Remote working is not just for technology companies, outsourcing or freelancers. Even after Melissa Mayer’s highly publicized 2013 decision to axe remote working at Yahoo!, the 2014 American Community Survey cited that 3.7 million Americans were working remotely, on at least a half-time basis, and there has been a 100% increase in remote workers since 2005. The trends show similar statistics in the UK, where the Office of National Statistics showed that in the first quarter of 2014 over four million Britons were working from home, equaling thirteen percent of the workforce. Still, while the statistics say remote working is on the rise, remote working can feel incredibly out of reach for those still heading into the office each day.
While many articles talk about the benefits of remote working, fewer speak to the particulars of “how to” successfully create a remote working organization. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 37signals, layout a number of the key benefits and pitfalls in their 2013 book, Remote, based on the experience of developing of their remote-based company. A 2015 article by Sean Graber, CEO of Virtuali, for Harvard Business Review does a great job of bringing the specific elements of process and communication into the dialogue. Of course, there are doubters of remote working as well, citing speed, quality, and a need to demonstrate our value, as both Ms. Mayer and Lucy Kellaway from the Financial Times illustrate.
While opinions vary, knowing what you are jumping into can help ease the transition for all involved. When an international relocation occurred for my family, I found myself as the remote employee for a small private philanthropic foundation. A common question posed by colleagues outside of the organization was, “how’s that working?” It isn’t an easily answered question. I worked remote, full-time, in a senior level position, with a seven hour time difference, for just over one year. While the experience worked for me, there are several takeaways that will help when I move into the next remote opportunity and hopefully, for you as well.
1. Communication first, technology second.
With a plethora of solutions to keep teams and organizations connected, there is no issue with being able to stay technologically connected. From project management solutions (Asana, IDoneThis) to document storage (Box, Dropbox) to document creation (Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365) to tele-conference options (Google Hangouts, Skype, WebEx, Conference phone lines) to informal chats (Slack, WhatsApp, and again, Google Hangouts), there are technology solutions that can fit every organizational size and budget.
But remote working is not really about the technology. As many IT departments have learned, a technology solution that doesn’t fit within the organizational culture or that exceeds a user’s willingness or ability shift their process, will render the tool useless, or at least, not implemented to its potential. Making a shift to include one or more remote workers will automatically bring change to an organization, it is important to identify between 1) technology that will continue to encourage a process and 2) when a process will need to change and a new technology will be adopted.
In the case of the first instance, if a telephone will suffice, then skip the fancy tech tools and use the phone. If the overall process of how, to whom, or where you speak to your team will change, as a result of needing a new communication process to foster remote working, then determine the most accessible tool for the job. That still might be the phone.
2. “Four Hours of Intersection”
When reading this advice in Remote, I thought it overly strict. Certainly, one of the opportunities of remote working would be to craft your day, working early in the morning or late at night, should you want to or need to do so? 37signals might agree with that, however they also found that a solid four hours of overlap “office” time is required to enhance team functionality. In my case, I found that I was barely able to squeak in the four hour intersection, and that in cases where I was more physically proximate or when daylight savings time gave me another hour, I did feel more connected overall.
However, the four hours of intersection rationale is still built on employees following their organizational norms, which are based on organizations fitting into societal norms. We work 8am – 5pm because that is how society is structured – that is when there is daylight, when grocery stores, coffee shops and dry cleaners are open. In a recent Raw Data podcast on working in the crowd, the company UpWork, which connects freelancers with projects around the world, was interviewed about data on how freelancers structure their working hours. In most locations, UpWork sees the typical work day progression with project work peaking from the morning until evening. The Philippines, however, bucks this trend by keeping the timeline of the working day flat throughout twenty-four hours of the day. The result = Filipino UpWorkers are working all day long.
How is this possible? Do Filipino freelancers not need sleep? Need a coffee at 2 a.m. and a place to work; the coffee shop is open. Nightlight becomes day life; employees finish their projects at 4 a.m. and go for dinner. UpWork cites that new communities and services are popping up catering to people who work outside of the standard hours, and they are seeing similar circumstances in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Will the future of remote working require a four-hour intersection or will society start to bend its norms?
3. Listening with all of your senses.
There’s a neat activity you can try to mimic the experience of a remote worker. In your next team meeting, tie a blindfold around one person’s eyes. They are the remote worker. Now, have your meeting.
