In these disconcerting times, everyone who still has a job has to adapt to the mass transition to remote work.
At the outset of the COVID-19 global pandemic in early March we at SAF Tehnika had to urgently bring home many of our employees who were away on international business trips. Luckily, with more or less complications, everyone got home by March 16. Being fully aware of the need to follow the procedure, we dutifully put everyone who had come back in a two-week quarantine, including my brother Normunds who barely had time to give me a farewell hug before jumping onto one of the last Lufthansa flights out of Denver.
Seeing how things went, on March 16 AS SAF Tehnika decided to rearrange its operations and have as much of the staff working remotely as possible. Of course, those working in production and certain engineers cannot work from home because they need a work place with special equipment, materials from the warehouse, etc. But about a half of the employees are desk jockeys, like yours truly, and can easily work from home. So our challenge is the same as that faced by many others all over the world – how to make work from home efficient and productive. I am writing this article for SAF Tehnika’s internal use, however given the current situation, I would also like to share it with others who may find it useful.
When I moved to the U.S., I had to learn working remotely for the simple reason that our team was geographically dispersed and I had to figure out how to organize my own work and run the team with maximum efficiency in the given circumstances.
According to outstanding management theoretician Peter Drucker, basic functions of a manager include planning, organizing and controlling. If you have many subordinates, all working remotely, the only option is to develop routines and to stick to them. The purpose of a routine is to collect information in order to set priorities, assign tasks and check afterwards whether and how the work assignments have been performed. Preferably, in a manner that ensures the team’s engagement – with the employees showing the initiative, doing the planning and performing the tasks, while the manager’s responsibility is to make the process work.
Regularity and calendar
At first the manager has to make up his mind about what meetings are required, how would they be called, what would be their purpose, regularity and who should be participating in the meetings. It is vital to define meeting patterns that can be followed faithfully without much deviation, for example, sales meetings will take place on the first and third Monday of the month from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., etc. Everyone who needs to participate in the meeting has to reserve this time slot in their calendars well in advance, be disciplined and have technical facilities in place to connect to the meeting as scheduled.
I would like to note that regularity is the only way to make sure that all participants are available to join the meeting at a specific time. Try to arrange a meeting of 5-10 people and you will realize soon enough that within the next two weeks there is no time slot when everyone would be available. To deal with this problem, people must learn to use the electronic calendar – in fact, to let it dictate their lives. Usually it’s either Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook Calendar, but it is crucial that everyone in the organization should use the same tool. This is to enable the organizer of the meeting to see that the participants of the meaning would be available at the given time and so would be the required resources, such as a virtual meeting room for the video conference.
Discipline and technical savvy
When working remotely, everyone must connect to the meeting right on time or, preferably, five minutes early.
Waiting for someone to join, poor sound, technical problems with making a connection or a computer crashing are bound to kill your meeting. All participants must have decent headsets. Using laptop speakers must be strictly prohibited as it will almost always ruin the meeting.
Also, people should always be perfectly ready to connect to the meeting by at least 2 methods. For example, I try to connect via my computer and fail. But I know the phone number and the PINs I have to enter to join the meeting via the phone. If, for some reason, the selected conferencing platform doesn’t work, there should be alternative methods. If the meeting on, let’s say, Skype fails, everyone switches to Facebook Video Chat, Google Hangouts or some paid conferencing platform.
Meeting content and chairperson
Too many business meetings are poorly organised and useless. The problem will be exposed and magnified tenfold in case of a virtual meeting. The only way to solve it is to have one or, preferably, all would-be participants of the meeting use a shared work space to draft the agenda and prepare the required supporting information: various illustrative images, status reports, draft decisions. This means that, for every meeting, there must be a space to keep those materials and record the decisions taken. For the meeting to be successful, it also needs a moderator who would walk through the agenda, engage the participants and chair the discussion.
Everyone must have encountered a situation when, after extensive discussions during the meeting the day before, nobody can recall what exactly was decided. Or – and this happens even more frequently – everyone has a slightly different version of what was said and decided at the meeting. A human memory is frail and oftentimes misleading as we have to process huge amounts of information daily. But the manager needs to get things done therefore records must be kept and the next meeting of the same type must begin with the follow-up on the status of all open assignments. This arrangement is a very good motivation for the participants to be prepared and review the open assignments ahead of the meeting as no one wants to come across as a lazy and inept employee.
Currently many video conferencing platform providers offer their tools free of charge. The gesture is intended to help the clients who have to master working remotely but behind it there is a hope that someday those businesses will become proper paying customers. However, a video conferencing platform itself is no cure-all. There are technical arrangements to be made, if you want the team to get any work done. First of all, a shared e-mail and scheduling system. As I mentioned before, Microsoft Exchange or Google Mail are the most popular platforms at the moment.
The next component for remote working is a quality headset that can be plugged into a computer, a phone or a meeting room video conferencing equipment as needed. The latter basically consists of a tabletop box with speakers and mikes plus high resolution cameras. This segment has the widest choices therefore it's not worth discussing the array of the equipment available and its technical qualities. And, of course, you will need a computer and the Internet connection, or at least a smartphone which is but a tiny computer.
And, finally, the video conferencing software. Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook or Whatsapp will suffice for ad hoc meetings with just 2-3 participants. There are plenty of different free video communication systems. If you need to show a computer screen, and usually you will, you should look for something more sophisticated. Zoom, GoToMeeting, UberConference are the most popular of the professional systems. They all allow the participants to share their screens, to watch high-resolution videos and have a number of other useful and not so useful features.
Security is important in corporate environment with Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Skype for Business commonly used. Those are more expensive, have more handy features but they are also more complicated to use, especially, if you need some external users, such as customers or partners, to join the meeting. In my experience, simple systems work best. With them, you do not need to install special software on your computer and can access them straight from the browser or simply dial in.
Make sure that there are different dial-in numbers for different countries, otherwise paying those telephone bills will run you into bankruptcy. The good old dial-in is the most reliable and the most widely accessible form of communication that does not require a fast and stable Internet connection.
I hope that you will benefit from the considerations presented above when making arrangements for working remotely. The bottom line is that various technological solutions are now widely available but the organisational aspect and user training are equally important. Good luck to you, and let’s work from just anywhere!