Many companies both large and small refuse to implement remote working programs mainly due to the challenges bosses perceive in managing remote workers and teams. Other companies, most notably Bank of America, Yahoo, Google, Aetna, and Reddit, have tried remote work programs and abandoned them.
Granted, initiating a remote working program is a big step, irrespective of company size. If you implement the program poorly it can saddle your organization with a host of problems.
Yet, remote work is becoming increasingly commonplace, especially with startups. Remotive.io started tracking startups offering remote work in 2016. At that time, a little more than 200 were identified. By mid-2018 the number of startups offering remote positions had tripled to more than 600.
What is it about remote working that provokes such different responses in organizations and their employees?
Numerous research studies indicate improved employee satisfaction, reduced turnover, and increased productivity as benefits of a remote working program. Yet, Marissa Meyer, when asked why she curtailed Yahoo’s remote working program, stated that company studies showed no difference in productivity between in-office and remote employees. In addition, she went on to discuss the decreases in employee collaboration that resulted in reduced innovation and creativity.
Other company CEOs (Aetna, Reddit, and IBM) have also mentioned concern over the trade-off between better productivity and less collaboration. At first glance, it seems “reasonable” that these large organizations might step away from a remote working program. However, the U.S. Regional
Commands, responsible for governing U.S. military activities worldwide, manages to complete its mission on a regular basis with 8,000 global remote employees.
Further, not one of these large employers has seen an uptick in creativity or innovation since they brought their employees back into the office.
Smaller organizations have also discontinued their remote work programs.
“Our experiment in letting people work from home on Fridays backfired,” said Richard Laermer, the CEO of RLM Public Relations, an NYC-based firm that has 11 employees. “The things people did on their ‘free’ time astounded me.”
Remote employees seem to appreciate their ability to work “away” from the company offices. However, they indicate a different set of concerns, which range from feelings of isolation or depression to concerns about being “invisible” to management to worries that coworkers and bosses think that they are “on vacation” instead of working.
If the primary challenge is not the organizational size or employee disconnectedness, what is it?
A research report produced by Flex Strategy Group suggests that issues lay in several areas — from employee and manager training to work policies to remote work as a strategy instead of an employee perk to tools that enable remote operations.3
In addition to research, it is instructive to examine how several organizations of varying sizes have experienced great success with their remote work programs. How have they succeeded where others have encountered so many difficulties?
After a search on Google for articles about successful management of remote employees, you will find similarities between research and practice, including countless discussions regarding:
- Crafting remote work policies
- Designing your processes to align with remote working
- Selecting candidates who have the “right” soft skills for remote work
- Choosing appropriate tools to enable conversations, meetings, collaboration, and such
- Developing an appropriate management style
- While it is true that the suggestions listed above are extremely necessary for successful management
of remote workers, there is more to consider about working remotely!
Craft Remote Work Policies
Most managers and human resources (HR) departments when deliberating over remote work policies think about who provides equipment (computers, telephones, etc.) or structuring “core” hours.
However, rarely are the following issues mentioned, or even specified, in company policies for remote employees. Still, the concerns listed below, if not addressed, can mean failure for a remote working program.
Network and data security are typically handled by an organization’s IT department for office workers.
Who ensures that remote workers are following good security practices?
Does IT have VPN software for remote employees to use?
Does the company manual specify how and when the VPN software is to be used?
Who is to be allowed in a remote employee’s physical workspace at home?
Does your organization need to protect customer or client information such that the employee’s workspace must be separate with a locked door?
Physical Safety and Insurance
If you have employees working in multiple states, is your HR department clear about each state’s insurance requirements? Some states require those general liability policies include remote or home offices.
If your employee is injured while working at home or if another employee meeting with your home-based employee is injured, many states view those injuries as work-related and subject to workers’ compensation. Is there a safety checklist that prospective remote employees must complete and file with HR?
Use of unlicensed software can result in massive fines for organizations. As a result, many IT departments monitor the computers on a business’s network to ensure that no unlicensed software exists on the organization’s computers and servers.
