As I write this, many, if not all of you, are working from home. What was once considered a prize in an organization - a day or two working from home a week - is now mandatory in many places. A month ago, you may have dreamed of one day teleworking and now … you are. And now that you are, you’re possibly not sure this is going to be the great experience you thought it was going to be. Or you’re perhaps you’re a supervisor who resisted the idea of teleworking, and now find all your direct reports reporting … remotely. What now? How do you manage this distributed workforce from your home? A further consideration as we wonder how we’ll manage through all of this is the likelihood that this remote work style becomes an essential and widespread part of the new normal. It’s reasonable to assume that many organizations have realized that jobs once thought to be impossible to be worked from home can be without missing a step. So, how to adjust to this current situation and how to think about how life will likely be for the foreseeable future?
We thought it would be helpful to hear from staff members of an organization that has been 100% virtual for the last four years. They work from home every day, meet with each other on Microsoft Teams, communicate via chat and voice, share screens and content, and thrive in a positive, cohesive and productive work environment. That firm? Enabling Technologies.
Enabling’s Teleworking Story
We’ve been 100% virtual for four years now and over that time our firm has thrived and grown in terms of annual revenue, staff, and lines of business. We’re able to attract and retain staff - highly sought-after technical staff - who appreciate teleworking as critical part of the work/life balance they seek. And all the while, we’re able to maintain an astonishingly high level of esprit de corps. Our customers find the remote work style fits with their needs as well, not having to find meeting or seating space for our engineers when we’re providing services, being able to work with us wherever they happen to be at any particular time. And, Microsoft, our chief business partner, enjoys pointing to Enabling’s use of Teams as the critical underlying technology that makes it all work. So, how did we get here?
In 2007, Enabling was a regionally focused systems integrator located just outside Baltimore, Maryland. Most of our customers were located close to our offices as well so it was easy to put our technical team together with our customers. However, over time we won customers outside of the Washington, DC metropolitan area making it more complicated and expensive to deploy staff to customer sites. Initially, we had engineers travel, sometimes three weeks out of the month, which lead to significant staff turnover. This created pressure to figure out a way to provide services remotely. We gradually began to promote remote services to clients as the customer base became more geographically dispersed, substituting it for on-site services. Likewise, as business expanded geographically, we hired more geographically dispersed staff until a majority of Enabling’s team were located elsewhere. By 2014, Enabling’s customer base spanned the entire country. Given the broad reach of our customer base, it was no longer important that our engineers live and work in Maryland. We were also growing a managed services support team for customers needing round the clock support and staff augmentation so having a technical team available across the country made it easier to support our 24 * 7 service level agreements.
During this time, the technologies that support and enable teleworking were maturing, tools like Microsoft Office 365. So, in 2014 Enabling’s CEO and President Bill Vollerthum took the decision to move the organization to Office 365 and Skype for Business for voice and collaboration, a move that sealed the deal. By the end of that year, there were only 3 staff members reporting to Enabling’s HQ location. After considering the expenses associated with office rental, utilities, taxes and insurance, Bill decided it made economic sense to close the offices and go 100% virtual. By 2016, the move was complete.
As any business owner might, Bill had concerns that staff performance and productivity might decline as the firm moved to a teleworking model. He was concerned that the staff’s lack of proximity to one another might reduce organizational cohesiveness and make collaboration more difficult. How would staff take to spending their days on Skype, working alone from their homes or Starbucks? Would Enabling be able to attract and retain staff? Also, what would clients think about working with consulting firm that had no offices? Would Microsoft respect the capabilities of a partner that had no offices?
To manage his teleworking team, Bill experimented with a variety of methods to measure performance and set goals for each staff member. His objective was a framework that incentivized staff seriousness of purpose, enhanced service delivery quality, and would satisfy the management team that staff were doing their jobs. In addition to a set of clear expectations for staff performance, the management team also implemented regular communication with associates and time-sheet reporting to nurture a culture of belonging as well as encouraging diligence when working from home. As staff responded to incentives and their individual goals, management could determine which associates needed closer attention through regular check-ins and which could go without regular review of their activities. It’s important to note that the experiment began with an assumption of trust, a belief that all staff, properly incentivized and managed, could and would be productive, effective and happy working from home.
