FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS – Being productive from home

Published: 2020-05-04

With the rise of the coronavirus and the measures taken by the Swiss Government, we are living a special and unprecedented period. 
Teleworking has been growing in Switzerland for many years, due to its flexibility and efficiency. However, the current situation gives it a new dimension, as tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people have suddenly started working from home - sometimes without any preparation.  
 
This article explores the key aspects that need to be settled in order to make a successful transition to telework. 
 
Table of Contents
1. The advantages of working remotely
2. Working in good conditions at home
3. Organisation of telework
4. Digital tools - technology on our side
5. Requirement for transparency and proactivity in communication
6. Conclusion
 

1. The advantages of working remotely

Teleworking is not a fatality, but an opportunity. So, let's start with the advantages of working from home compared to working at the office. 

Elimination of the daily commute

One undeniable and important advantage of teleworking is that there is no travel time to the office. 
Commuting is of course not a complete waste of time, but to be honest, we don’t spend it by doing something really useful either. 
I've been working from home for about three weeks now. That frees me up more than an hour a day, without wasting a minute of my working time. An hour free to get more sleep, exercise, or to have lunch with my family. 

Elimination of long and unnecessary meetings

I don’t have anything against productive meetings at the office. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, it is undeniable that teleworking has the virtue of reducing the number and length of unnecessary gatherings.

A flexible content

Being able to work from home has other advantages, at least from the point of view of the person working at home. The employer is often less enthusiastic because they cannot verify whether his employee is really working or not. 
For the employees, teleworking offers greater flexibility in organising their day. They can adapt their working hours to their own conditions and situation, in order to combine work and family life in the best possible way. 
For the employer, the crucial question that worries him is whether their employees, whom they continue to pay, are not watching Netflix half of the day while eating popcorn and occasionally replying to an email at the same time. Measuring the contribution of employees by the work produced itself, rather than by the number of hours they spend logged on, can easily clarify that point. But this is probably the subject of another article.

2. Working in good conditions at home

Teleworking also has some snags, which can lead to less optimal productivity.
In order to work productively from home, you will need a quiet workspace, adequate equipment and an efficient work rhythm.

Your workspace

The goal is to find the best possible place to work in your home, which means - most of the time - the quietest place. 

When I lived in Neuchâtel (my homeland and the most beautiful city in the world), there was a kind of small room upstairs, outside our apartment, which I had converted into an office. It was paradise. I was at my desk in one minute and none of our children dared to venture outside our apartment to invade my space.
 
If you have children at home, or if other persons live in the same space as you and are not themselves plunged in the immersive joy of teleworking, it may well be more complicated, in terms of managing interruptions, than when you work at the office. 

I think the best would be to set up your working space as free as possible from noise and potential invaders, even if that means to be in a remote, ugly room in a basement without windows. If you have a living room with a view of the Alps that breathes calm and serenity hours long during each day, this will also work very well, I agree. But don't underestimate all the measures you can take to be quiet and discourage potential invaders. 

The essential equipment
- A powerful internet connection
- A computer (laptop if possible)
- An external screen
- A mobile phone
- A headset with integrated microphone
- A desk or a table to put everything
- (A chair can also be useful)
 
A high capacity internet connection is fundamental, because if the internet does not work properly, teleworking is doomed to inefficiency. Therefore, it makes sense, in times like these, to upgrade your internet connection at the highest level and check that your Wi-Fi or cable installation is optimal. You can try to negotiate with your employer for them to pay the difference with your current plan - after all, you are putting part of your house at their disposal without asking them to pay anything, including your existing internet connection, and it is in their interest that you can work in good conditions.
 
A laptop should allow you to experience more deeply the joy of working in different parts of your home at different times of the day. Some work will be done more easily on a desk but answering emails (for those who still commonly use them) can actually be done from any other place too.
 
An external screen, installed on your main desktop, is a fundamental asset, especially if you work with several applications at the same time or if you manage video conference calls while taking notes and working on other files. If you've never tried to use several screens simultaneously, it is time to get started... but I warn you that there's no coming back. 
 
Simple telephone headsets will allow you to survive the long conference calls or phone calls  when teleworking, but only noise-cancelling headphones will keep you from hearing nearby noises, such as those made by other persons running around irrationally in circles, pretending to be pirates looking for a treasure (in case you don’t have any remote, ugly room in a basement without windows…).
 

A rhythm that works

It is certainly tempting to stay in bed in your pyjamas and start your day with your laptop on a pillow. However, this approach can quickly lead to productivity problems. 
 
