Embracing the “New Normal“
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations from all over the world resorted to adopting virtual working where possible. We are now months into virtual working, in what is called the ‘new normal’ for many. There are numerous studies currently being undertaken to understand whether this shift in landscape will indicate a permanent transition to remote working, and if so, how sustainable such arrangements are in the long run. This largely depends on individuals’ mindsets and how well they are settled into remote working.
Business Analysts should see this as a significant opportunity here to step up as leaders by showing how remote working can be effective and being the glue that teams required to stick together as a team during this challenging time. Business analysis as a practice is becoming more important and relevant than ever as organisations will be making even more significant changes over the coming months to respond to unprecedented events. The organisations that adjust and adapts to the environments best will survive, and some will even thrive if the opportunities are seized before their competitors. As Business Analysts, this can be seen as an era of opportunity where we can help organisations capitalise on ever changing market and consumer needs.
Whilst working from home is a new concept and challenge for some, it should also be embraced as an opportunity as it can be highly rewarding if one maintains a certain level of productivity and work-life balance. In addition to the opportunities explained above, we have to take into account that there are many other roles where working from home is impossible, and individuals could be either financially constraints or risking exposure for themselves and their families. As Business Analysts, we have a privilege to be given the opportunity to continue working from the safety of our homes. Shouldn’t we be cultivating a sense of gratitude for being able to carry on performing the role that we love?
This article provides 5 strategies for effective remote working.
Strategies for Effective Remote Working for Business Analysts
1.Workplace Set Up: Optimal Workspace, Optimal Productivity
Having a dedicated physical work space can help you focus and optimise productivity. Where possible, it would be beneficial to keep “work” office space from your “living” space separate in order to avoid distractions. Review your “work” space surroundings and determine what are distractors and remove them out of sight during your working hours. Depending on individual preferences, surrounding may matter too. Some may thrive in a minimalist work space whereas others may prefer to include plants, inspirational quotes or photos of loved ones. Regardless of what it is that inspires you, ensure that this you are happy with the set up before logging on at the start of your working day.
The most preferred work space set ups typically involves having a separate desk space for work, a laptop or PC, high-speed internet, a monitor and docking station, an ergonomic chair, a foot rest where necessary and a headset for video calls or conference calls depending on the level of noise around your work environment.
2. Identifying “Best Fit” Technology for Effective Remote Working
What are the best combination of software tools to use for you and your team? In addition to having an optimal work place, it is vital that the technology you have, or are given by your organisation, meets you and your team’s needs. Although organisations typically provide all employees with laptops or PCs with pre-installed essentials such as word processors, data handling software and presentation creation software, as we step into the era of remote working, many organisations will be open to listening to the technology needs within specific business functions. Working from home does not imply that one needs the most cutting-edge technology, but if your organisation is providing you with a set of tools, think about how these could be best utilised in a total virtual working set up.
To be successful in a remote working environment, Business Analysts will need to consider the following core technology requirements, in addition to the standard office suite (word processor, spreadsheets, power point presentations):
- Video conferencing software: WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
- Team-oriented messaging and collaboration software: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Trello, Miro, Mural, Monday.
- Business Analysis tools: Microsoft Whiteboard, Microsoft OneNote (scribing, draw functions), Visio, Lucid Chart, Signavio.
With the growing plethora of options available, one might think “what is the best option for me and my team?”
Some considerations that needs to be taken into account include:
- What is my team struggling with when working remotely? Identify the top 3 to 5 pain points and perform a group brainstorm on whether technology could address these, and how. See Strategy 3 below for a further elaboration.
- Can your team identify a software in the market that meets multiple needs or pain points identified in the point above?
- Is there a maximum user threshold in the chosen virtual workspace, and is this sufficient for my team’s needs?
- Who else needs it outside of my team, i.e. Product Owner, internal or external stakeholders?
- If applicable, does the proposed software meet the budget provided by your organisation?
Some of the mentioned software vendors may offer either free trial periods or free subscriptions, so it is often worth taking advantage of the trial periods or free accounts before raising a recommendation to your organisation. When trialling software, taking notes and feedback from team members would also prove valuable in your quest for the “best fit” technology for your team.
