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Making Working From Home Actually Work

The transition of most non-frontline staff to working from home is monumental for providers. Rob guides you through how your organisation can do this well and avoid common pitfalls along the way.

By Rob Woolley

Updated 15 Apr 202420 Apr 2020

Wow, what an incredible time.

As organisations begin to organise their working practices and structures, working from home has become the new ‘normal’ for so many workers who aren’t on the front line.

Working from home brings challenges and opportunities, for both the organisation and the person. In this unprecedented move (and with the pace with which it’s happened), we’ve seen some organisations slide comfortably and smoothly into new arrangements...and some organisations struggle, fluster and trip their way through this change. 

BENEFITS OF WORKING FROM HOME

Working from home (in usual circumstances) is a great opportunity to offer flexibility to workers. Potential benefits of working from home include:

There are also potential downsides - risk of isolation, disconnection and reduced knowledge transfer. This new normal absolutely takes some adjusting and some flexibility (I am saying this as someone with three young children at home).

But right now we’re not just talking about working from home in a traditional sense. Nobody is actually working from home in a ‘great, I can avoid the commute’ way. So I’m going to stop calling it working from home and start calling it ‘working remotely in a crisis’.

We are working during a crisis where you shouldn’t leave your home. This is trying to maintain some degree of normality in the most disruptive circumstances in a century. And for a sector grounded in human contact, that is incredibly challenging.

Despite giant leaps forward in communications technology over the last ten years, we’ve seen only a modest increase in the rates of the population regularly working at least some of their week from home (24% in 2009, to just over 30% in 2019). We believe there’s a hidden element keeping the rates down here: the cultural aspect of working out of sight of a manager.

CRISIS AMPLIFIES YOUR CULTURE

The nature of disability support work means that managers are often trusting frontline workers with people's lives (frequently without direct supervision). Yet this doesn't always translate to trusting workers to do the administrative aspects of their work unsupervised. There's often a secret narrative around working remotely in a crisis with questions like ‘is this person really contributing?’, ‘are they doing the hours they are paid for?’, and ‘am I getting the same productivity out of this person when they are home as I think I do when they are in the office?’. Discussions on working remotely in a crisis often uncover the truth about an organisation’s culture and the assumptions in that culture about the impact, input and contribution of its team members. Does the culture in your organisation foster trust and empowerment? Are people given the resources they need and the freedom to go forth? Or is the cultural narrative that people only do the right thing when watched constantly? In a culture like this one, managers will tend to hold on even tighter as centralised control slips away. 

Redeployment into other roles may also be necessary. But this is a more familiar challenge for most managers: there is an operational need that might feel very urgent, and someone with skills and knowledge that can contribute. Perfect! Some training, a support structure and supervision arrangements can be put in place to give that person the information they need, agree on how they will be assisted, and we can move on to the next fire to be extinguished. But an enforced move to working remotely in a crisis pushes organisations into finding ways to support and supervise from a distance, which throws many managers into an unfamiliar challenge. 

We are now in a situation where organisations have no choice. Everyone who can work from home is working remotely in a crisis, to keep themselves and the rest of the community safe. The good news is that making this transition can help improve workplace culture by challenging false assumptions about presenteeism and contribution. NDIA CEO Martin Hoffman stated a few weeks ago that after more than half of Agency staff were forced to work from home, their productivity increased in metrics including call answering, access decisions, first plans and plan reviews. This is the same NDIA that hasn’t exactly been first in line of case studies to be profiled for being a trusting culture and workplace in the past.

WE ARE ALL HUMAN

Now isn’t the time for leaders to be holding on tighter, but giving everyone more freedom and choice to achieve great outcomes in their job. We are facing a once-in-a-lifetime upheaval to everything we know about work, routine, and domestic life... the way people work is changing and is going to change more. We are unlikely to all go back to our pre-pandemic normal in a few weeks: we are facing restrictions for the medium and long term. Simply moving a micromanagement approach from the office to remote is going to make things worse. 