We have to be realistic. Humans need a rhythm.  
 
For me, it helps to have a specific start time when I am going to work at my desk. Furthermore, having a schedule with working slots allows you to set realistic limits and expectations for other people who live with you. You must distinguish  moments when you are available from moments when you are not, otherwise you will not be able to work seriously. 
You also need to take breaks, otherwise you will sink into cerebral apathy. 
 

3. Telework organisation

Employers need to ensure that telework is organised and that their staff are well managed remotely, so that everyone works efficiently. It is also in their interest to be sure that their employees know what they have to do, in order to avoid them going round in circles and becoming chronically inefficient.
 
Working from home is quite different from office work, where much of the communication takes place through direct, face-to-face interactions. This implies a greater responsibility on the part of the employee, who is getting into a more proactive attitude. 
The most important - and most difficult - element is that the employee who works from home has to proactively go out and get information and be sure that they are working on the right things and in the right way, since a lot of organic feedback, related to sharing the same workspace, will simply disappear.
 

A few points to clarify with your employer:

  • What are the expectations in terms of direct telephone/video conference availability during the day? (meal times, childcare, etc.). 
  • What is the expected time of response for an email, instant message, etc.?
  • How will the progress of ongoing projects be tracked?
  • According to what principles should the tasks be prioritized?
  • How is working time counted?
 
These are just a few examples. We will discuss these points in greater depth in the next section, which deals with digital tools that can help you better manage remote working.

4. Digital tools – Technology on our side

Teleworking is internet-based, but more specifically on the possibility to communicate remotely and, thanks to cloud technologies, to work in real time in files and contexts that stay the same and always up to date. 
The use of cloud-based solutions supporting real-time collaboration is the cornerstone of a productive teleworking strategy.
Let’s explore some useful tools that allow you to work efficiently from a distance. 

Instant messaging

E-mail is an old, slow and often confusing technology. 
 
It is slow because you must wait several seconds, sometimes several minutes, before getting feedback from others. This tool is therefore quite far from synchronous communication, the density of which is nevertheless fundamental to deal with the details of operations. 
E-mails also often create confusion because what is said and to whom it is said is not always transparent. For example, an e-mail is sent to several people, but one of them responds only to the sender, who replies by putting other people in the loop while forgetting some who were in his first message. At the end of the process, no one knows anymore who reads what. 
 
Instant messaging applications, such as Telegram or WhatsApp, are far superior tools to e-mail for communication within a company, a team or in connection with a specific project. There are also paid professional solutions such as Slack, which are a little more complex and therefore have the disadvantage of requiring more time to become accustomed to. In particular, the most useful feature of instant messaging is the ability to create dedicated groups - separate threads of conversations - into which specific people can be invited. This allows transparent communication as every team or project members can follow specific threads of conversation. The communication history is continuous, making it easy to retrieve without being tangled in unnecessary e-mail signatures and other superfluous metadata.
 
The Telegram application is superior to WhatsApp for several reasons, one of the most important being that it is cloud-based, allowing you to log in independently from your phone on your computer (or any other terminal). This means that you can install Telegram on your computer, log in, and actually integrate it into your workflow. 
 
Important instant messaging features:
  • More transparent communication through groups
  • Much more fluid than e-mails
  • Possibility to easily create voice messages
  • Instant communication = very fast
At Ethos Digital, in our team, we never write e-mails to each other. The only e-mails that pass through internally are those we receive and find it wise to forward. Our normal communication, by default, is done on Telegram. We have several groups, which allows us to have each conversation only with the people who need to be included in it.
 
Telegram is free, available on mobile, tablet, computer and more.
 

Videoconferencing

A functional and robust videoconferencing solution is important when working remotely. We don't have a stable dedicated solution at Ethos Digital and it is not our habit to recommend something we don't know well. However, we have been using Zoom for about three weeks now and had a good experience, although it should be noted that a series of security issues related to data protection have been widely discussed recently on the internet in connection with this application. Therefore, it is probably not (at least for the moment) the best solution for conversations whose content must remain highly confidential, unless you pay attention to the security settings used in the Zoom application.
 
Google Hangouts is also a solution, but I find it less intuitive to manage sessions and it seems less interesting in terms of more complex features. Anyway, there are a lot of other strong solutions you can use, as for example Infomaniak, a Swiss company which has also recently issued a similar service. 
 
Advantages of videoconferencing:
- Allows more personal communication through video, which is important when you can't see each other in real life anymore;
- Allows screen sharing, which provides a visual basis for efficient discussion.
 

