Any.Talk Podcast Episode 4
Want to know what it's like to manage a remote team? Are you managing a remote team yourself? Listen to our latest episode on what challenges management and staff face while they work from home and how those challenges are overcome.
What are the advantages of working remotely?
The Anywise management team has seen that employees enjoy the flexibility. However, work has had a huge impact on employees who have competing priorities with young children being home-schooled. Anywise wanted staff to know that they could attend to other priorities without worrying about deadlines. What Anywise started to see was a split-shift system starting to take place. Where staff who were able to do work during the day would work, and then those who had other commitments during the day would come in during the evening and pick up where other people had left off.
Another advantage of working remotely is that it's time-saving. Pre-COVID, many people were flying interstate and overseas for business trips. Not only is this bad for the environment but the amount of time involved getting to and from places can be saved by video conference calling. We've found more efficient ways of working.
What are the disadvantages of working remotely?
One major disadvantage is being able to switch off from work. General Manager Steven Kouloumendas has felt that work has been one big block with some family intertwined. When your home life and work life become one, it can be hard to differentiate between the two.
Another disadvantage is the social isolation. While Anywise has maintained weekly catch-up calls with the team since the pandemic began, it doesn't fully replace the social interaction that is found in the workplace.
What's the best technology for remote working?
There is no one piece of software that is the best for remote working and Anywise uses a range of tools to help improve productivity and collaboration. Anywise was able to pivot with ease to remote working because we already had all these tools implemented and we have staff that live in other cities or overseas. That's not to say that transitioning to working from home was completely seamless, but compared to larger organisations we were able to do it more easily.
Listen to the full episode below:
Annie-Mei: Working from home has become the norm for many people this year. For some of us, we may not even return until 2021, especially as a possible vaccine remains elusive. So when it comes to managing a company where all of its employees are working from home – how does a management team do that and what are the challenges?
I spoke to Anywise Managing Director Adam Evans and General Manager Steven Kouloumendas about what it’s been like handling this situation.
I’m Annie-Mei Forster and this is Any.Talk.
Annie-Mei: I want to talk about working from home during the pandemic and the future of working from home. So, I’ll start with you Adam. Have you seen any impact on productivity within the Anywise team during the lockdown and has it fluctuated during times where restrictions have eased and then gone back to harsher restrictions?
Adam: Thanks for the question, Annie-Mei. Yes, it absolutely had an impact on our productivity (and some quite surprising impacts, on reflection). As Victoria went into its first lockdown some three months ago now, we made a commitment that we would treat all of our staff as if they were indeed sheltering from a pandemic, at home with their family. And therefore, they would be able to do some work whenever they could.
So we made a real conscious and deliberate effort to reduce the number of internal reporting mechanisms, reduce the number of formal meetings, and really just provide an opportunity for (particularly those with families) to be with their families and perform that role. And the work could keep up.
So, we very much anticipated a significant reduction in productivity. In the initial couple of weeks we found what I like to call “productivity porn”. Everywhere we looked on social media people were baking, they were crafting, they were learning new skills, they were learning new languages, they were studying.
It was just overwhelming the amount of extra stuff people were doing. I felt myself, sheltering at home with my family that it created this expectation that we were supposed to be doing more. I was sheltering at home with a four-year-old and solo dadd-ing because my wife was deployed with the United Nations, so I found that really built my anxiety.
We constantly check-in, and as an Anywise executive, and then more broadly with the company, and what we found was overall our productivity as a company had absolutely picked up. We were doing far more in parallel at a higher rate of completion than we had initially anticipated with a few outlying exceptions.
Those people who were at home sheltering with family, particularly those that were home-schooling their kids, in families where there were two parents also working suffered greatly. The amount of competing priorities on those members was extraordinary. You know, overall, partly in response to this “productivity porn” which was motivating everybody to do all these superhuman things, the company did a lot more work.
