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Improve your effectiveness when working from home

In many ways the modern work environment bears little resemblance to one of only a few decades ago. Modern knowledge workers are increasingly required to work in a flexible environment and this often means working from home. Unfortunately, although many people might enjoy working from home they lose productivity due to the many distractions and the lack of a structured work environment.

We’ve identified three activities that you need to perform to ensure you maintain your productivity when working from home.

Organize your work

The home work environment is full of distractions . . . it’s called your life. To ensure you’re effective you’ll need to determine what you should be working on and when.

  • Prioritize your tasks. Make sure you’re focused on completing the tasks that need to be completed first. Set targets to ensure you’re working towards a goal and getting the amount of work done that is expected.
  • Plan your whole day. You might have a number of phone calls already scheduled but if you plan to run an errand or go to the gym or even vacuum the house, then put that onto the schedule as well.
  • Schedule breaks. When you’re free from office interruptions it is amazing how exhausting working from home can be. Therefore, it’s important to plan breaks to maintain performance. You can also use this time to free up your mind to solve problems or generate new ideas.
  • Schedule collaboration. One of the benefits of working in an office is collaboration with your co-workers. This not only engages us socially but can also be a great forum for discussion and joint problem solving. To be effective from the home environment you will need to proactively schedule these discussions with your peers.

Maintain a routine

One of the main benefits of the traditional work environment is that it provided structure . . . and this structure led to workers being more productive. To be effective at home you need to provide similar structure (albeit one that aligns with your work habits) through a routine.

  • Consider maintaining ‘standard’ working times. For some people it’s effective to define a set start and end point to the day.
  • Get yourself into the mindset of work by starting the day off right: maybe get out of bed at the same time as an office work day, or shower & dress as if heading off to work, even prepare & pack your lunch if you think it will help.
  • Maintain your exercise schedule and ensure you eat meals at the appropriate time for you.
  • Know thyself. Develop your routine around when you are most effective. For some people this might be early in the morning, for others it might be at midnight. Regardless, schedule tasks accordingly.

Setup your work location

One of the major downsides to working at home can be the limited facilities available . . . not everyone can have a dedicated home office setup. However, you can take steps to provide an environment that enables you to be effective.

  • Clean up. Once you’ve identified where you’re going to work remove clutter and tidy up before you start work. This will give you a clear place to work and remove unnecessary distractions.
  • Ensure the work area is comfortable. Setup the work location to minimize the risk of neck and back strain due to poor posture and ensure you have the appropriate lighting for the work you’re going to undertake.
  • Create the right ambiance for you. This might mean listening to music but make sure that it makes you more productive and you’re not doing it because that’s what you always do when you’re at home. For some it can be an unwanted (albeit pleasant) distraction.
  • Find the right place for you. If you don’t have a suitable environment to work in then maybe you should leave the house. Maybe try other locations such as a coffee shop or library.

The Intellilink Team

Working in a virtual environment

Virtual teams & operations are everywhere.

Being virtual is hard-wired into our firm’s DNA since we started as a virtual organization more than 15 years ago. Some of our thoughts on working in a virtual environment:

