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Setting up and managing high-performance remote working teams

Tips-work-from-home-teams-management-COVID-19-pandemic

Setting up and managing high-performance remote working teams

With billions of people under lockdown and hundreds of millions working from home, remote working has become the new normal, overnight. During the COVID-19 crisis, businesses and teams that are able to collaborate effectively and work efficiently will have an edge over the competition.

QX successfully implemented WFH (Work From Home) in the nick of time and with 95%+ of staff working from home. Within a short time span, the teams began to work efficiently and achieved pre-lockdown levels of productivity. One key element behind the success was effective BCP implementation and effective management of our remote workers and teams. 

Senior Marketing Manager, Vatsal Makhija (VM) interviewed QX F&A and Recruitment Services CEO, Mahesh Jain (MJ) and Senior VP – QX F&A Operations Abhijeet Soni (AS) to unpack tips, processes and best practices that can help businesses set up and nurture high-performance remote working teams. 

VM: The sudden announcement of the lockdown in India caught a lot of businesses off guard, causing significant disruption. Mahesh, to start things off, could tell us how QX dealt with this situation? 

MJ: On 8th March, almost 2 weeks before the lockdown, when the number of cases began to rise in India, The QX Board conducted a thorough situation analysis based on best advice and learnings from around the world. We immediately set up a dedicated Covid-19 task force to liaise with all our clients, staff and suppliers (ISP providers, catering, transport, admin support). 

Within a day of this, we deployed our BCP team and began the preparations for implementing Work from Home (WFH) – the only possible alternative in the face of a countrywide lockdown. We achieved this well in advance of PM Modi’s announcement of the Janata Curfew, which was followed by the total lockdown. 

Apart from the multiple challenges involved in shifting from office working to work from home, one key aspect was winning the confidence of our clients and getting them on the same page with us. Communicating clearly and making sure that all our clients agreed to WFH – getting this consent – quickly enabled us to hit the ground running and continue operations in the face of the stringent nationwide lockdown announced by the government.  

VM: Like many other companies out there, QX had never implemented WFH for the entire workforce. What issues are companies shifting from traditional work practices to work from home are most likely to encounter?

“The logistics of creating an office-level IT setup at each of your employees’ location and getting written agreements from both the staff and the clients are some of the key challenges that any business will encounter while implementing the BCP.”

Office-setup-fiannce-accounts-outsourcing
 
AS: As Mahesh said, we were lucky to have a clear direction from the Board right at the beginning. This enabled us to start the preparation well in advance and take decisive actions on time – and perform all these actions at a time when many people did not view the situation in India as serious enough to warrant a BCP implementation. So, first and foremost, the top leadership needs to provide a clear course of action to the team. 

Talking about the key challenges that a business is most likely to face while implementing a BCP, the first major undertaking will revolve around IT infrastructure – making available laptops, PCs, internet connection and other items available to the entire staff. 

Imagine the logistics involved when dealing with hundreds or thousands of employees. To get it right, we identified the most critical resources first – the idea was to make sure that they were up and running well in advance. 

We created detailed list of employees, categorized them by criticality, checked whether they already had laptops or PCs they could dedicatedly use for work from home, identified tools for secure access to workstations, installed software for secure communication…and took care of a hundred similar details. Here, we took lessons from our experience of working remotely for our clients which definitely helped us implement WFH swiftly. 

So the first issue is understanding all that is required to shift operations from office to home. Next challenge is make a detailed plan and successfully implement it. 

For businesses that deal with critical data – which in today’s world includes a majority of companies – it is imperative that they maintain their existing security measures in a new environment. For example, we retrained our employees on our GDPR-specific polices and the entire staff signed a legal Work From Home agreement. We also send out regular emails to our employees, information and refreshing them on the key information security challenges and protocols.

Alongside this, you also need to inform your clients or customers about the arrangement and take their written consent. This requires transparent and detailed communication to the clients, explaining how the arrangement works and what measures your business is taking to safeguard their information and interests. It definitely helps if your relationship with the clients is built on trust and mutual respect. 

! Pro Tip : It is easier to get the permission if the details around the remote working arrangement are shared in advance and Project Managers follow that up with a call to explain each point and answer to any queries that the clients have.

