How to Remote Working Actually Work

Getting Ahead of the Curve: How Companies Can Make Remote Working Actually Work

Remote work is here to stay. It is not a trend or Millennial generation Internet fad, and it’s something workers across the generations are embracing.

Buffer, known for having a completely remote team, recently released their 2019 State of Remote Work report, in partnership with Doist, Hubstaff, Remote-How, RemoteYear, Trello, Workfrom, and We Work Remotely, who are either fully remote or support remote work.

Over 2,500 remote workers were interviewed for that report. It illuminates the current state of remote work and what life and work are like for those employed as remote workers – whether full-time or freelancers – or manage a remote team. One of the most powerful statistics from that report is that “99% said they would like to work at least some of the time remotely for the rest of their careers.” Buffer notes that “out of all the data we collected, no response was as powerful as this one.”

Whether early in people’s careers, when they have more experience, or when people are senior and experienced professionals, remote work is a reality and possibility for everyone. And for this, professionals are seeking work from home tools to ensure that they give their best output to their respective organizations. In turn, the companies can keep a tab on the professionals’ activities through some of these tools. So, in a way, it is a win-win situation for both companies and professionals. Professionals and knowledge economy workers want more freedom and flexibility. Companies, especially those in the digital sector, are competing for talent on a global scale, so they can’t safely assume that they’re going to find the skills they need within a thirty-minute to the one-hour commuting radius of an individual office.

Despite many companies taking a proactive and forward-thinking approach, remote work still has a stigma attached to it, and those who work remotely are either seen as second class, less productive citizens when there is an office where other people work, or it’s assumed they’re taking it easy and watching Netflix all day. The reality is far removed from these false assumptions.

Why working from home is not remote work

Working from home is not the same as remote work.

Companies that – more often than not – have staff work in the same office or several offices and facilities across the world – rarely allow large numbers of staff to work remotely. As a direct result of the work they do, some workers are effectively remote, such as field sales teams. However, most employees are expected to work from the same office or facilities for the equivalent of a full or part-time working week, depending on their contract and shift patterns.

In that scenario, every so often, an employee might ask to work from home. Usually, that is in the event of being unwell, but not so unwell that they can’t do some work, or a child or family member is unwell, or they need to stay in for an important delivery (e.g., a sofa) or repairs being done (e.g., a boiler). In that sort of situation, an employee would need to be doing work that can be done with a computer and Internet connection, not something whereby they’re needed on-site to perform tasks.

What we’ve described above is a rarity. It is often something granted only every so often, and this is working from home, not remote work. In comparison, remote work involves a near-permanent setup, such as a home office. There is a sliding scale that companies are recognizing when it comes to remote work:

An in-office team with flexible working policies: This means that staff has the option to work remotely. It isn’t a rare one-off event, and they don’t need to demonstrate a delivery has been arranged or there is a sick family member to look after. Policies and systems – and the technology – should be in place to ensure that team members can be as productive at home as they are in the office.

A teammate moves away and now the team is remote: In this scenario, one or more of the team have moved either to another city or country. But the company didn’t want to let that talent and experience go. Instead, remote policies are created and implemented to support remote working and ensure the remote team member(s) can continue to contribute to the company successfully.

A fully formed remote team: Buffer, Trello, and dozens of other companies – usually in the tech sector – and many of them still considered startups (even though some are turning over millions are approaching ten or more years old) – have completely remote policies and practices in place. Often, completely remote companies don’t even have an office and manage processes, systems, and technology that makes it easy for anyone to work from anywhere and be even more productive wherever they are in the world.

The state of remote: how it has changed

Remote work is more popular and commonplace than ever before. Twenty years ago, the technology was only emerging to make remote work possible; although the attitudes were stuck firmly in an office for a fixed period. Now, technology and attitudes have shifted, resulting in the fact that “Forty-three percent of U.S. workers spend at least some time working remotely at a growing list of remote-friendly workplaces.”

