Remote work is more popular than ever, and its popularity only continues to grow. In fact, a recent Gallup survey showed that 43 percent of employed Americans reported that they worked from home at least part of the time. Traditional businesses are becoming way more flexible in allowing their employees to work from home, while more companies are taking a remote-first approach and hiring only remote employees.
So what’s the deal…? Is it really possible to work remotely and work well? Is it possible to successfully manage a remote team?
The answer is a resounding “heck yes!”, but we need to take a closer look at what works and what doesn’t with working remotely, so that your company can get avoid some of the mistteps teams make when exploring the world of remote work.
Why do people like working remotely?
Although telecommuting used to be an excuse to stay at home in your pajamas and watch TV with your laptop open so you could hear when your email dings, it’s now being touted as the future of work. Why?
First of all, all successful remote workers take their job seriously. You’ll never find them working from the couch with the TV on in the background. They’re far more likely to be in an office with a closed door and headphones on. But we digress…
Here are some reasons why people are fanatical about remote work:
- Productivity comes easier – Without the water cooler talk, constant in-person meetings, and other physical disruptions of a traditional office, many people find it easier to focus when working remotely. Juggling illness is also easier when you work from home, while it’s also less likely that a “bug” will go around the office.
- No more commuting! – Everyone gets into work earlier, and can put in a bit of extra time if need be without cutting into their down time. Plus, without the hassle of a commute, employees may actually be able to buy a house somewhere they can afford.
- It’s more sustainable – Fewer office spaces and fewer vehicles make telecommuting is better for the environment.
- No expensive overhead – Remote workers mean you don’t need to pay for office space, utilities, maintenance, desks, etc. You can still offer these perks if you’d like.
- Significantly higher morale – Remote workers consistently report significantly higher morale. How much higher? A 2014 study found that 80% of employees who work remotely expressed a more positive outlook and increased motivation as a result of their telecommuting status.
- Easier to juggle essential non-work commitments – Working remotely makes it easier to attend health appointments and juggle the types of routine home maintenance that might otherwise require employees to burn PTO.
What are the obstacles of working remotely?
Employees working in the same space in front of you and within defined hours help you keep everyone accountable for their productivity. Working remotely takes this visual accountability away. Instead, you need to trust in the discipline and transparency of your employees, and in the working environment they are able to build on their own. Remote working…
- Requires discipline – Some personality types struggle with maintaining the focus needed when working remotely. As an employer, you need to be sensitive about reinforcing productivity and holding your team accountable without making it feel like you are breathing down their necks.
- Tests communication skills – As if office communication weren’t difficult enough, working remotely presents its own unique challenges. Heavier reliance on written communication via email and instant messaging breeds potential misunderstandings, and even video conferencing is not the equivalent of in-person discussion, with all of its physical cues.
- Makes team building a challenge – Sometimes, working remotely can feel isolated or distant, and individuals might feel left out of discussions. Leadership needs to be aware of this and be very proactive in building company culture and reinforcing team building, while also ensuring that work discussions are carried out in a way that is transparent for all necessary team members.
- Requires boundaries for work-life balance – One of the biggest challenges that remote workers face is setting boundaries for work life versus personal life. It’s easy, particularly with technology where it’s at, to always stay connected. This can cause quality of life and mental health to deteriorate. It might be worst with your best workers, who are prone to perfectionism and can easily take their dedication too far.
- Demands focus – Balance is difficult, and even though yes, it is nice to be able to juggle work with some non-work appointments — dipping out for an appointment, or being home when a maintenance person comes over to get some work done on your home — it can be easy to let family and pet interruptions go too far. Necessary chores can become tools for procrastination unless clear boundaries are set.
How can you work remotely and stay effective?
Given the obstacles to working remotely that we just outlined, you need to be proactive about facing them. Fortunately, there are some action items you can follow to keep yourself sharp. As a business leader, it’s critical that you model the behaviors you would like to see from your team. You need to be on top of your remote work load if you want to expect it from your people.
- Set aside a designated work space, if possible. Ideally, this has a door or other physical boundary so you can reinforce a physical boundary of having your own space just for work. If this isn’t possible, try to at least maintain a desk or table that is for work hours only. You are “in office” when you sit here. Tell anyone outside of work who might interrupt you that you are not available when you are sitting in this spot.
- Use communication platforms to set hours. Communicate with yourself and the team using your calendar to show when you’re in the office, as well as what you’re working on then or whom you’re meeting with. Use team messaging platforms to let the team know when you’re working or not. Reward all transparency with flexibility.