  • The company culture needs to truly value virtual collaboration and not just treat it as a benefit for some employees to work from home.
  • People need to be given the tools to be able to work virtually. Simple tools such as; web portals, screen sharing, chat, text, email & phone calls will do just fine.
  • Video conferencing is over rated. It’s generally more important to focus on the data of a collaboration (i.e. what was communicated) than be able to look at a room full of people with the latest 3D video conference toy.
  • Companies need to provide training so that employees develop virtual collaboration skills such as; managing email, IM etiquette, calendar management, or document collaboration.
  • Managers need to set clear expectations of what an employee is meant to do in the virtual work environment (i.e. be available, get work done, respond in a timely fashion, escalate issues, etc.).
  • Managers need to ensure regular checkpoints are put in place to maintain a rhythm to the work.
  • Managers need to hold team members accountable for the work they get done. This can be easier in a virtual environment since explicit check lists / task pads need to be maintained.
  • Managers need to setup mentoring sessions to ensure that the employee / manager relationship is not purely short term task-based.
  • Employees need to know that they are trusted to get their work done in a flexible but mutually acceptable timeframe.
  • Managers need to manage by objectives rather than just making sure that someone is “turning up to work”. This requires managers to be much more proactive and thinking about the future.
  • Employees need to understand both the benefits and the challenges of working remotely. They will have greater flexibility over their work hours but these might often be extended across different time zones. They may often feel lonely working on their own for extended periods.
  • Managers need to ensure their team members can always reach out to talk to minimize “virtual cabin fever” for people who have been working independently for a period of time.
  • Everyone needs to understand the limitations of the virtual environment and know when a face-to-face meeting is required.
  • A few face-to-face interactions will greatly improve the quality of subsequent virtual collaborations.

The Intellilink Team

The Micro Macro Project Manager

Project managers should be able to move effortlessly between specific details and the macro concepts on their projects.

Without a comprehensive understanding of project details, project managers will find it difficult to resolve complex problems. Without an understanding of high level objectives, it will be almost impossible to make decisions and correctly prioritize activities. This is why project managers need to be comfortable operating at different levels of detail dependent on the situation they are involved in.

Being able to see the big picture is an important part of a project manager’s role. Not only does this help them anticipate problems and be proactive, but it also helps them put issues into perspective to make correct decisions. Some project managers having difficulty getting out of the “weeds” since many started their careers in detail oriented roles such as business analysts or software developers. Even worse, it’s often all too easy for them to fall back into their “comfort zone” and get caught up in their particular area of expertise to the detriment of the wider project.

Similarly, a project manager that is only comfortable with high level concepts will quickly become ineffective. The resolution of complex problems is a daily challenge on most projects. However, the project manager is in a unique position to pull together detailed information from across the project to facilitate the resolution of these problems if they are willing to get into the details. It is this broad but deep knowledge that makes a project manager critical to the success of the project.

A key distinction to remember is that although the project manager may need to understand the detail, this does not mean that she/he actually does this work. This should be left to the appropriate resource on the project. Similarly, a project manager needs to understand the strategic objectives of a project but they do not need to be involved in making those strategic decisions for the organization.

The Intellilink Team

Change is a process not an event

One off change activities like town hall meetings or executive communications rarely implement much change.

Change should be looked at as a process where constant pressure needs to be applied to change behaviours. Successful change programs are developed with the understanding that change does not happen in town hall meetings . . . it happens through individual actions over the months that follow.

To make change even more difficult, many of today’s organizations employ a multitude of highly skilled knowledge workers. These workers are simply too knowledgeable about their work to blindly follow management directives to change. They need to understand the reasons for the change and also see the path to change laid out in front of them.

In these environments, resistance to change should be expected and even welcomed for the information it can provide. If experienced workers are against a change even after it has been explained to them, then they might have sound objections that should be considered.

Making change a process will often require a cultural shift for many organizations:

  • Senior management need to be fully engaged so that they can constantly make decisions to ensure the change process does not stall.
  • Change plans need to consider the phases that people go through before adopting change. Some will need to be persuaded, some will need to experiment, and some will need to have the specific benefits to them outlined.
  • Timeframe expectations need to be realistic. It’s better for the change to take a little longer and succeed than less time and fail.
  • The communication strategy should be aimed at developing a dialogue within the organization to facilitate feedback rather than one way broadcasts.
  • Actual communications need to be informative & customized to provide the right people with the right information at the right time.
  • Employees need to be empowered to make decisions and contribute ideas. Change is easiest when employees feel as though they are making change rather than being made to change.

The Intellilink Team

Effective Status Meetings

Status meetings are a key part of a well-managed project.

