With so many people working from home, we need a remote working best practice. After all, there’s only so much a company can do by making it up as it goes along.
Fortunately, there are plenty of successful businesses that operate remotely and who have plenty of advice to share. Many are tech such as Trello, Basecamp and Automattic. But don’t assume that tech equals geeky or nerdy, these companies have the experience and know-how to teach us how to work remotely so that it is productive, successful and enjoyable.
7 Steps of Remote Working Best Practice
I’ve worked remotely for many years, as well as with teams across different time zones. Based on my own experience and research, remote working best practice comes down to seven things:
- Avoid replicating the office environment
- Acknowledge the domestic environment
- Have a sense of ‘time integrity’
- Invest in the right IT equipment
- Practice ‘adapted communication’
- Become asynchronously productive
- Remember the wellness of others.
Prior to Covid-19 up to 44% of the world’s organisations didn’t allow remote working. Now over 80% have some experience of it. No wonder governments are trying to establish some kind of best practice as a way of easing their economies out of lockdown.
Remote working best practice breaks down into three distinct areas. The first is mindset, your willingness to think and work differently. The second is communication, how well you use the communication tools at your disposal. The final one is technology, making sure that you have the right tech to enable your to operate efficiently, wherever that might be.
1. Avoid replicating the office environment
There are plenty of execs saying how well their business has adapted to remote working. That is mainly from their point of view, not necessarily those they employ. Whatever the situation, humans are pretty good at adapting to new situations if they have to. However, over a long period of time, running a business or team with the same old office routines is not sustainable.
This is where the change of mindset comes in. Don’t try to run and manage meetings with the same frequency and approach as in the office. Hopping from one meeting to the next so that you are constantly talking to people is the obvious example.
Working from home has different ebbs and flow, so if you are a manager avoid making everyone work to your own timescales. Remote working best practice requires you to look at time differently to allow colleagues the chance to find ways of working that are suitable to their domestic environment.
One of the biggest challenges is manager insecurity. Managers find it unnerving when colleagues cannot be seen or heard. They start to question their own validity by increasing the number of emails and phone calls. Actions that only lead to stressed and resentful co-workers.
The best way to avoid office replication is to have a far better understanding of how much time colleagues need to do their work, the team dynamics and what you can do to help them to become more productive.
2. Acknowledge the domestic environment
Working at home during a pandemic and having to home school the children is not remote working. It’s working as best as you can in a crisis.
Going forward, as an employer or manager, you will need to be much more mindful and accommodating of a colleague’s domestic environment. Not just in terms of childcare and the implications of this but whether a partner or housemates work from home. Some of these implications may be minor, others might be quite profound and will require a radical re-appraisal.
Remember there is nothing to say that remote working has to take place in the home. Plenty of remote work takes place in local cafes, museums or parks. It is about the quality of the work that is delivered not necessarily where it is done.
3. Have a sense of ‘time integrity’
This is another of the mindset issues at the heart of remote working. As mentioned above, managers are frequently guilty of imposing their own timeline onto the tasks of others.
The reality is that every job is different. Some roles require silence and a couple of hours of concentration to get a task done. Meetings and constant interruptions are very bad news for such workers. It’s one of the reasons why those who need to get a job done either go into the office early or end up staying late. Such workers are what the investor Paul Graham refers to as ‘Makers‘ in his article ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.’
‘Managers’ in contrast operate in shorter time blocks of 30 to 60 minutes, blocks that pepper their diary to indicate they are ‘busy’. Often the more blocked out their calendar, the ‘busier’ they are. However, as we know busy does not always mean productive.
There are also what I call the ‘Reactors’ these are the colleagues who work in short burst of 15 to 30 minutes. They are the ones who are constantly reacting to tasks, often as as a result of an email, which in reality is their never-ending ‘to-do list’.
Whether you are a Manager, Maker or Reactor, you need others to respect the time needed to complete your task. The more someone is interrupted either by email, instant message or phone, the longer it takes them.
It sounds obvious but we are increasingly bad at interrupting others and allowing ourselves to be interrupted.
4. Invest in the right IT Equipment
This is simple. If you are going to have a remote workforce you have to ensure they have a decent computer, excellent WiFi and access to the relevant documents.
Remote workers need to have confidence in the tools they use as well as all the ancillary things that go with remote working. Having the right table, chair and headphones are essential if this is to become a sustainable way of working.
From one of my own surveys, poor WiFi and the inability to get hold of key documents is a recurring frustration. This means giving remote workers the resources to purchase high-speed internet and that IT provides cyber-secure access to the documents needed.
There are obviously cost and security implication but such is the economic reality of remote working. These are not going to disappear, so the sooner they are acknowledged the better.
5. Practice ‘adapted communication’
Adapted Communication is when you adapt the way you communicate to suit the reason for the communication and the person you are going to engage with. It means you make a conscious decision as to how you are going to use email, chat, audio or video as well as the corresponding channel.
