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Mitigating risk and positioning to win in a virtual world

In October 2020, we hosted a panel discussion exploring whether remote is here to stay. And, if it is, how people in the GovCon proposal writing industry can mitigate the risks it poses, and position to win.

Our panel included:

  • Mark Amtower, Founding Partner of Amtower & Company. Mark has spent the last three decades advising companies on marketing to the government. His recent focus areas include Linkedin, Social selling, and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). We previously hosted a webinar with Mark on how to get the most out of your SMEs.
  • Danai Malianga, VP of Professional Services for VisibleThread. Prior to joining the company, Danai worked in the Proposals space, across a variety of roles and industries. She also has years of firsthand experience working from home.
  • Fergal McGoven, CEO for VisibleThread. Fergal has led the company’s work in the GovCon space for the past decade. And, as CEO, he moved his business 100% remote within a matter of days following the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020.

Common challenges of remote work

We covered some of the benefits of a distributed workforce in a previous blog. However, remote work also comes with its fair share of difficulties to overcome. Our panel spoke of some of the issues they have seen firsthand:

  • No designated workspace

Mark described the problems employees experience when they’re asked to work from home, but have no separate space for it. Employees often end up working at the kitchen table, surrounded by the normal daily distractions of home life. It can severely impact motivation, not to mention productivity. Mark recommends carving out a space for yourself, however small, ideally behind a door that you can close securely!

  • Failure to use technology effectively

Danai has directly witnessed how technological difficulties interrupt remote collaboration. For example, if a team member doesn’t know how to operate the web conferencing software, it can disrupt an entire meeting and waste everyone’s time.

And do team members understand how to best use each communication channel? There are times when an Instant Message might work better than an email, and vice versa. If employees don’t know what each channel is for, messages can easily get lost. Or, team members can waste hours reading updates that aren’t relevant to them. 

  • Loss of visual cues

Fergal spoke about the importance of visual cues while collaborating remotely. Video conferencing can go some way towards mitigating against this, but you can never truly replace face-to-face contact. 

  • Collaborating on a deadline

The panel also witnessed issues with teams collaborating in the lead up to tight deadlines. In the office, it’s easy to walk over and ask a colleague to give you some ad hoc support on a project. For example, let’s say you need to carry out a repetitive task such as checking all the acronyms in a proposal. In the physical world, this request can take minutes. When working remotely, it requires extra effort to brief your co-worker. You may need to set up a call, explain what’s required, give access to the correct folders, etc. When a deadline is looming, it’s unlikely to happen. Senior members of staff are therefore prone to taking on more manual work. They’re also at greater risk of burnout.

  • Things falling through the cracks

Employees are familiar with the “old” ways of working. Catching up during a “stand up” meeting, or grabbing a few minutes at the coffee machine. It’s much easier to make sure everyone understands their role when you’re working together in one space. Remote working calls for clearer communication of responsibilities.

6 top tips for mitigating the risks

1. Make sure everyone has access to the right equipment

Find out what kit your employees need to work from home safely and effectively, and make sure they get it. Maybe they need an ergonomic chair, a working web cam, a screen riser to be eye level with the screen. Different team members will have different needs. If it’s comfortable for employees to work remotely, they will be more productive.

2. Educate on how to use the technology

Train staff members on the technology you expect them to use. Make no assumptions about individuals’ technological knowhow. Train staff one-to-one or in small groups, so that you can address any issues without taking up the time of other employees.

3. Create clear policies for remote collaboration

Fergal mentioned the loss of visual cues as a challenge. For that reason, he introduced an “always turn on webcam for meetings” policy for VisibleThread staff. And he made sure that all team members had access to a webcam from home.

You might have preferences of how staff use other tools, such as using channels on Slack, or email. Or how long video meetings should run. If something is important to you as a business leader, make sure you take steps to ensure it happens. Introduce policies, or terms of engagement, for remote work.

4. Communicate responsibilities clearly

Technology can help with this, especially in the proposal writing space. It’s easy to miss tasks and responsibilities while manually searching through hundreds of pages of a proposal. VT Docs’ Responsibility Matrix  shreds a proposal and assigns all responsibilities in seconds. It saves  time, and ensures that nothing falls through the cracks.

5. Lean on technology to automate the manual tasks

In many areas, technology will never replace humans’ ability to solve problems. However, for repetitive tasks such as checking each acronym in a 700 page document, technology is powerful. Using features like the Acronym function in VT Docs will take care of this for you. Business leaders need to understand how and where to leverage it.

6. Ask questions and prepare to be asked

Danai suggested that, for remote workers to communicate effectively, they need to feel empowered to ask questions. Working from home can feel isolating, employees can go around in circles trying to solve their own problems. They should be encouraged to ask for help. And everyone should be willing to support others if they can.

Winning in a virtual world

The ways in which we work have changed dramatically. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on positioning ourselves to win new business. In fact, it’s more important now than ever. So how does it all work in the “new normal”?

Take care of your personal brand

Mark Amtower talked about the importance of continuing to nurture your personal brand. Most of the individuals he works with aren’t effectively selling their skills and expertise. And most people don’t know how to make their LinkedIn profiles as attractive as they could be. If you’re using the default settings, you’re not taking advantage of all the online “real estate” LinkedIn offers. Identify your expertise, and make sure you really sell it.

Find your community for virtual networking

Just because we’re not meeting physically, it doesn’t mean we can’t connect virtually. There are a range of online networking opportunities out there. Mark recommends finding where your community is meeting online, and testing a number of different events. He believes in the power of engaging one-to-one, rather than joining events that are only about one-way broadcasting.

Struggling to make initial contact with someone online? Mark suggests you identify commonalities between you, and build on those.

Is remote work part of our “new normal”?

In the early days of the outbreak, we gave the label “the new normal” to the many ways in which we adapted our lives to the necessary restrictions. Social distancing. Masks on busses. Sports without fans. In a future world with a COVID-19 vaccine, we’ll abandon many of these habits. We’ll only practice social distancing if we have to. If we can open up live events again, we will. Because, as humans, we thrive on physical connection.

Remote working, on the other hand, looks like it’s here to stay. In some form, at least. Collaborating virtually has caused, and continues to cause, profound changes in behavior. Productivity has increased massively in many areas. And the benefits for employees are compelling. No commute, greater flexibility, the chance to put out laundry on a workday… The list goes on. The culture within many larger companies may mean they struggle to maintain a 100% remote workforce, but most organizations will opt for a hybrid at least. Remote working as a general rule, with hot desking when needed. The era of the distributed workforce is here, and this is only the beginning.