It’s unlikely that badly run status meetings will be a direct cause of project failure but they can certainly have an impact. If stakeholders are already concerned about the management of a project then an ineffectual status meeting will only compound the issue for the project manager.

Good status meetings need to be structured, standardized and forward looking.

A project manager needs to utilize good structure to control a project. For status meetings this structure starts with an agenda. Status meetings can easily devolve into a whinge session on the current crisis du jour. The agenda provides structure to ensure the meeting stays on track and provides guidance for when input is required from specific team members.

Standardization enables all team members to become very familiar with what is expected of them. It’s important that all agendas and reports use a standard format so that everyone knows what to expect. Having a regular scheduled time provides consistency and also helps maintain attendance.

It is very ineffective if all the time in a status meeting is used to check up on team members to see if they have completed their assigned activities. It is much better if the meeting looks forward. This can be achieved by collaboratively discussing issues & risks and then agreeing on a clear set of actions to be undertaken. A great way to make a status meeting forward looking is to have individual team members enter their own updates into a project management system which frees up time for the project team to focus on future issues.

The Intellilink Team

Obtaining Senior Executive Engagement

Senior executive engagement is critical to the success of any complex project.

It can have a direct impact through budget allocation, resource assignment or the removal of obstacles to change. It can also help indirectly motivate the team by emphasizing the importance of the project or simply through regular communications that celebrate wins.

So why does executive engagement vary so much if it is so important? The reason is because real engagement is often due to personal factors that extend beyond the project and are specific to a particular executive. It will be hard for project managers to influence these factors, but it’s important to understand them. Figure out early what motivations are involved and then leverage them to your advantage.

A good stakeholder analysis (even if it is one that is private and not circulated across the project team) should be able to help here. It should cover these personal factors for relevant senior executives: Is it a good project for their career? Will it generate political capital? Do they have a close personal relationship with someone on the project? And so on . . . Consider (from a senior executive point of view) “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) as well as “what could be bad for me”.

Some rules for getting senior executives engaged:

  • They don’t have a lot of time so all messages to them need to be clear and simple.
  • They are focused on budgets and are very sensitive to cost increases that go beyond commitments already made upwards.
  • They are competitive and always looking for success so clear sound bites on progress or achievements will be well received.
  • And lastly, remember that behind all business objectives are personal objectives . . . find out what they are and unlock real senior executive engagement.

The Intellilink Team

Separate Project & Change Manager?

Do projects need a separate project manager and change manager to be successful?

It’s a critical question for project planning & budgeting and to come up with the right answer a number of factors need to be considered.

For small projects it typically doesn’t make sense to separate the roles. The economic benefits obtained from combining the role into one resource outweigh the benefits from specialization.

Even large projects where the change is relatively straight forward will probably have little need for a change manager. But then a change manager may be warranted on a small project where a lot of change in behaviour or complex user adoption is required.

The project and change managers are different roles that require different skills. A project manager’s key responsibility is to ensure that the project is delivered as per the scope on time and on budget. This requires advanced organizational skills. The change manager’s key responsibility is to ensure that the solution is usable and adopted. This requires intuition and a keen sense of the working environment. Separating the roles provides focus & accountability and generates maximum benefit from specialist skills.

Stakeholder management is one area where the roles may vary depending on the resources at hand. An experienced project manager may be able to easily transition from detailed task management to negotiation & issue resolution with senior stakeholders. In this case the change role can be relatively junior with a focus on the training program and communication planning. Alternatively a highly experienced change manager should be able to manage all interactions with senior stakeholders with the project manager becoming more administrative.

The Intellilink Team

Getting to a Zero Inbox

Like it or not but email is a major means of communication and won’t be going away anytime soon.

Email gets a lot of criticism but it’s not inherently bad. It provides a record of communication that’s fast, electronic & asynchronous. The problem is that most people don’t manage their email, they let email manage them . . . and that is not a happy state to be in.

Worse still, someone with bad email skills is not only reducing their own productivity but also the productivity of those around them. Just think of the amount of time you waste following up with people who haven’t responded to an email because it’s lost somewhere in their Inbox.

