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Remote working is here to stay, so learn how to do it properly

Are you all Zoomed out yet?

If you’re a busy executive, I bet you are. I bet you have had WAY too many virtual meetings in the past few weeks. Social distancing has forced so many of us to work remotely from each other, and to rely on the video conferencing products of Zoom, Microsoft and Google to keep in touch.

Many busy managers I know are having wall-to-wall, back-to-back video meetings. And they are burnt out – more so than they were back in the office. Why is that? Well, because participating in video meetups is indeed way more tiring than meeting in person. We have not (yet) evolved to do most of our interactions through screens, and our eyes and brains get very tired trying to read the subtle body language cues of all the meeting participants arrayed before us. It’s very stressful, even though the total number of meeting hours might be the same as in your traditional setup.

But that’s OK, you say, because this is just temporary, right? We’ll soon be putting this distancing nonsense behind us and returning to full-tilt in-person interactions, right? We’ll be gathering in proper meeting rooms and flying around the world again to press the flesh and read the eyes and see the situation ‘kwa ground’, right? Because we’re so fed up of this digital lark, right?

May I urge you to pause and think again. Millions of workers have now tried this remote working game for a sustained period of time, and they have seen two things: one, that it’s not the same as working in the same building at the same time, sure; but two, that it’s not all bad – it actually has some serious positives going for it. Certainly, we all miss the human camaraderie and the spontaneous conversations, but who misses the commuting in traffic? The constant interruptions? Having to share appliances and utensils and washrooms with random sapiens? Having the beady eye of supervisors constantly on us? Stiff-necked dress codes?

Having seen that a lot of work actually still got done even though it was being done from homes, how many CFOs are now gazing at spreadsheets itemizing their property and space costs?

We will go back to our physical offices and in-the-flesh meetings, certainly we will. We are social creatures by nature, and will need to. Many will not have a choice – the nature of their work requires showing up physically, not virtually. But the wise will not go back in exactly the same way as before. Those who will use this pandemic to their advantage will think out a new way of working, one that blends the best of in-person with the best of digital. A whole range of work will now continue to be done by bytes and pixels travelling back and forth, not just bodies.

To achieve this blend, there is a profound lesson to learn: if remote working is just made an exact replica of the old physical norms, it doesn’t work. You can’t just take your old ideas about working hours and productivity measurement and endless meetings into cyber-space. That would be like showing up in a horse-drawn buggy on a formula one racetrack. No, you have to rethink and redesign. 

Let me provide two tips in this regard.

First, understand the difference between synchronous (done by different people at the same time) and asynchronous work (done together, but not at the same time). Zoom and Meet are not the only way of working together remotely; software tools that allow you to work on shared projects at different times or even time-zones, like Slack or Teams (or my personal favourite, Basecamp), are just as important. Great collaborative work can be done without people being in the same place (even the same virtual room) at the same time. Educate yourself on this and unlock the benefits.

Second, please learn, finally, to focus on outputs, not inputs; deliverables, not hours logged; trust, not suspicion. For far too long organizational leaders have hired people who are mistrusted intensely and then supervised obsessively. This is primitive industrial-age thinking, which is being applied even to knowledge workers in the upper echelons today. A higher-order leader creates a cause that energises employees; recruits them carefully; equips many of them to work from anywhere; sets out what is expected; and then gets out of the way. 

If that’s not you, you’re probably going to find yourself in a time warp soon.

(Sunday Nation, 17 May 2020)

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