Real-time files

The cloud allows several people to work in real time in files that are always up to date. Whether it is for a written document or an Excel spreadsheet, it is fundamental to be able to work with documents that evolve in real time. 
 
At Ethos Digital, we use Google Suite as the Google's cloud infrastructure is extremely robust, accessible and easy to use.
Paid versions of Google Suite allow for very high security standards to be built in - Google leads the world in terms of security. 
 
Advantages of working in real-time documents in the cloud:
  • Avoids all document versioning problems
  • Allows several people to work on the same document at the same time and see what the others are doing.
  • Allows for a high degree of transparency, since documents are always available in their latest updated version
 

5. Transparency and proactivity requirements in communication

Remote working means that an important part of the direct, personal communication has disappeared. It simply cannot take place. This means that managers have to make an extra effort to monitor the work of employees and the latter have to be proactive in keeping their colleagues and superiors informed about their work. 
 
The principle of transparency is based on the idea that, by default, all information is accessible to employees, so that they can inform themselves and solve as many questions and problems as possible on their own. The principle of transparency is the opposite of the security principle and states that everything should be open and accessible, except in cases where there are reasons why it should not be.
 
The principle of proactivity means that each employee is responsible for communicating regularly on the progress of his or her work. The principle of proactivity is the opposite of digital silence of tasks being done in isolation - which would inevitably lead to errors and unnecessary work. 
 

Security and data protection management

Many companies, especially in Switzerland, are reluctant to switch to cloud solutions because of data security. In addition to the - persistent - myth that data stored on a server located geographically in Switzerland would be less hackable than data on a foreign server - fears are often emotional, not based on a serious analysis of security risks. 
 
To take the example I thoroughly studied, data located on Google Drive is by default much more secure than data located on servers in company premises. But this is a broader - and technically and legally complex - discussion. The most important risks generally arise from the behaviour of employees who are not familiar with or do not take seriously a set of data security principles.
 
It makes no sense to be reluctant to move all your data to a high-security cloud if you haven't implemented strict, verifiable rules for managing your employees' passwords.
 
Some sectors are entirely subject to very strict security standards, for example in the medical, legal or banking world. But for a small or medium company that does not hold data whose disclosure is subject to criminal law, the risks are low, if things are set up according to specific rules. 

Passwords management

In order to provide optimum security for your employees or for yourself as an employee, the use of a password manager is essential. 
 
A password manager allows you to generate complex and unique passwords for all the online services you use. A strong password must be at least 8 characters long, contain at least one upper case, one lower case, one special character and one number, and not contain any existing words. 
 
At Ethos Digital, we use Dashlane, which also allows us to:
  • Manage the secure sharing of passwords between employees
  • Facilitates login actions in the browser
  • Audit the security of passwords used by employees

Project Management

To manage projects with their multiple tasks, assigned to various people, with their deadlines and statuses, as well as the details and files needed to complete them, a robust and agile project management software, based on the cloud, will allow you to achieve a degree of clarity and transparency that is very useful to conduct your complex projects remotely. 
 
Ethos Digital has been using Monday for more than a year now, which has become a central digital tool in our ecosystem. Monday allows us to stay up to date on the progress of our projects and to monitor whether they will be completed on time, within the framework originally planned. Monday integrates many features that can be found for example in Trello, but goes beyond with more flexibility. 

Time tracking

One last type of cloud-based software that can be very useful is a solution to track working hours. In our case, we use Harvest, which allows us to easily count our working hours for our clients as well as our internal hours. 
 
Some advantages of a time tracking software:
  • You can see who's working on what at any given time.
  • You can have statistics on working hours by tasks/projects
  • If you bill clients for hourly work, you can simplify your billing process by automating some of its steps
It is important to be able to switch from a method of evaluating the performance of employees' work based on the number of hours to a method based essentially on output, the real and concrete result of the work. 
 

6. Conclusion

This article is only a brief introduction to some important aspects of telework, mainly from our personal experience, but also from reading and exchanging with other companies that regularly work remotely. 
 
Many employees are currently required to work from home because of the COVID-19 crisis. We hope that this article can help you, whether you are an employee or an employer, to optimize your telework system.
 
I am convinced that telework is here to stay and that the current situation will help to spread its use more widely. 
 
We are at your disposal if you need help in choosing and implementing the right digital tools to help your company stay and even become more productive in this particular period.
 
English translation by Anouk Silvestrini, IMA member since 2018, National  PR Officer IMA Switzerland

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