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A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China

McKinsey 23 Mar 2020 12:00

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From Alibaba to Ping An and Google to Ford, companies around the globe are telling staff to work from home 1 1. Peter Campbell, Alice Hancock, and Daniel Thomas, “Companies from Ford to Unilever send staff to work from home,” Financial Times, ft.com. in a bid to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Such remote working at scale is unprecedented and will leave a lasting impression on the way people live and work for many years to come. China, which felt the first impact of the pandemic, 2 2. “Coronavirus,” WHO, who.int. was an early mover in this space. As home to some of the world’s largest firms, it offers lessons for those that are just now starting to embrace the shift.

Working from home skyrocketed in China 3 3. Lu-Hai Liang, “How Covid-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment,” BBC, bbc.com. in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis as companies told their employees to stay home. Around 200 million people 4 4. “Spring Festival rework day: 200 million people work from home,” China News, chinanews.com. were working remotely by the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. While this arrangement has some benefits, such as avoiding long commutes, many employees and companies found it challenging. One employee at an internet company quipped his work day changed from ‘996’ to ‘007,’ meaning from nine to nine, 6 days a week, to all the time. On the personal front, employees found it difficult to manage kids’ home-schooling via video conference while coordinating with remote colleagues. At a company level, many felt that productivity rapidly tailed off if not managed properly.

Teams or whole business units working remotely can quickly result in confusion and a lack of clarity. Being isolated leads to uncertainty about who to talk to on specific issues and how and when to approach them, leading to hold-ups and delays.

Choosing the right channel matters. Video conferences are great for discussing complicated topics in real-time and for creating a sense of community, but they require team-wide coordination and focus. Channel (chat) based collaboration software is great for quick synchronization or easily answered questions, while email can be used to record outcomes and communicate more formally. Backlog management tools can be used to keep on top of tasks and process.

The lesson: Choosing the right channel is critical to getting it right. If you pull your employees from topic to topic, you’ll interrupt their workflow and drive down productivity.

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