Transitioning from Offices to Distributed Teams during a Crisis

One of the hidden costs of a company office is office closures. If an organization requires people to be physically together to work, then anytime those humans cannot be in the office disrupts day-to-day operations. The physical office has become an expensive single point of failure for the entire organization. Brief office closures can usually be recovered from quickly – by having staff work late afterwards to catchup before clients notice the disruption. Prolonged office closures or transit disruptions are expensive per-day, can quickly become hard to recover from and even become company-threatening. In scenarios like this, how to change the culture from “office as single-point-of-failure” to “office optional”?

Having humans able to work well together, even while physically apart, is an essential skill that has to be learned and practiced regularly. The trick for office-based organizations is how to have humans learn this new skill without causing disruption during this transition. Impatient readers can jump down to the “Transition Plan in 7 Steps” section – but to improve likelihood of success, it is important to be aware of some common hidden assumptions.

Hidden Assumptions

To start with, it’s important to acknowledge that if you require humans to be in an office to work together, then everyone in your company should know how they can continue to work normally when, not if, humans are not able to get to the office, or the office is suddenly unusable. Note: I said when – not if – because while you can try to reduce some risks, you will have some office closures at some point in the lifetime of the company building lease. While CoronaVirus is in the news these days, similar issues came up while I was in companies concerned by Avian Flu (H1N1), Ebola (first outbreak), MERS, nearby forest fires, electrical power outages, winter blizzards, large civic protests and even disruptive celebrations of large sports events. Most of these are beyond the control of the building owners. The only questions are: When will disruptions happen? How often? For how long each time?

I’ve worked in organizations that had impressive binders of printed emergency manuals, covering a range of different “disaster” scenarios. They each used slightly different language, but usually focused on three categories of problems:

  1.  “Smaller” disasters, like office fires and individual medical emergencies, occur more often and hence get more frequent attention. Office fires can be mitigated by installing smoke detectors, sprinklers and fire extinguishers and training employees on how to use them. All this planning helps keep people safe, even if false-alarms from burning food in the office microwave cause most of the disruptions. Planning and training like this usually get active support from your local fire department – after all, even if a first responder doesn’t *fully* put out an office fire, they can usually help slow down the fire and also reduce human injury by helping others out of harms way before professional fire fighters arrive on scene. Similarly, for individual medical emergencies like heart attacks, diabetic episodes, slips/falls, etc, providing CPR and first-aid training classes and toolkits of medical supplies can help trained nearby employees provide timely aid to a coworker in need before professional medics arrive on scene. More diligent organizations will run periodic “fire drills” and “fake medical alerts” to make sure that training stays fresh. (Sadly, at least two organizations I worked at would pre-announce the exact time of the next fire drills many days in advance, allowing some employees to simply time their arrival/departure from the office that day to avoid training they viewed as an unnecessary disruption to their work). These disruptions are usually resolved quickly, and company operations return to normal within a few hours. These rarely have long-term impact to company operations.
  2. “Mid-size” emergencies, like snow days or office closures because of neighboring offices doing pest spraying were usually handled by having everyone in that specific office take those days off. This includes events that block typical commuters getting to the office. Examples I’ve personally worked through include offices that were closed by transportation disruptions like Occupy Wall Street protests, US SuperBowl championship celebrations and a freeway collapse after a major accident blocking commuter traffic on a main artery bridge for almost a month. These events are frequently dismissed as an “unavoidable” cost of doing business, because employees are not already familiar with working from home. These costs are non-trivial, with snow day closures in New England area costing businesses $1.3Billion. Per day. 
  3. Larger emergencies, like earthquakes or hurricanes were also documented in these same binders. Some organizations did table-top exercises, verbally talking through what to do. However, I never saw them verify if these plans worked by actually testing them. After all, a multi-day closure of a large office campus is an expensive test to setup and run – and is also disruptive to thousands of employees across all departments. This makes it hard to get approval for large scale tests, especially when various leaders across the organization are focused on their own priorities, arguing that their own end-of-quarter deadlines are very real while these emergencies are statistically unlikely. Off the record, I’ve had organizational leaders tell me, semi-jokingly, that if something this serious hit the company office, they would not care because they would be focused on their own family home first and only focus on the company office much later. Thankfully, disasters like this don’t happen very often, but the lack of recurring training for these scenarios concerned me. Would these untested plans actually work when they were really needed? One agency included me in a review of their emergency plans for responding to a production system outage. The plan started with leadership gathering all essential individuals in a physical meeting room in the office. Dramatically called a “war room”, this meeting room would allow all involved to focus on fixing the production problem and just as importantly, avoid being distracted by anything else until they left the war room. Hidden assumptions were that the emergency happened during office hours and that everyone was able to access the building. When I asked about the scenario of the physical building being unavailable, or people being unable to reach the office, the first response was an incredulous “of course the office will be here”. I turned to look out the window at the parking lot outside, where parked cars were being coated with ash from the nearby uncontrolled forest fires, and the few people walking outside all wore face masks. As others started to also look out the window, there were several seconds of awkward silence before someone offered that maybe they could open a webex video connection for people to dial into. Discussions then moved on to how to identify and notify the appropriate people, instead of walking around the corridors looking for people who might “look helpful”. The reality was that this “office closure” scenario had never been considered in the planning.

