In 2018, I wrote about a hybrid model for working remotely. At that time, working from home (or WFH as we now call it) was an option, a privilege, something that could be considered but required significant changes and challenges in an environment that was almost entirely onsite and present in the office. WFH was not something that we supported, except as an occasional thing. Remote work was something only a few were enabled to do, those with key roles that required near 24/7 access to the network and positions that required a more-than-full-time level of work.
2020 turned all that on its head, requiring the majority of our department to be enabled and supported for working remotely full-time. WFH was no longer a privilege but a temporary (and still ongoing) requirement for us to continue functioning and for people to be able to keep contributing to their work and to the science and research. While it wasn’t easy or perfect, I think we managed it fairly well, and now have the opportunity to learn about how to get to that hybrid approach option going forward.
Here then are my reflections and learnings from our 2020 experience. Part 1 will look at our transition to remote work due to COVID-19. Part 2 will consider the lessons learned to manage remote working going forward. Part 3 will re-examine the four original arguments about working remotely to see if or how they apply now.
The Pandemic Transition
In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic required a rapid transition to WFH for a lot of people. For my teams, this represented close to 96% of us. In just 5 days, 50 out of 52 people moved to WFH either full-time or most of the time, and while it wasn’t without challenge or hiccup, it was remarkably smooth considering a) we had been so rigidly onsite previously and b) what was happening in the rest of the world. So how did we make it work?
First, none of it would have been possible without the rapid changes implemented on the computer network side. Our systems team leader quickly identified what was needed to put the remote connections in place and maintain security, and our leadership approved and enabled those. Throughout the transition and continuing today, the systems team is a critical success factor in enabling and sustaining effective work for the organization, both for those at home and those remaining onsite. And our team rocked it.
Second is flexibility. It would have been very easy for chaos to take over quickly during such a massive change, and so order and “rules” needed to be in place to ensure control. As so many people migrated at once, keeping track of who was taking what home, as well as what was required for those working onsite with teams that were now absent, was essential to stay organized and consistent. Those rules also have to be flexible enough to accommodate a multitude of individual circumstances and a constantly shifting external set of requirements. With the guiding principles of safety and effectiveness, we have been able to ensure that people have what they need to work well and stay safe.
This applies to those working onsite as well; not everyone’s job can be done remotely. The requirement to be onsite came with different challenges and worries, especially in the early days of the pandemic, for both individuals and the organization. Ensuring that the worksite was outfitted with hand-cleaning materials, PPE, and information signage – all in compliance with the ever-changing information about the virus and the evolving rules – and providing other supports such as parking and flexible hours, were essential for the staff working onsite.
Third is communication. For the duration of the situation so far, we have had almost daily emails to our staff. These cover need-to-know elements such as the latest rules and requirements for those onsite, descriptions of new processes for those working offsite, and updates on things new and old. It was important that these items be clear and complete (and where possible, concise), but also that they be consistent (on a regular schedule, and in a standard format and voice) and comprehensive (applicable to everyone both onsite and at home).
This communication was one of my most important tasks over the past 10 months and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Based on the feedback I've had, these are welcome messages to and for the group. Although sometimes it is necessary to forward a more formal or official email regarding policy changes, for the most part I endeavour to summarize these and emphasize what and how these external messages are applicable, providing people with a reliable source of relevant information in a timely manner. It is also important to be responsive – if one person has a question, likely a few more have the same one, they’re just not asking; updates regularly include answers to these for everyone and ongoing encouragement to ask more as needed. Message also include some lighter elements, such as suggestions for music and my own Bitmoji.
Last but not least are camaraderie and compassion. One of the things I value so much about where I work is the overall sense of commitment – to the work that we do, and to each other. Without that, the changes in our work environment could have been disastrous. Despite the confusion and fear and upheaval, we all worked together to move into this new way of working with a sustained sense of togetherness and care for each other, and I believe this is an essential element in our success, now and always.
None of this is to minimize the individual challenges that people faced with their families (loss of childcare options or changes in employment status of partners) or in their households (suddenly multiple people need Wi-fi and a place to work in the house, all day, every day). The elements we applied at the organization hopefully enabled people to be able to more easily manage their individual and family challenges by having a clearer and more flexible work environment, whether onsite or off.
Going forward, it will be important to learn from these experiences, as the future office working world will not look the same as the past one. It won’t need to continue with the extreme distances we are working in now (although distancing is likely to remain a part of facility design and space allocation), but some of the advantages experienced by individuals, teams, and the organization should be able to continue. And we will need to acknowledge and address the things that we have lost and will need to learn to live without (or with less).
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.