Tens of millions of people worldwide spend some or all of their working hours, whether employed full or part-time or freelancing, and therefore working for several clients, at a distance from those they’re working with.

Matthew Hollingsworth, the Director of Operations at We Work Remotely, said, in relation to the Buffer remote work study, “We see hundreds of thousands of qualified people come to WWR each month looking for remote work and have seen the companies that embrace it leading the way in attracting the best talent.” There are now over 600 companies that embrace a remote-first working policy and are attracting talent from across the world.

Remote work is a trend that continues to grow. It continues to become the norm, not the exception, and we predict this will increase in popularity amongst working professionals and companies around the world. And not just the tech sector: companies looking to attract a higher caliber of talent and reduce operational costs will start to turn to remote working – also known as telecommuting – to compete more effectively against those who’ve already embraced the remote revolution.

Remote work motivations: For employers and employees

  • Increased flexibility: One of the biggest benefits of remote work is flexibility. Don’t imagine for a second that means the flexibility to lounge around watching TV, Netflix, or reading a book. Remote workers work, and many works hard, harder than those in an office. And many do so either following comparable schedules, or the same number of working hours even though they’re in a different timezone. However, flexibility and the ability to create their own hours and schedules are the main advantages of remote working, according to 40% of respondents to the Buffer 2019 State of Remote Work report.

Iwo Szapar, CEO and co-founder at Remote-how, an online platform empowering the growth of remote work through education and community, notes that: “Having a flexible schedule allows employees to juggle between work, hobbies, and time with friends, resulting in a positive work-life balance and also reducing workplace stress.” Recently, the company has launched a new initiative –  Remote Career Advisory – to help remote workers land their first remote jobs. 

  • Improved work/life balance. Working in an office and commuting to that office causes stress for many professionals for whom that is the reality. Even away from the office, constant emails and other notifications can make people rightly feel they aren’t getting enough work/life balance. Working from home or a co-working space is known to reduce stress and improve work/life balance, creating more flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere in the world.
  • Higher productivity. Remote workers are more productive than office-based counterparts. Studies have found that productivity can be up to 20% higher for those who are remote, effectively generating a whole extra day worth of output from remote team members.
  • Lower costs. Companies can save a fortune, either when they go 100% remote or fewer team members work from one or more offices. Renting office space comes with high costs, from the cost of the space itself to utilities, government taxes and rates, security, and other costs. Once enough people are working remotely, an expensive office is no longer a crucial operating expense, and rental footprints, and therefore associated costs, can reduce.
  • Higher employee engagement. Happy, engaged employees are more productive and more likely to stay with the same company for longer. Happy employees are also less likely to take time off sick, more productive, and engaged with the work they’re doing. Remote policies are effective ways to increase engagement, reduce absenteeism and improve outputs.

Despite numerous advantages, we have to acknowledge that remote work is not perfect. There are limitations and pitfalls, and companies have to put in the effort to make it work well. Here are some common limitations and pitfalls to be aware of and, in the next section, how you – as a manager – can counteract them and make managing remote teams a success.

Limitations and pitfalls of remote work

  • Trouble communicating. Different timezones mean that not everyone is necessarily working at the same time. Plus, depending on where your team is, there may be other more fundamental communication challenges to overcome, such as language barriers and cultural norms and understandings. Communication is something that remote teams need to work at every day. In a remote situation, to avoid misunderstandings, it’s generally recommended to over-communicate than stick to brief and short messages and emails.
  • Slacking off. Not everyone is going to be super productive all of the time. There are going to be days when productivity goes down. As a manager, you need to watch out for these and make sure team members deliver what they say when they say, and sticking to regular communication schedules.
  • Always-on-mentality. One of the challenges remote workers face is bridging the trust gap. They often feel as though managers – especially when there are colleagues in an office and are remote – don’t trust that they’re working as hard as office-based colleagues. So in response, remote team members work harder, which can sometimes mean struggling with switch off or dealing with work messages and emails outside of office hours.

