4 Min ReadBusiness 30 June 2020
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were resistant to implementing remote work for a variety of reasons such as concerns about technology and infrastructure, a lack of trust that employees would get their jobs done, the longstanding (and understandable) bias in favor of face-to-face interactions, or some combination of these factors. However, not only has the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to switch to remote work despite their reservations, it's clear at this point that it's going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Remote work is here to stay, at least partially. By analyzing the pros and cons of remote work we've witnessed over the past few months, we can apply various insights towards maximizing its benefits while minimizing the downsides.
Remote Work Can Be Productive But Also Challenging
Ever since companies implemented remote work en masse, we have witnessed several general tendencies. One is that despite early concerns about remote work leading to less productivity, what many have seen firsthand is that a lot of work can indeed get done via remote work — in many cases even more than before when people were physically going into offices. There is a wide range of possible reasons for this, from having a quieter environment to work in (which is obviously not always the case for everyone, especially parents) to having more time freed up due to less commuting to no obvious start and end time to the work day.
Alas, the results have not been uniformly positive. One problem many of us have experienced is that remote meetings can be more difficult. The actual platforms used to run meetings online like Zoom or Google Meet are in themselves relatively simple and straightforward to use. The challenge is that online meetings come with some intrinsic limitations such as the inability to incorporate the same level of non-verbal communication that we use interacting in-person. Non-verbal communication plays an influential role in conveying meaning, and when it is absent, we lose important nuance. Perhaps the most annoying obstacle is that online people tend to talk over each other, albeit unintentionally. Part of this is because we cannot use those non-verbal signals to signal we want the floor, and part of it is technical issues of buffering, delays, and audio/video synching.
This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need.
Making Up for Lost Planning Time
Companies have had to grapple with the lack of time to plan and prepare for a complete switch to remote work. COVID-19 forced them to go from 0 to 60 mph in what felt like a nanosecond, resulting in many hiccups along the way. Looking ahead, now that much of the initial craziness has ebbed, many companies will have the opportunity to make up for that lost planning time. They should make this a deliberative process and include to identify what worked and what didn't in the remote work process. Good, clear communication will be key. What limitations did employees run up against over the past several months, and what are their ideas for getting around those? What kinds of hardware and software do they need to acquire or upgrade? This is the time for employers to be analyzing, strategizing, and planning, to find out what employees need. They should also prepare thoughtful responses if and when they cannot make the changes employees request.
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Overwork and Burnout
Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.
As mentioned, remote work has not led to people being unproductive or doing less work. If anything, people are working more, and therein lies a potential problem. For many, COVID-19 has caused work-life balance and healthy boundaries between the two domains to effectively disintegrate. This is why communication is so important, particularly for companies preparing to offer a permanent remote work environment to staff. Companies need to encourage employees — remote or in the office — to take work-life balance seriously. In a tough employment environment, with so many layoffs and furloughs, many people feel lucky just to have their jobs. They are anxious about keeping them, and so succumb to the temptation to be available 24/7 as a way of demonstrating their value to their companies. This isn't good for the company, and it is definitely not good for the employee.
Overwork, stress, and burnout have detrimental effects on employees' functioning and job engagement as well as their performance and productivity. To help avoid this, companies will need to set clear expectations, clearly communicate what those expectations are, and, if necessary, actively encourage employees to take enough time away from work. They may also benefit by changing their workplace culture to focus more on results and final products and less on strictly defined work schedules. For example, as long as your employees get what you need back to you by the time you need it, perhaps the actual hours or days that they work should not matter so much. Of course, a flexible workplace culture of this sort requires a great deal of trust, and good communication is the foundation of this trust.
The Importance of Informal Communication at Work
One dimension that was largely lost because of the widespread transition to remote work was informal communication in the workplace. This is the casual socializing and interaction that naturally occur among employees in the workplace — the proverbial water cooler talk. It just seems odd to schedule Zoom calls for engaging in small talk or socializing with our work colleagues.
Good, clear, and frequent communication, once again, will be the key to maximizing the benefits of remote work and minimizing its potential pitfalls in the post-COVID era.
However, workplace informal communication is important and serves multiple beneficial functions. Conversations build interpersonal relationships and have positive effects on work whether or not the topic relates specifically to the job at hand. It is likely that going forward, companies will move to a modality that incorporates both remote and in-person work, although some may find staying remote works for them. If the company has all or many or some employees working remote, it will be worth considering how to create space and opportunities for informal communication. This could be through hosting virtual happy hours, recreating morning coffee breaks, or hosting brown bag lunches or whatever else fits companies' needs and situations. No reason these events could not include the employees in the office as well as those working remotely. A company wanting to celebrate could host a luncheon on campus and send takeout to those working from home — a truly virtual brown bag lunch!Despite the numerous logistical challenges that the sudden shift to remote work has presented, the consensus among many employers and employees alike is that remote work can work. Not only can it work, it can be highly efficient and productive and provide employees with the flexibility they want as well as offer numerous advantages to companies. Good, clear, and frequent communication, once again, will be the key to maximizing the benefits of remote work and minimizing its potential pitfalls in the post-COVID era.
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3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.