Many Americans with non-essential jobs have been ordered to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, schools and daycare centers are shuttering across the U.S.. Meanwhile, employers are struggling to transition their workforces online, while employees juggle busy work schedules with childcare. How can everyone adjust to this strange new normal?
Jennifer Dennard, co-founder of Range, a software platform that makes it easier for remote workforces to stay in sync, whose client list includes big tech companies Twitter, Mozilla, and Medium, has a solution: replace the 9-5 workday with “windowed work.”
The way Dennard sees it, the traditional 9-5 office routine is a remnant of America’s manufacturing past — a time when manual workers labored over assembly lines from morning to evening. But in the work-from-home era, many workers need greater flexibility.
“What we found is that there are certain needs that you need to overlap with other people, particularly for collaboration, but that a lot of work can actually be done asynchronously, and that that actually opens up a big opportunity for people to work different schedules, especially if they have children, or other people they are caring for,” Dennard says.
Here’s how it works: Teams schedule specific windows of time for meetings and collaborative work online. Outside these windows, team members are free to schedule their own hours for independent work. Here’s an example of what that could look like for a work-from-home parent:
7-10 am: Breakfast, childcare
10am-12pm: Collaborative teamwork/meetings
12-1pm: Independent work
1pm: Lunch with family
2pm-4pm: Grocery shopping
4pm-6pm: Childcare, dinner
6pm-11pm: Independent work
As team members schedule their own routines, they use collaborative tools like Slack instant messaging to keep on top of what’s happening within the group.
The Range team began implementing windowed work before the pandemic, according to Dennard. Now that most governors have implemented strict stay-at-home orders in their states, the team has made a full transition to remote work. She says windowed work has made the switch a lot easier.
“I think we all consider ourselves pretty lucky that we are able to transition our jobs and work from home unlike many people impacted right now,” she says.
Range co-founder Daniel Pupius agrees. The busy dad is father to a one-month-old baby and a five-year-old daughter. Along with his wife, Pupius has been self isolating in his San Francisco apartment while balancing work with childcare. In the mornings, he helps feed the kids, then helps his 5-year-old get set up online for her virtual preschool class. During scheduled periods throughout the day, he hops online for collaborative work with his team. Outside collaborative work hours, he helps out his wife and spends time with the children, while keeping an eye on notifications from team members through the Range platform. He says he reserves most of his independent work hours for the evening, when his children are asleep.
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“If I was expected to be working 9-5, my anxiety levels would be super high because I would be listening to things in our living room, I would be not able to help out, and it would be a very exhausting day for the rest of the family,” says Pupius. “So, I think by working in blocks, you’re actually alleviating some of the stress and anxiety and the pressure that faces the family as a unit.”
Windowed work can be broken down into four steps, according to Dennard, who created the process.
Step 1: Create shared “handbooks”
The first step to helping a remote team work synergistically is to give them a way to stay on the same page, says Dennard. Team members document each day in personal “handbooks,” a document in Google Docs. These handbooks give team members insight into one another’s projects and priorities, and help build empathy across the group, she says.
“That has actually, I think, helped us help the team prioritize a lot more, and be more effective even though we have less time,” she says.
Step 2: Schedule "daily check-ins"
Managers may feel the need to monitor their teams, but micromanaging employees can stifle their productivity, according to Dennard. The Range platform contains a check-in feature where workers can provide quick updates on current and recently completed projects. These check-ins give managers regular insight into their employees’ productivity without having to monitor their every move, she says.
“If I hop online and see a check-in, even if that person isn’t working in this moment, I can actually give them a little bit of feedback or guidance asynchronously, and that way when they do hop back on for work they’ve got all that information to get started,” says Dennard.
Check-ins help teams and managers build trust, adds Dennard.
“That actually starts to build up this habit of trust where you’re like ‘OK, when I give people time and space to do the work they’re actually doing it, and I’m actually seeing that output,’” she says. “And that’s I think a key cultural shift for companies: trust and communication versus the monitoring aspect that can be really attractive, especially when we’re all just really anxious about what’s going on right now.”
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Step 3: Schedule time for connection
Another big challenge for transitioning to remote work is figuring out how to establish the same sense of togetherness among coworkers that you would find in a physical office space. Dennard says organizations can do this by scheduling optional times where employees connect online. She says the Range team schedules an optional virtual coffee hour in the mornings where employees can chit-chat before they begin their day.
“Basically, you’re building up that cadence, or that habit, of different forms of connection.”
Step 4: Align team goals
The last and most important step is for remote teams to establish shared goals, according to Dennard.
“That’s actually the key to empowering people and trusting them is if everyone can understand where you are sprinting to,” says Dennard.
Creating shared habits and rituals is a great way for remote teams to build alignment, according to Pupius. “I would focus on setting up a cadence of work and getting a rhythm,” he says. In addition to daily check-ins, teams should schedule time “where people get together on a video chat so they can ask questions, discuss topics, do demos, brainstorm solutions to ideas.” End-of-week recaps are another way to stay aligned, he says.
Once a team has created a rhythm through shared rituals, “everything else becomes a little bit easier,” Pupius says.
While the pandemic has created enormous disruption within the corporate world, Dennard says it’s a great opportunity for organizations to adapt to a workplace that’s increasingly virtual.
“I’m really excited about how the current situation is going to change the way in which people think about that,” she says.