Two Key Insights about remote working

By Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Coaching, Consultancy & Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons UK

For over 15 years I’ve led teams coaching individuals and managers on combining career and family at some of the world’s leading banks, law firms, professional services and tech businesses. Parent transition coaching or parental leave coaching is a core part of this, giving people the time and tools to manage a successful return to work alongside family. We’ve seen return rates increase and people who’ve received coaching have reported adding more than 40% extra confidence, practical skill and ability to have influential conversations. So, we know a thing or two about how this operates in ‘peace time’. The relevance of coaching and mentoring is ongoing too: we’ve also coached thousands of leaders and professionals for the continuing journey of blending work and life, whether they are parents of older children or indeed carers of adult dependants.

Two insights worth sharing now from that experience, for our current times:

1. This is not the basis for the business case on remote or flexible working

2. One size does not fit all: the best way to cope does depend on you


1. This is not the basis for the business case on remote or flexible working

Many knowledge workers were already on a path towards more remote working, now accelerated. We no longer have to request it: even the most cautious employer flipped overnight from resistance to insistence. But what we must all remember – employers, managers, team members – is that this is not normal. You would previously have filled out a form, making a case for your proposed home-working, outlining how contingencies would be covered and productivity would be maintained; how you would have greater scope to focus on in-depth reports without constant open-plan office interruptions, and even that you might have a longer available working day without the commute.

There’s a classic Englishman/Irishman joke dating back at least to the 1920s where the Englishman asking for directions to Dublin gets the wise but hard-to-action advice: “If I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here.” It’s a bit like this now.

Here’s the elements of our challenge (and why we need to be compassionate to ourselves and others right now):

  • When persuading your boss that home-working is the way forward, your careful inventory of your home-working space would not include a raging 5-year-old smearing the room behind you with the home-made slime you managed to botch together late yesterday, girding yourself to a personal best in this week’s ‘home-schooling’ efforts, at the end of another frantic, locked-down, excessive screen-timed day.
  • You would not – in your business case outlining how you’d utilise your day – list the awkward grocery shopping done online for your elderly dad, who does not want help anyway and does not know what all the fuss is about (though he also tells you he can’t sleep because he’s really frightened).
  • You would not, perhaps, factor in that you are competing head-on with your spouse / partner / flatmate / university-aged kids for desk space, sometimes in ways that give you an inkling of just how quickly civilisation can break down when resources are scarce.
  • You would – of course – have had childcare.
  • You would have tested out your laptop, screens, webcam, bandwidth. You would have figured out how private the ‘private chat’ in Zoom might be, and possibly even agreed guidelines with team members about how ‘instant’ instant messaging actually needs to be, all day every day.

And if you don’t have children dancing about behind you, or elderly relatives to consider, you will have something else at this strange time: volunteering, odd ways of getting exercise, or just the irresistible pull of time spent worrying. Perhaps you never anticipated that birdsong could seem so loud that it would actually be a distraction. 

It was so touching on a webinar two weeks ago about best practice for remote working in these times, we had asked the thousand-strong audience what their challenges and needs were. So many were focused on demonstrating professionalism and team work in this new world. Many expressed a wish to develop new routines, overcome a dislike of working from home in some cases and to run as hard as ever at their goals while looking for ways of supporting their teams and colleagues. Despite everything, people were still getting things done, still achieving the required outcomes for their roles.

This spirit of commitment and determination is palpable and inspires hope for what can truly be achieved in the future if we take the best of our lessons from this. This has shown that home-working at scale is possible and that people can be endlessly resourceful and inventive. But please, when we weigh up the business case for doing this in the future, let’s remember that the norm is not like the crisis. We will, in the future, be running our home-working set-up from a much less chaotic place. If you wanted to make a case for working from home, you would not start from here. But you could start from here if you wanted to be reminded how awesome – and indeed trustworthy – your team members generally are.

