As Taiwan starts coming to grips with the largest COVID-19 outbreak it has seen since the beginning of the global pandemic, and enters into soft-lockdown territory, there has been a lot of online discourse about working from home, and the reluctance of many Taiwanese companies and their managers to implement working from home strategies.
It is unfortunate, that over the last 18 months or so while the pandemic raged outside of Taiwans borders, that companies in general haven't actively tried to develop contingencies and strategies for a transition to remote work, and many are now caught of guard haphazardly trying to implement a plan or outright saying that work still needs to take place in the office.
While we are not anti-office, and see some value in companies having a home base, a place where the all-too-cliche "collaboration" can happen, a long with some social benefits; it's also clear to us that as a society we need to transition into flexible working, and not just because of COVID-19, but for a host of reasons. So in this article I want to take some time to explain what is flexible working and what are the benefits, and what strategies can we use as companies and individuals to ensure that flexible work structures are successul.
What is it and why would I do it?
Flexible working in the sense of COVID-19, will for most of us, mean working from home, but in the wider sense, it is a new style of working that breaks out of the mould of 9-5 (or in Taiwans case, 9-9) Monday - Friday and replacing it with giving workers the trust to flexibly set their own working hours and location. Perhaps some days that will be in the office, others perhaps they will spend it at home, a cafe, or a library. Perhaps they will choose to only come into the office for 4 or 6 hours a day, depending on the requirements of their work.
Some managers may read this and already be balking "But I pay them to work 8 hours a day" - and in response to that I say; we need a shift in mindset. We should no longer be looking at hours or time, but at productivity - what has actually been achieved?
Think about your average working day, you may be in an office for 8 hours (or more), but are you really working for 8 hours? In most office based jobs the answer is a definitive no. On average, office workers will actually only have 2 - 4 hours of real productive time during office hours. The rest of the time is taken up by meetings, socializing, napping, and web browsing. After a person has passed their peak productivity time, work speed and quality decreases, and they're essentially just keeping the chair warm.
In addition to this, if we consider the digitization of work and our society being so ultra-connected, with many people are still expected to be on-call to their work well into their personal time, we soon start to see that the traditional clock-in and clock-out system doesn't really work in this changing environment.
Instead of using "hours at a desk" as measurement for productivity we can look at other metrics, such as tasks achieved or the overall results. And for many businesses, this doesn't need to be a daily measurement. Is the business achieving its goals over the period of a week, month or year? For most people who have a clear goal to aim for, this shouldn't be difficult.
Indeed, many companies that have implemented flexible work policies, have seen an increase in productivity and there are very good reasons for that. Workers can now choose a place to work and a time that is more conducive to productivity, maximizing concentration and entering a flow state. Also, companies may see their teams mental health and personal wellbeing improve, as people will have more flexibility to allocate some time to pursuing fitness, hobbies, or more time with their families. This will always lead to better outcomes in terms of productivity and work-fulfillment.
Ok, so how can we make flexible work.... work?
So how can we get across the line with flexible working? It is a tough ask, particularly in Taiwan where many companies operate in a traditional fashion. But I believe any office-based company can implement a flexible work policy. First I will outline some broader cultural shifts that need to take place, and then I'll get to what tools help us get there.
First of all it is important to recognize that a flexible work strategy designed to increase productivity must include a high degree of autonomy for the individual. This increases mutual trust. Any attempt to track an individuals time, keystrokes, webcam or any other kind of work "monitoring" is a breach of that trust and will break down the good faith established between the parties.
The second thing and almost of equal importance is clear communication (in both directions) and common goals. Where are we trying to get to this week, this month or this year? Remember, the result is often more important than the how (there are some exceptions to this rule in tech or development). Outline your expectations of team members early on and make sure they are clear about what tasks you would like to see completed in a given period. Be receptive to ideas from team members when it comes to shifting priorities, unrealistic deadlines or different ways to achieve an outcome. This further builds trust and gives people a stake in the organization. If you are a manager that really does insist on regular progress updates, rather than just letting the results speak for itself - don't make it daily, but make it a weekly or bi-weekly round up e-mail, otherwise you are just wasting too much productive time.
Meetings are a favorite time-suck of many Taiwanese businesses, and while some meetings can allow a project to gain traction, or foster collaboration, others are complete waste of time. If you are going to host an in-person meeting, ask yourself - "does this really need to be in person?" - 9/10 the answer would be and should be no, particularly if some team member needs to cross city boundaries during a lockdown to attend.
If you are still going to host a meeting and some team members are in the office, and some are not, ensure that you are equipped with a decent and reliable video conferencing setup so that everyone can have an equal level of participation in the meeting.
Consider if your meeting could be done completely online, via video conference, chat or just e-mail and ensure that you are well prepared to host it with a clear agenda and clear timeframe. Going back to clear communication again here is key, if people are working flexibly they will generally need to know in advance what times they need to be prepared to overlap or set aside for meetings, stand-ups etc.
