Keeping staff motivated and productive key challenge, say business leaders

Some are Zooming whilst others have gone Slack.  Some are climbing Trello boards just as others settle into Basecamp.

One thing is for sure: bosses across the north west will emerge from the current lock-down with a whole new understanding of what technology can do to help their teams work remotely.

It may have taken a week for businesses to adjust and get their home-based staff working efficiently, but now comes a new challenge: how to keep colleagues happy, motivated and accountable.

“Not everyone can adjust to working from the sofa,” as Warrington-based entrepreneur Debbie Ryan notes.

She is part of a cluster of businesses at a technology hub in Warrington called The Base.  Almost 300 people work in the impressive glazed building across a range of industries, from artificial intelligence to computer games design, and from sophisticated database development to on-line crowd-funding.

Virtually all have decamped the majority of their staff to home in response to the corona virus and, as technology leaders, that part of it has proven relatively straightforward, says James Hamilton of Pixeltree Media, a digital design consultancy.

“We already encourage working from home to help our team’s work-life balance, so the enabling technology was already in place.

“The key for us is ensuring that we all stay in touch, both across projects and the company as a whole.  Isolation is unproductive.”

Each company uses different software platforms to help achieve this but the point is more an organisational one, argues Hamilton. “The technology is already there and familiar. What many bosses haven’t thought about is how to organise daily routines, tasks and communication in a way that is fun, motivating and ensures people still feel part of a greater whole.

His tricks include a daily dial-in via Zoom, using its video facility so that, as each team member runs through their tasks, challenges and requests for input, they can see each other and generate the banter that is key to happy teams.

“We’ve learned an awful lot about people’s taste in home décor,” says Hamilton, smiling.

Daniel Pala, a director at web support agency Ixis, says that daily group connectivity helps with visibility and accountability.  “People can ask for support, but it also means their responsibilities are clear.  Now more than ever teams must pull together and a blend of good tech and a guiding hand from line managers helps ensure that everyone remains on task and happy.”

Trust is still a key ingredient, however.  “If we don’t trust our staff then something is clearly wrong – and those faults lie with management,” says Pala.  Still, he says, his day feels as sociable and busy as when he’s in the office, with google ‘hangouts,’ short messages flying around via Slack (a sort of WhatsApp for business) and file sharing via Google Documents.

“Everything is in the cloud and negates the need for staff to be in the office all the time. We’ve been able to reduce the need for complex internal IT support as a result and the cost savings have been substantial,” notes Pala.

Routine is welcomed by many staff, suggests Debbie Ryan, who runs Impact Group, the on-line training and fund-raising platform.

“It can be bit disorientating for some to go from the formality of an office environment, with its written and unspoken codes, to working from home,” she suggests.  “We encourage our team to put on their best work clothes and find a defined space in the house that they can call their ‘office’.  It’s key to mental health and well-being for many.”

Looking ahead, James Hamilton believes the work environment will change for good.

“On the whole, businesses weren’t prepared for this.  The big opportunity is to train them in the future use of these technologies and to help them build resilience and put measures in place to cope with future crises.”

It needn’t cost the earth either, he argues.

“Available technologies mean that the cost of this will be marginal, really.  Cloud-based apps share their cost across a global market so individual plans for business mean that even the smallest SME can have an infrastructure to match a PLC.  It’s a great leveler, technology, and with a fair wind it will mean that more SMEs survive this crisis than may otherwise have been the case.”

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