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Emerging Lessons on Remote Working During COVID-19

June 3, 2020

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Kim Kucinskas

Technical Director, Organizational Transformation, US

Working from home comes with its own set of benefits, challenges, and best practices to succeed in the best of circumstances. But it has become crystal clear that working remotely in the context of COVID-19 is different than regular remote work. In our new operating environments, staff who are used to working in an office are now expected to meet deliverables and maintain high performing teams while managing less than ideal home office set-ups, new technologies, dependent care, and an undercurrent of uncertainty-related stress.

Having spent hours each week since the COVID-19 pandemic began listening to, commiserating amongst, and solutions-sharing with leaders from the international development and relief sector, a picture has begun to emerge on how to create the foundations for successful remote working during this unusual time.

Leadership is crucial when setting the tone and building culture

First and foremost, staff want to hear their leadership acknowledge that these are not normal times, and that everyone is doing the best they can. Strong leadership means transparent and predictable communication, setting clear expectations, and leading by example – especially around the topic of self-care. An office-based organizational culture may not translate to a distributed workforce, so it is up to leadership to actively build one that suits the new circumstances.

This may look like:

  • A weekly newsletter to all staff
  • Informal spaces to have conversations with leadership such as regularly scheduled office hours, coffee chats, or global town halls

Never underestimate the importance of a good manager

During this time of rapid change, even the best supervisors need direction and support. Invest the time and resources to work with line-managers to understand their role and help them adjust to remote management.

This may look like:

  • Provide quality remote management training to increase consistent management
  • Set clear expectations about what effective supervision looks like during performance plans and assessments
  • Provide guidelines on what flexible management looks like in your organization (e.g. make sure managers are aware of your telework or flexible work policy and be clear about flexibility maximums
  • Support techniques such as deliverables-based management and time blocking

Set foundations for success

Successful organizations set themselves up for success by removing as many barriers as possible that might get in the way of staff being able to do their job. Tools and structures provide the technical infrastructure to work remotely, while policies and guidelines reduce anxiety by removing ambiguity.

This may look like:

  • Providing sufficient IT support and policies to support connectivity challenges
  • Making sure staff have the tools they need such as workspace and internet
  • Tools that allow staff to show when they are available and working, not necessarily on a 9-5 schedule (e.g. Outlook calendar, Slack/Teams status)
  • Updating your old telework policy or guidelines to account for new flexible work arrangements (considerations may include decision-level authority (organization vs. supervisors), state and country leave requirements, and funder guidance)

Managing meeting and information-load

Meeting overload is becoming a way of life. Acknowledging the struggle and finding ways to collaborate outside of meetings will become increasingly important. A good place to start is with co-creating virtual communication norms, which may include which communication tools to use (and when, and how) and minimum response times to allow for asynchronous communication in different time zones.

This may look like:

  • Carve out space for no meetings – a meeting free day each week or no meetings scheduled during a set time each day
  • Work with staff to ruthlessly prioritize meetings (a member-donated Work Plan & Productivity Tracker Tool is available on Humentum Connect)
  • Provide meeting protocols and guidelines (a member-donated Meeting Guidelines document is available on Humentum Connect)
  • Rotate themes to avoid overcommunication. Break it up into digestible pieces (e.g. daily HR or self-care tips)
  • Acknowledge time zone differences and try to work around that so that the same group of people are not the ones having super early or late meetings
  • Host phone meetings (not video) when possible to reduce sitting in front of a desk all day

Create space to have fun and maintain connections

How do you maintain staff morale, enable team collaborations, and stave off feelings of isolation? Find ways to have fun! Having fun, building connections, and getting a little silly can act as a release valve, which is especially crucial today. There are many creative ways to encourage fun in your team or organization, but make sure that whatever you choose fits your particular culture. And forced fun never works. It is more important to create the space for people to come together than to have 100% participation. It is important to acknowledge the introverts in your midst and make it clear that it is okay to participate however they feel most comfortable, even if that means enjoying themselves from the sidelines.

This might look like:

  • Introducing energizers during virtual meetings
  • Organizing ‘joy breaks’ for teams, departments, and the entire organizations. These can take many forms. Examples include:
    • Interest groups that are led by staff and either meet regularly or post regularly in channels (e.g. Slack, Teams)
    • Voluntary meditation sessions
    • Secret pen pal / random staff pairings for non-work related chats
    • Pet competitions (complete with categories, judges, and prizes)
    • Drawing competitions
    • Two truths and a lie game (one staff tells three facts about themselves and others have to guess which is a lie)

Support work-life-self balance

Perhaps the best thing you can do to create a supportive environment for staff is to acknowledge and accept that the boundaries between work and life will be blurred for the foreseeable future. This may mean adjusting to changes in productivity, individual schedules, and interruption free meetings. Actively developing a culture of understanding, empathy and assuming good intent will go a long way!

This might look like:

  • Provide Employee Assistance Resources (EAP) resources
  • Provide tips on well-being and managing stress (Resources on coping with isolation and anxiety, supporting staff, and self-care are available on Humentum Connect)
  • Promote breaks and flex working, and model that for staff
  • Initiate summer hours (shortened work week)
  • Create an environment where it is okay for staff to bring their ‘full selves’ to work, which may mean a messy background or interruptions from children or pets

The way we work is changing and there is no way for us to know what the new ‘best practice’ will look like one month, or even one year, from today. For now, I am taking solace in listening to and learning from those within the Humentum community, a set of smart, dedicated, well-intentioned individuals determined to not just get by, but to find ways to help themselves and their staff thrive. These are conversations that will continue, and as they do, we will update this page. Members can contribute to solutions and sharing, and find these downloadable resources and more on Humentum Connect.

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