Collaboration in times of Corona

· Blog

You can do it like that, but it’ll be crap.

Published in HORIZONT ONLINE, March 26, 2020

As a result of the Corona crisis, millions of employees have been moved ad-hoc to remote working, often from home. In practice, there are huge problems. “It is not enough to simply switch to video conferencing,” says Kai Anderson. In his Talking Heads column for HORIZONT Online, the Founding Partner of Promerit AG (Mercer), specializing in HR consulting, explains how the new working day can be managed and how companies should support their employees at home.

We’ve heard loads of of concerns. “At home, people are just distracted.”, “How can you control your employees?” or “In our job you have to be on site.” A noticeable number of managers have found it hard to accept virtual work or even practice it themselves. The potential loss of control has thus far outweighed the obvious benefits – for everyone. The fact that employer attractiveness is falling by the wayside has only slowly become recognized. In fact, the preferences of the younger generation are very clear in this respect. In various studies, more than half of those surveyed stated that they would turn down job offerings without flexible work arrangements.

And suddenly – within days – we are working from home. We decide for ourselves when and how much we work. Sitting in front of the computer and being productive, maybe even more productive than in the office. A Stanford study from 2013 has already shown that working from home is associated with fewer breaks, longer working hours and higher job satisfaction.

“We have been swept into remote working spaces like a tsunami, not knowing if we even have them.” – Kai Anderson

So everything’s good, then? Not at all! We have been flushed into remote working spaces as if by a tsunami, not knowing if there even was a place like this. Some of the people who can no longer go to work now do not have their own office or an ergonomic workplace. The place is crowded as the partner and children are also at home. The boundaries between work and private life have become blurred beyond recognition. The crucial difference to the time before the crisis is the time we now spend within our own four walls. Whereas remote work used to be a mix of being at home and being present in the office, we are now working permanently from home. That was not the intention. And in this respect, the burden has increased significantly, even for experienced home workers. Clearly, the responsibility for a sensible and healthy organization of working from home lies first and foremost with the individual. Many tips (and even more jokes) are circulating on how to manage the new working day.

But it’s not only the employees who are suddenly finding themselves working from home permanently and having to bridge the gap. Companies have a responsibility for their employees – even if the workplace moves to the employee’s home. Providing an appropriate technical infrastructure is essential and an end in itself. Organizing work for the individual and for the entire company is a less obvious kind of thing. But right here lies the key for getting the work done and achieving great results. It is not enough to simply switch over to video conferences, even if there is a certain euphoria at the beginning, seeing all the colorful images of the colleagues.

The honeymoon’s over when this type of meeting is even less productive than the endless rounds of meetings that have always been considered exhausting, with a multitude of sometimes unfamiliar faces and always the same people taking up a large part of the airtime.

Many companies have stumbled into the new virtual working world without having a real plan. They are transferring traditional work forms, methods and rituals to new technologies without questioning their usefulness and developing alternatives. The forced and broad switch to virtual work offers a chance to become significantly more efficient and effective.

So what is to be done? Stocktaking and structuring current work formats is a good start. A simple status meeting in a team is different from the meeting of a decision-making body. Interviews require a different setup than working with focus groups. Even complex formats such as Design Thinking Workshops or exchange formats with more than 100 participants can be conducted virtually. Professionally done, the virtual formats are in no way inferior to analogue formats. What counts is firstly the quality of results and right next something that we call ‘experience’. And this can also be enthusing for participants in virtual formats.

For this, we will have to do things differently than in personal meetings. Clear rules and guidelines help moderators and participants. From simple things like turning off the microphone when not speaking, using the chat function, checking-in and out rituals, there is a range of what you can do right – or wrong.

A balanced mix of methods and tools – adapted to the situation – is decisive for the quality of the results. With the increasing complexity of the formats and a larger number of participants, the demands on virtual support increase.

Simple coordination and workshops can get by with common tools such as Skype or Zoom and a moderator who leads through the agenda on PowerPoint. If results have to be worked out with more than 5 people, one moderator alone is usually no longer effective. Additional practices are needed for a variety of methods, supporting participants, documentation and operating tools.

In general, the moderation of virtual work sessions is much more challenging than the moderation of physical meetings. Even in larger group in a (real) room it is a problem to encourage every participant to contribute. In virtual rooms with participants who may be reading mails at the same time or watching the stock prices slip, this is a real challenge. Regular surveys via polling tools provide a minimum of interaction. Real dialogue and real cooperation can only develop in smaller groups – nothing new there. This requires tools that allow participants to be divided into virtual break-out groups. Here, for example, brainstorming sessions can take place with participants pinning ideas on a shared whiteboard using tools like Miro.

Anything is possible, then, but not by chance. Even more so than in the familiar office environment, virtual collaboration requires intensive preparation and comprehensive support in its implementation. The chance: done right, the joint sessions are shorter, with less lead time for the participants and better results. We can all be much more productive if we use the shared time in virtual space wisely.

There is no question that the Corona crisis is giving virtual work an unexpected boost that will permanently change our working world. Realizing the fact that you don’t necessarily have to fly halfway round the world for a business meeting may not appeal to airlines, but for the stressed manager it is downright therapeutic.

Not to mention the issue of sustainability, which has occupied us like no other in the past year and has slipped far behind on the personal and media attention scale with the crisis. It will come back when the current crisis is over. Unlike Corona, global warming is not an issue that we will have solved in one or two years. A single vaccine against CO2 emissions will not exist, but with virtual work we at least have a tool that can make a noticeable contribution.

Good for the environment, good for the personal work-life balance, good for genuine, cross-border cooperation within the company – a win-win situation for everyone. If we do it right, our world will be a little better with what we take out of this time now. In every crisis lies an opportunity? Here is ours.

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Written by Laura Häußler · · Blog
NextPeople Management during the Coronavirus Crisis