Internet is divided into two groups: one, that is enthusiastic about remote work and the other that is definitely not. There are executives as well as employees in both of them, so it’s not like all employees want to work remotely while none of the managers like this idea. And while in our modern times it is quite popular to have an opinion on a topic that you have absolutely no idea about, in the subject of remote work we are lucky to find opinions of people who have actually tried it and so have an opinion on the matter. Again, some people who tried it – both on employer as well as employee side- like it, others hate it. While there is hardly anything that people would 100% support or oppose, it is still exciting to understand where those differences in opinions come from.
In this particular matter the easy answer is that people for whom remote work has worked well (i.e. brought good business results, happiness, more time for family) like it, the ones who have failed at it (i.e. got terrible business results, lost purpose and motivation, started hating their job) eventually hate it. What is then the one differentiating factor between these two groups? What makes some success at remote work, while others fail at it?
While of course it might depend on industry or sheer luck, I’d risk saying that the most important difference is the conscious management of remote work. To put it simply: if you have a co-located team and one day you decide to introduce remote work and you think, that “things will work” or “people will figure it out somehow”- well, this is not conscious management. Introducing remote work is a strategic initiative, just as embracing a new revenue stream or switching from waterfall to Scrum. It needs to be properly managed, not left to chance. You wouldn’t expect a new, supercomplex bookkeeping program to implement itself, would you?
If you’re still onboard with me, let’s take a look at a couple of areas related to remote work that can be a painful failure and therefore need to be carefully and consciously managed.
Remote working habits and rules of the game
If your team was delivering an outstanding job while working in the office, but once remote work was introduced they fail miserably at delivering what they’re supposed to deliver, there are two options: either they’re not made to work remotely (yes, some people just can’t do it! OR they just need a little bit of help. It is not their fault, therefore they should not be left alone. Employees are usually very busy getting their work done, so it is great if a manager initiates a discussion about subject like this.
How you can consciously manage this area:
I covered this particular topic in another article (link). In a nutshell, a good idea is to develop a list of remote working rules & habits that will be of advantage both for them as individuals as well as the company, and a list of behaviours that are unwelcome.
Examples of good habits can be:
- having a dedicated place to work,
- using specific software to track own productivity,
- working while travelling if only good working conditions are provided.
Examples of those unwelcome habits could be:
- working in bed and/or pyjamas,
- having breaks more often than once per hour,
- having less than 5 hours of overlapping working hours within your team.
Instead of you preparing the list of expected behaviours and sending it out via email to your team, I strongly recommend you to have a workshop with your team to have them come up with these habits and agreeing upon them.
Such approach will drive ownership among your team members and increase chances of making these rules work in practice.
In one of the teams I’ve been working with this approach has even led to a situation where team members watch each other, and provide feedback. While difficult at first, such
“Hey Tom, we agreed not to work while lying down, this sucks, man, come on!”.
Organising a workshop and coming up with team’s Remote Work Playbook is also a great opportunity to inspire people to change their life habits – to travel or spend more time with their families.
Having those as behaviors that are welcome can be a powerful motivator for the team. Be sure to initiate this kind of discussion and establish common game rules.
The hiring strategy
Just as not everybody is made to love a job of an accountant, not everyone is made to be satisfied with remote work.
In fact, according to recent research, 25% of employees don’t want to work remotely at all. And not only that – some people just don’t know that they don’t like remote work yet, simply because they have never tried it.
If you embrace remote work, expecting that any new employee you hire just needs to adapt to the way things run here might be short-sighted and lead you to a situation in which you end up with skyrocketing costs caused by high employee turnover or sudden inefficiencies of the system people are working in.
How you can consciously manage this area?
Adapt your hiring process to have a higher chance of finding people that will be a good fit for remote work. More thoughts on this topic can be found in a separate article. In a nutshell though, you can add a behavioural interview in which you’d ask your candidates what would they do in specific situations, such as sudden Internet outage while working remotely.
