Remote working: the new normal?

Working from home during COVID-19? Dr John Hopkins, Innovation Fellow and Discipline Leader of Supply Chain Management course at Swinburne University offers his top tips for remaining productive while working from home.  

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, businesses have had to adapt quickly in enabling large parts of their workforce to be set up remotely almost overnight.

Google, Apple and Twitter were among the first organisations to order all employees to work from home, but now as the nation is tasked with flattening the curve of the coronavirus, organisations small and large have ordered their entire workforce to work remotely.

According to a recent report by JP Morgan, Zoom, a video conferencing software provider, has seen daily users more than quadruple and technology provider Microsoft says its cloud usage has grown nearly 800 per cent since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Lots of organisations are having to adapt and innovate quickly to be able to deliver the same service in this new working environment. Leading technology solutions provider, Cohesio Group, part of Korber Supply Chain Solutions, has enabled its implementation team to carry out virtual distribution centre tours with its customers.

Additionally, as Cohesio specialises in the implementation of Automated Mobile Robots, there is an opportunity for automation to really deliver the advantage in a situation such as this one.

“The good thing about robotics, while they work collaboratively with humans, their throughput does not change while measures such as social distancing are implemented. So, in a situation such as the COVID-19 outbreak, distribution centres have the ability to continue their operations while staff may be required to quarantine, practice social distancing or work from home,” Nishan Wijemanne, CEO at Cohesio Group says.

Cohesio is also working on developing a recorded video version of its Android Voice training capabilities. “We know that many of our customers are experienced an unprecedented demand in essential goods and are therefore employing additional casual labour. We are working on sharing a pre-recorded version of our training video, as well as conducting virtual real-time training, so that new employees can be trained on voice picking technology as quickly and accurately as possible remotely,” Nishan says.

Many companies are hosting sales meetings online and Friday afternoon work drinks has now moved to shared video platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and Houseparty.

According to Archival Garcia, Vice President at Microlistics, some of the remote working practices were already in place for the Warehouse Management System (WMS) provider. “This move to servicing customers remotely was something that we had already started for certain aspects of the implementation, and we were already seeing great benefit in using this kind of strategy,” he says.

“We had invested in this kind of technology just before COVID-19 hit. While there were still a few aspects of the implementation that we would still do onsite, we have also found ways to deliver this remotely,” he says.

Ordinarily, the Microlistics team would hold a five-day workshop onsite, however due to COVID-19 limitations these now take place remotely over the course of two weeks.

“We’ve found that by holding part of the implementation across two weeks and moving this to half day sessions there has been benefits around customer participation. We’ve found that this kind of schedule gives customers the time to reflect and have their own discussions around the project, coming back with ideas of how the project moves forward,” Archival says.

For Archival, some of these steps have given more power to the customer. “I think any way of giving the customer more knowledge and power across any project implementation is a good thing, and we’re finding some of these kinds of advantages come out of this way of working,” he says

Top tips to stay productive while working from home

1. Establish a routine

Dr John Hopkins suggests that one of the most important things is to establish a routine and structure to the working day.

“I think the very first thing to mention for working from home during COVID-19 is that this isn’t normal working from home, this is something completely different. For anyone who hasn’t done this before, this is pretty extreme,” he says.

The normal benefits of working from home, like finding a better work-life balance and having time to do the things you otherwise may not, do not apply in the same way during this time.

“People will struggle during this time and may find it difficult. Their first impression of working from home might be negative, but it’s not really ‘flexible’ working if it’s something you have to do, with no other alternative,” he says.

So how do workers go from a standard 9 to 5 Monday to Friday working environment to a full-time work from home environment? John says that firstly there needs to be structure.

“You have structure in the office. There are consequences to leaving late, you miss the train or tram, traffic will be bad, you will be late for the after school pick up, etc. But when you work from home you don’t have the same kind of consequences that lead to structure,” he says.

Without structure many people might end up working more than they usually would, sometimes opening the laptop in the morning and not even taking a break until the end of the day, John says.

“This can have a huge impact on wellbeing and health, so it is important to take regular breaks. Even scheduling a formal meeting in your calendar to ensure you take lunch is good to maintain productivity and a healthy balance,” he says.

2. Have regular contact with your c0-workers

Another way to find structure is in regular contact with team members. “We have informal and formal meetings throughout the day with our colleagues, so it’s important to emulate that when working from home,” John says.

John suggests regular communication with each other, and that this can be for work or non-work purposes.

In this environment, John suggests that video is more advantageous than just audio. “Regular contact is more important than ever, and I recommend video over audio. Video is not as good as face-to-face, but better than audio,” he says.

“Work isn’t all about the work – it’s also very much about the social aspect. There’s the camaraderie and team spirit, it’s important to maintain those things, have a meeting where you don’t even talk about work, this can really help reduce stress levels during this time,” John says.

The underlying message during this time is that everybody is in the same situation, so it’s a great leveller in some respect and an opportunity to bring people together, John says.

3. Take regular breaks

John also suggests taking regular breaks and getting outside whenever you can. “I know these things sound quite straightforward but when you are working from home it is easy to forget how important they are.”

John acknowledges that many people who are currently working from home might also have their entire family at home with them, and reiterates again that these are not the normal circumstances for flexible working. “You might have kids home-schooling as well as your partner at home during this time, so it’s important to establish some boundaries between schedules and workspaces,” he says.

4. Don’t neglect cyber security  

Ordinarily an office environment and professional network will have a team of people regularly checking and ensuring its safety, however working from home does not have the same level of security.

“Security needs to be considered during this time. For example, if you’re using your own personal computer do you have up-to-date antivirus software? Are you connected to the VPN and if so, is this safe? Is your WiFi network safe? Do you have sensitive information on your network?” John asks.

While a home working environment will never be as safe as an office one, John says it’s still important to consider these things and make sure passwords are safe and regularly updated.

5. Use this time to reassess your business and implement change

This time also presents organisations with an opportunity to reassess its current position and analyse what the business actually wants to achieve.

“During a new threat like this is also a good time to perform a new SWOT analysis, to identify what you might be good at, where you need to improve and even what opportunities may come from this,” John says.

One of John’s main takeaways from this period is that while people will miss aspects of the office, they will have started doing things differently, and as a result are more comfortable with this new way of working.

“I’ve had so many meetings on online video conferencing software this week and have probably done more new things in the last two weeks than I have over the last two years,” John says.

This forced shift to remote work has made people become comfortable with new ways of working. “People will see value in this kind of work and will continue to utilise aspects of this kind of working in the long-term,” he says.

These long-term changes will be particularly felt in the supply chain and logistics sector, where John says the industry was lagging behind when it comes to flexible and remote working.

“Flexible working is based around time and place, when and where you perform your work tasks. As a lot of logistics roles require people to be onsite, at specific times, it’s also less common for their managers to work from home. But after this experience, when non-operational staff are now being forced to work from home, they will realise that certain things actually can be done from home, which will likely result in more of this behaviour continuing in the future,” John says.

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