VM: There is a world of difference between managing a team working on the same floor, or at least the same building, versus managing employees working separately, from home. What do you think are the three most important for managing remote teams effectively?

MJ: That’s a good question. As soon as the business pivots to a remote working model and the implementation is complete, the first question that comes to the fore is: how do we achieve pre-lockdown levels of productivity? 

A situation like COVID-19 poses significant risk to health; so, another question that comes before this one: how do I ensure employee wellbeing when each member is performing under difficult situation? For example, self-isolating to avoid infections, living away from their families, maybe working in less than optimum workspace.

Happy-employees-are-more-productive

Happy, engaged and motivated employees are more productive and innovative.

Based on our own experience, plus conversations with clients and partners who’ve implemented remote working during COVID-19, companies have to get many things right if they want to build efficient and high-performance remote working teams. 

First and foremost, the senior leadership must demonstrate agility; it is important to take quick and correct decisions to resolve any companywide issues. 

Second, the IT infrastructure and technology should work well, and employees should have access to IT support to resolve any issues within short timeframes. This is critical to maintaining employee wellbeing (IT issues can be very frustrating, especially when not resolved fast), safeguarding productivity and meeting the KPIs. 

These two points will help you make sure that the teams have the resources they need to perform their job well. But that’s not nearly enough. So, the third and most important point is to do everything possible to maintain employee well begin and morale during the crisis

VM: That’s a good point. A motivated workforce is undoubtedly the backbone of any effective work-from-home arrangement. What can an organization do to keep employees engaged, motivated and happy?

MJ: Working from home is challenging even during normal times – it can make people feel isolated and unconnected. And when you add the lockdown into the mix, the situation is even more difficult. 

“Facing the challenge of remote working alone, it is not uncommon for employees to lose motivation, feel lonely or ignore their physical fitness. On the other end, some people may blur the boundary between work and daily life and work very long hours and forget how to unplug from work.”

Happy, healthy and engaged employees are the most productive employees. How do you make sure that every member of the team is motivated and connected? I can answer this best by listing down the steps we are taking at QX. 

Tips for keeping employees motivated during COVID-19 crisis

  • “Communicate, communicate, communicate” – this has been our mantra. It is easy to get absorbed in the day to day work and lose touch with what the company is doing and where it is heading. Believing in a shared vision and working towards a larger purpose are two great motivators. 
  • That’s why we have the weekly Townhall with the QX Board, where the leadership team updates the entire QX team about the company’s position, preparation and plans. Similarly, the BU Heads, senior leaders and managers also hold regular team meetings with their teams, cascading key information and answering all queries from each employee. 
  • Train managers to support the team psychologically. Employees facing a difficult time should be able to speak frankly with their managers and get the support they require to get back on track. 
  • At times, people may feel hesitation in discussing some issues with their managers or team members – so we have an independent partner running the wellness clinic, providing confidential support to employees.  
  • Share best practices and guidelines for remote working with the team; train people for workplace adjustments and modification.
  • Provide learning and development sessions for the staff and encourage people with time on their hands to acquire new skills  
  • Have regular video meetings – video meetings can play an effective role in maintaining camaraderie, improving collaboration and sustaining company culture. 
  • Recognise and reward acts of kindness, empathy and good behavior along with performance metrics to embed these within your culture. 
  • Conducting rewards and recognitions programs online – for example Birthday Celebrations, Star Performer Awards and Spot Awards activities where the team can come together to celebrate digitally. 
  • Infusing fun and laughter in the day of the employees through the activities conducted by HR Business Partners. For example, activities like online Bingo, Antakshari and other games; plus, launching various activities like the fitness challenges and the cooking challenge. 
  • Last but not the least, make promotion of good mental health as a core competency for managers and team leaders. Measuring how your employees are feeling using confidential surveys can provide solid, actionable data. 

 


VM: An effective IT setup is the other essential ingredient in building highly productive remote teams – everything that happened in person now needs to happen online. What tech infrastructure and support is crucial to make things tick?

AS: You make a good observation – everything previously done in person needs to happen online. I would go one step further: a lot of things that happened online within secure office premises now need to be done online from a remote workers location. 

