The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many companies to move significant proportions of their staff to remote working.
For many managers and employees, the last few weeks has been the first time in their careers that they have worked from home, or had to manage remote employees. Given the difficulties that many have faced during this process, many have vowed that it will also be the last.
There are a few key reasons for that. I’ve helped many companies successfully transition to sustainable remote working environments, and they generally come to the process with a number of misconceptions. The biggest of these is that remote working is just like “normal” working, but done off-site. This is not the case. Remote working requires different tools, and different managerial approaches than standard environments. As such, these transitions require careful planning.
I realise that this last point might seem rather optimistic, given the situation that many companies find themselves in. Many companies have been forced to “crash transition” to remote working practices, and haven’t had time to put in place the tools, systems, and managerial structures required to manage this effectively.
Though many of these same companies had planned to move to remote working at some point in the distant future, and although close to a quarter of the U.S. workforce already works from home, the pace of the current crisis has forced remote work transitions to be greatly accelerated.
Still, the companies that have been the most successful in transitioning to a remote work culture share a few key approaches, whether they are doing this during a pandemic or not. They have thought about how the crisis, and the move to remote work, can benefit their business – via influencer marketing, newsjacking, and an renewed focus on using video in SEO – rather than seeing the pandemic as merely a test of survival.
They have also, more importantly, sought to build a sustainable remote work culture; instead of seeing remote work as a short-term response to a pandemic, they have taken the time to invest in the tools and processes that will make this sustainable in the long run.
In this article, we’ll look at three key elements in successfully transitioning to a remote work culture: technical tools, communication strategies, and adaptability.
Tools and Systems
First, let’s return to my point above. There is a common misconception about remote work: that it is identical to normal “work”, just done “remotely”. In reality, the managerial approaches required to successfully run a remote work team are fundamentally different from “traditional” environments. All of these rest, in turn, on companies investing in technical tools that will allow their staff to work effectively off-site.
You should also ensure that you don’t confuse “remote workers” with freelancers. As inbound marketing expert Kevin Payne points out in a recent article, “many businesses misclassify remote workers as freelancers because they assume they’re the same.” The consequences of not understanding this crucial difference can be severe, as seen in the Dynamex Operations West Inc vs. Superior Court case.
There are three key tools that companies must have in place before any transition to remote work:
- The first, and most obvious, is a sufficiently adaptable workplace collaboration and communication system, which we will return to shortly.
- The second, less obvious, are tools for managing finances and payments. These are often forgotten about in rushed transitions to remote work, where it is expected that managers will take control of all financial processes “for the time being”. This is a bad approach, because it limits the autonomy of your remote workers, and also tends to burden high-level managers with total fiscal control and responsibility.
- The third set of tools are those related to cybersecurity for remote workers. Managers should recognize that any remote work environment is inherently less secure than in-house systems, and that cybersecurity tools like firewalls and virtual private networks (VPNs) will need to be adopted during the transaction to ensure that company data is kept safe.
These tools are not sufficient, in themselves, to ensure an effective remote work environment, but they do form the basis of one. “You have to be fearless when it comes to technology,” says Dominique Ennis Sierra, director of operations at Georgia Tech. “You may be using a platform that’s not your preference, but you still need to get your message across succinctly and clearly to your audience.”
Nevertheless, many companies don’t take the time to get them in place before requiring remote work, which has led to a widespread feeling that remote managers are out of touch with the needs of remote workers.
Most remote work transitions succeed or fail based on the way in which they facilitate communication between their employees. That’s why a suitable workplace collaboration app is so critical to any transition process, and why you should carefully choose one that suits your needs. There are plenty available, and many sites carry comparisons of them.
The key when using a collaboration and communication platform, says Cat Graham, managing partner of cheers partners, is to keep it personal. “Embrace personalized remote working. Your team is used to seeing each other every day, having casual conversations and live meetings,” she says. “Many will miss that level of interaction. Encourage video meetings as the new norm to maintain social connections. I recommend virtual coffees, happy hours and culture team meetings to make it feel more connected.”
