In March 2020, COVID-19 upended our lives as it did for most people around the world and forced us to reconsider new ways of working.
Like most other businesses in Western Australia, we opted to work from home for the safety of our employees, embracing modern technologies to connect remotely with our customers and partners.
Being a software company, that was already used to working virtually with customers around the world, the transition to everyone working from home rather than in the office was easier for us than most.
Also, being lucky as we are to have our head office based in Western Australia (which has had relatively few cases compared to other Australian states and other regions around the world) our ‘lockdown’ or working from home period was fairly short-lived for most of our workforce and we were able to transition back to being able to work at our head office in Mt Hawthorn again by the end of June.
Even working from home for a relatively short period of time, however, has taught us some valuable lessons and had a strong impact on the way we do things around here now.
Here’s seven of the key takeaways that have emerged in our discussions with our people over the past few months (July to November) about the impact ‘that’ working from home period has had on how we now operate.
Lesson 1: Working from home can contribute to a better work/life balance
This first one may seem obvious, but just how much of a difference it could really make to the reduction in people’s stress levels and their overall ability to do more in the day still took us all by surprise.
Zero commute time into the office meant more time for spending with families, to dedicate to exercise and personal activities etc. which facilitated improved employee mental health.
Many employees chose to split up their workday; working non-core hours some of the time, depending on what suited them. So long as the work was getting done and they were available for meetings and responsive to their colleagues and customer, working from home allowed our people to pick the hours that suited them and put them more in control of their work day.
The other plus, was that people are more accepting now of a dog barking or a child crying when taking a call from home. The stigma of that is gone, which is great news for working parents. It’s now more acceptable to juggle priorities and people feel more comfortable doing so.
Now that lockdown is over in Western Australia, despite being able to work full-time back in the office, people are choosing to work from home more than they used to. While some employees did work from home previously, it was typically more ad-hoc when they have a personal appointment or a child home sick from school.
We’re seeing many people in our business now choosing to have a regular work from home day or days and we’ve already seen people planning their lives and their work meetings around it more; recognising which activities are good to plan to do at home and which ones are better to do in the office.
Precise Business Solutions’ Development Manager, Adrian Robson has experienced a huge shift in the way he works with his team:
“The main change for me and my team since returning to the office is that we still spend 2 – 3 days WHF. We still continue our regular meetings and it impacts the team in a positive way, with the ability to work from home without the distractions of the office. I guess the negative with this is that people get to see less of each other, but the communication is still there because of calls, emails, meetings and messages,” he commented.
Lesson 2: On the other hand, many people were unable to ‘switch off’ when working from home
For all the people that loved working from home, there are also those who are thankful to have that split between their personal and professional lives enforced once again by physically being back in the office during work hours.
For some it was hard to keep a clear delineation between work and home life, with it sometimes morphing together if the employee and/or their manager did not observe strict time management and scheduled breaks.
Not having visibility of how many hours employees were working highlighted a need for management to set clearer expectations and boundaries and remind staff not to work excessively.
It also brought to light the need for better education on the importance of taking care of one’s physical and mental health, which can be even harder to do for some in a changed environment.
Lesson 3: We can work from home and be productive (often more!)
In fact, majority of our people reported fewer distractions working from home than in the office!
Fewer distractions, fewer physical meetings and decreased travel time led to increased productivity in many cases, with some workers reporting they were able to increase their efficiency by as much as 30% during the working from home period.
We learned that we do not have to be in the office to get work done effectively – even when it involves team collaboration. It was reported widely across the business that people felt we actually had more communication during the working from home period than previously.
With the sudden need for everyone to work remotely, we were forced to expedite our adoption of digital meeting platforms we had been exploring in the business for some time.
We used Microsoft Teams as an effective collaboration tool (phone, messaging, screen share etc.) both internally and for communications with customers and partners.
A more defined operating rhythm was established in many parts of the business, with daily team huddle meetings becoming the norm in both the development teams and solution delivery teams. These daily team huddles have proved to be successful and have continued beyond our return to the office.