3. Mindful Communication
Business Analysts are often regarded as trusted business advisors, and communication is a core part of our roles. Mindful communication involves applying principles of being in the present, empathy and being considerate in the way we correspond with others. These principles include setting an intention when reaching out to others, being fully present during the dialogue, remaining open and non-judgemental and understanding the situation from the other party’s perspective.
There are different aspects of communication that needs to be considered.
- How you can support others: Some individuals adapt to remote working than others. Reaching out to individuals who are not adapting we well as they’d like can mean a lot to them. By building rapport with the individual may provide insights to why this might be the case. Is there anything you could do to help? For example, if their pain point relates to feeling excluded from the team due to the remote working setup or difficulties getting responses from stakeholders, can technology help?
- How you can be supported: What support do you need from your team and also from your organization? Are you supported by your team, manager and your organization’s senior leadership team?
- Facilitating meetings and workshops: Effective communication is more important than ever. When facilitating meetings and workshops, it is imperative to ensure that the stakeholders stand the best chances of arriving prepared. At the beginning of the meeting, provide a walkthrough of the meeting agenda and let them know what to expect and how are expecting them to engage. To increase engagement, plan in aspects of the meeting where you individually call on each person for their input and inform the participants in advance. Identify the specific questions you have to cover in the session and use these to keep the session flowing to gain more valuable input.
- Mindful communication and active listening needs to be applied the most during the facilitation of virtual meetings. Reading body language is much harder virtually, even if one is on video. Active listening reflects back what you have understood and asking each colleague to contribute to the meeting, even if it is just to verbally state “no additional comments”, which gives you a confirmation of where people are at on a topic.
- How can you add value?: As a Business Analyst, we like adding value in the ways of working, processes or project deliverables. One of the more challenging aspects of not being physically around in an office environment is not having spontaneous conversations with a colleague which may uncover this from time to time. However, this can be addressed by scheduling virtual coffees with various stakeholders either as a group or on a 1 to 1 basis. Most importantly, focus on the value that you bring, not the number of hours you put in.
- Clarify communication processes: When discussed and agreed with your team, be clear to your team members what communication processes that need to be followed by documenting the agreed protocols. To ease any potential concerns of your team members, one option is to create a playbook outlining which communication tools will be used, what the processes for communication will be and how team members can be reached.
4. Be Proactive but Know Your Priorities
This situation might be still new to members of your team, or it perhaps individuals are still in the process to adapting to the “new normal“. It is often seen as a pleasant gesture to reach out to the individuals who may need further guidance or support, whether these are team mates, management or stakeholders. However, everyone has their own priorities and the application of prioritization is more important now than ever. More than ever, your daily routine may appear blurred between home and work.
Organizations are increasing circulating regular updates which your managers are expected to distribute to your team. It is recommended that you ask and confirm your organization’s priorities where it is unclear as a lot has shifted in recent months. Checking in to ensure that you are working on the most relevant tasks is key.
Effective prioritisation techniques include:
- Organizing projects, activity goals and deliverables by day and week.
- One of the most powerful prioritization techniques is the A-B-C method as promoted by Brian Tracy. Once you have a list of assigned tasks, determine your top priorities. An “A” item is defined as something that is very important. By not performing this task, there can be serious consequences or penalties. If you have more than 1 “A” task, you can prioritize by labelling tasks as “A1”, “A2”, “A3” etc. A “B” item are considered as secondary tasks, meaning that someone may be inconvenienced if you do not complete this, but the rule is that a “B” task should not be performed if an “A” task is left undone. A “C” task is defined as something that would be nice to do, but for which there are no consequences at all whether you take action or not.
- Time boxing work socials (although also important as part of regular colleague engagement) and your work priorities throughout the day.
- Agree priorities with your managers frequently, explaining how you have prioritized your assigned tasks. There could be occasions where the manager’s decision may override your prioritization as they may have greater visibility of the project landscape or had been in discussions that you might not have been involved in.
In addition to work priorities, it is strongly recommended to also incorporate your personal priorities for the day, and realise that your priorities may shift on a daily basis.