Our office environment, which is ISO 9001 and 27001 certified, is designed for the work we do. For example, many of our  staff access clients’ networks via secure QX servers. The same will be the case for other businesses – their IT infrastructure and systems have been honed over the years to perfectly fit the purpose.  

Reliable infrastructure, role-based access and a professional setup help build effective teams.

Reliable infrastructure, role-based access and a professional setup help build effective teams.

Companies implementing BCP during COVID-19 had to replicate such a set up for each employee working from home. From my understanding, the key pieces of the puzzle are:

  • Physical assets: Providing laptops, PCs, and other IT assets. We provided hundreds of laptops and transferred hundreds of PCs to the homes our employees. 
  • Secure VPN: Our IT team evaluated solutions related to SSL VPN and similar technology two weeks prior to the lockdown. We booked a demo for SSL VPN product and tested some of the critical staff connecting them to work. Observing that the results were satisfactory, we ordered licenses for the same. Having a secure VPN in place allows employees to connect and work through the company’s secure servers.  
  • Internet connectivity: Efficient remote working requires a high-speed internet connection. Every business needs to make sure that its employees have a reliable and powerful interment connection. 
  • At QX, we asked our staff lacking broadband access at home to apply for broadband a week before the lockdown. To expedite things, we had vendors setup their desks in our office premises. The company made it clear that the employees would be reimbursed for the broadband, ensuring that everyone who needed it got it. And by encouraging our employees to maintain backup internet connections, we minimized the chances of internet outage affecting our activities. 
  • Online meetings and collaboration: As meetings and collaboration move online, it becomes important to have the right systems in place. Companies need to install reliable video conferencing and communication tools. QX used Zoom, WebEx and Skype at the start and then switched to the more secure MS teams. For Zoom, we identified the risks involved and share security guidelines to ensure that our calls and communications on the platform stayed secure.  

! Pro Tip : Companies need to equip their employees with physical IT assets, reliable internet connectivity, secure VPNs, video conferencing software and effective tools for online collaboration to achieve peak productivity and efficiency. 

VM: A majority of businesses cite Information Security as one of the biggest barriers to implementing remote working. This was a prime concern for QX also. How can businesses manage remote working without compromising on security? 

MJ: By making sure that all the security policies and procedures in place while working in office are in place during work from home also. Refresher training of employees and regular communication related to security polices and best practices is a key element for ensuring full compliance with the rules. 

At QX, we have combined employee training and awareness with proactive monitoring of employee systems and randomized testing from our BCP teams – this helps to identify and plug in any gaps fast. 

Rock solid information security measures are criticall for safe remote working.

Rock solid information security measures are criticall for safe remote working.

AS: Exactly – companies must not treat work from home or remote working lightly. If I may dive a little deeper into the details… we have shared the WFH guidelines with our employees and the staff has signed specific agreements around security. 

By allowing access to the data only via a secure VPN setup, we ensure that data cannot leave the system. Additionally, the IT team has installed Anitvirus and other security software in all the systems. Local malware protection triggers notification to the IT dept. if a malware is detected on the systems

Additionally, we clearly communicate remote working specific guidelines to the employees. Some of the key directions that I can recall are:

  • The use of office assets is strictly limited to office/client work in WFH
  • USB ports are blocked on QX computers used at home – so no chance of data theft
  • Unapproved transfer, distribution or reproduction of information is strictly prohibited

VM: One of the most common fear or concern associated with remote working is the impact it can have on effeciency. How can companies foster collaboration between employees and implement efficient work practices?  

MJ: I can relate to the concern. I saw it as a major threat in the beginning and we did face some teething challengwes at the outset. However, the company is now performing at pre-lockdown levels – less than 5-6 weeks of implementing remote working. 

Collocation – teams sitting together – is considered to be an important factor in collaboration. Many managers also feel that they need to keep their teams under close supervision to make sure that the work gets done. If you had asked me before our great remote working experiments, I would have listed a number of challenges. 

Did we face all of these challenges on our journey? Yes, we did. And within a short time span, we were able to overcome these and build highly effective remote working teams. What worked for us?

“Providing teams with proper tools, structure and processes to perform and report their work yields fantastic results. Adding shares online workspaces and tools for collaboration help dissolve the barrier of distance. Training the team members in best practices pf communicating virtual meetings and video calls helps improve efficiency.”

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