When the world came to a screeching halt back in March because of COVID-19, Cornerstone Studios had to close its physical doors. But for a team that typically creates learning content using video equipment, studio space and actors, remote work seemed untenable. Head of Cornerstone Studios, Summer Salomonsen took a different approach to managing a remote team, viewing this unprecedented situation as an opportunity to innovate and adapt to the new world of work.
"It really came down to this mindset shift. Was I willing to see disruption as an opportunity for a catalyst?" Salomonsen said in her webinar, "From Closed Studios to Better Content: Driving Innovation from Constraint," featured in the 2020 Learning Content Summit, a free, virtual event held November 2, that brought together learning content experts to tackle relevant, timely strategies to help companies navigate this new world of work.
As it turns out, Salomonsen was willing, and this mindset shift ended up paying off in spades. Not only did Cornerstone Studios successfully transition to remote production, but they also learned a few things along the way.
While there are no set guidelines for adapting to this new normal, understanding how Salomonsen led Cornerstone Studios through this tumultuous transition provides a blueprint for how to successfully drive innovation from constraint at any company during a time of deep uncertainty.
The Path to Innovation: Top Takeaways from Summer’s HR Summit Webinar
Without a physical studio, Cornerstone Studios needed to rapidly reassess both their production methods as well as their work culture to move forward. But a concrete gameplan felt unrealistic amid so much uncertainty. Instead, the path forward involved increased flexibility and constant collaboration among the entire Studios team, grounded in three core goals.
1. Find new strategies for team productivity
"When your productivity is centered around a functioning studio that employs a lot of different people for a lot of very specific reasons, things can start to feel impossible," said Salomonsen of determining Cornerstone Studios' roadmap. She had to ask herself a daunting question: Now what?
But instead of making the snap decision to immediately produce brand new content, or reinvent the wheel entirely, Salomonsen took a beat and ultimately recognized there was an opportunity to revamp and rework existing content to meet the moment.
Resurrecting old content, looking at it through the lens of the current climate, and updating it accordingly reinvigorated the Studios team. The world of work was undergoing dramatic changes in March—but this new normal also benefited from revamped learning content. "The resounding undercurrent of this was: Am I willing to reexamine the old process? And how can I find increased employee productivity there?" said Salomonsen.
2. Demonstrate value to the business by fostering creativity
What was once considered valuable—a full-service production studio—was dropped from the equation. There was no longer a need for it, and the Studios team needed to evolve past it and find value elsewhere. Sometimes, this meant producing a program from Salomonsen’s living room or packaging up equipment into a branded production kit. Adapting to these changes involved a great deal of resilience and scrappiness from every team member, so Salomonsen made sure to give them the space to practice creativity. She quotes General George S. Patton: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."
3. Create and maintain relationships for a remote workforce
Back in March, Salomonsen felt that maintaining connection among the existing team was important, and even more so as they remotely onboarded new team members.
"While I recognize the enormous resource-taker and expensive nature of all-hands meetings, I also realize in those early days, we needed to see each other," said Salomonsen.
A weekly all-hands studio sync still remains on everyone’s calendar to this day—eight months later, video chat required.
Driving Innovation from Constraint
For Salomonsen, the past several months were filled with impossible decisions and overwhelming uncertainty about the future of Cornerstone Studios. But this experience confirmed something that Salomonsen had always believed: Constraint is the true driving force behind innovation. This seismic shift away from normal ultimately propelled Cornerstone Studios—and Salomonsen herself—onto the path toward innovation, and the team is better for it.
You can find more information about the 2020 Content Summit here. If you missed it but are still interested in watching, you can access the full archive, including Salomonsen’s full talk, by registering for the event here.
