According to a recent report by the Productivity Commission in less than two years we have gone from less than 8 per cent of Australians working from home to 40 per cent, with remote working set to become part of the corporate landscape post-COVID. So how are we faring, and what can we do better?
From how to collaborate and communicate with co-workers and clients effectively to preventing Zoom fatigue and managing the home/work balance, WOB asked members what initiatives or strategies have they or their Board put in place to adapt to a remote working model? What changes are people making to their working day/week or environment to work effectively? And what tips or advice do they have for other WOB members on what works - and what doesn't?
'Less like working from home, more like sleeping at the office’
Lynne Montgomery, Head of IT at State Street Australia, said the company was in a strong position when it came to remote working, as when COVID hit last year the business had been offering employees flexible options for 15 years.
“The other thing that helped was working in a global company and learning from each of our locations as it swept the world. We certainly learnt a lot during this period,” she said.
When it came to productivity, Lynne said while initially it looked good on paper delving deeper it seemed the teams were working much longer hours.
“This certainly led to exhaustion and a lack of separation between work and home. I think many employees are torn between gaining time from travel etc. and feeling there is no separation between work and home. One of my favourite lines (I stole from somewhere) is ‘It's less like working from home, and more like sleeping at the office’.
Lynne said there is a danger of employees being expected to be available all hours of the day. “It was more of a mindset change where invites for late night or very early mornings were expected to be accepted because 'what else would you be doing/'. I honestly don't think it was intentional but it really put more pressure on employees already working extremely long hours.
“The impact of having everyone at home and school from home needs to be recognised and I've noticed many team members flexing long days to support caring responsibilities. While I think it's great we can offer the flexibility, it is resulting in very long exhausting days.”
She said wellbeing is one of the biggest challenges many companies and Boards will face. “We are doing a lot around wellbeing but it's very difficult to know if it's hitting the mark. I suspect this will continue long after we get back to some form of regular working.”
We gave all employees a Disconnect Day where they took a day off to relax. That seemed to be well received.
The technology just needs to work. Fun as it is to start every Zoom/ Webex/Team call with "You're on mute", it is frustrating and I know employees really struggle if their technology isn't working. Given they are trying to juggle so many things at home, if they have to spend time with the help desk or trying to work out how to solve technology issues it really impacts their productivity and also their stress levels. Investment in the technology is just a necessary part of the new hybrid model.
Less travel, more time
Sophie Ray, Chair of National Association of Women in Operations, said the challenges of remote collaboration was one most businesses and boards are dealing with.
“On the positive side, most of the members of the Boards I sit on are actually more engaged in the organisations and in their Board work because they're not getting tired from travelling to Board meetings, and they can easily do additional bits of Board or committee work without having to travel to do it, so are putting their hand up more often to do this,” said Sophie.
On the flip side, she said a large proportion of the executive staff are finding it increasingly hard to stay motivated and to maintain their relationships with the Board.
Build in extra time to the beginning of meetings for people to have a social catch up with each other, as we would at in person meetings.
Phone Board members and executive staff regularly to check in on how they are and have a general chat, rather than only phoning to discuss something specific.
Ensure during online meetings lasting more than 1 hour, take breaks every hour or so. "We make sure that the agenda of long Board meetings is built so that important decision making is happening in the first part of the Board meeting. I'm finding people's concentration and energy levels are even lower towards the end of a long online meeting than they usually would be at the end of a long in person meeting."
'Not rocket science'
Director and Governance Professional, Kate O’Donohue has been working from home 100% since February 2020.
“I have vacillated between loving it and bemoaning the loneliness,” said Kate, adding that long strategy days of video conferencing all day are challenging.
“We designate one attendee as the 'purveyor of fun' which gives us a bit of a laugh. We also welcome people turning off video unless it's a group discussion and encourage attendees to stand and stretch.”
Other tips include trying to block out at least an hour and half each day or second day for deep-focused work which means turning off all chat functions, emails, phone etc. “None of it is rocket science and I think there's always room for improvement.”
Back to the office?
Looking towards next year and the future, Sophie predicts more Boards will be looking to a hybrid mode of alternate meetings in person or remote, or for Boards that meet only four times a year, the first and the last meeting of the year in person, and the two other meetings remote.
“One of my Boards has specifically decided to move to always holding the AGM online, because we have members all over Australia and find that we have far more people attending the AGM if we do it online.”
Lynne said it is important to help employees understand that we’re all learning about this.
“As we already had a flexible working model, it did mean employees were already aware if their job really didn't fit easily into a work from home model. As we move to Hybrid, we're taking the learnings from each country as we move to the next, it is constantly evolving.”
“This interesting HBR article suggests the employer should decide what days employees should be in the office. I think that will be an interesting dilemma, how we will give employees flexibility but ensure we have the most productive in-office time with the right teams interacting.”
She said the other challenge is how to ensure a level playing field for those in office and those remote, an area where there is opportunity for females to lose out.
“However, I do think we have a fantastic opportunity here to provide better opportunities for employees who need flexibility and may even encourage some back to the workplace with hybrid working options which allow them to have a career and a life outside of work.”
NED, CIO and Digital Transformation Advisory, Dagmar Neumann said the future or remote and hybrid working models is one of the critical challenges management teams and Boards will have to deal with.
“As a former CIO I thought I had the digital communication 'thing' down pat, but not so,” said Dagmar who recommends Erica Dhawan’s book Digital Body Language which looks at how we all communicate differently in a remote, digitally-enable world and Robert Glazer’s How to Thrive in a Remote Workplace which touches on the strategies and choices that have to be made by leadership to create an enabling environment.
“These resources look at the different communication styles subject to being a digital native or digital adapter, being aware of power relationships and trust context, give tips on virtual etiquette, and above all purposeful communication.
“I found these tips and strategies to be applicable to being a remote worker myself as well as a Board member, influencing collaboration amongst board directors, and with executives.”
Need for human contact
In a recent survey, Women on Boards found that while respondents welcomed the increased flexibility, being able to focus away from busy workspaces and not having to commute while working remotely, there was still a clear preference for professional human contact.
In August Women on Boards undertook a two-day Impact of Lockdown snap survey of 342 members and wider network to better understand the impact that lockdown was having on how they are coping with their boardroom and leadership responsibilities.
More than three-quarters (79%) said they disliked not being able to meet face-to-face, just over two-thirds (68%) said they have Zoom fatigue and 63% felt professionally isolated.
On the plus side, comments from respondents suggested that meetings are shorter, relationships between executives and board members have deepened and hybrid working could enable better diversity on boards.
Download the Productivity Commission Working from Home report HERE