Out of the New and Into the Next: Overcoming the Challenges of Remote Work in 2020 (and Beyond?)

Remember when the “New Normal” was actually new? Some of us saw remote work policies as a silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown; others considered it a form of punishment. A few months later and those in the former category want to keep working from home, while the latter can’t wait to get back to the office. For the time being, it looks like the happy home workers will get their wish. In this post, you’ll learn more about optimizing your and your team’s performance while working remotely.

At Rossum, we adapted to the New Normal with relative ease. In a blog post and a webinar, we shared the lessons we picked up during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re still learning, and we’ve got even more to share as we move from the New Normal into the Next Normal.

There’s nothing normal about the current circumstances, though “normal” is a highly subjective concept. However you look at it, we’re all experiencing huge changes to most, if not all, aspects of our lives. The abrupt shift to remote work is affecting more than our professional lives, it is also impacting our social and family lives. Yet when we look at previous work-from-home experiments and programs, we seem to be handling it much better now.

A Quick Look at Remote Work Failures

According to a recent New York Times article, businesses believe that remote work will benefit them in the long run, despite its problematic history. For example, IBM suffered a massive drop in revenue during the eight years it allowed 40 percent of its workforce to work remotely. Other companies saw staff use work-from-home policies as an excuse to take a day off.

The Rise and Fall of Telecommuting

Nobody says “telecommuting” anymore. NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined the term in 1973, which was also the year inventor Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call. “Telecommuting” now sounds as obsolete as Cooper’s brick-like cell phone looks.

But way back in the 80s, thought leaders and the media were convinced telecommuting was going to revolutionize the way we worked. Technology-driven, it would enable employees to work when and where they wanted. Telecommuting would also save companies office space costs while providing them access to a much wider talent pool. 

Early optimism faded when business leaders saw drops in creativity and innovation that only personal contact can deliver.

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

– 2013 Yahoo memo following CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement that employees would have to return to the office.

The Challenges of Remote Work and How to Beat Them

The coronavirus has forced us to work from home, and we seem to be better at it now. We can attribute much of the current success to technology that enables teams to execute tasks, collaborate, and communicate more effectively. One of the key points here, however, is that we seem to be better at remote work. Here are a few of several challenges we’re facing in our home offices.

More Meetings, Less Productivity, Zoom Fatigue

While tech solutions like Zoom, Slack, and GDrive have improved our remote working capabilities, in some ways they’re more hindrance than help. A Monday.com study on working from home indicates that 59% of employees now have more meetings through online video communication solutions than they did at the office. More time spent in meetings means less time doing actual work for 37% of respondents. 

Employees are spending more time in meetings while working remotely.
Source: Monday.com

The intentions behind more frequent communication may be good, but the reality is that excessive meetings are a massive time sink for individuals and teams. We’ve become more aware of this in the office, but online Zoom fatigue is a thing.

If this has become the brand-new bane of your existence, your first move should be to simply reduce the number of meetings you commit to. Block out your calendar with tasks so remote team members are aware of your availability. Distributed teams in different time zones can make scheduling meetings difficult, but with effort and understanding from all members, you should be able to keep your video meetings at a manageable level.

Also, while daily standup meetings are valuable, you may want to propose a meeting-free day for your teams, like we’ve started doing at Rossum. 

Remote Workers Don’t Get Real Face Time

Without face-to-face contact with your colleagues and managers, you may feel less engaged and get distracted more easily. In the office, today’s management methods tend to be sensory on a subconscious level. Unable to see expressions and hear tones in person, teams could have difficulty understanding one another, resulting in bottlenecks or incorrectly executed tasks.

As a manager, you should measure and discuss results with your team, including reports, learnings, and deliverables. This gives them the opportunity to better show you their productivity not only remotely but in the office as well. In addition to general time trackers like Toggl and project management solutions like Trello, you can use platforms that have built-in performance monitoring tools for specific tasks. For example, Rossum’s Usage Reporting Dashboard enables you to track the effectiveness and efficiency of your team’s document data capture process.

The Rossum Usage Reporting Dashboard helps you track remote worker performance.

Isolation and Distractions Can Kill Productivity

Self-isolation has been tough on a lot of us. On top of not being able to go out and be with friends and family, you could be among those who miss the social interactions you have at the office. The collaboration, brainstorming, and creativity you get in a face-to-face setting simply isn’t the same when you’re connected online.

To compensate for this lack of human connection, the best you can do is give your remote team members the chance to interact socially via, for instance, virtual coffee breaks or pub nights. Admittedly, there’s the risk of increasing Zoom fatigue, especially if the conversation veers into work territory. To prevent this, set rules for remote socializing to help shut down any shop talk that may crop up on a call.

You’ve also got to contend with the distractions that come with working at home. You may not find this as much of a problem if you live alone, though there’s always a room to declutter, bread to bake, a series to binge-watch, and so on. You’ve also got to resist the overabundance of digital distractions, a feat that can be hard enough in the office.

If you don’t live alone, you’ve got the added challenge of maintaining your focus in the company of family or flatmates. Surprise conference call cameos, disputes over whose turn it is to take out the trash, and other interruptions can really throw you off your stride. Communication and the establishment of rules are vital to keeping your mind on your tasks. You can also count on locked doors and, at the very least, earbuds to keep distractions at bay.

The Future of Remote Work – The Next Normal

One thing that has become clear during the COVID-19 outbreak: most of us want our employers to accommodate flexible work schedules. According to Gallup, just over 76% of us want to keep working at home as often as possible after businesses reopen. The uncertainty surrounding reopening is also impacting our working routines.

With the right tools, your work from home program can benefit your company as well as employees in the long-term. In addition to communication and collaboration solutions, you have the opportunity to automate repetitive tasks that your teams normally handle manually at the office. The value of Rossum’s AI-powered data capture application, for instance, is especially clear in a remote environment. You can set up our cloud-based solution from anywhere easily, either on your own or with the assistance of the Rossum Global Services team.

The transition into the Next Normal won’t be easy, but you have access to all the technology and resources you need to ensure your remote work program is successful. You can get started right now with Rossum – sign up for your trial and process up to 300 documents per month, free of charge.

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