create an environment that mimics what happens at an office in terms of availability of seniors in the team, structured check-ins, and accessibility of coaching.

For more experienced and senior members of the team, remote working can be a dream in terms of more productive working and thinking time. But it can be difficult to focus this time on the right priorities or maintain the intensity and urgency when the physical proximity to the problem is reduced.

This group will require a very different approach from managers that involves vividly painting the vision for the expected outcome and deadlines for achieving it, but allowing the team member to shape their path and routine for getting there (again much like you would manage a senior in the office).

Working together

Collaboration, communication, and engagement are connected in many ways. For extroverts who enjoy engaging with co-workers, the isolation of working remotely could become very frustrating. For more introverted personalities or those who are still developing their confidence in group settings, the danger is to retreat and avoid vocally contributing in virtual team meetings.

Managers need to step into the shoes of their team members and try to imagine how they are likely experiencing this. The challenge is to be hyper-aware of the non-verbal dynamics at play, be empathetic, maintain open lines of communication, schedule opportunities for collaboration, and make every effort to start and end these meetings with the informal personal elements of conversation that would usually happen at the water cooler or coffee machine.

For team members who are not naturally being included, it is the role of the manager to engage one-on-one and expertly facilitate the group discussions to allow each person a platform and space to contribute.

Furthermore, the temptation to over-rely on email for collaboration and communication must be avoided – email is great for the follow up but makes it very difficult to have any of the more casual and human encounters. Rather do a quick video conference to talk to team members. Consider using more interactive activity planning and monitoring tools. This helps build engagement and can help keep the team spirit and energy going while people are working remotely.

A more light-hearted, but important element of engagement is to ensure that your team members still have fun while working remotely. Over 70% of people report experiencing less stress when working remotely and over 80% of people consider the opportunity for remote working as an important factor in retention. But it can also be less enjoyable. Teams need to find their own unique way of connecting and laughing together, even when they are working virtually.

Accelerating lasting change

Productivity, collaboration, and engagement – these three cornerstones will be essential, both if the lock down continues past the proposed 21 days, but also in embracing the likely accelerated long-term shift to more virtual and flexible working models.

It all comes down to managers and those with seniority in the team to find ways to benefit from the potential productivity efficiencies and retention upsides of their teams working remotely while maintaining and fostering the energy and magic that comes from collaboration and inclusive human interactions. It is about harnessing the power of the right mix of digital interactions and fostering the outcomes mindset in your team that will help everyone work better.

Following this crisis, the traditional way of working will be a thing of the past. Yes, companies might see a return of employees being physically present in the office, but it will likely be on a more flexible basis. Those who showed they can be efficient irrespective their location might very well be able to continue in such a capacity. The benefits on efficiency, retention, wellness, cost savings, and access to untapped talent could be significant for those companies that maximise this opportunity.

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