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Remote Work During COVID-19. Successfully Transitioning to a Virtual Office

Before coronavirus, virtualization was trendy. A Global Workplace Analytics survey reports that remote work has grown by 159% over the last 12 years. The early adopters who moved to remote work reported improvements in productivity, employee retention, diversity, talent access, opex, and work-life balance.

Then, just as the millennials started pushing the early majority to make the leap, COVID-19 threw the traditional Technology Adoption Lifecycle in a vice.

In one week, the chasm closed. The trend became the rule. Suddenly, what was preferable to do in-person must be done remotely (or not at all). The workplace is now digital and remote work is our reality. How do companies make the transition? How will it affect culture and the collaboration we have worked so hard to promote through our open offices? How quickly can we implement new work and communication practices?

For those of us who are fortunate to be able to work remotely, here’s some advice on how to think about the transition based on our experience as a company that debated, planned and committed to going 100% virtual in 2019.

The Virtual Office Is Still an Office

Every company I’ve been a part of has thrived on the culture created in a dedicated space.

Each started and grew out of a one-room office. Each then laddered up every few years to something bigger, better, and more customized.

For example, my first days at empactHealth.com were working atop of a cardboard box in an office with our COO, Ward Brown. At InVivoLink, Ryan Wells and I sat back to back in a tiny office at Heritage Partners.

Part of starting and growing a business is making do with a startup space that forces culture, followed by an imagining of the ideal physical space for iterative growth. Part of what makes a company’s culture is the company’s work environment.

With virtualization, that’s true more than ever. The virtual office is still an office. A virtual office is a manifestation of values and belief systems. Only now it’s online instead of in an expensive building.

It exists “wherever we are,” instead of a place we are “away from.” It remains an opportunity to build and express culture. It emphasizes security, collaboration and communication. And, perhaps most importantly, it forces us to be more intentional about what matters.

The Benefits

It’s no surprise that a forced and unexpected shift has many organizations and leaders feeling that they are wading into dangerous and unfamiliar waters. But done correctly a virtual office can have amazing benefits.

Done right, virtualization is healthier for our productivity, our families, our planet and ourselves. By going virtual, we can emphasize our core values, which at Hashed are:

  • Health is fundamental
  • Innovation is core
  • Value integrity
  • Success requires endurance and evolution
  • Radical Collaboration
  • Excellence or not at all

    At Hashed we’ve designed a system that creates a culture of learning (key to innovation), information sharing (key to collaboration), and innovation feedback loops (key to evolution) that perform regardless of whether you are in your home office, coffee shop, or airplane tray table. It’s a system designed around trust, transparency, empowerment, and the norms we feel are critical to our success. These are the characteristics that enable the kind of democratized experimentation (key to endurance and evolution) that is so important to how we innovate.

    As I surveyed employees at Hashed and ProCredEx about working remotely I found a few patterns in the positives about working remotely. These include improvements in productivity, work-life integration, and focus.

    Here’s what I heard specific to increases in productivity:

    "From my prior experience in working in an office environment full-time, I would estimate that my productivity is 30% higher in working from home."  – Anthony Begando, CEO Professional Credentials Exchange

    "My productivity is way up! Less time commuting means more time to be productive. Also, I'm generally less distracted which enables me to engage in deep thinking/learning which translates to higher effectiveness. I love being more productive. It helps everything else in my life spiral outward. I have more control over my schedule which enables me to spend time on non-work related things without guilt (e.g., family, friends, exercise, learning, personal projects). Being home enables me to experience that most of the time and not just on evenings and weekends. Being home also allows my spouse more freedom because I can be home to accept packages and to generally available help more on domestic matters."  – Les Wilkinson, COO, Hashed Health

    "I have the freedom to work whenever needed with minimal distractions (once kids have gone to school) allowing me to focus 100% on my work. And there’s no commuting--ever! Healthy lunches and refreshments whenever I want it-- at no additional costs. Plus, when I have to work late, being able to eat dinner and participate in pre-bedtime rituals with the family."– Anthony Begando, CEO Professional Credentials Exchange

    "I have found that my productivity has gone up significantly. First, I've directly applied commute time toward business-focused activities. Second, I find myself much more thoughtful about how I apply time to different tasks and avoid distractions that often pop-up at the office. Third, (this may not be a good thing) but because the office is at the house, I find myself jumping into things whenever my brain focuses on a topic, even if it is in the evening or over the weekend. Mostly, I have enjoyed the feeling of optimization. I don't believe in work-life balance. I believe in living life and optimizing all aspects you can. Working from home is a strategy that promotes this optimization. It's the flexibility to make the best use of all your time whether it is work related or personal."  – Adam Cohen, Head of Product, Professional Credentials Exchange

    Risks & Challenges

    There are hidden and unhidden traps in virtualization. It’s not just the disruption of daily routines of production and teamwork… it puts your culture, data security, and organizational commitment on the table.

    As I surveyed our teams on challenges, the response that consistently stood out the most was specific to the craving for enjoyable, thought-provoking human interaction...