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Genuine Ways to Connect With People Remotely
With the stress of being newly remote comes a focus on logistics: How do I get my webcam to work? What does it mean if someone isn’t responding to my email? What if my internet goes out in the middle of a big presentation? But moving past all that, zero in on why you’re trying to connect remotely in the first place—and how you can accomplish that goal. Without the ability to read body language, have discussions without lag time and quickly catch up on the fly, the human element of work can get lost. Remember that a big reason people love (or don’t love) their jobs is their connection to their colleagues. So as we adapt to a remote world, let’s refocus on that. Engaging Informally Telecommuting technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years as more and more people work from home, connect during business trips and set up remote offices. Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts—they were all invented so that we could have meetings and collaborate effectively on work projects when we’re not face-to-face. The technology is great for that, but it can—and should—serve another central purpose: building and keeping our human connections with colleagues. Think about everything you’re able to do informally when you’re in an office environment that you’re unable to do now. I’ll start the list for you: Stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question Catch up on personal lives in the break room or at the elevator Debrief a meeting after it’s officially over on your way out the door Invite nearby colleagues to join you on a trip to find some coffee Hear your coworkers getting excited about something and ask what’s going on Organize a standing happy hour There’s a lot there, right? And we don’t want to lose all those opportunities to connect with people. So, the question becomes: how can we simulate them within the confines of a remote experience? Creating this type of intimate, collegial environment requires two things—culture and planning. Ways to Build Culture Online With quick access communication tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace Chat, people can virtually "stop by someone’s desk" to catch up or talk about non-work things, but most need a precedent for it. Oftentimes, we think (consciously or unconsciously) that these workplace communication tools should be used exclusively for work. But building or maintaining relationships with coworkers is an important part of work, so use them for personal connections as well. Send a Slack question whenever it pops into your mind (and try to respond quickly and graciously when someone reaches out to you!) Make it a habit to ask your teammates how their day is going, if they did anything fun over the weekend and whether they caught the latest episode of that TV show you both watch. Reach out to a colleague or two after a meeting to share how you thought it went, anything you’re excited or unsure about or any ideas you didn’t get a chance to share. Post your excitement about topics that colleagues might find relevant or interesting on a Slack channel. Encourage others to do all of the above! Plan With Purpose Accidentally blurring the line between work and socializing isn’t exactly possible when you’re remote—you have to deliberately cross it. Schedule time for all of the things you’d normally do ad hoc, such as: Virtual coffee. It sounds corny, but have you ever done it? It can be really wonderful. Talk about whatever you want—work, life—but if you talk about work, don’t talk about projects or action items. Focus more on feelings, things you’re excited about, frustrated about, etc. to provide a sense of connection. Pad your online interactions with time for informal chat. Start 1:1s with some "how are you/what’s new?" talk and make sure you share and set the tone for real connection. Plan group hangouts. Get the team together and have everyone bring a beverage or snack of choice. Play an online game (my office is exploring the Jackbox suite of games you play through your phone and computer). Remember when you were a teenager and you would sit on the phone with someone for hours and sometimes not even talk? You’d just be doing your homework or something, but they were there? Try this with work. Maybe both you and a colleague have a deep-think project to work on and could use the occasional outside perspective. Schedule time to be online together doing your separate work, with the ability to ask for feedback or suggestions whenever the moment strikes. At the end of the day, logistics are important. If you can’t hear or see someone, it will obviously be hard to communicate with them. But don’t stop at that surface level. Focusing on building human connection with your colleagues through culture and planning will help you develop and maintain the relationships that are the lifeblood of successful work. Rae Feshbach is the Head of Content Engagement at Cornerstone.
Beam to Work: 6 Remote Jobs of the Future
Telecommuting allows employees to work away from the mothership, but we’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to remote jobs. As part of an effort to educate children and parents about future career opportunities, Martha Turner and her colleagues at CST Consultants predicted jobs that will exist in 2030. Among them: robot counselor and agile supply chain manager. "Technology is a big component of the jobs of 2030, and that’s largely because it really fuels the opportunities for growth in the marketplace through innovation," says Turner, vice president at CST. Employees already are beaming into the office via robots and telepresence technology. Here are six jobs that will take remote working to the next level. 1. Tele-surgeon For people living in rural areas, access to healthcare — particularly skilled surgeons — remains limited. "We can leverage robotic tools to operate on patients in remote locations," Turner says. Tele-surgery involves a combination of robotic surgery tools, scanning and sensing technologies and high-speed networks. Tele-surgeons will need an understanding of robotic technologies and video systems in addition to steady hands. 2. Drone-operating farmer "Drones may feel like science fiction to us today, but in fact they already have some small commercial applications today," Turner says. Agricultural use will make up 80 percent of the commercial market for drones, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Farmers "are going to be able to see things and monitor their crops in ways they never have before. In the next 10 years almost every farm will be using it," Kevin Price, executive vice president of applied research and technology development at RoboFlight, tells USA Today. Drones will help farmers identify insect problems and watering issues, assess crop yields and track down wandering cattle, to name a few use cases. 3. Healthcare coordinator Doctors are gaining more access to real-time patient data through connected devices while machines are increasingly automating parts of routine doctor visits. This means that at least some healthcare professionals will take on overseer roles, says Matthew Holt, cofounder of Health 2.0, a conference focused on new forms of medicine. "The trend towards team-based care for most patients plus the growth of video consults ... will see the emergence of a mission control function for medical professionals," Holt says. "More doctors will devote at least some of their day to managing teams who are managing patients," he says, adding that doctors will be more location independent. 4. Telecommuting teacher In California, A.P. history students at Redlands East Valley and Orangewood High School tune into class at Citrus Valley High, where their teacher instructs via telepresence. We’ll see more examples of teachers who connect remotely to students, making more classes available and adaptable to students’ schedules. Teachers will use additional tools to extend learning beyond the classroom. Fifth-graders in Houston recently took a virtual field trip to Mars, with a lesson from experts at NASA using Google Hangouts. 5. Landlocked ship captain You’ve heard of — or maybe even seen — driverless cars, but what about captainless ships? Rolls Royce and a handful of other organizations are designing ships that captains would operate from a virtual bridge on dry land. These automated vessels would have little to no crew on board during deep sea legs of their journeys. Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the shipping industry, and they could be navigating the Baltic Sea within the next decade, according to Rolls Royce. 6. Connected grid directors Sensors are being embedded in infrastructure from highways to water treatment plants, collecting data on traffic patterns, energy use and all kinds of indicators critical to how we run cities. A regional grid director — a title coined by CST researchers — would use this data to determine how resources are best distributed across city grids and among different regions. For any type of remote work, employees will need to hone in on communication skills, Turner says. "There’s more of a need for you to be able to get along with diverse groups of people. You need to be able to work through different cultures and preferences for work styles," she says. "Your ability to go and not just have that technical knowledge, or specialized knowledge in your field, but be able to communicate and sell it is going to be very, very important."