"My company has a lot of paperwork" is also a favorite excuse for not introducing flexible work, and it's probably the one that makes the least sense in todays digital age. If your current SOP involves stapling, stamping, collating documents and putting them into a cabinet, it's time to start investigating how you can bring some of those process online. For companies that really do require physical documents; digitize what you can, use printing and scanning, and invest in a fast document courier account. And remember, outside of COVID-19 the office will still exist for physical interactions, it just doesn't have to be every day, for eight hours a day.
And a note to the individual team member, employee, or freelancer - when you're working flexibly like this it's important to remember that you need to be self-motivated. There is no hand holding or whip cracking. If you think you are the type of person to become easily distracted in a non-office environment (but let's be real - the amount of distractions in the office is already immense!) then you need to equip yourself with the tools to stay on task - for time management, task management and of course, plenty of coffee. Once you have found your rhythm and settled into your own routine you should start to see the benefits.
Bonus Tip for the Individual working from home: Don't watch TV during your working time, DO set aside time for exercise and eat healthy. Your mind and body will thank you!
What tools can I use to make my flexible work strategy a success?
So now let's talk tools! What do I recommend for individuals and teams moving to a flexible working model?
A reliable and secure VPN connection into the office. Particularly if you have an office based server for files, intranet or internal software applications that need secure access. We use OpenVPN which will run on any Linux based server (it requires technical knowledge to set up, but there are plenty of online guides), and for the client I prefer Tunnelblick on Mac.
Email & Calendar
For the basic productivity tools - Email and Calendar, we use Google Workspace, which charges a fixed fee per user for an organization. A business suite account, rather than a free gmail account allows you to have your own domain (like bdigital.asia) for your email accounts, and you get all the features you could need in a professional email and calendar product. (And a side note to anyone in business - having a domain, and @yourdomain email, and a proper website does increase your credibility.)
Some calendar basics that will help you when you are working remotely
- The ability to share calendars and events, with varying levels of permissions.
- Listing multiple timezones on your calendar
- Creating separate calendars for work events, personal events, certain projects
For task management at an individual level, I use a Trello kanban board that is also synchronised to Google Calendar with a plugin called Cronofy and color coded-labels to denote the type of task. Organizations might wish to use a more fully featured project tracking/kanban software such as Jira.
For time management I use Google Calendar extensively to block periods of time for certain tasks, going as far as to even block out personal time for exercise etc, as a way to remind myself to keep showing up.
For online meetings I'll use a combination of platforms depending on client preferences. Microsoft Teams (which is also a fully featured collaboration tool) and Skype both offer high quality video call and screen sharing abilities. Even Taiwans favorite chat app Line can do group video calls with screen sharing, although the quality is low. Of course we have heard about everyone using Zoom, but this is not something we use due to the security concerns that arose during 2020.
For chat and collaboration many companies in Taiwan will use Line groups (and we do use these sometimes due to client preferences), but as these are inherently limited in terms of the structure of the chat, and search features, I would recommend Teams as above or Slack. These both allow threaded conversations across different channels to represent projects or whatever else you like (i.e. a breakout room). Slack is particularly useful for developers as it has the ability to share well formatted code snippets, can integrate with GIT and Jira.
Time Tracking (for Billing)
I know we banned time-tracking for measuring performance, but in certain cases where you need to track billable units for time worked etc, you are going to still need a time tracker. I recommend Toggl Track, which is free for individuals/freelancers with limited features. It also integrates with both Google Calendar and Trello making it a perfect companion to these tools. At the end of the month you can generate a report to assist you with invoicing clients.
Appointment and Meeting Scheduling
For booking appointments or meetings internally: if your team is already using Google Calendar, and depending on your purpose you can set up appointment slots or event invites. You can give event invitees modify access to the event, if you want them to be able to change the meeting time, without needing to email you. (Thanks Jeff Su on Youtube for that Tip and plenty of others on his video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GqqptRI4Do)
For external appointments, with clients for example, I would recommend using Calendly, which creates a nice appointment booking interface that integrates into Google Calendar, and can also integrate with payment platforms, if you decide to charge for your consultations.
Bonus - Note Taking / Writing
I use two note taking apps for two different kinds of notes. For quick notes on the go it will always be the Apple Notes app on iPhone, it's fast, and it syncs across devices. Great for all the quick notes that would otherwise be on scrap paper that would get lost.
The second app I use for more detailed notes, proposal outlines or even the drafts of blog posts like this one is Notion. It has a mobile and a desktop app, has excellent categorization, and nice formatting so you can organize your thoughts in a tidy way.
To Wrap Up
Flexible work, or working from home isn't really all that scary when you have the right tools in place. To organizations and employers who are worried about people "not actually working" - ask yourself if that is really logical. If the work doesn't get done, how long do you think it would be before you or someone else noticed? How long does a person like that last in your organization. Ultimately, such a line of thought might say more about the company and it's management, than the team itself. Ask yourself about what incentives are in place for people to do their best for the company - are they paid and treated well? Do you need to revisit your HR process and the kind of people you are hiring?
At the end of the day, anything new can be scary, but if you can adapt quickly, you will find the same thing that organizations and individuals around the world have been discovering for the last 2 years - flexible working hours, flexible location and a shorter working week increases happiness, it increases productivity, and ultimately, that's a good thing for any business.