Diseases are a special case that can fit into any of the small/medium/large scenarios, depending on the specific disease. 

Moving office workers from private individual offices to an open-plan space increased sick leave absence by 62%. Factors here include central recycled air systems in open plan offices and closer proximity of humans per square foot to save on real estate costs. These stats can be made even worse by company vacation / sick day policies which encourage sick humans to come to work in the office instead of taking a sick day, causing other healthy humans at the office to become sick. All these factors are annoying when dealing with cold or flu season – and scary when dealing with Avian flu (H1N1), Ebola, MERS and now CoronaVirus (COVAD-19).

The risk of an infected employee returning from a work trip, and unknowingly carrying one of these lethal infections into an office is a real operational concern to everyone in the company as well as the wider community of family and neighbors of all those employees. One company I worked in during the (first) Ebola outbreak and the Avian Flu crisis imposed an emergency requirement for C-level preauthorization before any employee was allowed to travel anywhere near any of these affected regions, even for urgent business or family needs. All non-urgent work travel was simply cancelled, because of fears of contact on airplanes or airport transfer areas. A multi-week work-from-home quarantine period was mandated for anyone returning from these regions before they were allowed to enter any office buildings.

Requiring humans to self-quarantine at home after travel is a reasonable default response to help protect others in the office. However, that human’s ability to work effectively from home assumes they have already verified access to all the systems they need and are familiar using them from home. For humans used to working in an office, it can be hard to start learning how to work well from home – when already suddenly trapped at home. Simple things like not having valid VPN passwords or hitting security imposed geo-ip blocks on network access to critical systems can totally derail your ability to suddenly start working from home. Fixing barriers like this when already stuck at home, and when other coworkers who can help are *also* stuck at home, is a problem.

With that background/context, here are some immediate steps you can take to help keep your office-based organization running smoothly when an office closure is suddenly required.  

