Working productively from home
The coronavirus pandemic has given companies and employees a mandatory crash course in remote working, offering valuable insights and best practices
By Duncan Levine
Over the past few years, companies have been experimenting with various forms of flexible working arrangements as a way to attract and retain staff and improve work-life balance. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the sudden, and mostly unwanted, implementation of working from home (WFH) contingencies in multiple countries, starting with China and moving on to Europe and North America, whether companies were prepared for it or not. Fortunately for companies operating in Taiwan, authorities have not yet imposed a mandatory lock-down. This has given companies operating here time to prepare for remote working, and to pick up some lessons from their colleagues in countries, some of which were not properly prepared at the time.
While remote working has already been shown to be viable for a number of tech jobs, writers, designers and selected others, it is simply not suitable for many others. Moreover, the virtual or home office is never going to replace the traditional live office completely. However, as the current pandemic has shown, if done properly, a large number of work functions can be performed remotely in a satisfactory manner. The trick is to have foresight when planning, take a flexible approach when setting things up and have an exhaustive trial and error phase to iron out all the kinks in advance of full-scale implementation.
Almost all European companies operating in Taiwan have remote working contingencies in place. Some of them have only tested them while others have partially implemented them in preparation for a worsening of the pandemic in Taiwan.
Giuseppe Izzo, ECCT Chairman and Managing Director of STMicroelectronics, says that remote working and communication systems have been in place for many years in his company in order to keep operations running around the clock. Robert Walters was already quite well prepared well before the pandemic. According to John Winter, ECCT director and Country Manager of Robert Walters in Taiwan, at the time of the forced shut-downs and quarantines in China, the firm had already implemented flexible working arrangements across its offices in the region, offering a number of work options to employees.
Others plans have been implemented based on evolving circumstances. According to Erdal Elver, ECCT Vice Chairman and President & CEO of Siemens Taiwan, out of an abundance of caution, and for the protection of their employees and the broader community, Siemens Taiwan has been recommending that employees work from home, if their role allows, starting in March this year. If and when staff members need to come into the office, they have also been encouraged to consider flexible work hours in order to avoid peak hours when travelling. In addition, Siemens requires managers to conduct work allocation in a way that ensures that no more than 50% of the team members are in the office at one time to restrict the amount of contact between employees.
According to Jan Hollmann, ECCT director and Managing Director of Robert Bosch Taiwan, Bosch already had a system in place allowing indirect associates to work from home before the pandemic. It has not had to implement the system fully in Taiwan yet but, like many other companies, it has split staff into two groups, to reduce the number of people working at the same location.
The first thing to do to prepare for WFH is to ensure the right technology and tools are in place. This includes a decent internet connection and a reliable device(s). To prepare employees for remote working, Siemens, for example, has ensured that technology as well as IT infrastructure, such as access to company servers and virtual meeting/communication tools, are in place to implement WFH successfully.
However, this is not something that should be left only to the IT department. According to Thomas Kuiper, General Manager of Gandi.net, speaking in an ECCT webinar, employees themselves should prepare a checklist of requirements to make their home offices both functional and comfortable. This implies paying attention to a number of factors besides IT. In particular, if you’re going to be spending as many hours working at home as you do at the office, even if you are sure it’s only going to be temporary, it is worth spending some time, effort and money on your home office.
Many pundits have advised against mixing the area you relax in with the area where you work. Those of us, including this writer, have found that you need to create both the physical and mental space that resembles, as closely as possible, a work place if you are to work productively. If you have the luxury of a separate study in your home, that is the best option. If not, whatever other room in the home you use, you need to set up a space that is comfortable enough to work in but not so comfortable that it feels like a bedroom or living room. If you have to use some kind of shared space, you should do your best to make it look and feel like an office.
Besides a computer, a desk large enough so that you do not feel cramped when typing and a comfortable chair, preferably an ergonomic one, are essential if you’re going to be sitting for long periods of time. Light is also important. If working during the day, which most people will be doing, it is preferable to have a good source of natural light from a window. Otherwise, artificial light should be bright enough to prevent eye strain.
