"Telecommuting or working from home does not mean that people have to be permanently connected"

The health crisis caused by Covid-19 and the consequent confinement as a strategy to respond to it have led to an earthquake in the concept of traditional work. The fortuitous introduction of teleworking that has occurred in many companies due to the coronavirus brings to the table the debate about whether to return to the office as we understood it until now or decentralize work spaces as a measure to better reconcile or save travel, among others. We reflected on teleworking with Altekio, a Madrid cooperative specialized in eco-social transformation and organizational development projects. Responses to the interview have been made collaboratively among the entire team.

Since the start of the pandemic, teleworking has been the solution of many companies to continue developing their economic activity. Are there differences between the traditional concept of teleworking and confined teleworking in recent weeks?

The conditions of people who previously teleworked and the current conditions in which we are practicing telework in confinement differ quite a bit. These have a greater or lesser weight depending on specific aspects of the different population profiles. Some of these differences that we see are:

  • The emotional state that greatly affects the way of working. We have verified that this appears in many of our meetings, it is even mentioned in formal meetings with various clients.
  • The conditions of teleworking in confinement are not adequate for many people due to the difficulty of reconciling care and employment. The closing of schools and centers for elder people has created difficulties for those workers who have to attend to dependent people, to adequately dedicate the time assigned to both tasks. This situation is aggravated in single-parent families or in those families where one of its members works outside the home and the other telecommutes, assuming the weight of attending to work tasks, caring for people and the home.
  • Many organizations, companies or institutions do not have the proper processes and instruments for teleworking. This increases the difficulty of performing tasks appropriately. People who previously teleworked probably had a better adaptation of their work to the virtual environment.
  • There are people who have seen their functions or the tasks they performed in their work changed due to the fall of the projects they were developing. This supposes an extra learning to confront the suitable execution of new tasks.
  • Many people who carried out telecommuting did not do it during their entire working day or every day of the week, but only a few days depending on their needs. They combined working days at home, with working days in the office, with face-to-face meetings and with trips or actions outside the office (conferences, trainings, actions in the field, etc.). At present, for many people, teleworking consists of 100% of their working day.

A recent study ensures that teleworking is adding 2 more hours to the workday. Is it a danger that telework will rob us of free time? How can we prevent it?

Telecommuting or working from home does not mean that people need to be permanently connected. This is something very important, especially when the boundaries of work and home become more blurred. We must ensure disconnection times and our free times when we do not work. At the same time, we need to learn about time management and personal organization. Each person and organization must try the best strategies (since they don’t all work for everyone). Some of them are:

  • Set a work schedule and a schedule for other issues or vital dimensions other than work, and try to meet them.
  • Generate agreements in work teams when receiving calls, answering messages or emails, etc. so that they are within the established and agreed working hours. Organization on a personal level is important, but group or collective agreements in organizations and companies are essential to ensure that we are not increasing working hours.
  • Have an hourly record of working hours so that you can see if overtime is being worked. In this case, agree on times of compensation for hours.
  • Pay attention to the best times of the day to work, distributing the different tasks throughout the day depending on the need for concentration or creativity.
  • Plan the work at the beginning of the week (realistically) and evaluate at the end of the week how it has turned out, to improve planning in future weeks.
  • Organizing the agenda helps avoid excessive virtual meetings or phone calls at all hours and that can generate stress.
  • Maintain the usual rest days (for example, the weekend if these are the rest days). This means that, in those days, we do not have to be aware of email or calls, for example.

Many companies have had to make the leap to teleworking without being prepared. What tools or systems are recommended to be able to make an efficient and beneficial telework for company and worker?

Teleworking tools are highly dependent on each type of job and the internal processes of each organization. However, some elements to consider are:

  • Having cloud servers to share information, organize files properly, etc.
  • Have tools to have collaborative documents in which several people can contribute synchronously or asynchronously.
  • Know some programs that allow us to have conferences or meetings online. There are some open source and free licenses that we find especially interesting.
  • Have an electronic signature or certificate to be able to proceed with certain legal, administrative procedures, etc.
  • Evaluate the workload of the people on the team to distribute the tasks and the load in an equitable way.
  • In the event that teleworking is done with a computer, have moments of rest from sight. The ideal is to be able to combine tasks with a computer with other types of tasks that do not require the use of screens (phone calls, ordering the desk, etc.).
  • Pay attention to body posture while working, following ergonomic recommendations. It is important to design some brief moments in the working day to be able to get up from the chair, walk, drink water, stretch, etc.

You have published a guide to make virtual meetings more efficient. The first question would be: are we meeting too much?

We are not aware of studies regarding the increase or decrease in the number of meetings during the state of alarm, so we could not respond in a general way to this question. However, the meetings must be tailored to specific needs and ask ourselves as a group if we are having the right ones. In our experience, we see organizations that hold too many meetings, and other organizations that would need to strengthen their coordination and call more meetings.

The need to coordinate or make decisions in meetings is very different depending on the work and characteristics of each organization. Therefore, both in the current situation and in new situations, we must ask ourselves if we have more meetings than necessary. There are times when we work on topics in a meeting (such as informational issues) that may be better resolved through other means (email or other digital tools). In addition, we must bear in mind that the rhythm and duration of the meetings may vary according to the time of the year or the specific needs of the projects.

Yes, we could affirm that, when living under very different conditions during the state of alarm, there are people who have been able to increase their number of meetings due to the greater need for coordination in an unprecedented moment and, also, due to a greater need for communication, connection and relationship within work teams. The meetings, in addition to being a space for coordination, joint reflection, ideation or decision-making, have a function of keeping a working group connected or cohesive.

What general guidelines do you give to guarantee this efficiency?

In meetings, there are various elements that we must pay attention to ensure their proper functioning. Some of them are more focused on achieving the desired results and others on welcoming the participation of all people, enhancing collective intelligence and delving into conscious and empathetic communication. Therefore, we not only seek efficiency, but also the inclusion, participation and well-being of the group.

The prior design of the meeting is important, to have clarity on the objectives and results and that they be shared by all people, have roles of care for the process (facilitation, moderation, mediation, etc.), use different ways to welcome contributions of each person, design the tools to collect the reflections, agreements and dialogues. These elements tell us that we can implement various actions both before the meeting, throughout its development and also after the meeting. We explain them in more detail in the guide we have prepared.

Do you think teleworking is here to stay? And if so, will specific regulation be necessary to set limits?

Teleworking is a reality that was already present in some people and that will undoubtedly spread from now on. It has been a demand of labor personnel to save transport times, avoid environmental impacts associated with pollution and improve reconciliation with personal life. In this sense, it presents elements that seem very interesting to us but, at the same time, it has dangers and issues to work in depth, which we would find interesting if they were well regulated. For this, we need social dialogue so that regulation has a diversity of perspectives. Teleworking implies a new culture of work and we need to rethink ways to protect labor rights. We need new forms of internal organization, coordination and trust. In addition, not all people have an appropriate space in their homes to be able to telework, and this is something that organizations and companies should consider.

At the same time, face-to-face brings important issues (such as the dimension of team cohesion, feeling of unity or identity, internal care, improvement of personal relationships, etc.) that are difficult online. Addressing all of this seems fundamental to us, so that labor relations improve and are not detrimental.