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23 May 2020

Five Core Ingredients for Awesome Remote Work

COVID-19 has prompted the single largest migration of workers from brick-and-mortar office locations to a remote work-from-home format, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

I should probably back up a bit.

I’ve worked 100% remote for over 12 years as a professional software engineer and IT operations specialist, including manager duties, for teams and organizations of various sizes. I’ve worked full-time and as a contractor, for companies located on both U.S. coasts, with co-workers distributed nationally and abroad. When properly executed, working remote is a healthy, rewarding lifestyle for employees, and a cost-saver and productivity boon for employers. Part of the reason I joined New Context was due to their remote-first culture, with an uncompromising plan to stay that way as we continue to grow.

Consequently, one of the things I find most interesting about COVID-19’s impact on business is how large numbers of companies – some of which previously balked at remote-work policy proposals – are now begrudgingly ordering their employees to work out of their homes. This opportunity is a good thing, a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud.

Effectively transitioning an office-based culture to a fully remote schedule is not achievable overnight, yet social separation policies enacted to fight COVID-19 have thrust companies into that make-or-break reality. There are several required ingredients you should know about in advance, both as a company and an employee. Failure to include any one of them reduces the effectiveness of a dispersed team, which decreases work output and can ultimately lead to the errant conclusion that “remote just doesn’t work for us.” It really can work, I promise, you just gotta watch out for pitfalls!

So whether you are an employee or a manager, these are the absolute must-have five key ingredients that will enable you, your team, and your company to succeed in a fully remote work environment. New Context has lived them since our inception in 2013, and I’ve seen these myself over 12 years across a variety of industries. They apply to you and your situation too, I promise.

1. Set boundaries

Working remote blurs the line for clocking in and out, which has consequences for employees and managers. At home, it’s important that employees establish the expectation that working hours are meant for working, not playing with the kids, running errands, or folding a quick load of laundry. Communicate with spouses, children and roommates that the hours you would be at an office should be respected, with interruption only in case of emergency.

Meanwhile, managers new to remote quickly make a shocking discovery: “I can get a hold of my team any time I want!” Slow your roll. The same rules described above apply inversely for management: respect the employees time when they are away from their desk. Just because they work from home does not mean they are now on-call 24/7.

Once you’ve got boundaries established, it’s easy (and encouraged!) to make exceptions, but starting out it’s critical and sometimes difficult to get those habits in place. I recommend starting with a consistent set working hours, then shift to a flexible schedule as everyone accepts the ground rules.

2. It’s about work output

Poor managers often act like little more than grade school homeroom teachers, taking attendance to ensure that reports are in the chair by eight and remain there until closing time. Weak employees game the system by simply ensuring presence, then slacking off in between.

When you go remote, that crutch goes away. This is one of the biggest benefits for companies and their strongest performers. Without being able to monitor who’s sitting in their chair the longest, managers are forced to evaluate their employees by their output, which is the only thing that matters anyway! Once you start watching the results of people’s effort, it becomes easy to identify who’s truly contributing (or not).

This is true of both employees and managers. Leadership can identify weak management through the clarity or obscurity of their teams’ status and progress. A good manager presents a crystal clear picture of where their team stands, good and bad. Fearing potential negative outcomes for themselves, weak managers provide just enough information to satisfy basic questions; when “it’s like pulling teeth” to get info about a team or project, that’s a red flag.

It’s counter-intuitive, but remote actually makes it easier to evaluate your team and correct under-performance. Let’s walk through an example of how to leverage the “constraint” of not seeing my employees every day.

At New Context, our teams are dispersed not only geographically, but also across projects. Our managers typically work different engagements, completely separate from their reports. They’re not on the same project, let alone the same building! How do we assess performance? I instruct our managers to talk with the employee’s Project Lead, focused on constantly re-assessing one question: “Are you and the client satisfied with the work that [employee] is delivering?” Since no one has anything to go on other than direct input, the remote culture forces us to go right to the source, promoting an active feedback loop between the Project Lead, Manager, and employee to ensure output stays on track. Ironically, when your team is fully remote, there’s no place to hide poor performance.

3. Use a webcam

Interpersonal interaction is one area that office-based setups win out over remote work: it’s simply better, faster, and easier to engage people when you’re in a room together. You can’t fully replicate the experience from your home, but you get a sight closer (pardon the pun) when both parties can see each other.

Webcams solve two critical issues for remote workers: building relationships and ensuring clear communication. Building Relationships

Voice-only and chat interfaces make the other person literally faceless. Without connecting that person visually in our minds, we tend to think about them in an abstract fashion and don’t build relationships the same way we do “in real life” (IRL). Recall initial conversations you had with a client, vendor, or hiring candidate where all communication was conducted via email and phone. Now think about when you finally met the person, or engaged them in a video call. Do you remember the difference it made seeing that person’s face? How did your interaction change from that point forward? That subtle, more “real” feeling you get is what I’m talking about, and it’s critical to building sustainable relationships when you cannot meet over the water cooler. Ensuring clear communication

You’re much less likely to mis-communicate when you can bring visual expression into the mix. How we express ourselves physically is just as important as the words we use. Seeing the person allows us to pick up on all the visual cues that we otherwise miss: hand gestures, posture, and the deep field of facial cues.

Telepresence does not diminish the importance of the work you perform, why would you handicap your efforts at being successful? Get a webcam, and use it on every call. Where possible, companies should provide and reimburse employees for webcam purchases, to ensure use is pervasive.

4. Less email, more chat

The need for strong communications starts with video to supplement face-to-face, and works its way down the stack of available mediums. There’s a clear hierarchy:

  1. In person
  2. Video call
  3. Phone call
  4. Active chat
  5. Email, passive chat

Remote workers need to move up the hierarchy as much as possible, whenever possible. Don’t send an email if you can chat, don’t chat if you can pick up the phone, and so on. The reason is simple: Option #1 isn’t available, so we want to get as close to it as possible, as often as possible.

It’s critical for organizations to facilitate this effort by providing the necessary tools, notably conference software like Zoom, and a chat application like Slack.

5. Establish remote-based team rituals

Every company has things that make them unique, that contribute to the overall sense of belonging. Some community practices simply don’t translate in a remote environment; it’s kinda hard to meet at the bar on Friday afternoons when the team lives on opposite ends of the country (or the planet, for that matter). Physical separation can easily translate to emotional isolation, so the need for these cultural touch points actually increases in a remote setting.

The key here is to adapt and adopt. Adapt existing cultural events to a remote-friendly format; the Friday afternoon drinks can be scheduled and run through a Zoom meeting. The company could even purchase and dropship beverages in advance! If that’s not enough, adopt totally new rituals aimed at remote settings. At New Context we run a daily standup call where everyone is encouraged to show up and briefly state what they’re working on. It’s less about what you say, and more about seeing others, and others seeing you. If you’re looking to dive deeper, our CEO Daniel Riedel wrote about remote rituals in depth.

Conclusion

A fully remote workforce comes with a mountain of benefits for employees and employers alike. I would go so far as to say that advantages of remote work favor the company over the employee. There’s plenty of dialog out there covering the benefits; I recommend the book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson to anyone looking for an accessible authority on the subject.


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