Smart working before and after the health crisis of Covid-19

Introduction

During the current health emergency, many Italian firms, both public and private, operating in more or less technological sectors, have started experimenting “smart working”, also called “agile working”, that is, the possibility to carry out one’s work remotely, connecting with collaborators and clients via technological tools.

Notwithstanding the fact that this work methodology is not applicable for certain types of jobs, it is important to get aware of the fact that many companies have been using this strategy for years, and smart working has become for them an extremely effective modus operandi.

Dataskills, following the will of the founder Alessandro Rezzani, has adopted smart working since its very first day, as a means to carry out projects supporting employees’ needs, while at the same time creating an efficient methodology that grants transparency and high performance.

Given our firm’s experience with smart working, in this article we propose our point of view, as well as an analysis of what we think is needed to implement it efficiently. We’ll share a number of best practices that are fundamental to carry out remote working in the best way possible.

 

Three central factors to adopt smart working efficiently

Effective smart working, that is the possibility of employers to have their employees work remotely, requires the existence of three unavoidable factors:

  • Mutual trust
  • Transparent and clear communication
  • Thorough definition of tasks

These three characteristics are tightly interconnected, and each of them is necessary to carry out remote working efficiently. Let’s analyze each of them in detail.

Mutual trust

Between employer and employee, but also among colleagues. Smart working is more commonly adopted by smaller companies, where each employee is chosen on the basis not only of her or his technical skills, but also for the affinity with the rest of the team. The more there are personal affinities, the more likely it is to establish trust between people. For starters because it’s easier to understand each other.

The more people form a team and work together, the more likely it is that possible incongruences between their ways of thinking, acting and working, will interfere with a smooth adoption of smart working. Such differences might lower feelings of empathy between people, therefore hindering trust.

With this said, we believe smart working to be a way of collaborating that is applicable to both small and big firms, given that the three factors indicated above are present.

Trust between employer and employee arises, just like for colleagues, from mutual appreciation, and especially from the esteem that each employee has for the employer. The more the employer is able to express how important each of his/her employees’ work is to create value for the firm, the more each employee will feel responsible for carrying out their jobs in the best way possible, even if not monitored via standard means.

The feeling of being able to individually contribute to the success of a valuable project, being the value monetary or ethical in nature, is fundamental to make each employee feel like they are directly responsible, regardless of being monitored by the employer or other colleagues.

Transparent and clear communication

Smart working’s main challenge lies in the impossibility to carry out verbal confrontation whenever we have a doubt or need clarification. The difficulty is then to express our thoughts and issues in writing, without being able to create empathy via non-written communication, such as that carried out with gestures and gazes. It is in fact this second kind of non-written and non-oral communication that is considered the most important by sector experts.

Regardless of the obvious fact that is impossible to completely substitute face-to-face interaction with remote one, it is at the same time indispensable to create effective means of communication that can make up for this “empathy gap”. Doing so will improve teams’ efficiency even in more traditional working frameworks.

As a matter of fact, becoming better communicators enhances firms’ performances regardless of their need or will to adopt smart working.

Besides for the identification of specific moments during the week when the team meets virtually to update each other on day-to-day progresses, it’s pivotal that members of the team provide summaries of the actions they’ve undertaken that they think could be of interest to other colleagues. This is not so much to check that each member of the team has been productively working, but rather because each individual interaction with external sources, clients and prospects, could function as a trigger for a subsequent interaction carried out by someone else.

This is the concept behind the idea of “open source”: building something on top of what someone else has done previously, and advance the project iteratively by continuously building ideas on top of each other. In open source, this is done collaboratively by actors that often come from various parts of the World, and don’t necessarily work for the same company.

If open source has become so pervasive in the market, supported by both small and big technological player as a means to create effective solutions to important problems, it seems obvious that sharing each other’s work leads to huge performance improvements also within a single firm.

Our experience in the tech sector has shown that, regardless of whether a specific firm adopted smart working or not, those who put in place measures to optimize the quality of communication between team members and colleagues always obtained better results, more rapidly and with longer longevity.

Thorough definition of tasks

Working remotely effectively means being an entrepreneur, at least for what concerns time management.

Without a boss that walks around through the desks checking how everyone’s work is advancing, and assigning new tasks whenever previous ones have been carried out, each “agile worker” must have a very clear idea of his or her medium term pipeline, as well as all the smaller steps that are required in order to complete the project. They must be able to move from a task to the next one autonomously and prioritize tasks when they overlap.

