Working from Home with Dog

What Employers Can Learn from Google’s Remote Work Policy

Google recently announced it will keep employees home until at least July 2021, making it the first major U.S. corporation to formalize an extended policy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision impacts nearly all of the tech giant’s 200,000 full-time and contract employees, and exerts pressure on other companies planning for staff to return to the office this year.

As companies debate the usefulness and efficiency of remote work, Google stands among the most cautious – offering employees the flexibility to balance professional obligations with taking care of their loved ones in the months ahead. While this decision may influence other firms to follow suit, it also offers valuable lessons on how to keep teams of employees consistent, cohesive and productive during this challenging time.

As described in a recent Inc. Magazine column by Justin Bariso, employers have much to learn from Google, which has conducted extensive research on how to optimize conditions for teams working remotely. Following focus group meetings with more than 5,000 employees, Google developed many practices to help identify, understand and manage emotions in a changed work environment. Here are some of the article highlights:

1. Make team meetings a priority.
Team meetings “are often some of the only interactions you’ll have with your team when working apart so schedule them, prioritize them even if it there isn’t anything urgent, and be socially present,” says Google. While written communication is the lifeblood of a remote work environment, a lot can get lost in the medium. Humor and tone can be easily misinterpreted, and there’s no chance to hear a person’s voice, see the expression on their face, or read their body language. In contrast, virtual meetings are a chance to get those emotional cues, and to build rapport with your teammates. (Caution: Just be careful not to schedule too many meetings, or your team may feel like they don’t have enough time to actually get work done.)

2. Show personal interest.
Google also recommends using meeting time to get to know your teammates better. You might even schedule a virtual breakfast or lunch together. You should also use open-ended questions when speaking personally. For example, don’t ask “How was your weekend?” Instead, try “What did you do this weekend?”

3. Be present.
“Some engagement signals are lost when working together virtually,” says Google, “particularly when we mute the microphone or focus intently on our laptops.” Some recommendations include making sure your camera is on so others can see you, keeping your microphone off mute when practical, giving both verbal and non-verbal cues, such as a head nod, an “mmhmm,” or even a “yeah, good idea,” and keeping phones face down and maintaining eye contact (unless you’re taking notes).

4. Check in.
While being sure to give colleagues time and space to actually do work, Google recommends checking in with a short hello via an encouraging message, a project-relevant news article or a funny photo. You might also consider scheduling a “virtual coffee break,” similar to the way you might do so in the office. This will give you another chance to talk about your day, weekend plans or anything else.

5. Recognize your teammates.
“When working remotely, it isn’t as easy to say a quick ‘thanks’ or ‘good job’ to a teammate,” says Google. “Be sure to send a message to a colleague congratulating or thanking them, share kudos in team meetings, and utilize your company’s recognition program.”

6. Invite colleagues’ participation.
It can be challenging for more introverted colleagues to participate in-group meetings — and even more so in a virtual environment. Team leads can help compensate for this by directly asking these participants for their input. On the same line, stay in tune with participants’ expressions and body language. If you see they may be trying to enter the conversation, give them the chance to speak.

7. Set team norms.
“Norms set clear expectations for how you work together with your team,” says Google. “But they’re often assumed rather than explicitly stated, leaving opportunities for confusion.” Google’s researchers recommend discussing team norms with colleagues. These would include: expectations for how long it should take to respond to emails/pings, taking off-hours and time zones into account if needed; clarifying task expectations and ownership within a team, including when they can move forward if a team member is unreachable and when it’s better to get a response; the best way to share information; how often to stay in touch; and a broad vision to help teammates align to a broader goal. Once you establish these norms, they should be documented and circulated to everyone on the team. Doing so puts everyone on the same page, reduces stress and can reduce the problem of low productivity because one team member is waiting on something from other team members.

8. Use the right medium.
How do you decide whether to send a message or do a call? “Video is best for more sensitive or detailed discussions,” says Google, “while a quick message is great for check-ins or clarifying simple matters.” It’s important to recognize the difference. Too many calls and your people will feel burnt out. But you can also waste lots of time exchanging messages when a five-minute call could provide answers to multiple questions.

9. Make well-being a priority.
In the midst of a pandemic, your well-being is more important than ever. In recognition of this, Google recommends: setting up a comfortable office space to physically separate your work and home life; setting limits on your work day so as not to work too many hours; and getting up every hour for a short break. In addition to Google’s suggestions, add the need to schedule buffer time — blocks of time in your schedule that serve as buffers between meetings or other high-concentration work. This gives you a chance to take a walk, surf the internet, or do anything else you want to decompress — helping you to avoid virtual-meeting burnout.

Overall, these research-backed suggestions can help employers discover remote work best practices, as well as provide a lesson in emotional intelligence.

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