Over the past week, COVID-19 has impacted our personal and professional lives profoundly, serving as a poignant reminder that “business as usual” is a fragile state. In an effort to fight the rapid spread of the disease, many of us are working from home for the time being. Several members of the North Highland team are in permanent remote work arrangements, so we sat down with them to gather their tips and tricks on successful remote work.
This Q&A (conducted virtually, of course) features three North Highland employees who pioneered the non-office life as remote workers, long before “social distancing” had entered the vocabulary:
- Michael Carey – Graphic Design Manager (West Palm Beach, Florida)
- Blake Koch – Manager (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
- Jeremiah McWilliams – Employee Communications Director (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Question: Michael, Blake, Jeremiah - each of you have worked remotely for a year or more. What advice would you share with firms or people who are experimenting or pivoting to remote work?
Jeremiah: Walk in with clear expectations. Let me be clear: this is not going to be a vacation! It may require a mindset shift to start thinking of your home – your castle – as an office, because the pull of freedom is very strong. It’s a real temptation to do laundry, or dishes, or a workout when work needs to be the priority. Working remotely gives you the freedom to design your day for maximum impact. The challenge is, how do you use this great gift of flexibility without losing a sense of order and structure. For each person, the answer will be a bit different.
Michael: I recommend being patient and open-minded in the beginning, specifically with communications technology. My team and I had to experiment with a few different communication platforms before we found our groove.
Blake: For firms, recognize the differences in your team members’ remote working strengths and styles. Most people find different kinds of work (e.g. analytic modeling, creative thinking, critical communications) are easier or harder when remote versus in an office. Understand what works best for individuals and do what you can to set them up for success. It’s not a “one size fits all” situation. It takes time and effort, but understanding individual needs will produce better results in the long run.
For individuals new to remote work, experiment with your environment to see what works best for you. What you found most effective in a traditional office environment may not work for you while working remotely. Your daily routines, physical space, and methods of collaboration will all change. It’s an excellent opportunity to try out new things!
Question: How do you ensure your physical environment is conducive to work?
Michael: I think it’s critical to remove distracting items from your direct workspace. Also, consider background items that could be distracting for someone on the other end of a video call. I don’t actually keep my “work space” and “living space” separate. While I do have a dedicated home office, I have the room set up for more than just work.
Blake: It has been helpful for me to have different spaces available at home to use. Just as in an office environment, you may find physically moving spaces may help with productivity. In an office, that might mean moving between a cubicle, conference room, or shared space depending on the need. At home, it could be moving between your dedicated workspace and a different room in the house like your kitchen.
Question: What’s been the most helpful technology for as a remote employee?
Jeremiah: For me, it’s one of the oldest technologies in office life: a whiteboard! Having a tactile surface helps me re-sort my priorities through the week, and even throughout the day. On the tech front, I’m using Microsoft Teams all the time for video conferencing. Human biology means we need to see human faces: we crave that connection. If in-person is not possible (or advisable), we highly recommend video conferencing. North Highland has also helped clients make the most of remote work. We helped a UK government organization roll out Office 365 across over 280 locations globally, to support their aim to allow staff to “work where you need to.” North Highland’s approach combined program management, change management, and behavioral science expertise to introduce new tools and embed new ways of working.
Blake: An obvious (and very valid) answer would be any of the tech solutions we use day-to-day to connect with our colleagues and clients such as Outlook, Teams, Slack, or Zoom. What I found even more helpful was getting an ergonomic chair! When I started working remotely, I usually started my day on a stool in our kitchen. I quickly found aches and pains I wasn’t used to. Moving to work in a regular office chair was much more sustainable. Do what you can to set up a home office that will keep you comfortable and productive.
Michael: A solid instant message/video conference/collaboration platform. My team started using Zoom and we now have graduated to using Microsoft teams. These allow us to have our formal day-to-day meetings as well as allowing to do quick digital check-ins. I have also found it useful to have the App for Teams installed on my phone—this allows me to see if anything urgent is coming my way even if I'm not sitting at my computer.
Question: Are there any noticeable challenges in collaborating and teaming at a fast pace? If so, how did you overcome them?
Jeremiah: As a remote employee, I believe you need to over-perform to prove that this model works: that the machine keeps running smoothly even when you’re out of sight or around the world. And for managers, you have to let go of some control. You must trust your workforce to be true professionals and to deliver. I feel very fortunate that I work for a forward-thinking firm where I’m able to find the best situation for my family and my career.
On a tactical note, it’s important to actively contribute to calls and virtual meetings – not just attend them. Speak up when you have a thought. Let people know you’re plugged in!
Michael: I couldn’t agree more with Jeremiah’s take here. I will add that I have intentionally become more available and responsive than ever to help establish trust with my team. Just because they can’t see me in an office or cube next to them doesn’t mean that I can’t immediately assist.
Question: Let’s talk about the emotional side of this. Do you have any tips and tricks for maintaining focus throughout the day?
Jeremiah: Everyone has their own internal daily energy clock. Get to know yours, and design your day around it. I have the overwhelming urge to stand up and take a quick walk (perhaps just to the mailbox) around 1 pm. That’s a signal that I should probably not schedule an hour-long call starting at 1 pm – I need a little bit of refocus time.
Your physical environment plays a big role in deep work and clear thinking. You’ve got to take care of your body for the long-term. Like Blake said, invest in an ergonomic chair and a high-resolution screen, and a mouse that feels good in your hand. Give up the idea of a paperless office – you're going to need a printer, and it will always be at an inopportune time. Invest in one now!
Question: Have you adjusted your schedule at all from working from home (i.e., earlier starts, a quick walk around the neighborhood, etc.)?
Blake: I found I had to put up new boundaries and break some old ones. My old routine included checking email on my phone as soon as I woke up and throughout the day whenever away from my computer. You can find it quickly becomes all-encompassing when at home. I’ve purposefully set up new boundaries to limit that – creating work-free times at home. The old boundaries I’ve broken down are to make sure I’m “coming up for air” throughout the day. It’s easier in an office to step away from your computer periodically – when getting coffee or connecting with a colleague for example. In the absence of those opportunities, it’s easy to sit in front of your screen the entire day. In between meetings, I try to make sure I occasionally move around the house.
Michael: When I was in an office, I found it hard to carve out time for anything other than work. Working remotely has allowed me to change my mentality a little bit. The time I used to spend commuting now gets dedicated to more productive things like exercising or gardening.
Question: How has remote work affected your productivity?
Michael: At home, there are no cube/office “drive-by conversations” that are hard to escape, and no loud phone-meetings happening nearby. I am significantly more focused and productive as a remote worker.