Here is an approach for effective email management:

  • Check email periodically. Constantly checking email wastes time and email alerts are a distraction . . . disable them.
  • Review emails with the intention to get the Inbox down to zero.
  • Emails that are for your FYI should be read and then filed.
  • Emails that require a response that can be completed in under 2 minutes should be done immediately and then filed.
  • Emails that require a response today but you don’t have the time right now should be left in your Inbox for later.
  • Emails that require some work to be done before you can respond should be moved onto your Task Pad and filed. Remember, your tasks belong on your Task Pad, not buried in your Inbox.

The way you store and retrieve emails requires a balance between creating folders and using search functionality. The folder structure should be broad enough to easily determine where an email should be filed but detailed enough to cover your main work areas. If you’re a project manager then one folder for all emails associated with a project will probably be adequate. Then use the search functionality within that folder to find a specific email as needed. A folder structure that is too detailed will be unproductive since you’ll waste a lot of time deciding where to file emails.

The Intellilink Team

Dynamic Project Planning

Project plans outline a path into an unknown future.

They help us define tasks, assign work and specify timeframes. In a perfect world we’d be able to create a detailed project plan and then follow it precisely. We’d be able to determine all the details of the project with a high degree of accuracy because there are so few unknowns.

Unfortunately, the real world is not so simple and most projects are undertaken in a complex and highly uncertain environment. Evolving requirements, changing business needs, known-unknowns as well as unknown-unknowns are constantly destabilizing the project. Developing a detailed project plan in this situation wastes effort and assumes a degree of accuracy that simply does not exist. In this case a dynamic planning approach where a general plan is progressively elaborated is a better solution.

This is not to say that an overall approach should not be adhered to. Following a standard methodology and reviewing past plans is critical to ensuring that key tasks and risk factors are not missed. It’s just that creating a detailed plan when there are too many unknowns is simply “planning for planning’s sake”.

Stakeholder management is important all the time but it is especially critical to the success of a dynamic approach. Not only do stakeholders need to clearly understand the objectives of the project but they also need to have bought into the approach being undertaken. They need to be shown that the end goal of the project is very clear & stable, it’s just that the path taken to achieve that goal may need to change.

To put dynamic planning into action, project managers need to have a clear project charter that has been agreed by all stakeholders and will be used to guide the project. He or she should then maintain regular checkpoints to validate the work done and set in place a series of trigger points to determine when a future work area should undergo detailed project planning. This needs to be done just far enough in advance to ensure the smooth running of the project is maintained. The plan is then updated and the project continues to move forward.

The Intellilink Team

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Trying to do more than one thing at once (i.e. multi-tasking) is a waste of time & effort.

The fact is that you can only do one thing at once and every time you start a new task requires a degree of “ramp up”. The more times you spend stopping and starting then the more time you waste “ramping up”. This is inefficient.

Worse still, one person trying to multi-task can waste the effort of others. Who hasn’t been in a meeting with someone who is answering emails but then can’t contribute or respond to a question until it is repeated? He or she has just wasted the entire group’s time . . . thanks for that!

We all know our jobs are complicated and require us to complete many different tasks each day. This variety is a good thing, it keeps our jobs interesting and motivating. But we can’t let our work control us, we need to control it by knowing when to stop a task and then start another. If you’re finding that you need to multi-task then it’s probably a good indication that you’re not in control of your work. You’ll need to make some changes to improve your productivity.

Some tactics that might help: Plan your day by prioritizing your work. Complete the highest priority task first, before moving onto lower priority tasks. Periodically check emails to see if anything urgent needs to be attended to. If an email has come in that you need to respond to but is a lower priority than your next task then answer it later. Schedule a block of time in your day to respond to low priority emails and other messages. Also, disable email pop up alerts, they’re a distraction that will cause you to stop what you are doing and reduce your productivity.

The Intellilink Team