I have spent a lot of time working remotely in national teams. Right now, as many of my colleagues and the research teams and students under my care are adapting to this way of working for the first time, I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned along the way. The primary goal in response to COVID-19 was to reduce the number of people in any given space and time on campus and to ensure that everyone was safe and felt comfortable. Where we had people that could do their work from home, we made that arrangement straight away. Some steps towards working as an effective remote team (such as making the most of digital tools that facilitate collaborative working in a virtual environment) are obvious. But others – the ones that are so often missed – are equally as important. And, often, much more mundane.
Here are the steps managers can take to ensure that their teams are set up, equipped, and supported in their new remote working environment:
Start with immediate practical challenges and establish boundaries:
This includes ensuring staff have access to the equipment and software they need, supporting them to set up a permanent workspace, completing a working from home checklist. Then setting the ground rules such as dressing for work when conducting video conferences with external collaborators, and creating boundaries around work so that your team become disciplined about ‘turning off’ when they finish work for the day and maintain a good work/life balance.
Catch Up. A lot:
This doesn’t mean monopolising your team’s time with meaningless Zoom conferences. It means establishing a rhythm and structure for your team communications that facilitates collaboration and ensures your team have ample opportunity to reach out for whatever (or whomever) they require. Here’s the virtual meeting schedule we are using at Curtin University:
Wellbeing is of critical importance:
Be mindful of how your team is travelling– do they have family support at home or further afield? Do they have relatives in a high-risk category or working in job that exposes them to high risk? Are they juggling small kids at home and work? Do they have underlying conditions that put them at risk in this environment? Talking to your team members as a group, if they are comfortable with this, or one on one for those who are more private. Approach this with curiosity and care, ask them how they are impacted and what additional support they need. Establishing trust within your team and creating a supportive environment is essential. Make yourself available for your staff to call you if they are worried or concerned - they don’t need to wait until the next meeting, especially if it is serious.
For teams where there is the added complication of requiring key infrastructure to conduct your job (i.e. access to glasshouse or laboratory facilities), there are a number of additional steps that need to be taken into consideration to make sure critical research and development activity can continue. The principles applied were the same: reduce the number of people in any given space and time in the lab or glasshouse and ensuring that everyone was safe and felt comfortable doing their work in this environment. Lab work continuing and where there is need to access an area by many, staff worked together to develop shifts and access to equipment based on need.
Here are some of the key changes some of our lab and glasshouse based research teams at Curtin have made to their way of working:
This new way of working will be business as usual for the foreseeable future. While significant adjustments will have to be made by all of us, the fundamentals are the same at home as they are in the office: clear communication, meeting rhythms, clear boundaries, and a focus on everyone’s wellbeing are the foundation of happy, productive teams.
Dr Julia Easton is Food Agility's Innovation Manager for Western Australia and the Theme Convener for our Sustainable Food Production Research. She is also a Research Fellow Curtin University.