5. Inspire further Dialogue by Adopting the use of Visual Models
Remote working communication can be challenging for organizations, and a picture can say a thousand words concisely and quickly. According to a market research, 40% of people respond better to visuals than texts (Pole Position Marketing, 2017). Visual models are a cornerstone to business analysis and requirements work. Visual models can help innovate, analyze for gaps, find missing requirements and identify assumed requirements. Visual models can help stakeholders see the whole user experience, process or data models in its holistic form. High-level visual models are critical tools for stakeholder engagement, going from the big-picture to details. For example, a context diagram may uncover the need for reports, and Business Analysts can follow up by liaising with stakeholders to produce set of reporting specifications or each report, and how it should be presented.
Using visual models during meetings and workshops helps inspire collaborative dialog and analysis and it is recommended that these are used throughout projects, whether in a traditional or Agile project framework.
Popular visual models used by Business Analysts include, but not limited to the following:
Business Model Canvas: A strategic management tool often used a high-level starting points for conversations which are used to visualize the components of an organization, including customers, value proposition, cost structure, revenue streams, resources, customer segments, key activities and partners. Each of these components needs to be accurately completed and updated to provide stakeholders with the most up to date visual landscape of the organization. Business Analysts may often prefer to use business model canvas as a starting point in the case of smaller start up businesses, and is used less often in larger organizations.
Mind Maps: Mind mapping can be used as a common technique that visually represents ideas, problems and thoughts. It serves as a popular brainstorming tool for generating new ideas and exploring concerns.
Data Models: Data models define how the logical structure of a database is modeled, capturing the conceptual representation of data objects and the associations between the different data objects and rules. Data modeling is a valuable technique used to produce visual representation of data and enforces business rules, regulatory compliances, and government policies on the data. Data models also ensure consistency in naming conventions, default values, semantics, security while ensuring quality of the data.
Process Flow Diagrams: Process flow diagrams is a type of flowchart that illustrates the relationships between major tasks that constitutes a process, and are seen as intuitive means for stakeholders to understand organizations’ fundamental processes, including providing clarity on how these are completed and by whom. Process flow diagrams also put other requirements activities in context.
Stakeholder Maps: Used frequently during the start of projects, stakeholder maps are important tools to map out and identify stakeholders and understand why the project is important to them. Different types of stakeholder mapping techniques include the power-interest grid, stakeholder registers and the onion diagram (further information can be found here: Dealing with tough stakeholders as a Business Analyst).
Use Case Diagrams: Use case diagrams are visual depictions of interactions among elements in a system and identifies the different actors in the system and how they interact with it which makes it useful for supporting the process of analysis.
User Interface Wireframes: User interface wireframes are a visual prototypes of how a particular screen should appear when implemented. These screen prototypes are useful in generating “yes, but…” conversations and eliciting information stakeholders wouldn’t usually think of until they see what an application actually looks like. There are different levels of details such prototypes can provide. Low-fidelity User Interface prototypes displays the general layout of a screen, while high-fidelity User Interface prototypes (also known as a rendering) represents exactly how the User Interface should look and feel once implemented.
In order to showcase your visual models with your team and other stakeholders, it is important the technology provided includes screensharing functionalities and ensure that the technology is part of your “best fit” (see Strategy 2). An alternative is to share the visual models to meeting participants prior to the meeting, but the drawback is that they would not be able view any live changes made during the meeting.
Remote Working: In for the Long Haul
According to the U.S. Census Bureau prior to the pandemic, circa 30% of the U.S. workforce, and 50% of all “information workers” are able to work remotely. Though the volumes of people working partially or fully remote has been increasing over the years, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a catalyst for this trend. However, there will come a point where an individual encounters challenges, whether it is loneliness, staying motivated or maintaining a work/life balance.
Regardless of work occupation, it is important to prioritise your own wellness as this ultimately allows you to thrive personally and professionally. Remembering to protect your own mindset during times of uncertainty, planning your day in advance and exercising during your breaks all help to reduce stress levels. Taking pleasure from life’s simple joys, being present and drawing a line between work and your personal life will give you the best chances of keeping this new way of life sustainable during this paradigm shift.