Taking away the in-person nature of communication changes your abilities in using non-verbal communication. We have developed our non-verbal skills over time and often take them for granted. Once a new barrier, eye mask or conference call, is put in the way, we have to adapt to new signals.
While the change in nonverbal communication is stark at first, you start to listen in different ways. You hear the pauses, the breath. You hear the quiver in the voice or in the tension room. You can sense uncertainty or the need to clarify further. Over time, you start seeing patterns in the way people speak and annunciate, who leads and who follows in a meeting, and how emotions present when verbalized or when silent. From these patterns, you construct new sets of non-verbal communication and new understandings of their meaning.
While being remote makes it possible to be wrong about what you sense, the shaking up of interpersonal communication allows you a default option – “just ask”. Rather, in a status-quo office situation, one perfected over the years, there is little incentive to reconstruct how you listen. In many cases, we’d rely on the physical non-verbals even if the conversation required further clarification. In a remote situation, you do not have the luxury of the status quo and therefore, must ask in order to clarify.
4. Get out of the fast lane.
Developing a practice of clarifying and ensuring clear communication takes time. A lot of time. The positive side to remote working is that you can have a productive workforce nearly 24 hours of the day. The downside is that in a remote environment, it is easy to spend the day on your projects and close up shop at your 5 p.m., without remembering to update your teammates who are just waking up. A similar daily experience can happen at the home office, and in a very short time, the team is completely out of sync.
Deciding to include a remote worker or opting for the organization to operate remotely requires processes for communication. These might be technology solutions, but it is the discipline of the team and the individual to use the technology that makes it work. A project management site, like Asana, only works if the whole team is onboard. A chat room Google Hangouts is lonely if only one person is there. A culture that moves too fast or that fails to adopt these practices of communication and reflection only does harm to its morale and it’s productivity. Remote working brings out the truth in the old adage, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
5. No jokes. No snark.
In a perfect world, in the office or in the remote office, we’d be able to create communication processes that ensured our happy mutual existence. Misunderstandings would never happen, clarification would be sought, jokes would be laughed at, and personal stories would be shared. However, utopias are not real places, and adding remote working to equation only ensures that its easier to miss the nuance in workplace interactions.
These nuances, like a didn’t-quite-land joke or a misguided comment, when read via email or overhead on the teleconference line can very easily get out of hand. Again, the upside of remote working offers the ability to simply state, “I don’t get it.” While in a status quo situation we may just let the joke or comment go, as to not make a ruckus or seem boring.
I’ve been on both sides of the line, I’ve thrown snark and received not funny email threads; both are awkward situations and both require courage and time to be addressed. Trust, in any relationship, can erode quickly if not tended to; building up a thoughtful communication process, as part of remote working, might even create more trust than was before.
6. Remote. Refine. Reassess.
People change, organizations change, society changes. Humans are agile and adaptable. The systems we created for the industrial revolution do not need to be the ones that guide our work-life today. (We can even let go of some of the ones from the 1980’s…) When thinking about remote working, as an individual or organization, the most important factors are to know your priorities and to ensure those priorities are shared.
For an organization, remote working can assist with a number of goals – attracting or to keeping talent, facilitating flexible working for employees, saving on costs, or expanding to a new location. Whatever these goals are, just like any other strategic priorities, they need to be explicit at the outset and refined along the way. Ambiguity in remote working situations rarely benefits anyone and isn’t built for the long run.
I think that is why Melissa Meyer’s sweeping decision to remove remote work from Yahoo! seemed so abrupt – what were the goals of remote working in the first place? Were the issues of speed and quality really due to the remote work, or were the organizational goals and priorities changing and new processes would serve them better? Remote working is one tool for organizations to consider for their workforce, and it doesn’t have to be a finite plan, it just needs to be clear in vision and implementation.
The greatest privilege of working remotely was the ability to bring one world – it’s people, thoughts, scenery, challenges – into another world. When the synchronicity is present, the work is improved exponentially. Opportunities that were never imagined, come to be. The transfer of knowledge, from a remote location, brings perspectives that were never had. The pursuit of connecting humans and of bridging human experience for the pursuit of greater understanding is not new; that is why we excitedly read the histories of explorers, missionaries, and diplomats. Now, the everyday office worker, the freelancer, and the stay-at-home mom have their chance. As I now know, being remote only works in this spirit – when the pursuit is to bring us closer.