Despite what Yahoo might have you believe, more companies are steering towards remote employment as a growing number of us value flexibility. Remote employment can help companies hire the best talent, regardless of location, and drasticly reduce facilities costs. Even small businesses are going remote, with employees able to start their workdays when their laptops open, rather than spending time on lengthy commutes.
There are, however, unique and considerable challenges to managing a dispersed workforce. Most importantly: culture building in isolation, communication and trust. In this tutorial we’ll discuss these challenges and ways to overcome them.
Technology has played a driving force in the growth of remote working. Online video and instant messaging tools are now as commonplace as they are essential.
At Peakon, we use GoToMeeting Free to loop remote employees into stand up meetings, Podio for workflow management, and Slack for chat. What these tools have in common is that they bring transparency to our communications and processes.
Time differences are another obstacle for constant collaboration, but if managed effectively, they could be used to an advantage. “Follow-the-sun” is the name for a 24 hour software development process, where at the end of the working day in one time zone, say West Coast USA, a project is handed over to another team in a different time zone, say Bangalore.
Hypothetically, this can reduce the overall duration of software development by 67% if spanned across three time zones, and so effective communication of expectations across handovers becomes crucial.
In physical workplaces constant engagement occurs naturally between employees. Even then building employee friendships can be a challenge. But with remote workers spending most of their time physically isolated, naturally it’s a concern that they’ll miss a community feeling.
Tools like Slack – which has enjoyed phenomenal growth recently, particularly in the tech industry – can really make a big difference here. Slack’s different channels for different groups, and fun features like the Giphy integration, bring humour and the chance for people not directly involved in a conversation to feel part of a team. That’s in comparison to email, which is very direct and formal.
Software company, Basecamp (formerly 37signals) – whose founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson quite literally wrote the book on remote working – have 75% of their employees working remotely across the US and Europe. As their team grew, Basecamp introduced a novel 5x12 meeting idea. Every month, five randomly selected employees (plus Jason and David) meet via a Google Hangout to discuss anything and everything for an hour. A transcript of the entire conversation is then relayed to the rest of the company for others to read at their interest.
The random selection of employees is a great way to replicate the serendipitous idea generation that working in the same physical space can promote. Employees also get a chance to share their thoughts with the company’s founders on issues that they may not have felt like voicing by reaching out to them directly.
Levels of trust within an organisation are often the deal-breaker for remote work policies. There are some horror stories out there. For example, earlier this year, a Californian woman sued Intermex, her former employer, who fired her after she deleted a tracking app from her phone. The company used the app to track movements of salespeople. The employee’s line manager bragged that he could tell exactly how fast an employee was driving at a given moment in time, and also admitted that employees were tracked outside of work hours.
This level of monitoring clearly shows a lack of trust – a precursor to autonomy that we consistently see is essential for high employee engagement in any work environment.
The idea of monitoring, however, is perhaps approached in the wrong way. Surely what we all want to monitor is that assigned work is getting done – and most importantly that results are being seen and targets met. That’s opposed to simply knowing where employees are all the time, and that they’re working to set hours.
Again, technology can enable this way of working. From customer service teams using Zendesk, to product development teams using online scrum boards like Trello, these tools make progress on projects and levels of service being provided very clear for everyone involved. The idea that we need to physically see somebody doing the work then seems arbitrary.
Once clear processes are defined and the right tooling is used to support them, the challenges of monitoring subside – enabling you to focus on quality and results. Regardless of the locations your team work in, that’s surely what we’d all prefer!
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