As we embark on our remote-first journey, transitioning from office to a hybrid model, the focus at Etch is to help people to thrive remotely. Improving remote performance is tied to better remote working cultural practices, as Managing Director Callum Donnelly discusses.  
Callum Donnelly
Callum Donnelly

As we embark on our remote-first journey, transitioning from office to a hybrid model, the focus at Etch is to help people to thrive remotely. This is at the heart of our People Advisory Services (PAS); services that help our people, and our partner’s people, to work in better, more productive ways. Improving remote performance is tied to better remote working cultural practices, as Managing Director Callum Donnelly discusses.  

When it comes to team performance, ask yourself, how has the past year been for you? We’re almost approaching a year from when the majority of white-collar workers were enforced to work from home; in this time, how has your organisation performed? How happy and productive are your teams?

Technology is not the only answer

Initially, the priority for many organisations was technology; investing in systems and infrastructure to enable people to work from home. Great, so you’ve set your people up with video conferencing software, Slack or Teams. But the job is far from done. Thinking technology-first is a mistake, technology alone won’t improve performance.

Whether your future is hybrid or fully remote, there’s a danger that putting a singular focus on technology has resulted in remote enablement - without any process to back it up. To improve remote performance, you need to crack strategy and culture first. Otherwise, you’ll have a bunch of tools that allow your teams to do their jobs at home, but they won’t do them well, or enjoy the experience. 

Whilst everyone’s still talking about how the pandemic accelerated remote working, there’s been little focus on operational efficiency in this new, remote world. Even less on ways to ensure high levels of individual performance as your people work from home. My advice is, don’t sit tight and wait until things go back to ‘normal’. I don’t think they ever will. If you don’t act now, you run the risk of getting further and further behind. It’s time for your focus to switch to remote performance. And fixing any deep-seated cultural issues that are more evident since everyone went remote.    

Old ways of working not fit for remote culture

There’s a percentage of people who are hating remote working, and I don’t think it’s all down to the technology or the sense of isolation. Don’t make the mistake of believing its remote working that’s causing the issue. It may just be that you’ve transferred a long-standing cultural problem from in-person to remote. It’s got nothing to do with location at all – remote has just amplified the problem.

We’re all at home and feeling isolated. So, we falsely believe it’s quicker and more beneficial to ‘jump on a Zoom’ to talk something through. But the reality is, it’s just as inefficient as those ‘wander over to someone’s desk’ conversations we used to have in the office!

Instead, organisations could be doing more to re-think how they do things. There needs to be a new emphasis on helping people to thrive remotely. Progression should be as quick or even quicker than in an all-office environment. And as we, at Etch, complete the transition from office to a hybrid model, this is now our focus. And it’s also at the heart of the people advisory services we’re offering to our clients.

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Getting teams to thrive (in the office, remote, or both)

When you start to look at what remote performance is all about, it centres on how you thrive as people in a business, regardless of location. It’s about setting clear expectations so that, at the end of each day, your team know whether they’ve done a good job. It’s about less frequent but better-run meetings with clear agendas and actions. And adequately balanced with focus time to get on with your work.  Now, more than ever, it’s vital to have values that hold everyone together. And clear objectives that link back to your business plan.

It’s not a case of being Zoomed out. If every meeting focused on solving a problem or doing the work, we wouldn’t dread them or complain about them. What we really dread is the fact that, when we’re in the meeting, we’re not doing the work. We spend all day in meetings and then end up working into the evening to catch-up. Yes, it might be hard on Zoom, but it’s not so different to what we were doing before.

Why I talk about meetings, in particular, is they highlight what’s at the core of this problem. The way teams of people work together and collaborate is fundamentally broken. It’s being masked because we’re all remote, but it’s there. Underneath it all is a wake-up call about the way we’ve been operating, and if we want to grow rapidly in today’s world, these things need re-thinking. 

Driving towards better ways of working

Facilitating new and better ways of working together is now our primary focus at Etch. Above all, we make sure that, when we do get together, it’s for a reason. Agendas are properly thought through and actions are clear. Too often, organisations meet for status updates. What’s the point? Wouldn’t it be a better use of everyone’s time to post the update before the meeting and then get together afterwards to discuss the opportunities and issues? 

Maybe you’ve identified that your teams need to collaborate better together. It’s certainly a priority for some of our clients. We’re supporting them to facilitate remote workshops or run daily standups more efficiently. Their teams might need help planning out the sprints they’re going to work on. Or we train their facilitators in collaboration tools, designing meetings that encourage consensus and deliver tangible outcomes. There’s an emphasis here on holding people to account. Often, we’re parachuted in like an SAS team to lead on certain aspects of a project - we showcase best practice and client teams learn by osmosis, absorbing ways to get better at what they do.

Every member of the team needs to recognise that they have to up their facilitation game – from meeting structures to tooling. It’s not enough to identify a few people who are good at facilitation and give them all the meetings to run. If remote’s here to stay, we all have to get comfortable with the technology. It’s about individual accountability. We all have access to the same tools, and we all have to figure out how to use them well.

Getting serious about employee engagement

It’s a cliché that happy people lead to happy customers. And yet we’re prepared to give our people an inferior experience just because we’re in a remote world. Instead of seeing remote working as a cost-saving because you no longer need big offices, could you redeploy some of that budget to employee engagement? Maybe use the money saved to give your people a better experience at work?

This is how we’re thinking about it at Etch. Morale and motivation are important, so if our people want to work from different parts of the world, we make it happen. And when our teams gather ‘in real life’, we’re thinking, how do we make this a great experience? This matters so much to productivity. 

The opportunities presented by remote are huge – increased productivity, access to better talent, flexible working arrangements etc. But we can’t take advantage if we have old mindsets and old cultural practices. Until we realise that there needs to be a cultural shift, the gains will be marginal.

Written by Callum Donnelly, Managing Director, Etch Group 

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