However, as I said, there were instances or isolated pockets of the company, particularly those with strong competing priorities at home where that was not the case and we needed to mobilise additional effort to take work off them, in essence cut them some slack and trying to be productive and protect the home and family.
Annie-Mei: And Steve, have you seen similar things?
Steve: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of the things that surprised me the most was this. We went into it at the time almost trying to lower expectations, and certainly saying to everyone don’t feel compelled to hit those deadlines. Look at the current schedule of work that we have on and those targets and allow that to slip by a couple of months. That was fundamentally the message from the start.
What I think we saw was quite the opposite. There were deadlines, and in fact, there were competing deadlines. People would naturally accelerate those, and I would see effort being done at bizarre times as well. We saw more effort being done perhaps in the after-hours and less effort during the day.
In particular for those with younger families at home, the daytime was more consumed with family time. People would log on in the after-hours and there would be significant progress. So in effect, we almost had this split shift occurring and as a result I think the productivity skyrocketed. We had a day shift during the day and people would come back the next day and realise there was work being done in the night hours and effort would be visually significantly different the next morning.
So I think I’d completely agree with Adam’s assessment. Our overall productivity went up just by us lowering the expectations.
Annie-Mei: So do you think staff prefer having this more flexible work schedule as opposed to before when they would be working during regular office hours, Steve?
Steve: Interesting question. So I first self-reflect on that question and then think about the feedback we got the team as well. Certainly I think it’s difficult to assess this by the way we’re working right now compared to a regular normal environment because there is a pandemic out there so people have challenging priorities and competing aspects when they’re working as well. There’s a stream of news and the like.
I think people enjoy the flexibility, getting back to your question. There’s elements of it that I would suspect people would enjoy. There’d also be elements of it that would constrain individuals and almost compel individuals to want to return to a more regular routine and office environment.
So, in particular, if I look at my own experiences. Some of the challenges that I faced were being able to turn off. So if I’m engaged during the day, trying to do work and then also trying to tend to my family. And then trying to log on again in the evening. In effect, it’s been one really long duration of work with a bit of family intertwined in that as well. So that can make it seem and feel like it’s a much longer duration and you’re never really switching off work. So being aware of that is certainly key and something that I instilled in myself and recommending quite a few others as well to be aware and able to switch these triggers of turning off at certain times as well. So everyone isn’t constantly engaged with work and engaged with family and focus in on wellbeing and safety of others and thinking about the pandemic at the same time.
Annie-Mei: Yeah and I guess when you talk about the reasons why people want to go back to work. I guess, one of those reasons would be the social aspect of being able to see people face-to-face and I’m sure both of you used to travel quite a lot for work. So Adam, how often did you use to travel for work? And do you miss it?
Adam: [laughs] I think I probably did miss it in some of the early stages. In the industry that we’re in, particularly the market that we service, there’s been times where I’ve travelled every week for a year – domestically and then internationally every quarter. So a lot of travel.
In the months before the lockdown, we spent $5,000 a head on national travel and accommodation for our team which ground to a halt pretty much overnight. So I think there are elements of the travel and that lifestyle that are attractive, intoxicating for some, but it’s really not a healthy lifestyle. It’s nowhere near as productive or sustainable way of doing business and it’s terrible for the planet. Therefore, it’s bad for the rest of us.
You spend that much time away from home. That much time away from the community. And even though, we as humans, fill that gap with the proximity of clients and suppliers and industry events and all of these meetings, it’s never the same. Nor should we try and enforce any workplace that allows that to continue or restart.
Picking up on Steve’s point before about this balance between home and work – it’s a very difficult balance to achieve under normal circumstances where we’re pushed to incentivise self-actualisation and self-esteem. They’re very talked of in the hierarchy and we judge ourselves against the suits that we’re wearing and the job that we’re doing and the money that we’re earning and the things that we’re buying. And we assume away.