However, what about a remote worker’s computer? What if a remote employee has unlicensed software for personal use on a company computer or simply the computer she uses for work? Is the organization liable for the unlicensed use?
Very possibly it is! Make certain that remote employees sign an agreement indicating that they will not use unlicensed software, either for business or personal purposes, on a computer that is also used for work tasks.
What provisions are in place for repairing or replacing damaged equipment? Further, who, the company or the remote employee, pays for the repairs/replacement?
Equipment damage can also be an insurance issue. Does your organization’s general liability insurance have an equipment rider that covers remote work? Do your remote employees have homeowner’s or renter’s coverage that includes the equipment at home?
Design Your Processes to Accommodate Remote Work
Most organizations design business processes with the inherent assumption that all employees are coming to the office on a regular daily basis. What happens when that changes and only part of the business’s employees is in an office?
Processes, the formal ones as well as the informal ones, need to change so that they reflect the new reality of the organization. For example, data sharing and security processes could require realignment due to new VPN software or a newly implemented cloud-based file management system.
The informal meeting processes will likely need adjustments to accommodate new communications or conferencing tools.
Select Candidates with Emotional Intelligence
Hiring candidates who are self-directed and self-reliant is good advice. The difficulty is that not all self- directed and self-reliant people are good at working remotely. The Internet is full of blog posts from remote workers discussing how to combat the feelings of isolation and depression that can surface after several months of working remotely.
This kind of work environment requires a mindset and resourcefulness that is unique. A successful remote worker has emotional intelligence — knows how to take the initiative in connecting with people and surround himself with a community.
When evaluating an employee or applicant for a remote position make certain that all these skills are present.
- Emotional intelligence
- Eagerness to connect with others
- Community building
Choose Appropriate Tools
As with the advice on selecting good candidates, you will find that many companies with remote working programs have the same or similar tools.
- Team Communications — Skype, Slack, and Workplace by Facebook appear to be the tools of choice for companies with remote employees.
- Individual and Small Team Meetings (<40 people) — Google Hangouts, Join.me, and Zoom work well providing both audio and video capabilities. In addition, Zoom and Join.me have recording functionality.
- Project Management —Asana, Jira, and Trello are the tools of choice for remote teams that need to
- File Management — Dropbox, Google Drive, and Spideroak Share provide cloud-based file sharing for small companies to large enterprises.
Your Management Style
The final challenge to managing remote employees well involves you making changes. Yes, you might need to move out of your comfort zone, but the rewards for doing so are worth it.
Managers who are resistant to remote work think that if an employee is not in his office (or cubicle) at her desk, work is not happening. However, if that same manager evaluates performance based upon deliverables and results instead of “office presence” task completion becomes a non-issue.
Many organizations with large percentages (>30%) of remote workers function as project-based entities for this reason. By having agreed upon deliverables, milestones, and deadlines, remote work becomes highly transparent and manageable.
Remember the “management by walking around” approach discussed in so many management seminars? With a phone call or video conferencing it can work well for remote employees!
An executive who was interviewed for this article commented that he makes a habit of calling his managers every couple of weeks, not necessarily to discuss business topics but simply to hear what is on their minds.
Do nonbusiness-related discussions occur these calls? Sometimes they do and the nonessential conversations appear to benefit the company in terms of his managers’ commitment to the organization. He also asks his managers to do the same with their direct reports. Using this approach, the CEO has increased employee engagement and reduced his company’s turnover rate.
Wrapping It Up
Regardless of the decisions made by IBM, Google, Aetna, and others, remote work is an increasing reality throughout the world. Many workforce experts believe that the current global talent shortage is driving this shift.
To be successful, this growing workplace trend demands that organizations and their managers embrace change with employee policies, business processes, candidate and tool selections, along with adjustments to management styles. As with any new organizational initiative, change can occur over time with careful deliberation that ensures all the checks and balances are in place.