According to the Buffer 2019 State of Remote Work report, 22% of remote workers struggle to unplug and switch off outside office hours. Another problem many have, even though most remote work-first companies offer 4-weeks or even unlimited vacation time, is they only take 2-3 weeks at most throughout the year. It is important that remote workers rest well, or they’ll burn out and their productivity (and health) will suffer greatly. Ensure you enforce good rules that will help your teams rest as much as they need.

  • Management issues. Another challenge that remote workers face is management attitude to them. At some companies, management doesn’t value remote workers in the same way as office-based colleagues; they don’t stay in contact with them and become scapegoating for problems and setbacks. In these situations, it’s no surprise when remote colleagues look elsewhere for career opportunities.
  • Poor technology setup and support. Not having the right communication technology and support in place can make it a lot more difficult for remote workers to succeed. Managers need to make sure that collaboration tools, communication platforms, and video conferencing facilities are in place before implementing remote policies.

Although there are other challenges that remote teams face, those are some of the most common and appear time and again in studies on this subject. Now, here are a few ways you can make remote work more effective for everyone.

How to make remote teams work

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveEmbrace the ‘eat-a-frog’ mentality. “Eat a frog” is productivity advice from the nineteenth-century American author, Mark Twain. To “eat a frog” means to tackle your biggest, most unpleasant task first thing. This way, you’ve got the most difficult thing done, and you are going to feel super productive all day, instead of putting off a challenge to another day or time when you are probably going to feel less likely to tackle it.

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveConquer loneliness – incorporate human interactions. Remote work can be lonely work. Especially when working from home. Unless you go out somewhere, whether to a coffee shop, a co-working space, or a library, remote workers can go days without seeing or interacting with another person. To combat this, make time for those human moments and connections, introduce variety into your schedule and spend time chatting with colleagues and co-workers during the day. Don’t limit interactions to email, social networks, and messenger apps. For more tips on how to tackle loneliness when working remotely, check out this article

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveUse project management tools. Without project management tools, remote teams can easily fall victim to mission creep and confusion. Use tools that keep everyone on the same page and make it easier to stay productive.

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectivePut some alert metrics in place. How do you know if someone is struggling or if a project is still on schedule? Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are great for knowing when someone is doing what they should. But putting those the other way round, to watch out for potential failure points and signs of trouble, is a useful way to catch what you would normally spot more easily when everyone is in the same office.

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveKeep up communication. When it comes to remote work, remember to use your words. Try not to read too much into the tone we imagine in an email. Often, if we assume the worst, we’re wrong. Over-communicate: say more than you normally would provide context and meaning – everything that is easier to communicate in person. And keep working at your remote communication. This isn’t something that can be neglected. In many respects, it’s a crucial aspect of remote working.

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveUse effective communication tools. It certainly helps to have the right tools in place. Have a range of formal communication tools (email), project management, instant messenger, and chatting with colleagues (Slack or Telegram) and conference calls, such as Zoom or Skype. Make sure remote team members have a decent internet connection, headphones, and a video camera.

facilitation-skills-to-make-virtual-meetings-effectiveMaster chat and phone communication techniques. Remote working requires more effective communication techniques and etiquette. In this blog, we outline a whole load of ways your team can get better at chat and phone communication techniques.

Remote teams are more productive, more engaged, happier, and prove that they can do some amazing work together. From building multi-million dollar companies to working on and creating technology products that improve lives for millions of people around the world. Remote work is not a fad or trend. It is here to stay, and most likely, there will be even more people working remotely over the next few years.

Remote work requires enhanced communication tools and techniques. Managers need to focus on managing teams a lot more than they would when everyone is in the same office. Managers also need to create the best culture possible to ensure remote workers succeed and feel supported. As ever, we wish you the best of luck implementing remote work policies in your business. 

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Written by
Galina Divakova

Former Head of Marketing at YouTeam, a Y Combinator-backed marketplace for building remote dev teams.

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