Remote teams should be more productive. They benefit from an empowering sense of freedom, and enjoy a healthy work-life balance. They can also feel isolated, left out, and struggle with collaboration and time zones. Yet there are recent, newsworthy examples of companies dragging their remote workforces back to the office - citing productivity and culture issues.
This dichotomy is based on an obvious but crucial factor - communication. A broad and general topic that requires nuance.
Focus on these four areas of communication for remote work success.
Remote Work Role Description(s)
Miika Härkönen was a senior IT manager in Finland. He decided to escape the Finnish winter and work remotely from Spain for six months. After speaking with his boss, the first step was to write an updated version of his job description. This document detailed his responsibilities, which included managing a team of 20, and how he would accomplish each task while being away from the office.
The arrangement was successful, and a company first. Granted, Finland is one of the world’s leaders in flexible work. But this situation occurs often in a less publicized way all over the world. I took the same first step when I arranged a two-month remote work trip overseas several years ago (which was also a company first).
Here’s how this role description write-up addresses company stressors.
Situational Leverage - A remote work contract isn’t about working in pajamas or taking afternoon siestas. Build trust with employers by explaining your situation. It could be based on childcare, family member health or a brutal commute. Don’t single yourself out for special treatment, but show why remote work will improve work abilities and overall quality of life.
Manager Anxiety - Managers who are weary about letting employees work on their own could just be missing details. Presenting a long-form report with production expectations and how your duties will be fulfilled is beneficial.
Logistics - Lastly, and most importantly, a job description explains the operational logistics of a remote work situation. For example:
Explain how your workspace covers all required technology needs.
Who will “drive” recurring meetings if you’re the only remote member.
How interaction on projects will change, for instance changing to a daily check-in instead of weekly meeting (as less interaction will occur during the day).
Remote Work Policy Document
A remote work policy is the ultimate tool for effective enablement. It must be the single source of truth. Typically, a “policy” coincides with “rules.” A remote work document is much more than that. It builds layers of trust for everyone involved. It increases transparency with the hiring process and even attract recruits who are vetting dozens of potential positions.
The must-have components include:
Fairness - First and foremost, a baseline of trust and fairness needs to be established. For teams that are split between remote and in-office workers, it can be an uneven playing field. In-office workers get the benefit of face time, according to University of California, Davis researchers. They found managers were 25% more likely to unconsciously attribute traits like “committed” and “dedicated” to those they see on a daily basis. Remote workers will naturally send trivial emails or engage in “status hacking” if they face this predicament. Establish a level playing field in writing to avoid these issues entirely.
Expectations - There will be overlap with these expectations and the job description write-up. But there should be universal standards for work hours, availability, etc. Expectations go both ways. For instance, if remote workers don’t receive feedback in a timely manner, it hurts their productivity. Set specific guidelines for project management and meetings.
Equipment - The required equipment, tools and general environment should also be documented. Some companies allow employees to be work-anywhere digital nomads with just their laptop and an internet connection. Other jobs require a quiet workstation where they’re available for undisturbed calls throughout the day.
While a role description and remote work policy are long-form and living documents, the next two forms of communication are of an ongoing and daily nature.
First, it’s well past time to acknowledge that there should be no productivity drop off with remote employees. Studies have shown evidence of a productivity boost.
Ctrip, a chinese travel website, analyzed their workforce for 9 months as half of their call center employees worked from home. The remote workers completed 13.5% more calls, the company saved $1,900 per employee. Call center work is a natural fit for work from home situations given the quieter environment with less distraction.
Another case study involving the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO) had the same conclusion. In this study, researchers looked at a Work From Anywhere (WFA) policy where there were no geographical requirements. The WFA workers had a 4.4% productivity increase which represents up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the U.S. economy.
These productivity boosts do not come without challenges. A study of 1,100 employers found 84% of remote workers let a concern drag on for a few days or more, and 47% admitted to letting issues drag on for weeks. Additional issues, such as a lack of trust among coworkers, are detailed in graphic from HBR.
Address these issues with management techniques for today’s age.
Agile check-ins - Co-located teams have the luxury of being able to meet at a moment's notice. This is convenient but in practice can be unnecessary and distracting. Agile project management makes natural sense for remote teams. Put simply this means planning all team tasks for a one or two-week sprint. Use daily check-ins so everyone can report on what they’ve done, what they’re currently working on and any issues they’re facing.
Long-form communication - Chat tools seem vital for remote teams but short form communication can lead to misinterpretation. Make sure there is a two-way stream of longf-orm communication. X-team, an agency of on-demand developers advise remote teams to keep digital journals in Slack. Team members post personal daily happenings, TIL’s (today I learned) and big questions into a channel for low-friction, high-value communication. At the same time, management should share long-form updates with the team as often as possible. This two-way steam of long-form communication is central to DocOps (and our software).
Flexible (but sensible) hours - Most remote companies are concerned about getting things done and not that people are online during business hours. However for growth stage companies spread across different states or countries, it shouldn’t be a hassle to find people. Many remote companies offer flexible shifts but require people to work with some overlap with the headquarters. For instance, a San Francisco company would require remote workers to have 4 hours of overlap between 8 a.m. - 5 p.m (UTC-7).
The final piece of communication for remote work relates to company culture. The isolation that comes along with virtual offices can make it difficult to create a sense of belonging, a strong indicator of employee morale and turnover rate.
Video conferencing - The popularity of video conferencing is growing, and not just for remote teams. A Forbes Insights report polled more than 300 executives and found 97% agree that video conferencing improves the sense of connectedness among remote workers, while more than half said video meetings are increasing among internal teams.
In-person meetings - Scheduling in-person meetings is obvious and an industry standard, but cannot be overstated. It’s easier to brainstorm ideas and bond personally when in close physical proximity.
Communication charter - Establishing norms for communication impacts the morale of remote workers. This includes things like time zone assistance so teams can communicate without worrying about disturbing each other at odd hours. It can establish how to set up time blocks so everyone has dedicated periods of focus during the week. Many large companies with a mostly or all remote workforce set up “pairing calls” using a Slack app for random or strategic pairings where co-workers video chat about anything and everything.
To recap - write a detailed, long-form job description with details on remote work logistics. Create a remote work policy to eliminate confusion and attract top-tier remote talent. Use communication protocols and forward-thinking management techniques to enhance productivity. Don’t forget about occasional in-person meet ups and build company culture by making sure teams are communicating and connecting with each other.
These four communication keys provide the basis for great remote work.