Working together when we’re forced to disconnect – enabling the social distancing mandate. Early lessons from South Korea

By Jo Billing

The Corona Quarter – that’s how the first quarter of 2020 could be referred to in Seoul, and across most of the globe. It has been one of disruption, fear and more than a hint of ambiguity. 

Coming up to one year living in what is a progressive, exciting and traditional city it has shown me that the South Koreans are a strong community ready for anything.   But, just like any other country or community grappling with this crisis they are hurting given the pace of the spread during February – and there is no ‘normal’ right now. Personally, it has thrown my life into slight chaos – as yours is now beginning to – with schools closing, borders shutting down and quarantine periods in many countries. 

I won’t discuss the health related issues related to this virus nor what is right in terms of how businesses should be preparing business continuity plans. There are experts out there writing their thoughts on that as we speak – there’s plenty of great articles about what businesses should be doing, what to expect and even toolkits to help (see end of this post for useful links). What I will talk about is how to deal with the inevitable – a change in the way your workplace functions over the next few weeks or months – a change to the fabric of your culture. “Social distancing” – a word that makes the extroverts amongst us shudder – is crucial if we’re going to stop the spread of this virus. This means a move away from hundreds and thousands of employees working in an open plan office, face to face meetings, large workshops and conferences.

I will also share insights and lessons from an organisation built on the principle that a business can function just as effectively by operating flexibly as one operating in the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ way. When Stella & I started JOST&Co in 2017, one of our key drivers was to support those who either could not or did not want to work in a nine to five, office-based ‘traditional’ job. This included parents, side hustlers, retirees, travellers or anyone juggling ‘life’. We found there was a ‘treasure trove of talent’ existing out there in this form. We now have up to 10 ‘JOSTers’ at any one time working either in person or remotely with our clients, who also understand and support this model. In fact, moving across the oceans to South Korea to support my husband in his career and give our family such an experience could not have happened if JOST&Co didn’t work in this way.

I will also overlay this with early insights from some multinationals in Seoul who have been working flexibly for the past few weeks in response to CO-VID19.

So, what have we learnt?  What are some of the key factors you need in place to make it work?

Lead by example

Educate yourself on the virtues of working flexibly and embrace that your team can operate effectively remotely. Consider how you can maintain and adopt flexible working arrangements after the COVID19 social distancing mandate is over. Will you reschedule meetings so that you can attend to non-work obligations, do weekly meetings via video or tele conference? It’s simple but crucial to making it work. The organisations in Korea where senior executives adopted early flexible working were much more effective at responding to COVID19 than with executives who stayed in the office during this time.

 Be tech ready

Firstly, software. At JOST we use the Google suite, so all of our meetings, collaboration, shared calendars and shared drives use this platform. We also use Zoom, WebEx, Trello (task management), Avaza (project management) and Copper (business development). It took some time to get settled on this suite, and we played around with a few others that weren’t quite as effective. Choose your tools and stick to them. Make sure everyone knows how to use them effectively and that they will work on various networks. There’s nothing worse than people not being able to join a virtual meeting.

 Next, hardware. Obviously, laptops are the easiest transferable device to work on but not always possible. This has been the biggest roadblock for companies in Seoul – more administrative or junior staff not having access to the right equipment from home. Quickly, do an audit of gaps in equipment should your entire team need to work from home. Seoul offices have suffered loss of productivity as the right resources were not in place from day one. Offer monitors, keyboards and other things that will make working from home more comfortable and OH&S compliant.

 Keep structure

As much as possible stick to a routine. At JOST&Co, Stella and I have regular video meetings on various operational, strategic and client related topics. We stick to this rhythm as much as possible. With staff new to flexible working, ensure you keep regular team meetings and one-on-one meetings in place, just via the new medium. If daily stand-ups are your thing, choose a time that suits everyone and make them video or audio conferences instead.

 The international school my children are a part of stress the importance of routine and structure for students while home schooling and this goes for knowledge workers too – have regular work times and break times, ensure some time away from screens and get outside for fresh air and to exercise if possible.

 Continue to collaborate

The biggest anxiety with remote workers is the loss of interaction, comradery or ‘office banter’ with their workmates. Ensure you encourage not only work-related conversations but social and informal interactions via the technology you have as well. At JOST, we have a combination of Google Hangouts and WhatsApp groups for various message topics. This includes a much less formal channel where we share non-work-related things such as personal news, memes or other random fun ‘stuff’ with each other it helps us to stay connected.

 As a leader it’s also really important to check in regularly with your teams as well as your colleagues. An ‘are you ok’ message on chat or call can go a long way as social isolation can be really tough for some people. Stella and I do this monthly with each JOSTer, a quick check in for a chat about them, not work or clients.  Band together as leaders and share ideas, concerns and your own challenges with each other.

 Ensure safety

Do a risk assessment of all aspects of flexible working. As a starter, think about cyber security, OH&S in terms of home office set up and mental wellbeing – also provide staff with guidelines on where it is not safe to do video calls (ie walking, driving etc).

 Other tips

Here’s some additional tips from Korean companies on flexible working in the Corona-age:

  • Have a good decision making process in place. Know what your triggers are to instigate wide-spread flexible working arrangements. Companies in Korea keep a close watch on data from ISOS, Centre for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins and the government to aid in decision making. Decisions are made and communicated on a week-to-week basis.
  • Act early and talk openly. Social media can tend to over-dramatise, but we know from the Edelman Trust Survey that staff trust the information from their employers. Talk openly about what it means for your organisation and tell your teams that if they do not feel safe coming to work or going to an event or meeting to discuss it with you. Remember you’re dealing with adults – respect that and let people make their own decisions supported by accurate information.
  • If possible, give people the choice to work in the office. Some people may prefer the structure and ritual, or their situation at home may not support them working there (especially if schools are closed).
  • You may need some critical staff to remain in the office – make sure you give them the option of being rotated so they don’t have to come in every day.
  • Keep a daily check in on staff. Levels of anxiety are high, people don’t know how long the situation will go on for, whether they will get ill or how their lives will be impacted. As always, when anxiety is high, as much certainty as possible can help – communicate often.

Final thoughts

It’s simple. It’s all about hygiene – wash your hands, don’t touch your face. Our skin is an amazing barrier to viruses, so don’t let it in through your eyes, nose and mouth. Also, it’s likely the novel coronavirus can live on phone screens for up to 96 hours – clean that screen!

Will the work environment as we know it ever be the same again? How future ready is your organisation? 

If you need any help navigating through this complex, ambiguous and disruptive time, please contact us, it is important we all support each other over the next few months.