Remote working is on the rise for a number of reasons and has been for a while. Today it has become quite common that some companies are shutting down offices (or never opening any in the first place) and relying entirely or almost entirely on remote working.
While there’s no doubt that remote working can be very successful and is enabling whole new forms of organization, there are undoubtedly aspects that may be new to traditional, co-located companies, which they will need to consider.
During our recent conference call with John Eckman, CEO at 10up - which is one such company - the discussion included several hurdles associated with remote working on an organizational wide scale. Here are a couple of John’s and our members most important points on remote working.
Why remote work?
Some research suggests that remote workers are more productive, but there are a number of aspects to take into consideration here. First of all: more productive than what? If you have an office environment with a lot of interruptions and noise, the fix might not be remote working, but a remedy to those interruptions in the office.
According to Eckman, productivity itself isn’t really a solid rationale for remote working. Neither is cost reduction, as this is fairly short sighted and neglects the fact that there will be other investments required to truly make a distributed team work (legal setups in different locations, setting up meetings, as well as team building across countries which we will get into later).
Instead, distributed working, as Eckman prefers to call it (as remote implies that there is a center from which people are remote) is a strategy for talent acquisition and retention. Instead of being limited to potential employees who are within a 45 minute commute of the cities in which you chose to place offices, you can recruit talented individuals from anywhere in the world.
As Matt Mullenweg from Automattic (another fully distributed company) and others have said:
“Talent is evenly distributed over the globe, but opportunity is not.”
Hiring in a distributed fashion lets you access that global talent pool.
Of course, despite the many benefits, remote working might not be right for you and your company (or may not be right for everyone in your company).
Things to consider before deciding on a distributed work model
Yes, when a large organization decides to let some employees work out of their homes for a couple of days per week, they might very well be more productive during those hours. On the given day, they can steer clear of the often stressful commute. Most importantly, they are free from colleagues popping in every half hour or so with just one more thing like some sort of real life Detective Columbo.
But a distributed work model, where the majority of employees are working distributed is something completely different. Do companies need some in person time in order to have in-depth extensive meetings or occasional encounters? At 10up they have in depth, extensive meetings and encounters with infrequently seen colleagues – they just happen via Zoom or Slack.
Some managers might argue, that having people coming into an office is also an easy way to get accountability in the way that colleagues can actually go over and talk to that person face to face, when that marathon email correspondence ended up in dismay. Eckman has in fact experienced just the opposite – that people who are afraid to or reluctant to force accountability in person are more apt to do so over a zoom call. The “manager who is afraid of difficult conversations” is a familiar part of in many colocated companies.
On the flip side, employees who are well liked in an office and spend a lot of time cultivating those relationships may actually be not very productive or good at their jobs – something they can mask when they are in the office but gets harder to hide when you are distributed because their actual contributions become clearer
Eckman stresses that distributed working works best for more senior professionals, who are self-motivated, have a strong work discipline, and are used to facing problems without clear explicit direction. And he makes a convincing point that on Slack he has 100+ experts available in an instant, where in most offices you only have a handful of colleagues at any given time.
Sitting at home can make it easier to hide the fact that you are stuck on a problem, which you might see in younger professionals with greater feelings of insecurity about their own abilities, or in older professionals who have a tendency to think they should be able to figure it out on their own.
Going silent when facing a problem, is a clear danger sign that the culture around distributed work isn’t up to scratch, or that the individual going silent may not be a good fit for a distributed organization, unless they can learn to speak up and reach out. And digital burnout, which we recently published a guide on how to avoid, is also a risk that has to be acknowledged, as distributed working doesn’t offer the same given structure as going into the office (unless one cultivates clear discipline around working hours).
Culture is just as important for distributed work
The human being doesn’t go away just because he or she is situated somewhere else. And those human issues of culture and collaboration, must be prioritized to a similar degree or perhaps even more than in a traditional central working environment.
It’s important to create those interpersonal relationships we all know are crucial to our work. A simple step is to make sure that we are using video conferencing whenever possible. As one participant said during our conference call:
- I like the idea of forcing people to do calls on video.
But video itself isn’t enough. Cultivating the culture is also about transparency, which means that our work should always be made available to colleagues. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire process of collaboration should be openly shared, but the results of each meeting etc. should be made widely available in the company.
For all this to happen, people have to feel that they are actually part of a team with other human beings (and not just email-addresses that could potentially belong to a very annoying new form of AI).
Which leads us to the simple conclusion that there is no way around some periodic face-to-face time for sparring, sharing, and even complaining. Team building exercises where we meet each other as human beings will according to Eckman, almost always be well worth the investment in the long haul. At 10up, that means an annual “All Hands Summit” where the team gets together for one week in the same location to do knowledge sharing, celebrate successes, and build teams.
As one person said in the discussion on Remote working:
- We see a lot of people who move to the cloud, and then they want to be instantly able to work distributed or remote. It’s nice to hear that it’s possible, but to me it seems that the culture part of it is the biggest challenge.
Learn more about the future of work
If you are working with culture, collaboration and change, you could consider joining our Culture & Change peer groups or Future Workplace peer groups. Both groups talk about how to make remote working work.
There’s also the international Boye Aarhus 19 conference in November, where experienced professionals meet in Denmark to connect and learn.