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Tips and advice for a more productive distributed workforce



Today's technology means that even when businesses are forced to close their doors, some can open new, virtual ones by setting their employees up to work from home (WFH). When New Zealand went to Level 4 on March 26, the population was locked down and home offices became a reality.

As the pandemic crisis continues to evolve, all businesses should be prepared for the likelihood of continued lockdowns, meaning it's worth taking some time to ensure that their employees are working as efficiently and productively as they can in their home environments.

Here are some tips from Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic (think Wordpress), a company whose  distributed workforce of 1,200 people across 75 countries has worked effectively this way since 2005.

Evaluate the work, not when it was produced

If possible, allow staff to work the hours that suit them. Some people are more productive in the morning, others hit their stride after 4pm. When working from home, allow employees to find their own level as to when they're at their best. Judge them on what they produce, not when they produced it. An asynchronous working environment lends itself to this way of working, and the outcomes are usually positive. Here’s a good summary of the ‘async’ workplace.

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Change the way you manage your staff

Generally speaking, managers are often the main barrier to creating an effective distributed workforce. Moving from a physical location where staff are often judged on the time that they spend at the office rather than the output, managers are no longer able to rely on ‘management by walking around’ techniques and this often leads to a perception of a loss of control. Replace the physical check-ins with regular one-to-one’s where new tasks are negotiated, and progress on current tasks is discussed.  Set clear expectations for your team on how you expect everyone to work in a collaborative fashion.

Remember. the best teams are the ones that have a culture of trust, transparency and collaboration so communicate this clearly and try to clear any barriers in this regard. In a WFH scenario, it’s also more difficult for employers to pick up when someone is sad or depressed, so it makes those regular check-ins very important. Try to tune into tone or other indicators that might flag an issue. Make sure everyone on the team feels supported, and make sure they know they speak up about issues that are worrying them.

Encourage staff to incorporate health and wellness into their day

One of the most surprising aspects about WFH for many people is that you spend much more time at your desk. Without the constant interruptions you can often expect in an office, you spend less time getting up and moving around. Encouraging staff to incorporate some kind of health and wellness routine into their day will allow staff to bring their ‘best selves’ to work. 

This doesn’t have to mean an extensive period of exercise. Check out this 4-minute workout designed to give your body a peak fitness exercise hit three times a day. It promises to increase nitric oxide and build muscle, helping to improve immune functions and guard against problems such as heart disease, strokes and dementia.

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Improve meetings and outcomes

Here are two recommendations to improve the outcomes of online meetings.

  1. Take notes - nominate one person to be the note-taker. Make sure their screen is shared so that everyone can see the notes as they’re taken and can check, in real time, that they reflect a shared understanding of expectations and outcomes of what’s been agreed to. In other words, visible clarity; it reduces the risk of misunderstandings.

  2. Don’t put your mic on mute - sometimes employees mute themselves when they're not doing much talking; this impacts on spontaneity. Ensure you supply your employees with good quality audio-visual equipment to minimise background noise, and allow everyone to participate.

Communication is everything

  • Use open, transparent communications and collaboration platforms that lead to longer decision-making. Transparent communications that everyone can access at any time are essential.
  • Minimise the use of email for conversations (unless they're confidential, like HR issues) and make use of messaging apps like MS Teams or Slack so that everyone can see the conversation even if they're not participating. Matt's company, Automattic, use an internal blog system called P2. It's asynchronous (i.e. you post a message without expecting an immediate response), meaning that sometimes decisions take longer to reach, but more people can provide input which is better in the long run. Asynchronous communications provide a lot of space for those who are shy or thoughtful, or for those for whom English is a second language. These staff can contribute their ideas in their own time, rather than having to react in real time.
  • Watch your tone - written communication is by far the most powerful in a distributed organisation for sharing information, but it needs to be produced properly. Emotion and tone of voice are the first things to go in most written comms, so there needs to be a concerted effort to write in a kind and humorous way. Write as positively as possible and start the conversation with what the outcome should be so that everyone's on the same page from the beginning. When reading comms, use the idea of API – assume positive intent so that you remain patient if the tone of the message is a bit off.
  • De-escalate arguments or misunderstandings quickly by getting on a call. There's still scope for confusion and misunderstanding. This leads to frustration, and staff should pick up the phone or video call if communications are becoming tangled. It's important to de-escalate any arguments quickly and getting on the phone or Zoom is the best way to do this.

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Ensure you have reliable tools designed for distributed workforces

There are a lot of cloud-based software platforms designed for consumers and small businesses; everything from communications to project management to sales tools for sales teams. However, if you’re a larger and more complex business there are not many options available to you in this area.

DX2 is a shared digital document exchange platform that can be used in conjunction with your current ERP solution. It gives your finance team the ability to receive digital invoices, code them and then send them on a digital workflow. It gives your operational staff the ability to create and submit digital purchase orders and get them approved. DX2 gives your sales team the ability to receive sales orders digitally and submit them to your ERP or production system.

Go Timesheets, Expenses, Leave and Roster provides your staff with the ability to submit timesheets, expenses and leave applications. You can roster staff and have the data flow seamlessly into your other systems.

The broader benefits

If an organisation is made up primarily of knowledge work, it lends itself much better to being in a distributed, virtual environment. And there are other benefits that fall outside of the productivity sphere, such as:

  • Environmental - working from home means less pollution and carbon emissions caused by the commute to work.

  • Humanising - teams get a glimpse into their workmates' homes and families. Since the lockdown, people have been taking their teams on a virtual tour of their home, and this has proved a very popular activity that promotes team bonding.

 

We have had to move swiftly into working from home, and it does take a distributed workforce time to adapt. However, these tips can help ensure that an organisation not only remains productive, but can actually improve their output and place more focus on employee health and wellbeing.

 

WFH is not just about communications, it’s also about continuing to transact business. Our solutions empower distributed teams to do just that. Learn more about DX2 or Go, or get in touch to find out how we can help get your teams working from home.