By the time of this writing, many Enabling staff members have been with the organization for years. They find the technical content intellectually and professionally satisfying and the work life balance that teleworking offers personally gratifying. So, what does telework at Enabling look like? It looks like Microsoft Teams. We literally spend our entire day in Teams, leaving only occasionally to answer or compose email or run an app not pinned to a Teams Channel. All voice is over Teams and all meetings go through Teams. Video participation is encouraged at least when we start a meeting which helps reinforce that sense of personal contact people want. It’s very common to start a chat with a co-worker, share a document, switch to a call, and invite other Enablers to participate in the conversation. There are other collaboration tools on the market place, but if your organization needs a tool for collaboration with robust communication features integrated with enterprise capable document management, all wrapped up in a deep and broad securing platform, there isn’t another option like Microsoft Teams.
So, what kind of advice can our experienced teleworkers offer as you begin your new life as a teleworker. We thought it would be helpful to hear what some Enabling staff have to say about teleworking from four perspectives:
- What was the transition to teleworking like,
- What factors make teleworking successful,
- What specific advice would you share with staff beginning to telework, and
- What advice can you share with supervisors who find themselves with teleworking staff?
The Teleworking Transition
As discussed earlier, teleworking can be a tough adjustment for folks who enjoy the day to day social contact we get at the office. Staff are used to casual, impromptu chats with each other and the way they feel they have their fingers on the pulse of the organization. It’s vitally important that staff feel they are part of larger organization, that they are not lost or forgotten. At Enabling, we do this with regular check in sessions and opting for conference calls to discuss issues rather than conversing over email or chat. Adding video to those conversations make staff feel closer to their colleagues and encourages socializing.
Michael Short, an Enabling’s Cloud Strategy Advisors, remembers how hard it was at times to stay focused on task in the office and how he embraced the opportunity for more focused work at home. “The office presented lots of distractions that took me away from concentrated thought. At home, I’m able to focus on the task at hand without interruption.” Eric Buchbinder, one of Enabling’s Project Managers found the transition easy. In his prior job, he had the opportunity to work from home once or twice a week and could see how much more efficient he was at home. So, when the opportunity to work at home full-time appeared, he jumped at the chance. “Of course,” he says, “it is important that the underlying technology your organization employs for teleworking supports your collaboration needs. Office 365 and Teams make it easy for the Enabling team to communicate and collaborate not only with themselves, but also with customers and other partners.” Shane O’Connell, our Digital Marketing director, found the transition from the office to staying at home easier on his life. “It allowed me to have a stronger work life balance because instead of sitting in traffic and being late for dinner, I can actually sit with my family and enjoy their presence.”
Tiffany Satoris, a Cloud Strategy Advisor, misses seeing people. She’s a social creature so whether its isolated teleworking or practicing social distancing, it can be tough for her mentally. She travels to meet with clients from time to time so that helps, but she also takes time to reach out to folks every day to chat or do a video call. “Thank goodness,” she says, “for Teams!” Chris Stegh, Enabling’s Chief Technology Officer, on the other hand, doesn’t miss anything about working in the office. Living in Chicago, the commute into town for work was always much tougher than any work he had to do! Scott Barr, Director of Technical Services, likes the efficiency he achieves working from home, and doesn’t miss working in the office at all. “I can generally get more done before 8:30 than I could ever accomplish in an office setting.” He notes also that he gets back the 3 hours a day he used to spend commuting into the office. Eric misses lunch with colleagues and those casual encounters you have with folks in the office. But with Teams, he says, “it’s easy to interact with my teammates virtually by voice and/or video.” Michael misses the opportunity you have in the office to hear what’s going on, to have those casual conversations. You can miss those good tips and tricks and useful office gossip when you’re teleworking. The adjustment is be more intentional about reaching out when you’re teleworking so you’re in more regular contact with your colleagues.
