Jonathan Hopfner | March 11th, 2020

As many of us have already realised, willingly or not, we’re all now effectively part of the world’s biggest work from home experiment. Even if you’re in one of the few places where it’s still business as usual - or have an employer that stubbornly insists on everyone coming to the office - chances are you’re being roped into more conference calls and virtual meetings.

The data on how this impacts productivity - especially when it comes to strategic or creative work - is decidedly mixed. Some widely cited studies show working from home boosts both performance and job satisfaction. But other research suggests it can stifle creativity and innovation, mostly because it encourages a sedentary lifestyle and makes collaboration more difficult.

Of course, much of this is down to the individual. Personally, I can vouch for the downsides; as much as I manage to get done at home I can never shake the feeling I’d be making even more progress at New Narrative headquarters, far from potential distractions like video game consoles and Hong Kong’s exceptional hiking trails (a well-known hazard to future employment prospects).

Thankfully, due in no small part to the remarkable strides in collaboration and networking solutions over the last few years, it’s been pretty much business as usual for us despite the team being spread across multiple locations and time zones (which, to be fair, was often the case even before the coronavirus outbreak). And though current circumstances have upended many campaigns and events, it’s also encouraging to see a lot of clients taking our advice and seeing through their research and marketing plans, which now, more than ever, are finding receptive, intelligence-hungry audiences.

More and more, it looks like a less location-dependent approach to work and collaboration is here to stay. Based on recent experience there are a few simple steps teams can take to make remote working more effective - and to prevent it from spiraling out of control.

*Pick a platform, and stick with it. The choice and functionality of collaboration tools (Zoom, G Suite, Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.) have increased to an extent where there are now dozens of viable options for a team looking to tackle a project remotely. Choosing one primary platform and limiting (or even better, eliminating) communication or decision-making about the project outside it is a surefire way to reduce confusion or the chances of good ideas getting lost due to what I’ve come to think of as ‘platform proliferation.’ For example, someone sets up a Google Doc, WhatsApp group and e-mail chain for the same project, so discussions and decisions are suddenly taking place across three different environments that may or may not be feeding into each other - cue utter chaos.

It’s also important to make it clear what tool everyone will be expected to use well in advance. I recently joined a Zoom meeting that went horribly off the rails because half the invitees realised they didn’t have the app installed 30 seconds before it was due to start, and roughly the same number couldn’t figure out how to mute themselves. Rather than a productive exchange the group was treated to a rousing chorus of subway announcements, barking dogs and bursts of feedback.

*Don’t invite everyone to the party: Perhaps because online environments are perceived as limitless and people can in theory jump in from anywhere, there’s a tendency to be more liberal in soliciting participation - after all, sending out a few more invites ‘just in case’ doesn’t appear to ‘cost’ anything. But as with any physical meeting or brainstorming session, focus, productivity and the willingness of some people to share ideas can, and usually will, decline steeply in inverse proportion to the number of participants involved. It’s best to envision that virtual conference you’re setting up taking place in a real meeting room. Is it looking crowded? Are there a few people playing with their phones or looking vaguely confused, wondering why they’ve been asked to attend? Time to start trimming the invite list.

*Keep it regular: The borderless, fluid nature of the contemporary work environment of course argues for a degree of flexibility. But in general once an optimal time for a meeting on an ongoing project has been established it’s advisable to make it a regular, recurring check-in rather than scheduling future sessions on an ad-hoc or ‘as needed’ basis. This helps make sure everyone knows what to expect and will come more prepared to the next interaction, and also avoids the tedious dance of having to align everyone’s calendars from scratch with every collaboration session. The flip side of this approach is that once the schedule is established, group communication and collaboration should be confined to those regular meetings as much as possible - this respects people’s space and varying time zones, and also makes decision-making processes and output more auditable and transparent.

None of this is to deny the potential and power of being able to work anytime, anywhere - while I’ll admit I was a reluctant convert, I’ve also come to see the advantages. Now if anyone wants me, I’ll be at the office.

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