The realities of remote working
Last updated on April 16th, 2020
Remote working has been around since communications have been available to the roaming and remote worker, in general terms. It’s been pushed and pulled by small, medium and large-sized enterprises. It’s been claimed as the future of working and also criticised as the destroyer of efficiency and culture. But there’s one important question that has to be asked:
Why do the claims about remote working vary so much?
It’s quite simple, there are so many variables. You cannot simply implement remote working and claim success. It doesn’t work for every individual, every work-type, or every operation. Can it work for them all? Well in theory – no. Can it work for a business in general if implemented correctly – generally yes. It can, however, be a lot of work to deliver results on the bottom line. If you aren’t working for results on the bottom-line then what’s the point? That should be the primary focus, a strategic focus that requires top-level support.
Marissa Mayer of Yahoo famously declared the end of remote working a few years ago, stating they needed to improve the “speed and quality” and benefit from the “decisions and insights that come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” That’s rather broad brush, but taking into account the size and complexity of the business it’s difficult to really measure the decision.
There is no doubt that technology now allows the worker to access IT systems in exactly the same manner as if they were in the office, generally without exception. They also have all the communications at their fingertips, such as the same telephone extension, video conferencing, instant messaging and internal social media platforms. Is that enough though?
It’s not enough to just have someone available to work remotely. You need to ensure that the culture and the business operations and processes support that model. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s really not easy. By nature, we are social animals and work collectively to accomplish tasks, so actually, it’s against our nature. Does that mean it can’t work? No. It’s just not as simple as pushing out technology and saying ‘go ahead and be productive’.
What factors make it work?
Typically the main elements to focus on are technology, personality, communication, organisation and culture. I’ve worked with hundreds of companies as well as running on my own, so I know it’s not easy to get it right. In reality, it’s impossible to make it work across the board, however, with the analysis you can understand what will and what will not work. I can, however, tell you one thing – it does not work in all environments. So, let’s look at the core elements I’ve seen. Do remember that I’m talking in general terms here.
Technology is easy. Don’t spend time worrying about this side of things in terms of your remote working. Any IT department or firm should be able to enable your staff to work in the same manner that they do in the office, without hindrance, without effort and without huge costs. The technologies are robust, secure and proven – the sums will stack up if the business case does. There are however new systems and technologies that will enhance remote working, such as private social networking, but they are only applicable when the strategic thinking has been done. Don’t focus on the technology, focus on your business requirements first. Any decisions led by technology will not deliver anywhere near the impact compared to a strategic decision made by a clear business case.
Some people work best in a team or around other people, some work better alone, and some work best in a mix. Those who work best in a mix are typically those who have a mix of work, i.e. when planning or managing projects they are better thinking alone. However when working on delivery, actually working in the team (which many do) they are best being in the office as this supports their planning, management and their delivery. These characters will often need some flexibility and giving them the option of flexible and remote working could certainly deliver positive results for your business.
You also get those who work best alone. You’ll often find that lawyers, developers, and project managers often work very well whilst away from the distractions of the office, or simply because at times their personality or working style suits it. They’ll typically adapt very well to total remote working or with the odd day in the office per week or per month.
Some people are social animals and need an office environment to work productively as they thrive when working with people. If you put them at home or in a serviced office alone you could quite easily find productivity loss or total loss of that employee.
Always think of the people and the teams when planning your strategy around remote working. This will save you both money and HR headaches.
General communications from an IT systems perspective should not be an issue, nor should the general communication systems, i.e. telephone, instant messaging, etc. The issue comes more on the personal level, i.e. meetings, team chat, etc. There are a plethora of solutions to enhance these areas, but they require planning and consideration. If you don’t have face to face communication with a team then you can miss visual clues, which can lead to unnecessary issues.
You will find on a simple level, take a key employee into a different room in a key meeting and let them communicate via email and telephone platforms without the face-to-face things fall apart, or at least they are not as effective as if they were in the room. You need to think about how these issues will impact productivity and team-working. Again, it varies from person to person, role to role, business to business. Getting the environment right is critical.
Face to face video conferencing is the next best medium for communications. It’s pretty straightforward to chat and collaborate via a screen with systems such as Microsoft Lync. You do obviously miss some of the dynamics, but there are some telepresence systems at the top end of the market which are impressive. Obviously, the price points vary hugely, so mapping technologies to their correct applications is crucial.
The frequency of communications is also key when managing or working in a remote working environment. It’s essential to hold regular meetings to keep the teams operating as a team. It’s too easy over time for people to drift into a virtual cave. When they get to this place it’s hard to get them out of it and this can damage productivity. You also risk them becoming disjointed from the business and risk them moving on.
Managing and operating in a remote working environment can be like herding cats at times. You can just feel disconnected and frustrated, you can’t just grab everyone needed and stroll into a meeting room, grab a working lunch, etc. Calendars become king and can also become full of noise if you are not careful. You can get people disconnecting, rather than connecting as you don’t get some of the natural corrections that occur between a team located in the same office.
Technology helps with some of the organising and holding together of teams but only if it’s mapped correctly to the operations effectively. It’s also crucial that the company’s policies and processes are clearly documented, understood and accessible. Typically IT systems will assist in the organisation of teams, such as the standard Microsoft Office suite and Microsoft SharePoint. Again, the key is to design and configure these systems correctly to ensure they enable teams. All information needs to be simple and fast to view, edit and collaborate on. It’s all about giving the teams deep vision and a central anchor point to their day to day operations. If they all work from a single pane it’s much easier to ensure that they are aligned and effective.
As we all know, culture is critical to the success of modern businesses, but it is even more important when managing and working with remote workers and teams. It needs deeper planning and carefully nurturing to really work. We are social animals at heart, so forming bonds with others and loyalty to the firm is essential.
Many firms bring their people together regularly or at least once a year to ensure that bonds are built and teams aligned. With the best will in the world, you can’t get the best teams without them ever touching-the-flesh. Sure, you can build trust from a capability perspective without meeting physically, but the bonding and softer side of relationships, the part that will give a team an edge needs that investment.
It’s also possible to enhance the culture by creating virtual social environments. Many businesses are using Yammer to fulfil this requirement. In essence, it’s a private social network for businesses. You can have employees post in forums, chat, upload photos, just like Facebook, except it’s focused on the working environment. These tools really do enhance and develop a culture, not just for the remote working teams.
Aside from technology, regular team and one-to-one calls or video conferences can help. They should be scheduled in though. If they aren’t, communications, relationships and productivity can drop off. They shouldn’t be just focused on work though. You should also facilitate discussions around people’s personal lives to build bonds. It will feel a little awkward at first but over time the team will get to know each other.
If you really think and plan your remote working strategy and operations it can work just as well, or arguably better than an ‘everyone in the office’ scenario. However, it really does need the thought, beyond simply implementing technology for remote access. As you can see there are so many factors to consider, not giving them due time will give you little or no gain, perhaps even causing your firm damage. If you do it right you will certainly grow a better business with happier employees, whilst increasing productivity and reducing costs. The potentials are too big to ignore, and we are operating in a new age. Technology has advanced beyond recognition from the days of dialling in to pick up email or even using the trusty (slow) VPN.
You probably already have remote working in some sense. Is it really delivering to its full potential? Could it be more effective? Could it improve your culture?
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