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Remote working tips from a CEO who’s been there

20 Mar 2020 By Chris Dyer

Chris Dyer had to roll out home working for all staff when his company faced difficulties in the late 2000s. Here he shares the lessons he learned

'Out of office' messages are about to become more literal. 

As social distancing becomes the best practice for thwarting the spread of coronavirus, businesses are turning to telework to keep their people healthy. Many are doing so with trepidation, wondering how their company culture will change. How will a dispersed staff perform, collaborate and stay focused? Will they get any work done at all?

These are questions that leaders of businesses that have already moved to fully remote platforms have asked, wrestled with and answered. The good news is that many have remained viable and competitive.

Back in the late 2000s, my business was in the same position that many face today; working from home was our only solution to staying afloat during the economic downturn. We had to get it right. Two elements of vibrant company culture can help you get it right today: a positive mindset, and a healthy respect for mistakes.

Positivity is the best treatment for uncertainty and unforeseen challenges, like the progression of the coronavirus and its consequences. Compelled to work from home? Consider it a grand opportunity. You’re about to learn everything you always wanted to know about it. Read up on the subject, work up a short-term plan, and track its effectiveness as you go.

Will you make mistakes? Probably. We played endless phone tag trying to collaborate, at first, then we revamped our communications software and remote meeting protocols. Now, we reach the right person on the first try, use a hierarchy of meeting types, and are more efficient and productive than ever before. Treat each mistake as a stepping stone to a better process, and you’ll get there.

Our phone-tag blunder brought up two more aspects of good culture that we incorporated to elevate our ability to connect and collaborate long distance: transparency and effective listening. 

In an office, it was easier to find the right source to answer questions or provide details, even asking folks one cubicle at a time. From several locations, we needed a list of who did what and why. This saved time and ensured that relevant players were invited to meetings, which became more goal-orientated. The same went for sharing files and information online. Transparency made us more accurate and efficient.

How we communicated grew more important, as well. Without face-to-face discussion, we needed to boost our listening skills, particularly when teleconferencing. This meant no multitasking and repeating back a speaker’s words or asking for clarification to make sure everyone was understood.

It also meant being patient and methodical in choosing to remain silent and take notes or reply only when a response was warranted. No one wants to waste time speaking and not be heard. Thoughtful and respectful listening is a hallmark of great company culture.

I can testify that taking the risk to go remote encouraged us to accept mistakes, so we could find new ways to succeed. Going about it in a positive manner sure beats throwing up our hands and deciding we couldn’t do it. Making all of our company information internally accessible and refining our communication skills gave us the tools to get the job done. Our company culture has improved exponentially.

We can’t know what the fallout from this pandemic will be, but likely many organisations will voluntarily go remote, and some may be forced to do so. Right now, universities are moving to online classes and the US government is preparing its vast workforce to equip for distance work. There is no doubt that for many, the coronavirus pandemic will change the very way we work. Let’s make sure it’s for the better.

Chris Dyer is a leadership speaker, author of The Power of Company Culture and founder and CEO of PeopleG2

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

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Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity

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Aberystwyth University

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