Remote work — love it or hate it, but one thing is certain: that’s the work mode most of us will assume for the long-term. Even with shelter-in-place orders lifted, a good fraction of businesses (and not just the groovy startups) have decided to keep the remote work trend going.
As someone who’s been working remotely for over five years now, I’m pretty thrilled as it got a heck lot easier explaining to everyone else that while I am at home, I’m still working. Also, I now have far more people at my ‘virtual watercooler’ in Slack to muse over the ups and lows of working from home.
But personal benefits aside, remote work has rather far-rearing implications for businesses. While most companies managed to successfully build the technical and operational scaffolding in mere months, now they are facing a bigger dilemma:
Remote work is more than getting all your business apps in the cloud and putting people on Microsoft Teams. It’s a major cultural shift, requiring ongoing commitment and new operational structures to stick.
And that’s when things get somewhat complicated.
As the initial panic, larger enterprises, new to the remote work, started to recognize that during their hasty migration to WFH, they overlooked some important aspects.
First of all, remote work needs to be implemented in a structural way. Setting up remote network connectivity, supplying the team with cloud-based apps for communication and collaboration isn’t enough to sustainably operate as a remote-first company. Beyond tools and infrastructure, companies often need to reinvent their common workflows, processes, and overall decision-making process to support fully-remote operations in the long-term. So far, not everyone’s excelling in that department.
Instead of changing the approach to project management, some companies resort to using invasive employee monitoring software, which does nothing good for the teams in the long-term except for undermining trust and creating a ton of anxiety and annoyance.
Both practices are (hopefully) temp solutions to a more pressing problem — lacking operational and managerial processes to support remote teams.
Remote work also increases cybersecurity risks. Provisioning remote access to on-premises IT infrastructure is one aspect of going remote. Securing those new links between your HQ systems and multiple remote users, using personal devices and a ton of different apps is way more complex.
Again, rather than seeking structural tech changes, some companies resort to ‘patch’ solutions such as prohibiting shadow IT, usage of personal devices, or public WI-FI connections (which let’s be honest, everyone still uses when sitting in Starbucks).
Lastly, when done wrong, remote work can be a major tanker for work-life balance and employee engagement. Though it’s the other way around in companies with a mature remote-first culture.
The unprepared workforce may find the new remote operations to be somewhat taxing due to the blurred lines between work and private life. As Kevin Roose wrote in his New York Times piece, “I’ve realized that I can’t be my best, most human self in sweatpants, pretending to pay attention to video conferences between trips to the fridge”.
Many remote employees tend to agree with that sentiment. Though research tends to prove otherwise.
Jonathan Harrison, a freelance web developer from Edinburgh, who’s been doing the whole remote work thing since 2006, told me that: “Satisfaction and engagement from remote work strongly depend on the company you are working with. I’ve been part of amazing remote teams where all workflows are systematized, communication and approvals fly fast, and no tasks slip through the cracks. The secret of such teams? High level of personal accountability, backed by well-documented SOPs and lean approaches to project management”.
Jonathan also noted that when you are part of such a team, you don’t even care if you are wearing sweatpants or a formal suit. Because all your virtual work environment prompts you to immerse in deep work and immediately focus on the tasks at hand.
Creating an operational setup where every team member feels connected to others and inspired to do their best work isn’t that easy. That’s obvious.
So where do you even begin?
Remote work can feel lonely and unproductive when the communication pipeline between teams is broken, congested, or non-existent.
Unlike office spaces, where you can always come up to Matt and ask him a quick Q or come up to Mandy’s office for a quick discussion, remote work requires a bit more planning.
Sure, you can shoot random messages at people on Slack, then follow-up via email, and then urge them to get on a call with you. But is it productive? Nope. It’s utterly distracting, especially when you get asked the same question over and over again.
So that communication chaos gotta go.
Successful remote teams have clear communication policies so that everyone knows:
- Where are different types of discussions or happening?
- Which channel to use when you need urgent help?
- How and where to look up the information yourself?
- When to communicate immediately and when to wait up?
- How to structure different types of requests?
For that purpose, most use a mix of asynchronous communication tools that:
- Allow documenting the gist of each convo and saving it for others to review.
- Provide equal access to all the discussions.
- Give your room to reply when you have time.
- Help structure all the conversations in proper boxes (by project, department, query type, etc).
So if your company already uses a messaging app (e.g. Slack), a PM app (Basecamp), and an ITSM ticket desk (Zendesk), and the email, of course, you now need to educate individual people on:
- When to use each channel
- What updates to send there
- Who to tag (or not).
- When to expect a reply (so that people don’t send multiple messages).
That’s the very basic thing you should do.
OK, so once you’ve sorted out the work convos, here’s another task: managing personal interactions with the team.
Research found that team cohesion and problem-solving abilities suffer in distributed environments, where people don’t have enough room to mingle. As a result, they a) get lonely b) become disengaged c) are less innovative.
Successful remote companies understand that scheduled and meaningful casual interactions can be as important as scheduled Zoom meetings and work Slack exchanges. Atlassian encourages their teams to have virtual after-hours, lunches, casual check-ins, and other impromptu team building exchanges that can spark extra creativity and prevent remote work blues.
Borrow some of those practices too. But again, aim for some structure.
Back in the office days, you had nice department sections — marketing, operations, HRs, sales, support — having their cozy dens at different parts of the office...and never properly talking with one another.
Remote work gives you the room to break away from traditional structures (departments) and experiment with new cross-functional team compositions. For example, to support a new mobile app, you can set up a team of 1 Product Manager (team leader); several developers, a UX designer, a marketer/UX writer, customer support/success specialist.
Playing around with remote team structures and rotating people can:
- Help strengthen the togetherness within your organization and forge new connections between your team members who otherwise never spoke to each other.
- Give some ambitious remote team members new opportunities for horizontal career growth.
- Reduce the knowledge gaps between teams.
Disconnecting from remote work can be hard since you don’t have that commute time when you wind down. Scoffing from management regarding ‘long replies’ to emails/messages builds up employee anxiety and eventually results in disengagement. Compound that with the fact that working parents also have to balance their work schedules around bored kids, and it’s easy to understand why some people are not sold on ‘the remote work is awesome’ promise.
You have to change that if you want to retain your key remote employees. Again, start with some simple practices:
- Allow everyone to set personal boundaries around meeting scheduling.
- Encourage usage of video, but don’t make it mandatory.
- Celebrate impromptu pet’s or children’s appearances.
- Prohibit or discourage weekend emails.
Educate your people (and yourself) on how they can better manage their personal schedules. Reach to managers to explain to them how they could better support their teams without resorting to micromanagement and constant check-ins.
Get intentional about building a remote work culture that respects individual boundaries, celebrates personal and team contributions, and encourages virtual bonding. That’s a seemingly simple recipe to a strong remote-first culture — as it takes a lot of targeted effort to implement it.