What Remote Work Data Can Teach Us About Employee Productivity
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the shift to remote work inevitable for non-essential businesses. For employees, the challenges are well-documented—from balancing work with child care to engaging without colleagues nearby. For employers, meanwhile, a key area of concern has been productivity. A few months in, many bosses remain unsure that their teams work as effectively outside the office. Some have gone so far as to track employee hours via a variety of methods ranging from practical to controversial. But while employers debate the practicality and longevity of remote work, workers are thriving. According to a survey from Azurite Consulting, 72% of managers said they were at least as efficient working from home, while 68% of employees felt the same. Other data sources about remote work are yielding some interesting insights that can help shape workforce policy in the future. The consensus? The pre-COVID-19 definition of productivity no longer applies. Increasingly, productivity will have to be measured by projects completed and goals met, not hours worked. But more importantly, worker productivity won’t be unlocked through surveillance or monitoring. Rather, employers must empower their teams with data so that they can drive their own productivity. Employees Are Most Productive When They’re in Control Even amidst the disruption of COVID-19, workers across industries have somehow been able to maintain quality of performance. Why? They’re no longer tied to a set number of hours in the office. Instead, people work during times when they’re most productive on an individual level. MyRoofingPal, a company that up until recently adhered to a traditional five-day work week, has switched over to a four day week after noticing key patterns in employee performance on Fridays. "Prior to moving to four-day weeks, we noticed both the quantity and quality of work decreased later in the week. We also received more requests for PTO on Fridays than any other day of the week. By going to four, 10-hour days, we improved productivity. Since the change, we receive fewer PTO requests overall, too," Jesse Silkoff, the company’s co-founder says. Simply put, identifying times during the day when they’re most productive helps employees work better. Responsibility is empowering, freeing, and energizing, says Michael Gordon, founder of CareerCloud. "When no one is watching over my shoulder of how I spend my time, I'm better at time-boxing, and getting more done per hour. There is this self-reinforcing cycle: I'm getting work done, I feel good about it so I don't feel bad about working out mid-day, or even taking an extra half-day off to play with my kids, then I feel refreshed and rejuvenated and like my life is in balance," he explains. But how can employees get a better sense of when they work best? Though mandatory surveillance and other monitoring can feel invasive, encouraging workers to voluntarily time-keep for their own benefit could pay off. "Employees who track their time will likely be more in-tune with their peak productivity hours, which will help them better schedule their day's tasks. Employers, on the other hand, can use this data for a bigger picture with insight into organizational time-sucks, top-performing employees, the company's most profitable endeavors, and more," Miguel Guardo, customer satisfaction lead at BeeBole, a timesheet provider, says. For Peak Productivity, Work Must Fall Into Two Buckets While data suggests that employees are finding ways to be efficient and effective in a remote environment, experts agree office environments play an important role in productivity. For creative jobs especially, collaborative, in-person interactions (brainstorms, impromptu discussions) are critical to success. With uncertainty still looming around COVID-19, it’s likely that even as restrictions ease, many workers will have to work remotely at least some of the time. But the challenges of remote work won’t go away—there are distractions, there’s limited collaboration and burnout can happen. Cameron Powell, CEO of High Performance Story and co-founder of Humancentric Labs, leads an effort rising out of Silicon Valley to study employee work habits in the "new normal." Along with the London School of Economics and Collabworks, Humancentric Labs is conducting an ongoing poll evaluating the changes COVID-19 has wrought in offices and work style. Preliminary findings suggest that a mix of work from home and engagement with colleagues is best, according to Humancentric Lab. "Businesses will need to divide work into two basic buckets: collaborative work, which is most productive face to face, and deep focus work, which can be done at home, a co-working space, or at a coffee shop," Powell says. Employers looking for immediate insights about their employees can also make some simple changes. Conduct a Pulse survey to assess how employees are feeling about their workloads, how they’re coping with change and whether they’re in a positive mental state. Act on the results by offering resources to help, like learning materials that strengthen adaptability or information on your company’s wellness program. And above all else, empower employees with access to their own data. Whether it’s insight into patterns on their timesheets, or a view of how much time they’re spending with your organization’s LMS, information is power. It can set them up for success and help your business thrive, too.