Sparrow has been built as a location-agnostic business from its inception: our team is spread around the world and the bulk of our collaboration happens over video calls. For us, office-less is the way we normally operate; several of our clients with very strong in-person office cultures had a much harder time. Our founder, Ana Milicevic, jotted down what has worked for us in the past in this op-ed for The Drum. You can also catch Ana speaking at The Drum's Digital Transformation festival in early April.
As more news of pandemic mitigation steps pours in every hour, most everyone with a job is asking themselves how (and if) they’ll be able to continue doing that job and providing for themselves and their families.
Most knowledge workers should consider themselves fortunate: the majority of us do not need to sit in our cubicles day in day out and can quite happily do our jobs from just about anywhere with a laptop and a good, dependable internet connection.
While official measures like school cancellations, travel suspension, and office closures will vary depending on whether you’re physically located in, say, Italy or in the north east of the United States, it’s clear that we’re, at best, looking at a period of adjustment that may span weeks or months.
Yet every crisis, no matter how painful, also presents an opportunity: when we come out on the end of this we may discover better, more efficient ways of working with each other.
Here’s the rub: shifting from on-premise to remote, location-agnostic settings isn’t just about picking up your laptop and finding a cozy spot to set up in. But while it’s not as easy as flipping a switch, there are things you can do to ease the transition for your teams, direct reports, and your organization as a whole. I’d start with the following:
Understand it’s not just a tech issue
Industries like advertising are meant to be highly collaborative: we have a lot of high-touch events, meetings, brainstorms, hand-shake deals, etc. In order to shift this from the physical to the virtual realm, it’s not simply enough to boot up your video conference tool of choice or rely on Slack.
What also needs to come with you are all the elements of business communication and efficacy that we tend to take for granted when we’re in the same location. Little things such as making sure everyone is present and attentive on video calls as well as sharing clear, written agendas and action items for each attendee around meetings can go a long way.
Outlining and formalizing (in writing) how your team and company reach decisions is another way of ensuring everyone is on the same page. And if you’re managing people, make sure those one to one sessions stay in your calendar so you can head off any challenges that your reports may be experiencing with adjusting to an office-less workday.
Figure out what’s work and what’s life
For the first few days it might sound great: your commute is now several steps, you don’t even have to put on proper pants, and you can fold the sheets while on a conference call.
Then your partner also needs to work from home. Your kids may need to skip a few days or weeks of school. Pretty quickly your serene home office is everything but.
To cope, create a clear separation of work-life and normal life (because both will now likely have to happen in the same several rooms). Divide your (physical) space, arrange childcare shifts in two-hour increments, and use any and all video/tech distractions your children might need. If you have a car, taking calls from the driver’s seat can give you that extra oasis of calm/makeshift phone pod.
If you’re a New Yorker, your closets are surprisingly good places to hide from outside distractions. And most importantly, have a routine to end your workday: go for a little walk, do a silly dance, go work out – anything that will give you a clear signal that the work day is now done will be welcome.
Communicate clearly when you’re on and when you’ve moved into downtime mode – this can be especially challenging if you work across time zones, but is an important boundary to define in the absence of a physical office and common office norms.
Focus on output, not time sheets
Agency folks, this one is especially relevant to you. Please keep in mind that working-from-home hours don’t necessarily equal office hours.
You may discover that you’re more efficient at home and that that 8-hr work day that seems so short in the office looks different when you don’t have to wrangle a commute, random distractions, and the dreaded desk-by.
Divide your calendar into blocks: email blocks, ‘available for co-working’ blocks, focus blocks –where it’s clear you’re available only for dire emergencies – and similar. This may seem counterintuitive against the billable hours mandate, but you’ll work it through.
Set weekly goals, map co-dependencies to other teams and build your work week around these intended goals. We tend to be reactionary when we’re displaced or responding to a crisis: don’t lose track of mid- and long-term goals even as you work through adjusting to a new day-to-day.
Watch for second-order effects and unintended consequences
The trickiest part will be anticipating and preparing for what happens after the first few days or weeks of adjustment. If you’re a staunch road warrior who now finds themselves grounded you might find that the thought of getting back to a heavy travel schedule freaks you out. On the other hand, you may be realizing that working remotely isn’t for you and find yourself letting your frustration out to your partner.
Perhaps some of your clients aren’t handling the shift from in-person meetings to video calls well. The best strategy here is to over-communicate and err on the side of too many check-ins vs too few. If you’re managing people, ask your folks regularly what’s working better and what’s worse than the usual in-office setup. If several people report a similar challenge, you’ll know what to fix first.
And remember – while the circumstances forcing everyone to think about office work could be much less sinister, this too shall pass. Rather than continuing to work in ways that were envisioned in the previous century, we can all try out what work-life could look like if we designed it from scratch today.