Hopefully, your team or company won’t ever get hit by the “blizzard of the century” that keeps you all out of the office for a week, but you never know.
Years ago I was scheduled to fly to the east coast just as a superstorm was about to blow through. I wisely postponed that trip and dodged what was a nightmare for weeks. Many people couldn’t travel to work, and many office buildings were without power (or running on backup generators) for days. I’m glad I wasn’t stuck in a hotel room without power for a week.
Those kinds of events can shut down teams, companies, and even industries. A major storm, a natural disaster, an outbreak, or just life. A few storms like that have inspired us to prepare our home with things like a backup generator and emergency supplies so we’re prepared for a snowpocalypse.
But what about getting our teams and companies ready? Fortunately, we don’t have to be doom and gloom about it, because the benefits are massive, and we can have them today.
The future of most knowledge work will be distributed and remote. As companies become more global and as connectedness shrinks the distance between people, going into an office to do the same thing you can do at home or at the coffee shop down the street will become an antiquated notion. In many places it already is. But this trend will continue to speed up and engulf organizations that have been slow to move.
And this future may come much sooner than you think. While the culture of an organization may not change overnight, you never know when some unforeseen circumstance may force everyone in your group or company to be remote for some period, like the superstorm that hit our team years ago. Or like the major disease outbreaks that are causing huge issues today. The coronavirus has caused tens of thousands of workers in China to work remotely as it has spread rapidly across the world.
Having been at organizations and offices across the spectrum of remote work, I’ve learned some key lessons about how to make your team or group the most effective no matter where you are on the spectrum. Whether your work is primarily or partly remote, you’re in the main office and interact with remote workers, or you’re part of a remote group far from the company headquarters, there are several steps we can all follow to improve the productivity of our teams and prepare ourselves and our groups to be remote friendly.
1. Define Your “Why”
As an organization, clearly define why you are shifting to more remote friendly work. Is it to remain competitive and attract the best local talent by allowing flexibility? Is it to expand your talent pool by hiring beyond the local market? Is it to lower costs? To diversify talent? To expand globally? Some combination? Those are all good reasons, so you should be able to articulate among them why you are becoming more remote friendly.
You need to have a clearly defined “why” and be transparent. There are likely benefits to your current employees, but it may also unnerve if you don’t communicate what you’re doing. With adding global talent, existing employees may wonder if their jobs will go away. You need to address that. Besides addressing concerns, if you don’t have a clear strategy, you won’t know if you’ve achieved your goals. If lowering costs is the goal but you never define that, how will you know you’ve been successful?
By having a defined “why”, you can incorporate this into your ongoing practices. Your employees shouldn’t be thrashed around by whims of new leaders or changing environments, so defining your remote working strategy ensures that everyone — from employees to leadership — understands what to expect and can get on board. Remember, many people make important life decisions based on company policies, so we should be thoughtful about how and why we do things.
2. Change Your Mindset
The next key is to change your mindset. If you are a manager or team lead, this will be a critical step.
Way of Working
While we once considered remote working a perk, we need to look at it as a way of working and a way of life now. Remote work is a requirement, not a fringe benefit. It’s not just a bonus which also means that it isn’t something that we can give and take away like a ping pong table in the break room. This is especially true for workers who are transitioning fully to remote work. And this trend will only continue. While not every employee will work remote full time, most employees will work remote at least sometimes.
Value over Outputs
Being in the office has long been a proxy for measuring productivity. That may have made sense 50 years ago when much of the work you needed to do had to be done in the office because that is where the documents were or the computer was. But with the connections we have today, everything is accessible everywhere, if we like it or not.
Rather than managing to perceived outputs such as time in the office, we need to shift to managing to outcomes and value. You’re right that measuring how much time someone is in the office is easier. But it may have zero correlation to the value being delivered. Someone could easily be in the office for 10 hours per day while delivering no real value. Likewise, someone could be in the office for 1–2 hours in a week and deliver significant value to the business or customers.
Watch Your Language
“Sh*t.” — Iron Man
“Language.” — Captain America.
That’s not the language we’re referring to here, though you may want to watch that as well depending on your work environment. What we mean here is watching how you talk about work. It's easy to forget how different it can be for our remote colleagues, especially anyone who is remote full time.
Be sure to be inclusive. It's easy to talk about how great it is to be together in the office, or how great face-to-face communication is. However, that can feel hurtful, especially if someone is remote full time. These kinds of comments are especially difficult if they come from leaders. If someone is remote or part of a remote office, they already feel somewhat isolated. Therefore, comments from leaders that further exclude them only widen the divide. As leaders, especially with remote workers, we need to ensure that everyone understands that we value their work and their contributions regardless of where their desk is located.