More generally, when transitioning to a remote work culture, you need to think about your communications in three key ways:
- First, at the most fundamental level, you should recognize that remote work can take a severe personal, emotional toll on your employees. Sometimes, this is due to miscommunication between employees, because interpersonal challenges can easily emerge among remote coworkers. In other cases, even the most extraverted employees can suffer from isolation if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote work environment. For managers, this means that you should schedule regular opportunities to connect with all employees.
- Secondly, effective internal communication is necessary to ensure ongoing, sustainable productivity in remote teams. There are plenty of research-based steps that managers can take to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees, but one element of this stands out: the disseminate of information. Research has found that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers translates to a lower productivity, and is an acute problem in remote teams. Many managers underestimate the value of everyday chats in sharing information, and so you should also schedule regular, informal team meetings to replicate this.
- Third, you should also provide your remote employees with the ability to contact customers. This is the most difficult part of remote work transition processes for many managers who are used to handling all customer communication through a centralized comms team, and who worry about handing over responsibility for this to individual employees. Research shows, however, that these fears are not well-justified, and that trying to handle customer communications centrally in remote teams leads to huge duplications of effort. You should therefore give your remote employees training, and then access to all of your customer-facing marketing tools: email outreach software, social media tools, and anything else that interfaces with customer data.
Ideally, remote staff will be provided with training in your communication systems before transitioning to remote work. This should include the basic functionality of these systems, but also more complex issues such as etiquette and brand style.
In a crash transition of the type that many companies are now being forced to implement, there may not be time for this, but it should still be done at the earliest possible opportunity.
Agility and Responsibility
The two principles above can be seen as failure points during your transition to a remote work environment, but it’s also worth recognizing that such environments can also come with significant benefits for companies. The primary advantage – beyond potential cost savings in the rent of office space – is agility. A remote workforce, if managed correctly, can more easily respond to rapidly changing conditions than an in-house staffing model.
Achieving agility with remote workers, however, requires a careful balancing act between autonomy and oversight. Remote employees thrive when given well-defined, large projects to complete on their own: examples of this include in-house website development and managing email outreach marketing. As Heather Doshay, VP of People at Webflow argues, leaders should eliminate micromanagement in this type of situation. “Start with trust,” she says. “Leaders should eliminate micromanaging policies and replace them with support and kindness.”
On the other hand, managers should recognize that leadership is more important with remote teams than their in-house equivalents. Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion shows that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.
The best approach for most managers, therefore, is to return to your business development plan, and to re-delegate the tasks involved in it. Remote workers should be given greater oversight of – and greater responsibility for – individual projects.
This will help to mitigate some of the communication difficulties involved with remote work, and will also ensure that staff are more engaged with the projects they are working on because there will be a greater level of “ownership” over them. It will also, critically, mitigate some of the cybersecurity risks of remote work: one of the primary lessons to be drawn from recent data breaches is that the fragmentation of project data is a major security risk.
The Bottom Line
If undertaken correctly, a careful transition to remote work can have a dramatic effect on your company’s profitability, and therefore it’s ongoing sustainability.
By moving to a remote team, you are not only removing one of the primary capital costs of running a business – rent of office space – but you can also improve the flexibility and agility of your company. As Paul Blanchard, Chairman and Founder of Right Angles, puts it, “If you’re running a company with clients all over the world, then being desk-free is a great way to stay mobile, responsive and in touch with clients. It’s liberating.”
Don’t make the mistake I’ve seen plenty of other companies make, though, and assume that remote working is going to be much cheaper than working in-house. Or at least not immediately. Often, the up-front cost of collaboration tools can dwarf savings made in office rent, at least for a few years. Instead, think of the value of remote work as improving flexibility and agility, rather than reducing costs.
I also understand, of course, that during the current time of crisis many companies will simply not have the time to get all of the tools and processes required for successful remote working in place. Nevertheless, it is important that the steps above be taken at the earliest possible opportunity, in order to ensure that you can turn a short-term crisis into a long-term benefit.