Fortunately, many of us who now have to work remotely with colleagues can build on long-standing personal relationships, but it’ll still be a challenge to establish new work practices. The COVID 19 pandemic forces us to learn how to stay in touch with others and perhaps even forge new relationships – from a distance of at least two metres.
The right tool at the right moment
Technology can help with collaboration, but we need to have a good feel for how to use it. Short factual information and agreements work well via e-mail, Slack and the like. All means of communication that also transmit images, such as Skype, Zoom or WhatsApp, create personal closeness – which not everyone may always want, as I suspect most people are sitting in a makeshift office and not wearing work clothes these days. For discussing complex and personal matters, the telephone is still often the best means.
In addition, rules on how to deal with potential permanent availability become even more important when working from home. In the case of part-time employees, for instance, agreed work-free days must of course continue to be observed.
When we don’t see each other “naturally” anymore, we have to plan when and how to meet. A key task for managers is making sure they stay in contact with their teams and colleagues. It is precisely this crisis that tempts some to think only in operational categories. There’s a danger here, as I ascertained in 1985 when interviewing employees of an insurance company in the US that had pioneered a working from home experiment: out of sight can quickly turn into out of mind.
Regular team meetings and discussions with employees should take place as usual, simply through other media. Even shared coffee breaks and lunches are feasible as virtual meetings – although, to avoid overloading the internet, once a week rather than daily. Lastly, informally asking after a colleague now and then can substitute for the quick daily chat at the office door. Seeking contact in work-related or personally difficult moments is now more important than ever.
At the moment, many of us are forced to stay in our own small worlds. We need to rearrange these worlds under very difficult circumstances, with small children that demand attention, and amid worries about fragile or ailing family, friends, and colleagues. At the same time, we need more than ever to stay connected with the larger world that depends on our solidarity to get help – medical, social and economic – to those that need it most.