Best practices for remaining productive when enacting ‘social distancing’ practices in the workplace

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The UK government is currently in ongoing talks to decide which measures should be brought in to delay the spread of disease in the country. ‘Social distancing’ measures will be top of the agenda, which involves encouraging businesses to have staff work remotely wherever possible.

The virus can spread from person-to-person contact (P2P), making social distancing an effective tool in combating the outbreak. But what impact will a mass move to remote working have on UK businesses?

A YouGov survey found that only 45% of employees in the UK report working to the same standard when working from home, while only 15% believe working from home helps them to produce a higher standard of work. The efficacy and feasibility of remote working also differs between different business types: over half (55%) of businesses in the hospitality and leisure industry actively discourage flexible working and more than a third (36%) in the finance and accounting sector, while large businesses (+250 employees) are more likely to offer flexible working practices than smaller businesses (80% vs. 67%).

For the many businesses across the UK that may be unaccustomed to working for long periods of time outside of the office, we’ve written up a list of best practices which to remain productive while working at distance. When employed, these approaches ensure staff can be just as productive working remotely as they are in-person.

Take advantage of the wide variety of collaborative tools which can help virtualise office environments

Having the right set of tools can allow teams to work well collaboratively and simultaneously. Miro, for example, is a fantastic virtual white board tool that allows users to collaborate on activities they would usually use a whiteboard and post-it notes for, such as synthesising research, deciding on team priorities, outcomes-based roadmaps and team goals. You can read more about how humanitarian organisation Social Finance is using Miro to support young people transitioning out of care feel more supported and empowered, used Miro to optimise its online collaboration capabilities here

Other tools, such as Slack, are perfect for managing teams and/or individual projects. Slack is user-friendly, easy to set up and, most importantly, is available across a wide variety of devices and operating systems, helping to ensure everyone on every device has equal access.

Essentially, application-based collaborative tools need to effectively virtualise the typical environment found within the office. While in person collaboration has huge benefits for building trust and collaboration, software tools can go a long way to replicating this, whether it’s brainstorming in front of a whiteboard, catching-up in the breakout area or pairing up on a single document.

Refine your online conference abilities

Modern working practices largely rely on collaboration and pairing up in order to be productive. If team members are remote, webcams and headphones are a must for ensuring people remain engaged and establish a sense of togetherness.

However, people can be uncomfortable on webcam, and if working in locations with bad connectivity, it might not even be possible. This may result in team members becoming averse to video streaming while on conference calls, but it’s crucial to do so where possible to ensure a sense of trust and connection is maintained within the team. Clearly, being able to see and hear team members is a far more engaging method of communication than e-mails and IMs, but it’s also crucial for ensuring staff can work openly and transparently together as well.

On the other hand, constant remote pairing all day can be tiring, so it’s important to take breaks, and also identify tasks that team members can work on on their own. It’s helpful for team members to let others know if they’re planning on ‘deep work’ for a period of time and reset their available status to ‘do not disturb’.

Be mindful of losing structure to the workday

We believe in sustainable pace, working 8 hours a day, but shifting those working hours to match across a global remote team likely won’t fit with people’s lifestyles, nor promote a healthy work environment. We try to plan our work to put collaborative activities that require more people’s input in the overlapping hours and decide together what individuals will work on in the remaining, non-overlapping hours.

Holding weekly retrospectives within the team to discuss what’s working well and not so well across time zones will help identify opportunities to shorten feedback loops and remove frustration. E.g. posting asks in Slack for team members to see when they start the next day, changing the time of stand-ups, or identifying subject matter experts across time zones so there’s always someone available to help answer questions and remove blockers.

Moving forward remotely

Social distancing will be key to protecting staff from COVID-19 and helping to limit the spread of the outbreak overall. With disruption to global supply chains and changes in consumer behaviour already posing the risk that the virus will cause major disruption to UK (and global) businesses, the steps outlined above will help ensure any negative effects aren’t exacerbated by issues of low worker productivity as well. The right tools, methods and practices are at businesses’ disposal to virtualise the office environment today and provide a working alternative to regain some control until the situation has stabilised.

Ellie Ereira and Aly Blenkin are Co-founders of Pivotal Act

Ellie Ereira

Ellie is the Associate Director of Pivotal Act, an initiative at Pivotal that she co-founded to partner with organisations committed to addressing social, humanitarian and environmental problems with technology. Ellie bring experience gained from working in this area across multiple sectors, including a multilateral development organisation, national government, private-sector startup, software development consultancy and academia. She work closely with product teams to coach them in lean, user centred design (UCD) and agile processes for technology development.