- Turn off notifications after hours. At the very minimum, give yourself sleep time plus a couple of hours before and after bed. Otherwise, it’s too easy to never leave work.
- Schedule breaks. Your mental health is critical for your long-term productivity, and it requires active maintenance. You need to make sure you are taking enough time to regularly step away from the screen and clear your head.
How do you hire a remote team?
Hiring remotely is its own challenge, because you lose much of the face-to-face body language cues and related signals that could help inform your decision-making.
- Use testing. Whether you are evaluating their skills using pre-existing assessments or creating a job-specific test to see how they would perform, remotely, on-the-fly without any training, you absolutely should not skip the testing step.
- Pick industry-standard job posting sites. Make sure they have some sort of remote listing option so that candidates are aware that this is a remote job, and be upfront in your job post about this working situation.
- Gauge remote work experience. If someone can claim they already have experience telecommuting, ask them to speak to what they like and dislike about the arrangement. Look for realistic answers. It’s ok if someone finds some aspect of remote work challenging, just be sure to ask them how they cope with it.
- If they don’t have remote work experience, don’t write them off just yet. Ask them about what they anticipate problems would be, and evaluate how realistic their answers are. You might be able to take them on if you are comfortable with mentoring them through the different working style.
- Use video-conferencing during the interview. Don’t surprise candidates with this; be sure to warn them in advance of any pieces that will require they be camera-ready. But making sure to get face time with the candidates will give you a better feeling for who they are, and will restore some of the body language cues that are essential in getting to know someone.
- Be responsive and follow up. Everyone hates not hearing back from jobs to which they applied, but with remote work it’s particularly critical that you remain responsive with all candidates, regardless of whether or not they are good fits. Aim to maintain a good reputation, and again, model the behaviors you want from the people with whom you work.
- Pay attention to how responsive your candidates are. Do they respond quickly, or do you have to chase them down? Is their language pleasant and their wording precise? People put their best foot forward during the interview phase, so this is your best chance to see if they have what it takes; if you’re constantly having to follow up to get a reply, it does not bode well for how they would perform once hired. One of the biggest challenges of remote work is the limited scope of communication, and so you need to make sure you’re working with rock stars.
- Do you like their tone? The messaging – resume, emails, interview responses – that your candidates release will tell what sort of voice they will bring to the team. Will they vibe well? Will they align with company culture? It’s much harder to mold this when working remotely, so be realistic with the cultural challenges you are taking on (if any) with the people you hire. Focus heavily on what they can contribute, and make sure it aligns with where you want your business to go.
- Consider a trial run. Before you commit to working with someone for the long-term, consider having them work on trial tasks or even a trial period of employment. This way, you can make sure both the job and the remote working arrangement are a good fit for both you and the candidate.
How do you manage a remote team?
We know that it can be hard enough to keep yourself productive while working remotely. Managing a team is a whole new level. So what can you do to ensure team success?
- Set clear opportunities for feedback. This is not just about your giving feedback to your team members, this is also so that they can freely communicate to you any issues that they have. If you are not deliberate about creating the time and space to have these discussions, they might slip through the cracks and reduce morale. Name a frequency and time for feedback and adhere to it.
- Stick to meetings. Remote work takes away the chance for people to stop by your office during a quiet moment, and so it’s critical that you adhere to any meetings that are set. This is also a powerful way to reinforce accountability among your team.
- Set aside face-to-face time. Just like during the interview process, you need to make sure you do not lose the chance to directly connect.
- Use digital tools to communicate and stay organized. You need to be able to (1) communicate in real time, (2) access previous communication, (3) collaborate on documents, and manage both (4) projects and (5) individual performance. Depending on the type of work you do, you might have specific needs for security, tracking (e.g. for audits), etc. Pick a blend of tools that works for you, as long as you make sure to hit all five points. Colleagues and industry publications might have some specific recommendations.
- Showcase personality. Give your employees ways to flaunt their individual interests and talents, and create spaces where they can learn about each other. The more they get to know each other as people, the stronger their working relationships can become — directly translating into better teamwork.
- Schedule team face time. Without adding on a ton of meetings to everyone’s plates, give the team a regular chance to bond and go off-topic. This is a great way to demonstrate that your company values its people and doesn’t just view them as work machines. It’s a great way to give everyone a voice as well as a chance to get to know each other. Who knows what you might learn? Your team is likely awesome in ways that you don’t even realize; give everyone a chance to flaunt their cool.
Working remotely can boost your team’s morale and help keep everyone super productive. It does take a little more deliberate action on your part to keep everyone unified in terms of culture and accountability, but if you follow the steps listed above and also use collaborative tools like Hallway, this can quickly become manageable.