    "I sometimes miss interacting with humans regularly. To remedy that, I sometimes work in coffee shops and try to proactively schedule coffees, lunches with colleagues and friends. This has an added bonus of enabling me to network better than I was able to do previously. My office is always open - days, nights and weekends. Not that it wasn't before going virtual, but something about having a fully functioning home office - I find that I work loads more. Not really a problem but I could see how it could become one. Having worked in an office my entire professional life, its a bit of a mental transition. Where I used to have a ritual of wake>feed dogs>drink coffee>brush teeth>shave>shower>dress>leave for work>work - now its sometimes wake>work. I've made a point to try to honor some of the old rituals." – Les Wilkinson, COO, Hashed Health

    "My biggest struggle is that I can end up not leaving the house for days in a row and begin really craving in-person interaction. However, I often travel and when I've been on the road, those cravings aren't in play." – Adam Cohen, Head of Product, Professional Credentials Exchange

    "I sometimes struggle with background noise issues like keeping kids/dog quiet when I am on a call. I’ve had to work through a lot of inconsistent internet access and performance issues. Not having a dedicated meeting space is a challenge. The downside of working at home is there are days my working hours get insane but that would probably happen regardless… this is a startup after all." – Anthony Begando, CEO Professional Credentials Exchange

    Being intentional about how to address isolation is important. Default to video on team meetings. Hold video all-hands meetings opportunistically to bring people together (not necessarily just focused on work). And, when you are not socially distanced, look for every opportunity to gather as a team including travel to a customer site, a conference, or for regular quarterly meetings. Use the opportunity to get creative. With the budget that had been dedicated to rent, you can create amazing culture-building experiences that reinforce connectivity.

    Another important challenge is security. Remote works means that companies are dealing with a greater surface area for attack. More personal devices and more insecure endpoints mean more opportunities for hackers who are after our passwords and data. There are major new security challenges introduced by remote work and there is evidence that hackers and fishers smell blood. Part of any virtualization practice should include strong security hygiene including two-factor authentication, strong passwords, a VPN and general awareness of wifi and internet security best practices.

    Resources & Virtualization Tools

    Virtualization is a vehicle for collaboration. It would not be possible without the Internet and web-based tools that become hubs for communication, knowledge-sharing, and project management.

    Our preferred tools are Zoom for video and voice, and Slack for chat (although there are differing opinions on how and when Slack is optimally used). In our experience, Slack is best as a virtual watercooler chat system and a way to share daily priorities. We also use it to engage with external stakeholders around projects. A project management tool (we use Wrike) is another key system for holding people accountable.

    A few of the more creative answers from our team include the use of Evernote and a mind-mapping system called “The Brain.” And a whole newsletter could detail Les Wilkinson’s recommendations around coffee products (in short: Chemex Pour Over Coffee Maker, Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder, COSORI Electric Gooseneck Kettle and beans called Gahahe Burundi from his local coffee shop The Well.)

    None of this technology (or coffee) can fix bad communication or lazy leadership. And what worked in the past will need to be modified for the virtual office. Management by walking around won’t work when there’s no office to walk around in. In the words of ProCredEx’s Adam Cohen,

    “Working remotely is not an excuse for poor relationship building, leadership, or communication. As someone who values these skills, I've worked hard to develop strategies to ensure that there is still a richness and effectiveness to interpersonal engagement.”

    For virtualization to work, it requires an intentional approach to communications and leadership style. Technology is the enabler, not the solution.

    The Annual Manual

    Success requires codifying new norms. Hashed threw out is old legal employee handbook in favor of a customized “Annual Manual” which outlines how and why we operate virtually and how employees can be successful. It describes our values, our core beliefs, our operating strategy, our budget, and how virtualization supports our strategies.

    We used the opportunity to introduce new culture-building initiatives that were not in place before, but are aligned with our culture. Examples include “#Learns” (a book club which serves to share knowledge and innovative thinking which aligns with one of our company core values) and “#Runs” a running club (several of us enjoy distance running and one of our company core values is specific to endurance).

    The Manual also includes norms such as sharing of work hours, calendars, personal goals, work goals, priorities. It specifies how to use our technology tools effectively for these purposes. It stresses new security measures. It outlines best practices on how to manage virtual meetings, how to remain focused, and how to develop new routines.

    Will We Go Back?

    Anything that can go online, will go online. And once we go digital, we rarely go back.

    We are entering a new phase of organizational behavior that is here to stay. Offices won’t go away completely in all cases, but companies are being forced to get good at remote work, management, security, marketing, sales, and operations. Through this process, companies who normally were the laggards are likely to realize certain things can go digital and how that can be a benefit.

    At Hashed, I doubt we will ever go back to what we looked like in 2018. I assume we will always promote virtual work and enable a distributed workforce of the best talent connected by shared values and collaborative technology.

    I expect we will see this crisis accelerate trends that are already in place. In addition to remote work, I expect we’ll see a continued increase in:

    • virtual events, virtual community building, virtual networking
    • podcasting, audio, and video as a distribution method for brand, marketing, and learning
    • decentralized businesses and business models
    Resources

    There are a lot of resources for companies looking to go virtual. It’s important to remember, though, it’s not one size fits all. There are important differences between, for example, virtualizing a software company and virtualizing a law firm. Size matters too. Our observations at Hashed will be different than those at a larger firm. Here are a few of the resource I have found helpful:

    Social & Hashtags

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