Coronavirus restrictions have seen a significant shift in how we work, with 46% of working Australians now working from home, a first for many small businesses across the country. Sally Elson, MYOB’s head of people advisory and talent, provides tips for small business owners adapting their workforce to a longer-term work from home environment.
Changes to business operations can be difficult to navigate at the best of times for busy small business owners, even without the backdrop of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. When coronavirus restrictions came into place in March many Australian workers had to adapt to new ways of working quickly. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 17% increased their working from home hours. For many small businesses this was their first experience participating in remote work.
Six months on restrictions are still in place in some states and it looks like there will be disruption to traditional ways of working for some time yet. It’s time to look at ways small business owners can ensure they are set up for long term success in a remote working environment.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Australia, MYOB was in the fortunate position of having already established flexible working practices for our employees, allowing the 2,000 strong workforce to transition to working from home with relative ease. However for smaller operators and those in industries that generally rely on face to face contact, such as healthcare or retail, working from home is a new element to navigate.
Research from the latest MYOB Business Monitor shows almost a third (31%) of small business owners and operators worry about managing a remote workforce. Forty-nine per cent are worried about the health and wellbeing of their team.
While change often brings uncertainty and a need for adjustment, building strong foundations for remote work means businesses can unlock huge value. This includes accessing a talent pool without geographical boundaries and allowing team members to better integrate their home and work lives. Seventeen per cent of small business owners said flexibility was a main motivator for starting their own business; remote working is a great way to take that to the next level.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned that may help others adapt to remote working.
Set yourself up with the right tech
There are plenty of cloud systems and tools that allow file sharing and video conferencing to make remote collaboration easy. Video conferencing brings more connection than an audio call, and connection is key in a remote working relationship. Instant messaging also allows more casual communication within the team, something that’s often missed when there’s no face time in a shared workspace. Many of these communications tools have free or low-cost options for small businesses, such as Slack, Zoom and WhatsApp.
Set clear expectations
Setting clear expectations is more important than ever when a team is remote. These expectations include how and when people will work and communicate. For some, working in the evening when home-schooling is finished might be appropriate, while others will need to be online during business hours. Whatever the agreement is, ensure the whole team knows when everyone will be on and offline.
You’ll also need to be extra clear on your teams’ roles and their deliverables. Setting measurable and achievable, yet challenging, objectives can help with this. Good rhythms and routines around catching up and keeping abreast of priorities, including any changes to expectations or deliverables, is also key to making this work. This could be short daily catchups, weekly one on ones or more formal team meetings.
Clear and honest communication – both ways
When you’re not physically in the same place as someone it becomes more important than ever to be unambiguous with your feedback. Remember you’re communicating without having the benefit of body language so ensure feedback is received and understood - the sooner the better - and ask the right questions of your team so their feedback is taken on board too.
If you introduce a mix of working from the office and working from home, be clear about what you want from your team when they’re in the office. Make that time purposeful with defined outcomes to achieve and take advantage of the face to face time for collaborative work.
Make mental health and wellbeing a priority
Ask team members how they are, do it often and make sure they are getting the support they need. Remember there are resources designed to help you as a business owner too. Smiling Mind has a small business program focussed on preventative mental health care and Beyond Blue has a host of resources including educational materials as well as phone and chat support.
Plan for fun
Without the spontaneity of grabbing a coffee or going for a drink on a Friday night, find ways to socialise with your team that work for everyone. For some that might mean virtual drinks, lunches or online trivia. When we first moved to remote working, my team caught up for 15 minutes each morning for a social chat. There wasn’t an obligation to attend if they had other priorities; the intent was purely to stay connected. These became less frequent as time went on, but we still have time set aside weekly for a short social meeting. This might seem frivolous as a small business owner, but it’s good for morale and productivity, especially when you don’t have that in-person connection in the office.
Now that, for many, remote working is likely to remain a way of working for quite some time, remember above all to keep up the communication with your team. With some planning and a little bit of experimentation you’ll find a rhythm that works for your business.