The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sudden shift towards remote work in the private and public sector. Like dating, game-playing and shopping, work is going virtual. Because of its distributed nature, ReCollect’s staff have worked entirely remotely for almost a decade. Given this experience and that ReCollect works with hundreds of governments across North America, several government partners have asked for advice about how public organizations should think about remote work. This post highlights advice for government workers and leaders needing to suddenly provide the right tools and processes to ensure productivity and engagement of newly remote staff.
Remote Tools That Can Help
Walking over to your co-worker’s cubicle to talk about your current project is no longer possible. So what do you do? Slack, Zoom, Trello, and Docusign are tools that many government leaders have been able to adopt to enable employees to open up communication and increase productivity.
Slack is an information sharing tool with team channels, private messaging, and video or phone calls. It allows staff to say hello, talk about common interests as well as update the team about ongoing projects and share files. ReCollect has channels for specific departments and groups focused on the work they do. The company also has channels where staff share pictures of beloved pets, review the latest movies and even one for the aspiring chefs to post their favorite recipes.
For a virtual organization Slack is not just where the work happens, it is where people stay connected, so making it reflect not just the work priorities but also your organization’s values and the social side of your team is critical.
For those concerned about Freedom of Information (FOIA and ATIP) compliance, Slack is used by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and is even a required tool for all TTS (Technology Transformation Services) employees. More importantly, the GSA has published a handy playbook that answers some questions around FOIA that your IT director might have.
Zoom video conferencing software has been in the news recently. The need has become so great that Zoom’s CEO has offered free software to schools that have closed due to COVID-19.
ReCollect has been using zoom for video and phone conferencing for several years now and it is core to ReCollect’s operations. I strongly recommend that you have a team wide meeting at the beginning of the week where employees within a common team or group (say up to 60 people) can at least check in and raise any blockers that are preventing them from completing work. I also strongly recommend you create a norm that people have their video on. Having employees be able to see each other, to collectively laugh, or see that others are confused is central to building culture and maintaining human connection while working remotely.
Trello is a project management tool. A virtual whiteboard that lets your team update workflows, assign tasks and inform team members on completed work. Trello has templates that range from a simple To Do list to a Kanban style, multi-phase, multi-departmental Engineering Project. Trello works for professional as well as any personal projects. The inspiration page is a great place to start.
Docusign allows you to send and sign digital agreements. One big challenge governments will face is ensuring continuity of work within a strict accountability regime. Signing documents is often central to said accountability regimes and it confirms the proper authority has signed off on a project or the release of funding.
Without signatures, the work of government can grind to a halt. Be prepared to push your executive and IT department to be accepting of scanned or digital signatures. While this can be done with simple scanners, it is worth noting that companies like Docusign have experience working with local governments. Again it may be useful to look at the GSA’s digital signature policies (which allow them) as something your government should adopt.
Being a Remote Manager
For managers, overseeing a virtual office will require some adaptation. Being able to look out of your office and see your employees hard at work is no longer possible. Recognizing that remote work enables a more fluid work environment and often flexibility around when work gets done is essential (doubly so when some employees will be managing children sent home from school).
Managers should focus on the work being done – not on seat monitoring. A study from Harvard Business School looked at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office employees who were allowed to go full remote. They found they ended up 4.4% more productive. A 2015 study found that employees at China’s largest travel agency increased production an average of 13% when they shifted to remote work.
An employee who is just OK may become a production superstar when the distractions of a modern office are removed or when they are able to work a schedule around their family demands. The flip side of that is the employee who does very well in the office may be floundering in a remote work situation. Make sure both voices are heard.
Having group weekly check in meetings, seeing everyone face to face and sharing good news, singing Happy Birthday (badly) to co-workers and checking out someone’s new haircut can lessen any feelings of loneliness and isolation that can affect your employees. It can also allow employees to raise challenges or obstacles. In addition, set aside an hour of two of “office hours” where employees can drop in on your or schedule time. It is critical that director and indirect reports feel like you are accessible.
After the Crises
Presently it is unclear how long people will need, or should, work remotely. The more you can put in place supporting tools and processes the more your employees will be effective and your government will be able to solve problems and support citizens in this time of need.
And, be prepared for the possibility that some employees will not want to return to the old status quo. Remote work can shave hours of commuting and other loss time enabling your employees to be both more productive and spend more time with family.
We know these are challenging times, we hope lessons from ReCollect’s experience in working remotely and ReCollect’s deep experience working with governments may help you during this period.