Being a remote friendly organization will be a cultural shift. This will probably take some time. But being transparent about it and shifting your mindset will make the transition much smoother for you, your team, and your company.
3. Think Remote First
In recent years there has been a shift in software development to “mobile first.” This has meant that design and development should focus first on making an excellent experience on mobile devices and then take that to the desktop.
The reason for this is twofold: First, it is much harder to get something right on a tiny screen. There is not a lot of real-estate to work with so you have to be very conscious of what you do and what makes it onto the screen. Second, people have shifted to using mobile devices as their primary source. Since we’re no longer tied to desktops for most of the functionality we need, we expect to do everything on our cell phones and tablets. And rightly so.
We need to take the same approach to remote work. We need to think remote first. The reasons are very similar to the thinking with mobile first: First, it is harder to get it right. In-person is easier, so shifting to remote first is a challenge. Second, many people are shifting to this mindset for their own work. Similar to being able to access anything on our mobile devices, the expectation for work is following suit. We should be able to expect the ability for people to be mobile.
Make Every Meeting Remote Friendly
At one company I worked for, I was in the main office and we had a few remote team members. At first, this was challenging since most of us were in the office. We defaulted to focusing on the group in the office. But this didn’t allow for broad participation. So we shifted our focus.
We started by ensuring that every meeting had a dial-in and I started bringing a camera to connect the room and remote folks. As we got comfortable with this format, I realized that getting people into a conference room was unnecessary. We could shift our meetings to be entirely remote for everyone. That meant that team members could stay at their desks if they needed, or work from home without having to worry about meeting schedules for the day.
Make it a regular practice to make meetings remote friendly, and you’ll see a big change in your ability as a team or department.
Get the Tools
A key to making this shift work is ensuring that your groups have the right tools. Today, there is no shortage of excellent tools to use for communication. Slack for chatting. Zoom for online video calls. Microsoft Teams for either of those. A host of other options exist. There is no excuse not to leverage these tools, whether on a small scale or across an enterprise, to allow everyone access to team collaboration.
One of the key benefits of being in a conference room is often the white boarding or brainstorming that can take place. However, I’ve found excellent tools that allow for that same collaboration done across offices or remote employees. My favorite is Lucidchart, which allows many people to edit at the same time. I’ve used it as an online board for writing ideas in real time, and a board for sticky notes that an entire team can contribute to. This has been awesome as we’ve created user story maps, brainstormed ideas, or gone through similar exercises as a product or development team.
Document Discussions & Decisions
One of the biggest changes to remote friendly work is documenting meetings, discussions, and decisions. This is critical because you need to ensure that everyone is aware of decisions being made whether or not they were present. And when teammates are remote, whether full time or just on and off, you need to have good documentation that everyone can refer back to.
I’ve found that this is just good practice. Whenever I’ve gotten away from the habit of documenting discussions, meetings or decisions, it has come back to bite me. Several months ago we were in discussions on team structures. The conversations were all in person and were moving quickly. Unfortunately, we didn’t write much down. So when some questions arose later on, we had nothing to refer back to other than our memories of what we had discussed. Which were an imperfect record. I kicked myself for not writing the decisions we were making as we went. This would have been even more difficult if some of the team had been remote and wouldn’t have been available to talk in the office. Don’t make the mistake I did. Write things down.
4. Ensure the Right Fit
Hire the Right People
Hiring the right people is a key to anything, and that holds true here as well. If you’ve got a team of people that you can’t trust to work remotely or unsupervised, you likely have bigger issues.
So hiring folks who you can trust is critical. Teams should think about that in making hiring decisions, from the managers to the team members. You should think through the questions:
Ideally, a team should be able to function whether or not everyone is in the same place. But even if your ideal is complete co-location, be prepared because not everyone will always be in the office. If you plan around that, especially with having the right people, you’ll be able to continue to deliver quality work as a group, even if the situation isn’t ideal.
Find the Right Balance
We also need to understand that remote work isn’t for everyone, and to be successful we need to properly support teammates who will work remotely or in remote offices.
Jessica Pamdeth a staff engineer for WGU, recalls her time working for IBM when they shifted to remote work for the engineering teams:
“When IBM sent us all to work remote, about half the folks started looking for new jobs right away. Not everyone has a good space in their home for working. Perhaps they have young kids at home every day, or their place is just too small for a dedicated workstation. Maybe they can admit to themselves they don’t have the discipline. Or they just prefer the interaction with coworkers every day.”
Regardless of the reasons, full time remote work may not be for everyone, so it is important to understand that. Everyone seems to have varying degrees at which they can productively work remotely. As a manager, it’s important to understand that and find the right balance for your team and your organization.