Once the home office has been set up, it is important to test everything to find out which things are working properly and which are not. According to Kuiper, you may find things that are overlooked by the IT department turn out to be major irritants. For example, for people sharing space with others, they need to have silent keyboards and computer mice so that they do not disturb their fellow housemates. If the company provides laptop computers, he recommended small but powerful mini PCs.
There are various schools of thought on whether or not to keep your office desk clear or allow a degree of clutter. I prefer a desk totally clear of clutter but others feel more comfortable with piles of notes or books around them while they work.
To get into work mode when working from home, most pundits have recommended getting into a routine that separates your working hours from your leisure hours. Some have even recommended changing into work clothes for work and changing back into casual clothes at the end of the day. However, my personal preference is to dress comfortably, although, if you’re going to be doing a live video conference, it is advised to at least put on a clean shirt.
A report on remote working, titled “State of Remote Report 2020”, conducted by a company called Buffer, which was cited by Kuiper in the webinar, showed that companies should also be cognizant of typical problems facing remote workers. Based on answers to the question in Buffer’s report on what is the biggest struggle with working remotely, the most respondents (22%) cited unplugging after work, 19% cited loneliness and 17% cited collaborating and or communication. The next biggest items on the list were distractions at home (10%), being in a different time zone (8%), staying motivated (8%) and taking vacation time (7%). To help remote employees deal with these problems, companies should make sure that employees are not expected to be always on and to communicate frequently and effectively.
In order to be productive, it is important to eliminate distractions. This, of course is easier said than done for parents stuck indoors with children that require frequent attention. And even for those alone at home, it is easy to slip out of work mode and load up Netflix or YouTube, and forget about work for the rest of the day. Wherever possible, get someone else to watch the kids, at least for block periods of a couple of hours at a time, and avoid opening any programmes unrelated to your work during your home office hours.
Being at home, it is also always tempting to snack constantly. Advice from the experts in this regard, is to make it a rule to never eat at your desk. Instead, set aside time for meal and snack times, away from your desk so that you can take both a physical and mental break from work.
In terms of interaction with colleagues, netiquette, or online etiquette conventions are still a work in progress. However, some ground rules are becoming clearer. As previously alluded to, if you’re going to be seen on camera, it is advisable to look presentable. This also applies to your background image, which means either cleaning up your study area (that will be visible to others) or installing an artificial backdrop or virtual background image.
Etiquette for communication, especially video conferencing is also moving towards consensus. As with live meetings, virtual meetings work best when they are well planned and run. This means that there should be a clear agenda, an assigned leader and a time limit. The leader should introduce each item/subject, set the actions and give a short wrap-up after each section. Best practices for video conferencing start with each participant joining meetings a couple of minutes early. Each speaker should be in view on everyone’s screen. Pundits note that it is surprising how much lip-reading people do, even if they are not deaf, while gestures provide emphasis. Given that there is often a delay in streaming time, it is important that each person should be given a chance to talk and that they are not interrupted until they have finished. Talking over one another does not work in a live meeting. It is completely counterproductive in a video conference. If someone wishes to contribute or respond to something someone else has said, they can raise their hands, just like in a live meeting. It is also universally agreed that if you join an online meeting, you should stay engaged for the duration. Answering emails, phone calls or texts during the meeting is frowned upon.
To unwind and avoid burnouts, Kuiper recommends that remote workers should try to follow a fixed routine every work day. At the end of the day, they should turn off their work chat software and phones. Kuiper also recommended learning something new to relax, such as learning to play a musical instrument, reading or taking a course. Finally, he advised that all colleagues should respect working hours and not bother their colleagues outside of working hours.
Once the coronavirus pandemic ends, most people who are currently working remotely will return to their offices. However, there is no telling when the next crisis will occur. Moreover, the recent experience has shown that remote working has a number of benefits, such as increasing flexibility and eliminating irritating commuting times. Therefore, regardless of the trajectory of the pandemic, working from home, in some form or another, is something that will survive and remain part of our working lives indefinitely.