Making it Work
Here at Enabling, a critical factor for successful telework is that staff members develop an individual routine around their teleworking day. Without the structure of an office schedule, bracketed with a commute that transitions the worker between home and office, it can be hard to keep up one’s focus, diligence and productivity. Successful teleworkers have a personal routine that helps them plan their day and get their work done but avoid burnout from overwork. For Scott, his routine is dressing each morning for work just so he’s ready in case he has to do an impromptu video conference. He maintains a dedicated workspace separate from the rest of the household to which he can return if he has things he has to attend to after hours. Tiffany wakes up early and checks email before the rest of the house is awake, and then plans most of her meetings and calls between 10 and 4. This way she can attend to house work and family commitments that may come up while still accomplishing the core of her tasks. Eric maintains a fairly regimented schedule. He knows it would be easy to get distracted by other things, but by maintaining a rigorous start time, lunch break and time to disconnect he is able to focus his work time and detach when the time comes. For Michael, it’s essential to have your own workspace. “If its mixed in with your family, there aren’t any boundaries and that’s a problem. My kids come home at 3 PM and I still have lots of calls to make. I can’t shut the kids down, but I do have work to do.” For Michael, the solution is a home office built out over his garage with windows so there’s good natural light and he can work there undisturbed. It’s also easier for him to walk away from work at the end of the day as he “commutes” back into the house. Other routines? Michael takes a shower first thing in the morning before he goes to his office every day. It’s a signal that the workday is starting. He takes breaks for lunch and change of pace, but is careful to follow his plan for the day.
Advice for the New Teleworker
So, you’re considering teleworking or perhaps you’ve found yourself suddenly teleworking as a result of the current pandemic. Our successful teleworkers have some good advice for you. Scott says, “Keep a routine, have a dedicated workspace, and honor your personal time.” Chris’ advise is encouraging: “You will be more productive, have less expenses, and as long as the org has the right tools and transparency, the work will be just as engaging.” Tiffany suggests the new teleworker stay away from distractions, like social media. “Give yourself time for it – maybe 30 minutes a day – but don’t let it distract from your work. Make time to take a walk outside for a break and get some fresh air. This will keep your spirits lifted and keep you focused on the work at hand. Make a list of priority items that have to be accomplished that day and feel good about them when you check them off your list.” “With the right tools,” Eric says, “you can be extremely productive, and it doesn’t feel like you’re isolated.” Michael feels it’s very important to take breaks and come back to the house. “Stand for 5 or 10 minutes in a conference call. Get out if you can.” It’s also important, he adds, to time your days to be as productive as possible. “You have to be self-motivated. People who need to be managed may not make it. Losing a half hour here and there adds up to not meeting your targets by the end of the year. It’s not for everybody. Shane has a variant piece of advice.” The challenge, our experts agree, is knowing when to stop working. With your home being your office it's hard to shut off. There are times, after working an 8 hour day, we feel we need to jump on our computers because we remember something to do. But that's time we could be spending with our friends and family. So being strict with yourself. As Scott said: “Honor your personal time.”
Advice for the New Telework Supervisor
A few months ago, perhaps you were a supervisor who was considering requests from staff to telework perhaps a day or so a week. Now you’re a supervisor whose entire team is teleworking. Maybe you’re not ready for this, but here you are. What advice do experienced teleworkers have for you in this situation? Michael’s advice is to come up with a set of ground rules for your staff. “You can’t micromanage them when they’re at home so set reasonable goals and objectives for your team to meet and check in regularly. And start from an assumption of trust that your team will do the work they are intended to perform.” Tiffany underscores this. “Give them that trust. They are going to do the right thing, but it may take a few weeks for them to get used to the feeling of being remote and no longer being in the office atmosphere.” Eric recommends keeping your finger on the pulse of your team. Have weekly, possibly daily team calls to start to make sure everyone is on the same page. Take note though, he points out that “it’s easier when remote for information to transmit point-to-point, and invariably someone gets left off the chain.” People can begin to feel isolated and lonely so make a point of having regular meetings with your team to help build and sustain camaraderie. Scott’s advice is that the supervisor should expect a reasonable response time from their subordinates during normal operating hours but honor your staff’s personal time outside of business hours. Set expectations in advance but give the employee the latitude to develop his or her own routines. The good news for a firm that embraces teleworking, as Chris points out is, “you can hire the right people at the right salary no matter where they live, and won’t sacrifice based on geography and cost of living.” Shane says, “Do it, now! It's an amazing business decision. You'll save money, reach the largest pool of talent, and your employees will love you.”
For us at Enabling, teleworking just works. We rely on Microsoft Teams to make teleworking successful and we nurture a culture around collaboration and communication, helping to offset that feeling of loneliness one can get after working alone at home. As Eric says, “It’s great, with the right tools you can be extremely productive, and it doesn’t feel like you’re isolated. I don’t think I could go back to working in an office!”