We see again here, with respect to task management, that the role of the boss/employer is fundamental in defining the direction the business intends to follow, and therefore the direction of the work of each specific employee. It is also the employer’s responsibility to identify which employees are more autonomous in carrying out their work respecting the business’ intended direction, and which ones are in need of more rigid guidelines.

One of the traps in which an employer might fall is to take for granted that “everybody knows” what they are supposed to do, whereas sometimes no definitive pipeline has been explicated.

 

Performance and control

When and how should performance measures be put in place and monitored with respect to a remote worker?

This is arguably the main question arising for companies who intend, or are forced to, adopt smart working methodologies. In the most straightforward scenario, performance can be defined using a number of different KPI, that is Key Performance Indicators. When this is the case, the same KPIs that are traditionally used can be adopted just as well for someone who carries out their work remotely.

The main difference is that agile workers could decide, if the deadline allows them to do so, to spare a couple of hours on Wednesday from 4 pm to 6 pm, and catch up on Saturday morning from 10 to 12. Way too often we witness first-hand situations where employees, especially those with junior roles, feel obliged to stay in the office just because other colleagues do so, even if there is no real necessity. This need to “show that you are ready to sacrifice yourself for the business” is likely to damage the business itself in the medium term. For example, creating rivalry between colleagues, and even experiencing a performance drop caused by unjustified burnout.

We don’t intend to suggest that one should never work after-hours, or that complete freedom should be given to employees to organize their week’s schedule. What we wish to do is to stimulate readers in considering the idea that embracing, for what is possible, employees’ personal preferences in how and when to carry out their job, always in respect to the deadlines, is likely to lead to higher business performances.

When we think about performance and control, we usually focus on the employer’s need to check his or her employees. In reality, it is just as important to think about the difficulties employees have, when working remotely, in showing their work to the boss. It is in fact to be noticed that even if it’s possible to define clear and objective KPIs, these might be verifiable only in a few weeks or months’ time. How can we then monitor work in the short term? And how can employees make sure that their work is following the intended path, in line with the requirements?

In order to solve this issue, we need excellent collaboration and understanding between the two parts: employer and employee. On the employer’s side, we need to have clarity and thoroughness in the definition of the steps to be followed, and the minor objectives to be reached week in and week out in order to complete the overall task or project. On the employee’s side, it is fundamental to know when it makes sense to take decisions autonomously, and when instead it’s better to ask for clarifications in order to avoid carrying out useless work, that will need to be eventually done all over again.

This kind of tight collaboration and understanding between employer and employee takes time to develop, but is encouraged by confrontation. It is indeed very likely, and maybe impossible to prevent, that sooner or later a team will stumble upon misunderstandings, caused by misalignments between each other’s thinking processes. These moments of discomfort should be exploited in a proactive way, in order to improve team’s communication and task-definition skills. Both these factors will in turn improve trust levels within the team.

 

Smart Working Technologies

During the years in which we have been operating following a smart working methodology, the two technological supports that have helped us in collaborating remotely are Microsoft’s Teams and Google’s GSuite.

Teams was launched by Microsoft in 2016 as a collaboration tool based on chat, allowing to create work groups that can share information through a common space.

Communication between employees and pipelines are facilitated thanks to the integration with Office 365 and the possibility to use 150 applications and many third-party services.

Google GSuite is a collection of software solutions and productivity tools for cloud computing. It includes Google’s web applications such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Meet, Google Calendar and Google Documents. Being a cloud computing solution, it offers a different approach with respect to personal productivity tools for the office available on the market, in particular by offering clients’ information hosting within the safe net of Google’s data centers.

 

Best practices for effective smart working

We wrap up by summarizing the best practices that, based on our experience, are needed to adopt an efficient and effective smart working methodology within firms of any dimension and operating in any sector (where possible):

    • Promote and support communication between colleagues, and between employer and employees, identifying predefined time slots purposed to share information within the team, always trying to streamline the various parties’ feedbacks, highlighting only the most important traits of everybody’s work, favoring synthetic and concise communication.
    • Define business priorities and split-up projects in smaller units to be distributed and carried out during the weeks, promoting proactive confrontation whenever there’s the risk of working pointlessly by following a wrong direction and going off-path with respect to the intended business pipeline.
    • Select one or more intuitive and easy-to-use technological platforms that facilitate remote collaboration.
    • Highlight and value the importance of each team member’s contribution to the success of a project, so as to make everyone feel responsible for the business success regardless of the measures put in place to monitor their job.
    • Exploit contrasts and misunderstandings proactively, in order to improve communication and task-definition skills within teams, and the company at large.
    • Organize teams so as to have groups of akin people that are more likely to establish relationships based on trust.

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