Most of the time we jump from one channel to another without a second thought, However, in a remote working context it can be quite important not to do this, otherwise you are just replicating office based habits.
There is always far too much email flying around. You consciously reduce this by knowing what kind of message is appropriate for email as opposed to chat.
Longer, more detailed and specific emails are more useful than a flurry of short, stream of conscious ones. You ensure that everyone on the team improves their email writing skills, so that emails are clear and concise.
As the main bulk of your communication is via email, you invest in knowing how to do it well. You determine when the tone of voice is informal or formal as well as how to address colleagues.
The goal here is to make email a productive communication tool as opposed to a disruptive one.
Whether you use WhatsApp, Skype or Slack, chat is an essential tool for distributed teams. It reduces the need for long-form types of communication and can be used synchronously and asynchronously.
Informal, short-form messaging is required. This allows for real-time communication when people are remotely working alongside each-other. It is also a relaxed way for team members to pick-up pieces of company or project news on other channels in their own time.
We massively under value audio. Whether it is a phone call or an audio conference call, we concentrate better when we are listening. Especially, if we can train ourselves not be distracted by email when listening.
Audio meetings work best when the participants are not on mute. This ensures that everyone is on an equal footing and that a select few cannot hide.
If members of your team have a decent headset and microphone, you automatically reduce any extraneous noise which is the main reason for being on mute.
There has been a huge spike in video calls as a result of Covid-19. However, this is not good news for remote working best practice. Just because you can see someone doesn’t mean that you have to.
It’s very draining being on a video call. You are inviting someone into a personal space whom you would not normally. More significantly it is a strain to process the body language, facial expression and tone of voice of the speaker. Not to mention all the other faces on the screen.
When you speak, it can sometimes feel as if 100 eyes are on you, which can be very disconcerting for younger members of the team.
If you are jumping from video meeting to video meeting throughout the day, this kind of communication is unsustainable. It very quickly leads to ‘Zoom fatigue‘, especially if you carry on doing the same thing with family and friends in the evening.
Remote working best practice is to treat video as a scarce resource. Use it on one-to-one calls when both parties know each-other, for when you have something tricky to discuss or when you just want an informal team meeting.
6. Become Asynchronously Productive
This is the 4th Level of The 5 Levels of Remote Working. It is not something that companies new to remote working automatically achieve.
When you are asynchronously productive you are not replicating an office environment for your remote workers. This is because you have a better sense of time integrity and you take advantage of either personal work preferences, domestic circumstance or different time zones.
You are applying adapted communication because this is the best way to ensure they are not disrupted by over-communication. This is what really damages productivity.
To reach this level is not just about adapting to new ways of working, it’s also about developing a mindset to allow it to happen.
7. Remember the wellness of others
When working in a pandemic the mental wellness of colleagues has added significance. It is an enforced way of working and so one that comes with multiple anxieties.
In normal times, everyone’s wellness still needs to be recognised. Just because someone prefers to work remotely doesn’t mean they are not social and don’t enjoy the company of their colleagues. The team video call, office get togethers and regular 1:1s are essential.
As they have no commute, remote workers tend to take less exercise and be more over-weight than office workers. Therefore, physical as well as mental wellness is a consideration.
As remote working matures, all this inevitably becomes an HR issue but for the present it is one for managers and leaders to be mindful of. Sadly, anecdotal evidence suggests that managers during Covid-19 are not giving enough time and thought to the wellness of those who they work with.
Why? Possibly because they are struggling with how to make sense of this new way of working themselves and trying too hard to get everyone to work to their own agenda.
Remote Working Best Practice Summary
This is just the start. When Jes Staley, Chief Executive of Barclays says, “The notion of putting 7,000 in a building may be a thing of the past.” it is not unreasonable to assume that our way of working is set for a seismic shift. The plates have already made an irrevocable move.
For large corporates the logistical and organisational implications are massive. Smaller organisations have the advantage in that they can be more agile, however they will still need to have the answers to these kind of questions.
- How much office space do we really need?
- Who does and does not need to be in the office?
- For what and why do we need an office?
- To what extent does remote working improve our productivity?
- How does remote working impact on sales and revenue?
Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about the importance of giving employees a sense of mastery, autonomy and purpose in order to have a motivated and satisfied workforce. Maybe, in some bizarre and tragic way, this could be one of the long-term benefits of our accelerated Covid-19 remote working experience.
Remote Working: Advice & Training
Establishing a remote working best practice requires thought, planning and training. Together with my associate, Jeremy Blain, we offer a range of remote working services and courses.
These cover executive coaching and mentoring, remote working communication audits and virtual classes to develop skills and ability.
Some pre-Covid-19 insights from The Harvard Business Review. Still relevant.
Useful tips and approaches from Creately, providers of online tools and templates.
With Zoom becoming the de facto web conferencing tool, guidance on to use it alongside a project management tool like Trello.