Remote, isolated, pandemic and unprecedented were not words that were part of everyday vocabulary a month ago. And now here we are.

But ‘self-isolation’ does not mean social-isolation.

And ‘social distance’ is not disconnected.

As work places shift into survival mode during the global pandemic of COVID-19, gears are already grinding as some businesses stretch to see over the blurry horizon at what may lay head. How will we survive? And then, how will we thrive? Or more importantly, who or what will our business even be, post-pandemic.

As an Australian-based not-for-profit that relies on deploying Australian professionals on assignments throughout Australia and Asia Pacific, it’s clear to see how our business will struggle to exist in its current format in the coming months. Re-think, re-invent, re-build will all be core to our strategy as we move through 2020.

But one area of business that Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) has got a head start on is working remotely, or perhaps a more accurate description – being a distributed workforce.

In 2021, ABV will celebrate its 40th anniversary in operation supporting vulnerable communities through business. From it’s origins as a government-funded, office based business that reinvented itself as a independently funded, fully distributed workforce with a core team of 7 and an extended network of over 300 skilled business professionals operating in an open source style workforce, ABV provides skills and services crossing disciplines, time zones and geographies. And it’s the way we’ve always done it.

ABV CEO Liz Mackinlay has been running remote and distributed workforces for almost two  decades. In my interview to join the ABV team in December 2018, I remember being delighted at the idea of a fully remote organisation because of the flexibility it would offer me.

It truly was a breath of fresh air at the time to have a business leader so comfortable with the idea of not being able to see exactly what I was doing each day, or even what time I started my work – and that didn’t faze her one bit. The focus was on the work and empowering the team to live the lives they needed to in order to do good work.

At the time, Liz’s view was the exception not the rule. But as we find ourselves inside ‘the new normal’ where global businesses of all sizes need to shift gears, establish protocol and get going with a mentality that can survive remote working, the team at ABV are looking in on ourselves and realising that our small, agile and zoom-ready team is ahead of the curve. “The conversations I’m having with other business leaders have made me realise how far ahead we are by already being fully operational as a distributed team. We can be agile and pivot every day – because that’s how often it’s changing right now” reflected Liz to our team last week.

But take it from us, as a fully distributed organisation with no fixed address, understanding and adapting to the nuances of remote working can be a little like taking off the training wheels of your bike as you wobble forward.

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress (which now powers 35% of all websites globally) has a distributed workforce of over 1,200 employees across 70 countries and refers to the current situation we find ourselves in as “a massive global work-from-home experiment that no one asked for.”

So while your day today might involve home-schooling your child, virtually supporting a co-worker who is having a tough time in isolation, re-arranging a bedside set of drawers to function as a workspace, checking Twitter for the latest #covid updates, taking a moment to laugh at a self-isolation meme, coughing into your elbow and then jumping into your next video work meeting, know that you’re not alone. Globally, businesses and individuals are grappling not only to be efficient, but just to be able to function.

We’ve compiled a list of a few things that have helped keep us functioning, supporting and thriving as a team. Even with team members we have never met (cause that’s a thing now!)

  1. Don’t recreate – rebuild: You’re in a ‘new’ space at home: with new boundaries, new liberties and a whole bunch of nuances of your home and personal life that other workers may or may not be experiencing. Treat this as a new space with new guardrails. Make sure your workplace health and safety are considered in your new environment.
  1. Allow yourself time to adapt: Take a breath, give yourself and your team time to feel your way into the new normal. No 2 days will be the same so allow some time for you to develop a routine that suits your new collided worlds of work and home. Think about your health, safety and feeling secure. From there we build.
  1. Don’t force productivity: Be careful in thinking ramping up your tasks and output equals productivity. The only thing you might be driving is your anxiety. We love this article from Aisha S Ahmad, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who has some great tips for mental adjustments in a crisis. If you’re struggling being productive, consider when you’re at your most productive and utilise that time for creative tasks or re-prioritising your ‘to do’ list.

 

  1. Human-first: Empathise with your co-workers and the situations they may be in each day. Forget the small talk, start work meetings with a real ‘How are you?’. Or better yet, reach out even when there isn’t a meeting planned. It might feel weird to phone someone without a meeting scheduled but you’d stop by someone’s desk to have a chat, so replicate that virtually. Don’t hesitate to have a laugh with your colleagues – we’re all going through this in our own unique way and we need moments of lightness.
  1. Find a rhythm that suits you: The operative word is ‘you’ and we prefer ‘rhythm’ to ‘schedule’. Allow fluidity. This may not look like anything you’ve known before. Your day might start and end a few times over during the 9-5­ and if you’re home-schooling or juggling caring for people in your house this will take time to find the rhythm that is right for you.
  1. Make suggestions to your team: Finding the team is doing things out of synch with what suits you? Speak up. More than ever businesses require agile thinking, fluidity and innovation. If you’ve got a creative suggestion for how things might work differently voice it.
  1. Create space, mental space: Being self-aware, carving out some mental space for yourself (even if it involves crawling into a cupboard to escape the kids) is critical. Being able to connect with who you are and what you need day to day will help you think clearly, and empower you to prioritise tasks that are relevant for you and your work.

 

  1. Nerd up, our nerd out: There is going to be new technology that you need to adapt to: finding and using shared drives, adjusting microhphone and video settings. Go easy on yourself if you’re not a natural adopter to these things. And if you are, identify the co-worker that might need support and call them prior to the next meeting to see if they need a hand setting things up. We all bring different skills to the table. Also, take care of the introverts for whom hours of Zoom video meetings might be draining and intrusive
  1. Identity what? Much like culture shock of adapting to a new country you might visit or move to, remote working is a new work culture. You have COVID-Culture shock. You’re going to question who you are out of context of the office. No daily chit chat, smiling at co-workers and the occasional elevator convo are all gone. Who are you without the context of the office, or even the outside world on a daily basis? It’s just you now. Be ok with that and understand that like culture shock you will feel ambivalence, then maybe some comfort, then discomfort as you discover more changes, and slowly move toward adjusting.
  1. Drive: Understanding what motivates you and your co-workers is critical, and at a distance, this is different again. American author, Daniel Pink outlined 3 key factors in ensuring motivation in his 2009 book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”:
    • Autonomy – Our desire to be self-directed
    • Mastery – The urge to get better skills
    • Purpose – The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. ABV can certainly attest to each of these, with the 3rd one, Purpose, being a core pillar of our work. A recent team survey at ABV revealed that “doing meaningful work” was our number 1 value.

There is a lot of noise right now. The whirr of social media, the pinging of yet another virtual meeting in the calendar, kids arguing over school work and that’s just the external!

Take a breath, we’re all on separate journeys with this so empathy has never been more important.

This is could be a great opportunity to shake off old working habits and reinvent the way you work, parent and live. Or it could just be something we’re grateful to survive.