5. Set Expectations
Once you’ve created your remote friendly workplace, it’s important to set the right expectations for your team and organization. The level of formality will vary depending on the situation, but it is important for your employees and their development to help them understand how they can progress, especially if they are remote.
In one of my previous roles, one of the most senior members of the organization was a remote employee. And she was a phenomenal employee. But because she was remote, they limited her in moving into a VP role. While she essentially ran the entire department in that capacity, they refused to give her that promotion, which was unfortunate.
It’s important to be clear how far employees will advance and be promoted in remote roles. Will they be excluded from management roles? Should they be? You may not have all the answers to these questions yet, but think through them. If you will exclude remote employees or expect them to move to your main office for big promotions, you may end up losing out on some of your best talent. Is that something you’re willing to do?
How do you expect employees to communicate? This is a broader question and is often overlooked when most employees sit in the same office or in the same time zone. But it gets more difficult as employees stretch across offices and time zones.
Allowing employees to have focus time is critical, especially in knowledge work. So setting the expectation that most communication (except for urgent matters) will be asynchronous may be a great idea. That way everyone can handle communication when it fits their schedule rather than when the Slack notification hits their phone or laptop.
No Second-Class Citizens
When we were setting up the Salt Lake office for Goldman Sachs, many people in New York and London viewed it as a second-tier office. A place where they could send crappy work they didn’t want to do so they could focus on sexier projects. It took some time to get everyone away from that idea, but we eventually did.
If you’re setting up a remote office or remote workers, don’t do it with the view of second-class citizens or a place to send your shit-work. That will be a way to get a lot of disgruntled employees quickly. You want full teammates. It will be better for your team and your company in the long-term. Even if they are less expensive in other locations, that doesn’t mean they are less valuable.
6. Give Teams Autonomy
Once you’ve got the mindset, the tools and the people in place, it’s time, especially as a leader, to give teams autonomy to find their cadence. Not every team functions the same. Humans are complex, and our interactions are complex. Leaders at high levels should allow their teams flexibility to find the right cadence. Allow the leaders within groups and teams to find the right solutions. Let go of some control and let your people find the solutions that work!
For people to do their very best work, it often means they need the right environment, free from distractions, to immerse themselves and perform at their peak. Modern offices are notoriously bad environments for this type of work. They are full of distractions, from meetings to phone calls to quick questions. By focusing on value delivered and allowing employees to work wherever they can deliver that value best, we can continually move in the direction of becoming remote friendly.
For team leads and team members, it is critical to show the value that you’re delivering to your organization. If you will not be measured by the hours you’re in your chair in the office, you need to make it easy to show the actual value you’re providing.
7. Promote Face Time
None of this is to say that face-to-face interactions aren’t important. Humans are social creatures. It’s in our nature. We will not change hundreds of thousands of years of evolution with modern technology and we shouldn’t pretend to. We need time together as a group. So it is important to bring remote people together periodically to create those uniquely human bonds.
This is especially important if most of the team is located in an office with a few remote members. In one of my roles, I was in a remote location while the rest of the team was (largely) in New York. I made a point to travel out there every few months to work in person. Most teams I’ve worked on have had a similar policy, but it’s important to make sure that remote teammates join the team periodically, especially during important events such as product launches or celebrations. This is particularly important for teammates who are the lone remote members of the group, or in the minority. It is easy to feel isolated when you’re the one far from the team, and it is easy to forget how difficult that can be when you’re not the one who is remote.
To make face-to-face time more meaningful, you can maximize the usefulness of your team’s time together by focusing on shared experiences. This means rather than continuing with business as usual, ensure that you’re taking time as a team to build relationships by solving problems together, cooperating on shared goals and maximizing interactions.
8. Make the Effort & Commitment
Ultimately, it comes down to making an effort and commitment. Many people think co-location, especially of development teams, is the only option. I disagree. I’ve seen high-performing teams that are largely remote. And poorly performing teams that are co-located. It comes down to the team and the effort. I wrote about this in another post, Co-Located vs. Remote/Distributed Teams: What Works and Why. While it takes more effort to reduce the social distance of a distributed team, with the right leadership and the right tools, the team can bond and perform just as well as a co-located team.
On teams that are remote or have remote members, it takes an extra effort to keep everyone involved. But that effort becomes second nature with some practice. Calling folks up to chat for a few minutes may seem strange at first, but becomes normal quickly. By changing the mindset of the team, remote work can quickly become a default that is easy to manage and easy to execute.
Becoming remote friendly will be critical for businesses and teams to succeed. But the benefits will be huge. Businesses will access a global talent pool, or at least a far larger talent pool than just the local one. For many companies, this will mean great employees and lower costs.
The benefits to employees will be huge too. As we shift from the mindset of being tied to a particular location to do all our work, we will be much more free to find the time and place that best suits our productivity and passion.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.