The barriers to practical remote working have been toppled by technology, but the jury is out as to whether this increasingly popular trend, when used some of the time or all the time, is better for employees and organisations.
In 1979 IBM became one of the first corporate heavyweights to encourage remote working and by the late noughties IBM had over 150,000 employees doing so. Wind the clock forward to 2017, 48 years after the initiative was launched, and IBM made a complete U-turn on remote working in the pursuit of agility, innovation and productivity. IBM mandated that all remote workers needed to find an IBM office location.
Remote working can introduce some well documented benefits, but it also raises new challenges for developing successful relationships, careers and managing remote teams and individuals. A study by the Harvard Business Review states that many remote workers feel that their nonremote colleagues don’t treat them equally and don’t fight for their priorities.
The issue isn’t the remote working itself, it’s how we manage and work with remote employees. For managers and co-workers to develop successful relationships with remote workers, they must all make changes.
In short, we need to stop managing remote workers as if they work onsite.
Where's The Water Cooler?
If you’re running remote teams then it is important to appreciate the simple fact that people will not bump into each other daily. In real terms this effortless informal intermingling is a breeding ground for ideas, socialising updates, fostering a community that supports each other and spreading interesting insights.
One way to support this is to have a team, division or even organisation-wide chat room open constantly on your real-time collaboration platform. Give it an inviting name like the coffee machine, water cooler or teapot, and encourage people to discuss whatever they like; be it the game last night, an idea for a blog, or the latest hit TV series.
If you use multiple real-time collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex Teams, Mattermost, Glip (RingCentral), Ryver or any of the others, then have one open in each. Even the most banal conversations can matter if you’re feeling isolated.
Be wary of too many emails and too much chat; set expectations and limits, understand and encourage employees to turn off their notifications when they’re finished with their working day. It’s important to encourage people to control their work-life balance to ensure employees remain happy, engaged and productive over the long-term.
Prioritise Methods of Communication
I shall freely admit that this is a personal pet hate of mine. I’ve been late to many an urgent email, because email just isn’t an immediate medium.
Video, audio, chat, email. In that order. If you can, always have video chats with people, and if you can’t then have an audio call with them. Failing that have a live chat and then go for email as your fallback option.
Video is rich, immediate and leaves little room for misinterpretation whether you have either an auditory or visual preference; email sits at the opposite end of the scale.
Video conferencing is critical to making the world feel that little bit smaller and remote colleagues feel part of something. Whether you opt for Skype, Zoom, BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, the focus here is on creating an environment and fostering a culture of collaboration, support and critical thinking that will set your organisation apart.
Greater flexibility is often afforded to members of a remote team because life doesn’t keep regular hours and effectiveness of remote colleagues is normally measured against goals, tasks and outputs.
But to keep things on track in a more distributed world that operates at differing speeds and with varying rhythms, it is more important than ever to establish a consistent pattern of check-in points. Formalise daily, weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to measure progress, understand the next burst of activity, and to help remove any blockers. Make sure to set clear expectations of how progress is going to be measured and what needs to be reported.
The trade-off for the freedoms of remote working is the greater importance placed on attending these meetings. They don’t need to be numerous or cumbersome, but they do need to be mandatory.
Be careful though, we believe monthly catchups are too infrequent for a remote team as even the best people can be a long, long way down the wrong path by the time you catch them.
Wildly underestimated and predominantly misunderstood by the masses, effective document collaboration is an absolute gamechanger for teamwork, auditability, speed and accuracy.
Truly cohesive outputs read like they were created, edited and improved by a group of people on the same page in the same room. To replicate this experience for remote colleagues it is crucial that teams use a simple cloud-based application that enables people to co-create, review and update a single copy of a document or spreadsheet live.
Several options are available, but Google G Suite and Microsoft Office 365 are the standout candidates in this field.
This is not about micro-management, this is about setting clear expectations, creating cross-silo visibility, and avoiding unnecessary duplication and confusion.
Because communication is key and the more informal and irregular updates don’t happen as often, it is important to set up a task management system and to use it. For everything.
Again, there is no need to overcook the detail and it must not be overly cumbersome, but the team must be answerable for updating it. This can easily be incorporated into the regular check-ins.
There are several options available including Basecamp, Monday, Trello, Asana, and Jira amongst others that are specific to the real-time collaboration platform you choose. Whichever you opt for I wholeheartedly recommend that, where possible, these are integrated with your Microsoft Teams, Slack or other collaboration tools. Low code or no code solutions are available for most of them.
Where possible the focus should be on goals and tasks rather than work hours and attendance. If that is not possible or you simply need to capture data on why one person or team is more productive than another, then you’re going to need a time management system.
These range from glorified stop watches tied to specific tasks, all the way up to something more Orwellian that tracks all activities including keyboard and mouse movements, along with app and web page usage.
When You Can, Meet in Person
However polished, effective and immersive your remote culture may be, there is no substitute for meeting in person when possible. It gives your team an opportunity to learn the non-verbal cues that are so important, it deepens relationships and builds comradery. Whether it is an annual all-hands event, or more regular team get togethers, don’t underestimate the importance of being in it together.
Clear and Honest Communication is Even More Important For Remote Workers
No one likes to feel like they’re in the dark, so start by setting clear expectations. Clear and honest communication is even more important for remote workers. Remote employees don’t have the luxury of being able to swing by your desk to ask questions, so be sure to schedule consistent check-ins. Connect over video or pick up the phone to make the conversation more natural. Have trust and confidence in your remote workers. Just being in the office does not guarantee that an employee is being productive. By changing attitudes and management style, you can make remote working work for you and your team.