As the extent of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic grows, an increasing number of businesses are looking at how to nimbly but effectively transition their teams to remote work.
Twitter, for instance, has issued a statement saying it strongly encourages all of its 5,000 global employees to work from home, and Facebook, Microsoft and Lyft, along with many other tech companies, have all followed suit.
Coronavirus is the forcing function for this current push to move toward working remotely, but it isn’t a new concept – more than two-thirds of the world works away from the office at least once a week, according to a study by IWG. However, for many teams and managers the rise of distributed work still feels new, and in many ways it is – there is no exact playbook for how to do this right.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been working remotely almost exclusively. I have also been fortunate enough to help companies like InVision (one of the largest global distributed workplaces) optimize their 800-person team’s ability to work from anywhere in the world.
Currently, as the Head of People at Lambda School (which already has a fully distributed student population), I’m helping our multi-city workforce, which usually includes both on-site and remote work, to perfect the art of distributed work.
I have been intrigued by remote work for some time. In the late 90s, while completing my graduate studies, I was part of a team that used real-time video to teach a group of students in an isolated community in British Columbia, Canada. It is remarkable to me how far we have progressed with our toolset since then. However, many of the same questions and challenges remain: how do we create true interpersonal connections when our interactions are mediated by technology? How do we collaborate and create together when not in the same room?
Here’s how to transition your business smoothly but rapidly to a distributed team model:
At Lambda School our classes are taught through the video conferencing platform Zoom, and students use Slack to interact with each other as well as their instructors and career coaches. Our employees also do their day-to-day work using these platforms.
To be successful, distributed teams need robust, reliable tools which enable genuine human connection and seamless collaboration. It helps to commit to a single tool or platform for all teams so there is no friction or confusion on which set of technologies are the “go-to” interactive platforms.
Beyond software, investing in and supporting smart hardware is important. We offer a home office stipend for all employees, as do many remote-friendly or remote-first organizations. There is a substantial difference in the quality between erratic wifi and high-bandwidth internet and between high-fidelity webcams and microphones versus lesser options. While cutting costs may be tempting as you transition your entire team to remote, investing in your technology at this time means also investing in your team’s productivity.
The business case for building distributed teams continues to grow as technology evolves. Among many potential benefits, it allows for new strategies for hiring for diversity. Remote-friendly organizations can access talent beyond specific geographic boundaries, and can avoid the cost of relocating an employee (and many times, their family) to a specific country or city.
Remote work has been shown to increase productivity, and particularly employee engagement. A recent study by Stanford University showed that working from home decreased employee attrition by 50 percent, and that telecommuters take fewer sick days, and shorter breaks – not to mention the nearly $2,000 per employee that the participating companies saved on office space.
The flexibility of remote work also affords employees more family time, options for personal travel that are not typically available for on-site work, and less time spent commuting. Particularly in cities where traffic is a problem, remote work can save employees multiple hours of travel time each day.
While the benefits are increasingly clear, remote work environments can be challenging, especially for employees that value in-person office environments. In addition to publicizing the benefits, it is also important to help people learn the basics of effective remote work. There is still much to be done to “perfect” the remote work environment and remote worker experience, but here are a few “dos and don'ts” to consider:
Do simplify the number of software applications that workers must use to communicate. Remote work won’t work when employees aren’t collectively using the same platforms.
Do orient, onboard, and train for how to be an effective remote worker and remote supervisor. Although many of the strategies for being a solid remote worker are the same as work in general, remote work requires greater communication ability, strong listening and empathy skills, and clear direction and delegation. Remote work simply raises the bar in general for strong operations and clear communication.
Don’t imagine that everyone is going to love or embrace remote work. The lack of human interaction can be isolating and lonely. It can be very hard to adjust to for people that have not worked remote in past jobs. If you are part of a company that is moving to remote as part of a COVID-19 mitigation strategy, remember that you will need to support your employees. Remote-focused companies attract people that choose remote work intentionally. In contrast, this week many companies have transitioned employees to remote who would not otherwise choose it for themselves.
Do communicate expectations and standards about remote work. Not all remote companies approach remote the same way. Some companies “ban” multitasking on video calls, some encourage it. What is important is to be clear on your workplace’s standards.
Do err on the side of over-communication. It is exceptionally important to be as clear as possible in all communications when you’re not in the same room –- from top down and bottom up. A lot of misunderstanding can creep into the cracks between Slack messages and formal Zoom calls. Calibrate, check in, and ask to talk in real-time when something feels stuck.
The irony of remote work is that it is both more distant and more personal. It is important to recognize that we are working from our homes in many cases. Our at-work and not-at-work selves become less distinct. Our co-workers have access to our families, our pets, and our decor choices! When I onboarded new employees at InVision, one of the largest all-remote employers in the world, I would say, “On Day One, we are all in each other’s homes. How often does that happen in an onsite workplace?”
The best advice on communication is to reach through the screen to really connect on human levels with your co-workers. You are already in your homes. Be yourself.
Recently during a Lambda School All Hands I shared a tour of my “home office” – this is a new feature we’ve added to our all-company monthly meeting – having people pick up their laptops and share where they work and talk a bit about the spaces or items that have meaning to them. It might sound like a small change but it has a powerful impact on creating more personal bonds between colleagues and presenting as more than just faces on the screen. We have to work harder at being human and present with and for each other when we are two-dimensional collections of pixels.
While caution surrounding Coronavirus has pushed more companies to go remote, distributed work has long been a trend as technology continues to evolve. In the coming years, more and more companies will choose to become fully remote – and yours may be one of them. Embracing the power of remote work now will benefit your workforce both now and as you grow into the future.
For more tips on building a successful remote workforce, check out my conversation with GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij on the future of work: