Thanks to telecom technologies, many employees have been able to work from home for some time. However, now, due to COVID-19, many more employees must work from home if their jobs allow it. In her comprehensive manual, Lisette Sutherland, a remote working entrepreneur, details the ins and outs of telecommuting. Writing with Kirsten Janene-Nelson, Sutherland outlines the many benefits and some common pitfalls of remote work for companies, virtual team leaders, and home-based employees.
- Many employees now can easily work from home.
- Enabling employees to work remotely is becoming a basic management practice.
- Going remote requires robust online communication, effective file storage, and a viable collaboration plan.
- Telecommuting firms must boost remote workers’ morale and hold effective online meetings.
- Some firms fear that going remote will impair productivity, but it does not.
- Go remote little-by-little. If something doesn’t work, reverse your steps and try something else.
- For telecommuting to succeed, remote workers need the right technology, tools, and software.
- Working remotely can make workers and their managers better at their jobs – and can make them better people, too.
Many employees now can easily work from home.
Today, thanks to advances in the information- and file-sharing capabilities of the internet, many workers can do their jobs from remote locations. They often can set their schedules and work when it best suits them.
“Everything is in the cloud. I’m as effective from home or when I’m traveling abroad as I would be if I was in the office.” (Personify sales director Nick Timmons)
Companies increasingly permit flexible work arrangements, including remote work. In 1995, only 9% of employees worked remotely; by 2015, 37% did so. In 2016, 43% of employees in the United States worked remotely at least occasionally. Companies that fail to offer to telecommute may find it increasingly difficult to recruit new staff members and to retain their best employees.
Enabling employees to work remotely is becoming a basic management practice.
Companies offer telecommuting to achieve multiple advantages:
- “Stay competitive – retain and attract talent”: For many employees, working remotely is an essential – even non-negotiable – condition of employment. Some companies can’t find the expert talent they want in their immediate area, so they must hire remote workers. In 2013, Indianapolis-based Formstack, a data management firm, went to an “office optional” arrangement for all new hires. By 2018, only 35 of Formstack’s 80 employees lived in or near Indianapolis.
- “Grow and shrink the company”: With project-based, remote workers, companies can easily increase or reduce the size of their workforce based on business trends and other factors. Software developer Teamed, for example, sets up virtual teams of remote workers from around the world for specific software projects and then releases them when the projects conclude.
- “Reduce costs, increase profits”: Cost saving is the primary reason companies are “going remote.” Organizations can save substantially by reducing overhead through telecommuting; the average firm saves $10,000 annually for each full-time telework employee. Employers can also save on salaries. For example, a California firm can pay a programmer in Hanoi much less than it pays a programmer in San Francisco.
Going remote requires robust online communication, effective file storage, and a viable collaboration plan.
An efficient telecommuting operation requires easy and quick online communication; an accessible, shared location for file storage; and a workable system for easy collaborati0n among remote employees. Executives and employees must share a vision about telecommuting, and everyone needs access to the same basic information about the details of the process.
“Managing a remote workforce isn’t terribly hard as long as your rapport with your remote employees is strong.” (Fog Creek Software vice president Allie Schwartz)
Numerous tools enable active collaboration with remote workers. Consider the example of software developers who successfully interacted remotely for many years to create award-winning software products. Advanced tools that help remote workers feel close to one another include group chat, video conferencing, and virtual office, and telepresence software.
When they have an opportunity, employees should make the most of their face-to-face webcam time with managers and colleagues, so they get to know the people with whom they work at a distance. This is particularly relevant for team members in different cities or countries. International teams must coordinate communication across time zones. Some remote teams handle this by organizing on a north-to-south basis instead of an east-to-west basis. On some teams, members work in shifts so some are busy during normal hours and others work during “off hours.”
Some workers believe they must be colocated – that is, in the same office space – to be effective. But as Bill Krebs, the founder of Agile Dimensions, explains, “People think they want to be colocated. What they want is high-bandwidth communication.”
Telecommuting firms must boost remote workers’ morale and hold effective online meetings.
Expect resentment – and eventual trouble – if you micromanage remote workers. You provoke resistance when you demonstrate that you don’t trust your distant workers and monitor everything they do.
“Thank-you notes, short sweet messages and birthday acknowledgments are much more relevant and important when you are all remote.” (Trade Conductor CEO Soulaima Gourani)
Managers should compliment remote employees who do good work, and companies should express appreciation to virtual team members. For example, some firms deliver snack boxes to remote workers in recognition of work well done. Other companies provide gym memberships or house cleaning services or organize Yammer groups like book clubs, cooking groups, and pet photo sharing.
To run error-free online meetings, you and your remote workers need robust, stable internet connections and high-quality technical equipment, especially video-conferencing gear and noise-canceling headsets to eliminate background noise. When you hold virtual meetings, record them for workers who can’t participate. Make sure those in attendance can comment without interrupting the speaker. For video meetings, moderators can use virtual meeting cue cards that read, for example, “You’re on mute” or “Slow down” or “You’re frozen” to ease problems. Group chat or instant messaging works well for audio meetings.
Some firms fear that going remote will impair productivity, but it does not.
Telecommuting raises concerns for many leaders who are unfamiliar with it. One such worry is productivity. Managers can’t see if remote workers are doing their work except by evaluating how well they meet their objectives. But remote teams are often more productive than office-based teams because they must meet quantifiable metrics.
Some companies use monitoring software and devices that log every action the remote employee takes. This kills trust. Instead, managers should focus on results. They will know quickly enough if remote employees don’t achieve their goals.
“A lot of what we’re looking at is not new. It’s just that technologies make working from anywhere possible for a lot more people.” (Virtual not Distant director Pilar Orti)
Telecommuting means that companies must update their security protocols. American Express, JPMorgan Chase, The Hartford, ADP, UnitedHealth Group, and Wells Fargo all made the transition to greater security. Most companies’ routine approaches to data security will cover their remote teams. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 92% of managers with remote employees report no data security problems.
Go remote little-by-little. If something doesn’t work, reverse your steps and try something else.
Companies must make the transition carefully. Monitor and evaluate each step. Scrum, a part of the agile project methodology, offers a worthwhile model to follow when your company embraces telecommuting.
“Try things in little chunks so that there’s limited risk and an opportunity to change quickly if things don’t work.” (Amino Payments senior vice president Jeremy Stanton)
Scrum is iterative, in that it involves small, measurable milestones that build on one another. A scrum planning team meets after every milestone, reviews progress, and decides to endorse the approach, adjust it, or try something different.
For telecommuting to succeed, remote workers need the right technology, tools, and software.
Technical barriers to communication are vanishing quickly. Companies must ensure that telecommuting employees have the tools, apps, software, and hardware they need, including an effective computer, fast internet, headphones, webcam, and reliable video conferencing tools.
“The key to making a success of remote working is finding your optimal combination of skill set, tool set and mind-set.”
For maximum efficiency, remote workers and teams rely on “crystal-clear, high-bandwidth communication.” Each worker needs to know how his or her telecom tools work. New remote tools, technology, software, and high-tech gadgets appear constantly, so while this list of options isn’t definitive, it does offer some proven alternatives:
- Brainstorming and planning: Using a Web Whiteboard allows for quick and easy online collaboration. Dropbox Paper provides a remote workspace that facilitates creation and coordination. MeetingSphere One helps remote teams arrive at group outcomes during conference calls.
- Decision-making: Ideaflip helps remote teams refine and shape their ideas. Loomio encourages smart discussions among remote teams and helps them make intelligent decisions. Yabbu enables fluid discussions among remote workers.
- Document editing: Draft, a leading version-control s0ftware, lets one remote worker or another make changes to a master document, but the changes don’t become part of the final document without approval. Google Docs enables remote workers to group-edit a shared document.
- Group chat: Front is an inbox remote workers can share. The most popular remote-communication tools are Slack and Skype. Twist helps remote workers stay on topic during online conversations.
- Video conferencing: Amazon Chime improves audio and video quality for online meetings. Catch creates video messages that disappear after 24 hours. Through Google Chrome, Loom lets workers share computer screens with others on their virtual team.
- Online meetings: Instant Agenda lets remote workers create agendas, track action items, record decisions, and poll attendees. Lucid Meetings helps remote teams schedule times, send calendar reminders, agree on an agenda, log action items, and gather user feedback.
- Password management: Dashlane and Last Pass can manage all your passwords. Zoho Vault is an online password manager for teams.
- Virtual assistants: Moneypenny meet the needs of “any time, any place” remote workers. VirtualEmployee and Zirtual are popular virtual-assistant programs.
- Feedback: Officevibe enables candid remote team feedback. Team Canvas helps remote work teams resolve disagreements.
- Virtual office: Pukkateam lets virtual team members observe each other’s online status. Sococo creates online avatars for remote workers that all can see. The software offers a gathering place for chatting.
- Handy gadgets: Chatlight is for video chatting. Rocketbook is a “magical” pen-and-paper notebook with digital connectivity that furthers remote worker communication. Sidecar lets workers attach tablets to laptops to function as additional monitors.
Working remotely can make workers and their managers better at their jobs – and can make them better people, too.
Being a remote worker means you must learn a new style of communicating and become more adept at sharing. Participating in a virtual team will call on you to learn about other people and to become more attentive to their needs. You must learn to bond with your colleagues across distances and in new ways.
“A lot of tools will help you collaborate, but they won’t necessarily help you get to know each other personally. We’ve gone high-tech, but we also need to go high-touch and develop empathy for each other.” (PlayPrelude CEO Howard B. Esbin)
For managers, supervising remote workers requires being willing to trust them. As you learn to do that, you’ll improve as a manager, and you and your team members can grow together to become better people.
About the Authors
Lisette Sutherland is the director of Collaboration Superpowers and the co-founder of Virtual Team Talk, an online community of 500 virtual team enthusiasts. Freelance editor Kirsten Janene-Nelson is a consultant with more than 25 years of experience in book publishing.