Probably a preferred answer here is either switching to data roaming or instant moving to a cafe, not waiting until the outage is fixed. In general, one of the traits that you might want to start paying more attention to in your interviews is proactivity, since this is something that usually helps people perform well in a remote team.
The alternative is that you don’t change your hiring process, but make sure that people who are struggling while working remotely have an office or a coworking space they can work from.
Let’s face it: if there are any problems with communication in your co-located team, they’re going to get amplified in a remote environment. Probably even tenfold. At the same time, if communication in your co-located team runs so well that you feel your team’s a role model, this doesn’t guarantee things will go so smoothly once you fully embrace remote work. No matter how trivial this sounds, communication is really a number one challenge in a virtual environment, and therefore needs to be managed with extra care. Expecting your team to diagnose and solve any problem by themselves might lead to even more serious problems in the long term.
How you can consciously manage this area?
Have your team meet for a special meeting (or a series of them) during which you jointly create Team Communication Playbook. Establish things like: what to do if I need to speak to someone immediately (phone? Slack?). What is our internal deadline for answering emails? How do we provide feedback to one another? You can also talk and agree on having communication rituals e.g. Weekly Team Meeting, Daily Portion Of Lolcats (just for fun, to keep up the spirit), a quarterly feedback session based on Start-Stop-Continue concept (described here), or a quarterly session to review your communication model.
Have the playbook signed off by all team members and make sure it is a living document. Don’t hesitate to quote it during daily work. Best if you are a role model in executing it: speak out loud and apologize anytime you realize you yourself don’t adhere to team rules, or politely point out in a private conversation if someone else doesn’t.
This area is to large extent very much connected with the previous point, communication, but I decided to separate it because of its importance.
The number one complaint in the online remote-working community is the lack of human interaction.
And it’s fun to laugh at, find a comic like the one above or read a story of a sad, home-based web developer who wonders if Pigeon Martin would visit his window today, but in reality this is a serious problem that gravely affects businesses.
It just proves how people are social animals and once separated from the group, their engagement, motivation and interest in the job deteriorates. Being a manager and leaving things as they are can have serious consequences. On one hand, it can lead to terrible business results: unhappy employees just cannot generate outstanding results in the long term.
On the other hand, complete lack of watercooler chats or just gossips in the kitchen kills innovation, since all the good stuff usually happens when people are relaxed, not tensed and focused, compulsively striking their keyboards. Finally, not supporting the social factor while working remotely might end in more and more people quitting.
How you can consciously manage this area?
However counterproductive this might seem at first glance, as a manager encourage at least one hour online meeting a week in which you don’t work, but just talk. It won’t replace the kitchen chit-chats, but it’s better than nothing. If your team is large, you can split into smaller groups. If possible, of course a great way is to meet offline and have a beer; but if this is not an option, feel free to have a beer in front of your computer, together with your colleagues. This may seem weird, but I’ve done it multiple times with my own colleagues and it was just awesome. If your run daily scrum meetings or stand-ups of any kind, a great way to start a meetings is to have a ritual of “check-in”: each participant speaks for about a minute about how they’re doing, but NOT work-related stuff. This brings closeness.
What’s the one key takeaway?
If you are a busy manager of a remote team and you decided that this article is too long for you so you jumped straight to the end expecting a specific conclusion, here’s one thought I’d like you to take away:
ask yourself what specific actions you have taken over the last week to make sure that your remote team performs at their best and that your people feel better at work.
Reviewing what other people have done is not really the best answer here, since it is simply about getting the work done, not taking care of the team in the long term. If you feel like it is not the right time to take care of such general topics because you’re in the middle of a big project that you just need to survive – ask yourself honestly how many times you have used this argument as an excuse.
After what I’ve seen while working with my Clients I am certain that making a remote team work instead of miserably failing is a challenging task that unfortunately requires manager’s attention round the clock. At any given time, please remember though: making a remote team work is an effort but is also a way of making direct impact in other people’s lives. Let this be your motivation in your daily hussle, so that you stay on the bright side instead of joining the Remote-Work-Sucks-Club. At the end of the day, it is really so much up to you if remote works or not.