Five Principles to Improve Your Virtual Work Space after Coronavirus

This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to massive, overnight shifts in higher education and in the broader workforce. Millions of students and workers in Florida and throughout the U.S. are now forced into online learning and virtual work. 

Unfortunately, remote work and learning carries its own burdens. Policymakers, managers, and workers will need to recognize these challenges if they want to be successful and use technology most productively. 

To be sure, virtual work carries many advantages. I have worked in a largely virtual work space since 1988. The flexibility to structure my own schedule allowed me to stay at home with my kids when they were toddlers, attend their school plays and sports regularly, volunteer in my community, and be creative in how I managed work priorities and responsibilities. 

But without the right discipline and organizational structure, organizations run the risk of becoming less productive, less healthy, and less efficient.

Here are a five principles and guidelines to help ensure your colleagues, peers, and students remain productive in a virtual work space:

● Set clear expectations. Working remotely carries responsibilities. Ensure employees, managers (and students) realize that working in a virtual environment will require discipline and structure in order for them to be successful.

● Set realistic performance metrics based on outputs and outcomes. Too many current management tools focus on inputs: hours spent in the office, time logged-in, time on task, etc. A better objective focuses on outputs: How many customers were served satisfactorily? Did the employee meet critical milestones for a project? What did students learn from their assignments?

Remember employees and students are human. Generally, people do not do well when working in isolation. Most are hard-wired to be social. Use technology (zoom, google hangouts, skype, etc.) to create spaces where teams work and interact — frequently. Put the powerpoints on-line, limit presentations to the essentials, and adopt participatory strategies that engage everyone in the virtual space.

● Reward and applaud good performance — generously. The very nature of a virtual work is to dehumanize and de-personalize work. Remind your colleagues and peers that their hard work is appreciated and ensure their good work is visible to the team and organization.

● Show grace. The likelihood communication will break down is higher than in face-to-face meetings. If something goes wrong, work with employees and students to identify the root source of the problem, forgive any errors, and work collaboratively to build a more robust and resilient process focused on the future.

Managers, employees, and students are entering a new world in which many are likely ill-equipped to handle. The shift for many will be too sudden. Old-school attitudes about work and performance are too well ingrained. 

Organizational leadership will be necessary to make best use of the technologies available to ensure your teams work productively. More importantly, if these new tools and attitudes are harnessed successfully, your organization and classroom will be even more productive when we settle back into whatever the “new normal” will be.

Samuel Staley, director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University

Samuel R. Staley is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. A baby boomer, he currently manages about 30 faculty, staff, and research assistants in a largely virtual workspace.

The featured image is from Proof Hub blog.

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