Think of all the uncertainty and anxiety of the last seven years of NDIS rollout, and all of that stress. It’s nowhere near the same level of worry and disruption that has come with this pandemic. If there was ever a time for more trust, more flexibility, more autonomy, more honesty, more openness, more communication, more transparency, more delegation, more humanity, this is it.

Yes, this is a stressful time. Yes, we are sailing in new waters. Yes, people are finding themselves in situations they never thought they would be in and doing their best to adapt. 

No, mandating that workers email their line manager when they are planning to be away from their desk for more than 15mins is not helping. No, being rigid that the team meeting is still at 9am every morning simply because that is what time it is at when everyone is in the office is not helping. No, allocating mindless busy work to ensure people are ‘busy’ throughout their 8 hours a day is not helping (and I’m not making this up - all of these are really happening in some organisations).

This is not the time for tracking hours, forcing productivity, or expecting the same of everyone.

There will be hours where people will just be keeping things together, domestically and emotionally (hello, home schooling!). During these hours they won’t be very productive. There will also be hours where knowing they are close to their family, or don’t have to spend time commuting, or are confident they are contributing to the right public health decision by staying at home, will mean they are very productive. Possibly more productive, inspired and motivated than ever. Pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, those ebbs and flows of productivity happen even when someone is in the office. That is life. For almost everyone you work with and lead, their job is one of many things in their life taking up cognitive space. There will be times throughout an average day where it probably won’t be the most important thing.

Now more than ever we need to support people to work flexibly, taking into account their unique challenges, providing the support they need to succeed, and giving them the trust and freedom to achieve the outcomes required.

PRACTICALITIES

There are lots of more practical things an organisation can do to help people with the changes that come from working remotely. 

  • Providing clear direction, clarity about expectations, supportive systems and access to needed resources so staff can get on with their jobs. This might be agreeing on how the team communicates tasks of different urgency (like email vs. phone vs. zoom) or agreeing on key deliverables or outcomes at the start of each week. And being transparent about why some things are a priority.
  • Formalising flexibility based on outcomes achieved rather than time-based attendance (as always, on employment law and Industrial Relations issues specific to your circumstances we advise that you seek legal advice).
  • Ensuring that remote work does not mean working in isolation. There are so many great ideas and platforms for facilitating virtual workplaces, complete with water cooler chats, dynamic meetings, participative workshopping, morning coffees and Friday drinks.
  • Being proactive and collaborative with WHS requirements. These are a hurdle but not a brick wall. ComCare has a simple checklist. This can include reviewing insurance policies to include coverage of equipment at home.
  • Providing information on tax deductions for home offices.

All of these things help smooth the way for people to balance every priority they have at the moment, rather than putting administrative barriers in the way. A fantastic first step is to ask “what support do you need from me to make this stressful, unprecedented period as productive as possible?”. Being productive while working remotely rarely happens by accident, especially where there are so many competing priorities for our precious brain space. 

It’s okay to struggle or go down some dead ends. There is no rule book for having to send the majority of your staff home for an undetermined amount of time. Organisations need to be working on systems and approaches to make sure the downsides of working remotely in a crisis don’t become major problems - but one thing we can be sure of is that expecting people to work from home in the same way they work from an office isn’t going to achieve that. The game has changed, and it needs a different playbook. And the playbook for frontline staff is completely new again and will need a new set of skills, approaches and outlooks. An organisational culture of agility, trust and autonomy is the only thing that can deliver this long term.

Remote working infrastructure is (in our view) a great investment at any time, now even more so. Wherever possible, now is the time to be resourcing new infrastructure, new technologies, new training, new policies, and new approaches. But everything will end up reflecting the culture that already exists. If it’s a culture of trust, transparency and empowerment: watch your organisation and people soar and emerge from this period stronger than ever before. If it’s a culture of micromanagement, mistrust and a lack of empathy: no video conferencing software in the world is going to help you unless you start challenging cultural norms. 

If there is one upside to this period, we hope it will be that this enforced distancing will help organisations think more critically about how they support workers to access the kind of flexibility that working remotely in a crisis can offer... while still supporting them and trusting them to do the fantastic job that most people want to do.

More than ever, the role of a leader now is to support and inspire, not over-regulate and build barriers.

Authors

Rob Woolley

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