Furthermore, for all meetings across the business, we seemed to have improved meeting discipline when we were all joining remotely! While in the past it was ‘the norm’ for people to show up five or even ten minutes late for meetings, everyone was punctual when it came to video calls and we also had far more established agendas and enhanced meeting focus.
Lesson 4: Remote workers need to feel more included
Majority of our workforce (around 80 per cent) are based in our head office in Perth, however we do have staff working remotely for the business in other parts of Australia and around the world.
Having all of our people working from home for a period broke down the barriers of communicating with those not based in our head office as we were all communicating remotely.
We have learned that we should continue to find ways to involve our workers outside of our head office and have since been more conscious about what we can host virtually.
We’ve also realised how much of the social aspect people miss out on when they are not going into the office regularly. As a result, we’ve made a concerted effort to open up more social conversations online, have sent care packages to our remote workers, and tried to think more creatively about how they can be more involved in social events and special occasions.
Lesson 5. Our customers are happy to work with us remotely
It was an interesting realisation for us that customers, for the most part, are happy be supported remotely some of the time.
The previous reluctance we have seen from some customers towards conducting business via video calls vanished when everyone was ‘in the same boat’, (so to speak).
Some of our customers, even if they are now able to return to face-to-face meetings, have now chosen to continue to engage with us remotely and many have adopted a mix of face-to-face and virtual interaction.
While there is still value in face-to-face meetings, we’ve found that video calls can in some cases be more convenient and more efficient for everyone involved.
Lesson 6. Video call fatigue and etiquette are real!
We were already utilising video calls in our business when it came to engaging with our colleagues, customers and partners around the world, but the frequency of using these platforms increased significantly for everyone while we were all working from home.
Our reliance on video for most business activities highlighted the need for better guidelines around video call etiquette. For example, as one of our people pointed out: if you join a call while you are somewhere noisy , in a drive-thru or a coffee shop, please join muted!
It’s also important to establish early if it is going to be a video call or purely an audio call, due to the awkwardness caused when some people have their video on in the meeting and others don’t.
This is certainly an area for further exploration and which I am sure other companies are developing guidelines around as lockdown continues in many other parts of the world. One to watch!
Lesson 7. The ‘we’re all in this together mentality’ needs to continue post crisis
We can mobilise resources and make decisions really quickly when we need to, which goes to show that we may sometimes take too long in our decision making or commitment during ‘normal’ times.
“I was incredibly impressed with how quickly people adapted to working from home. Within a day, everyone was set up and it was business as usual. The fact that we were already using MS Teams helped immensely, and the team utilised this and our other productivity tools very effectively”, remarked Marketing Director and co-owner of Precise Business Solutions, Kim Batina.
When things suddenly started to ramp up in Australia, we quickly began preparations for a work from home situation and when we decided to pull the trigger, rapidly got a reasonable handle on the things that were absolutely critical. The ‘crisis’ forced us to focus on things that were generally critical and urgent, and these things were dealt with as quickly as we could.
We found that the increased communication that was necessary in those early mobilising weeks when we were figuring out how we were going to operate from home, bolstered creativity and productivity among our people and the situation we were all going through led to more compassion and thought for our colleagues, partners and customers.
In fact, the genuine concern we saw people display for each other’s wellbeing and the time they took to check in with each other throughout the lockdown phase in Perth and even beyond – while some of our colleagues around the world still experience the devastating effects of the virus – has been such a positive and a reminder to take the time to invest in the more personal side of our relationships.
The requirement for us to socially distance at all times also highlighted that at all other times – particularly during the cold and flu season – we should be discouraging the culture that can sometimes manifest in businesses like ours of ‘pushing through it’ when it comes to being unwell and people working in the office in close quarters regardless.
Leadership in lockdown
No one has had to go on a steeper learning curve or embrace change more during the COVID-19 global pandemic than senior leaders and business owners.
Read our interview with Precise Business Solutions’ Managing Director and co-owner, Mark Batina where he talks about navigating the challenges of 2020 and shares his advice to other software companies who will be finding their bearings when COVID-19 settles down in their parts of the world.