These other competing priorities around physiological needs: food, safety needs like shelter and protection and then love and belonging. The rewards of family and community. When something like a pandemic happens, we’re forced to re-evaluate that. As a company we said, we’re going to protect staff. That’s our goal. Do that. Which I think led to some of that additional productivity that we’ve spoken about previously because people were no longer going to the airport, catching a plane, going through security, going to a hotel and then going to meetings. They were much more efficient with their use of time. Much more effective with the time that they were using.
But I think it made it very difficult to draw that line between work and life or home and work. In fact, we’d comment that we’d have four more video conference meetings and like everybody else on the planet over the last three months. Kids would be in the background or there’d be commentary about what was in the background in people’s houses in a business meeting. So if we effortlessly slide between work and home, it can be a real challenge to force that separation.
I don’t think we’ve done a superior job of achieving that balance yet. I think it’s something that’s going to take patience and discipline – and a lot of both. We’re using technology, I think to draw some of that wedge between being at home and work. Things like mobile devices now having two different profiles. So you are either operating in your home profile, checking Facebook or writing the shopping list at home or helping with childcare or home schooling. Or quite separately, deliberately across a digital air gap, you’re in a work environment where you’re able to check your email, work on documents together or manage that project.
But certainly as a dad and also as a managing director of our company, I’m still not comfortable that we’ve achieved that balance correctly. I think it’s something that we need to continue to review and refine, particularly during this more aggressive lockdown period that we’re entering now.
Annie-Mei: Yeah, I think it’s interesting what you said about people’s priorities changing during this time especially when your family’s health and wellbeing comes before everything else. In the future, when people do start returning to work, do you think they’ll be handled or approached in a different way, Adam?
Adam: Ah, absolutely. I think there are industries and some of our clients resident in some of those industries that are particularly risk-averse, very slow-moving, reluctant to adopt change who because of necessity over the last six months have been forced to adopt an agile, distributed, digitally-enabled workforce. That is the greatest technological evolution of the workplace in decades, if not centuries.
There will be a rush back to the old way of doing work, I have no doubt about that. But I firmly believe that those companies that are going to be most successful in the rebound or adopting the future of work, seizing and making real sustainable change (not just to their bottom line or internal innovation or their productivity but indeed for industries, the economy and for the planet) will move faster, be more connected and more able to balance those competing priorities. They’ll be able to identify when the right time to focus an effort and to move is and when the right time is to relax that effort and breathe.
This is the way that we talk about our company. We talk about this company as an organism that changes shape and adapts to different priority focus areas and then cuts itself some slack as if it were a living person. I think, more and more so, that’s the kind of company I truly believe will be more successful than those extremely large corporations with thousands of shareholders constraining their ability to adapt.
Not so much in the Darwin terms, of the survival of the fittest but absolutely survival of those that are most fit to adapt. That means agile companies full of T-shaped people.
Annie-Mei: Talking about going back to the office. Steve, is that something that the Anywise management team has spoken about? In what capacity would Anywise staff be going back to the office?
Steve: Yeah, good question. It’s certainly a topic that we’ve discuss. Until there is a vaccine and there is no transmission of COVID-19 in the community, I can’t see any of us willingly say: ‘We need to be back in the office’. Unless there is some extraordinary reason for us to do something like that. Thinking beyond that and what does the future look like? I think we certainly value an office space and I don’t think we’d be continuing asking people to continue working from home. This is well beyond when the virus is something for the history books.
I think it’s something that will be a balance. So there will certainly be an office space and there’ll certainly be the ability for people to continue working from the office and get those social benefits and not too dissimilar to how we operate with our flexible work policies. You only need to be there for your own benefit or for your team’s benefit. There’s no mandate to go into the office or be present in the office at all times. So embracing, I guess, flexible work arrangements, continuing to do that whether that’s from someone’s home office or a collective office where we all meet. That’s certainly some of the policies that we’ve been talking about.
Annie-Mei: Ok great, thank you so much Adam and Steve for talking about working from home.
Adam and Steve: Thanks, Annie-Mei.