The pitfalls of remote work, and how to avoid them

Box lunch: Virtual lunch meetings and other creative, socialization-focused efforts are key to Intelligent Product Solutions' pandemic plan, according to CEO Mitch Maiman (top row, third from left).
By MITCH MAIMAN //

Like many companies, IPS is discovering and depending on new ways to work, enabling business to continue during the COVID-19 crisis.

For our company, the pivot has been broadly enabled by a few key factors. For one thing, IPS staff members are predominantly “knowledge workers,” meaning the majority of their work already involves modern computing and telecommunications technologies.

And the modern telecommunications infrastructure includes ubiquitous broadband communication channels, featuring highly evolved audio- and web-conferencing tools. Imagine if this crisis had occurred 10 years ago, when all we had were complex and kludgy networks, requiring an entire IT team to fire up one bandwidth-challenged, low-res videoconference.

At IPS, we also have an existing culture that empowers staff to manage their work and projects independently – with high confidence – and the technology to enable them to do right by their teammates and our clients. But even with these resources in hand, how can we ensure that teams work outside the typical office setting with optimal efficiency?

Even for the most tech-savvy organization, working productively outside the traditional office environment requires two key elements: operational efficiency and socialization.

On efficiency, companies must employ a variety of tools to help remote teams work effectively. Before the virus, it wasn’t unusual for IPS staff to periodically work from home, and work well, thanks to these tools.

Mitch Maiman: More than tools and techniques.

For project-driven communication, we use Slack, with targeted channels for specific projects and departments. There are also “general” and “fun” communication channels within the company. Slack was in widespread use at IPS before the crisis, which was fortunate: We had already established a critical mass of users, helping us more quickly engage the entire team.

For our hands-on design and engineering work, we have been using the latest CAD tools, which have historically enabled remote work – though an IT infrastructure must be optimized for such work. Ours is.

For meetings both large and small, we lean toward Zoom. More often than not these days, such meetings are video-enabled. Prior to the virus, video use was much less frequent – but video or not, one thing that’s necessary in this environment is regular, even redundant communication.

Having the discipline and action bias to intentionally reach out to peers, subordinates, clients and partners, on a frequent basis, is critical. You can’t reach out in person, so extra effort is required to keep things moving and sustain relationships.

Speaking of relationships, socialization is another critical factor, this one often bypassed in the focus on tools and technology. Besides meeting financial obligations, work fills a basic human need for connectivity and relevance, and eliminating usual social norms like hallway interactions, in-person meetings, lunch, etc., can obviously leave team members feeling isolated.

They can lose focus, become overly anxious and worried – factors that can erode the work and create real emotional distress. This needs to be intentionally addressed in a remote work environment.

Group effort: Team IPS, back in the day.

Managers must proactively reach out to team members to show an interest in their work, understand their challenges and try to remove roadblocks impeding their progress. Executives need to communicate the company’s broad “state of the union” in a clear and open manner, on a regular basis. And team members need to remain engaged on a social level – and not focus only on a task-level sustaining of the corporate culture.

To accomplish this, our management team holds daily scrums with staff to discuss their work, or challenges at home related to the virus. Our executives have a daily discussion and issue a daily report to all staff members regarding our latest policies, practices, HR issues and general business status.

And to sustain our culture and morale, we continue to have all-hands social events on a virtual basis, including daily Zoom gatherings, virtual happy hours, virtual lunch meetings and more.

In these times of crisis, over-communication is actually crucial – especially amongst managers, and between management and staff. This helps ensure the operation is functioning with as little anxiety and as much focus as possible.

The right tools, techniques and socialization practices are helping IPS operate efficiently through this crisis. Every business can, and should, find its own proper mix – and its best path through the chaos of this time.

Mitch Maiman is the founder and CEO of Hauppauge-based Intelligent Product Solutions, a subsidiary of Florida-based Forward Industries.