2. One size does not fit all: the best way to cope does depend on you

Sometimes, in a crisis, we learn much more about who we actually are, at our best, and worst. In the cute film, Finding Nemo, the real discovery was less about the chase across the ocean and as much about acknowledging a brave little fish who wanted to be recognized and given more independence. So, wherever you find yourself perched geographically right now, there’s scope to find out more about how you work best and what matters to you. In our coaching work, we often talk about figuring out your own version of the work-life blend; about experimenting, being curious to find out what suits you; and being supportive towards yourself!

Are you an Integrator or Separator
Even in ‘normal’ times some people prefer to draw a line under work and walk away while others run work life and ‘home’ life in parallel all day – which are you? This will guide the expectations you need to set with family and colleagues to preserve your sanity! You may not be able to control everything but if, for example, you thrive best as a separator, then at least have some sense of being able to walk away from your ‘desk’ when not working and give yourself a defined start and end to the working day. 

If you function best as an Integrator, then this strange era may suit you well in some ways, but make sure you let your team know when they can expect to contact you even though you are spinning many plates at the same time. And stop, sometimes, to check on your priorities, which can get clouded when everything happens at once.

Introvert / Extravert? 
Extraverts draw their energy from meeting with others and tend to need conversations to help thinking. Introverts draw energy from alone time and like to think solo before putting forward an idea. Introverts – this may be your time, if you are finding some seclusion and if you previously found the high-energy office a tad depleting. Extraverts, you will need social time to boost your energy: recreate those watercooler moments with a virtual tea / coffee break. You could share on screen the drink or snack you’re having (though possibly avoid the thrill of competitive baking). Consider how else you could you inject a little fun into meetings – hats, maybe, during your virtual coffee?

But all the while, remember there are introverts too. Make it OK for them to say ‘no thanks’ to some of the online social hangouts. It may be hard to express it, but some are wishing they could fend off the well-intentioned ‘reach-outs’ in order to stay sane and get things done. It’s about a balance and about knowing we are wired differently too.

Honesty and self-care?
You will know yourself better by the end of all this. Be realistic, be aware that you and everyone else will have days that go up and down, at the best of times and especially now. 

We all have mixed motives and drives. I love this sentiment from US poet Carl Sandburg 1878 - 1967: “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud”. Be supportive to yourself as you would to a dear friend. Are you always on? Really think about what a short break might be like – maybe rolling your shoulders and opening a window while a kettle boils. What lifts you up and makes you smile? Find some treats or rituals that mean something to you. Compile a Work from Home-Office Playlist, including some humorous ones – ‘Don’t Stand So Close to me’, anyone?

The need for compassion
Alongside caring for ourselves, we need to cut each other a bit of slack right now. Assume good intent. Try to be extra patient just now; gently find out more about a decision or action before jumping to conclusions. Outraged by an email you’ve just read? Know that what you know will be partial, especially with these new ways of working coupled with the fast-changing context. Try to see it from their point of view. Also, don’t go to war on the detail just now: pick your battles, persist where it really matters (pausing to think about who and how best to influence) or let it go if it really doesn’t matter.

So, a couple of simple insights but important points to hold in our learning once we begin to emerge to whatever new version of our old world.

Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Coaching, Consultancy & Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons UK

If you’d like more input:

A webinar covering Best Practice for Remote Working as part of Bright Horizons Coronavirus-themed webinar series. I put together the main content and the event was chaired by my colleague Emma Willars, Coaching & Development Manager with guests Vivien Kwok, Global Mobility Tax Lead, at IBM and Huw Griffiths, Managing Director, Barclays Investment Banking. You can watch on demand by registering here.

A webinar on Supporting Your Team at this time, also part of webinar series compiled and hosted by Emma Willars, co-created with Andrea Wicks Bowles, Senior Consultant, Director of Global Initiatives, Bright Horizons with special guest input from Syed Raza, Managing Director, Head of Banking & Credit, Barclays Private Bank. You can watch on demand by registering here.