Transition Plan in 7 Steps

  1. Keep in mind that changing an existing all-in-one-location team into a distributed team is tricky. After all, human culture change is tricky. Avoid making big announcements that encourage unreasonable expectations, raise concerns about “yet another management fad” and quickly doom your initiative with cynicism. In times of crisis, avoid adding a sense of panic by surprising people with major unplanned changes. Instead, quietly start improving how work is organized, in ways that are helpful to everyone in your current office culture and also allow humans to start working as part of a distributed team.
  2. If you already have any employees who already work from home on a periodic basis, meet them all on a video call. Do this today after you finish reading this post. They will have real-world, concrete advice, immediately specific to your organization. Ask them to describe specific problems they know impede them from working well from their homes, listen carefully, take notes and probe for suggestions if none are obviously forthcoming. Fixing their list of known issues should now be at the top of your todo list. Ask them to keep you posted if other issues arise. Also ask if they would be willing, as role models, to help coach and mentor others transitioning from office-only work to work-from-home work. If you don’t already have anyone working from home, then you need to find a handful of early volunteers willing to try a one-day experiment, starting today. Include at least one C-level executive, who will be the high-level champion to quickly unblock any roadblocks or purchase approvals needed. 
  3. Ask this group of volunteers to work from home the very next day for one day only. Importantly, they should do this using only what equipment they routinely carry home with them in their typical bag when leaving the office. Note: I have found it important to only do this “work from home” experimental day on a Tues/Wed/Thurs. Avoid doing this experiment on a Mon/Fri, as it is too easy for others to cynically view the experiment as an invitation for a long weekend instead of a normal working day.
  4. For this one day experiment, it is important that this group do the work they had normally scheduled to do in the office, but instead do that same work from their home. This is not about doing solo headsdown work at home. This is about doing their normal “office work” collaborating with coworkers, while each human is in a different non-office location. Specifically, I am not talking about everyone being at home, each doing solo headsdown work. I’m specifically talking about doing your normal meetings, co-editing documents with coworkers in other locations, negotiating planning meetings, taking calls with clients… everything you would do in a normal day at your office location – but from home instead. Start the “work from home” experimental day with a quick group video call to make sure everyone is still aware of the experiment. At the end of the day, meet for another quick group video call to discuss what problems were discovered during the day, and decide what can be fixed quickly before the next “work from home” day experiment. Worst case, if things go horribly wrong, some will struggle through their day, and have a busy catchup day after, but you have now learned valuable information on what practical things to fix quickly before possible office closures. 
  5. Start by making sure that you and your immediate team are crisply organized, using audio-video calls for all meetings, with everyone on their own head-and-shoulders camera, using shared meeting agendas, shared meeting note-taking, and so on – each of the chapters in the “How” section of my book. These baby steps are low risk, low cost, and they improve day-to-day work life for everyone, so good to do anyway. Just as importantly, each improvement helps build trust that future changes will also improve work life for everyone in or out of the office. As these initial improvements become the new normal for the team culture, start introducing other higher level improvements from the rest of my book. Keep relentless focus on quiet, gradual improvements. Keep taking baby steps. They might not seem to be helping at first, but I have achieved everything I’ve described in my book across decades of experience working in several different organizations through persistent, stubborn, relentless baby steps.
  6. Knowing how to use the tools is important. Just as important is knowing how to lead and manage teams while physically apart. For companies with offices, employees asking to work from home are often viewed as asking for an unnecessary perk that somehow reduces operational efficiency. Supervisors who typically manage by walking around the corridors (the “butts in seats” approach) don’t know how to supervise humans not in the office. A frequent concern is “how will I know people are doing work”, to which I usually ask “how do you currently know people in the office are doing work?” This is usually a good time to remind people that in the United States, every year we celebrate a day where people come to the office to shop online – Cyber Monday is so important, it shifts the stock market. It’s worth noting that this mindset also ignores a larger continuity of business problem. If you usually work from an office, managing by walking around, then the physical office has become essential to the manager’s daily operational work. Changing how you manage can be hard. Being able to lead and manage people equally well, in the office and/or at home, is exactly why I wrote this tactical hands-on management book. In addition, leading distributed teams during a crisis assumes you do all this perfectly *and* also give frequent, timely, truthful updates on what is happening. Anything less than this will enable rumors, erode trust in leadership and cause even more operational disruption. 
  7. As these volunteers become routinely successful, start expanding from one-day-a-week to two-non-adjacent-days-a-week, and if there are no problems, keep gradually increasing the cadence. As this group of initial volunteers become more accustomed to their new work arrangements, gradually start adding other volunteers who will be mentored by the initial group of volunteers. Keep doing regular debriefs, learning/adjusting the tooling and systems as new paper-cut issues are discovered and then fixed. Having the entire organization suddenly switch to working from home risks discovering some all remote-access system that had not been load tested, disrupting everyone at the same time. This process of scaling up group size and cadence helps quickly discover any load bottlenecks early and with disruption to the fewest possible humans.

When your physical office is no longer an organizational single point of failure, it reduces risk. This helps everyone at the company be more confident about their work and job security during this crisis. Even if there is organizational risk because of wider market disruption, at least the part each human has control over – doing their own work – is something they can still do to the best of their ability. This is obviously important for the organization to survive the current crisis with minimal disruption. This is also important for the humans, helping reduce feelings of helplessness and fostering a new-found confidence that the team can work through future unknown crises as well. Work is an important factor in people’s lives, so stability at work allows people to focus their concerns on caring for themselves and the humans around them.

Quietly, quickly and with very little fuss, the mindset of the organization will shift from “the office is a single point of organizational failure” to “the office is optional”. This is success. After the dust settles on this crisis, these newly learned skills will continue to be important for other future crises. Just as importantly, these office-optional organizations can keep the immediate benefits of hiring faster, hiring better, hiring more diversely and improving retention, while also reducing the recurring overhead of office costs as their existing office leases expire. The secret ingredient in this transition was consistent, thoughtful, humane, and crisply organized leadership.

(Portions of this are from my book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart”.)