The gradual, almost reluctant shift to remote and distributed work for many organizations, accelerated exponentially in early 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. With announcements from companies like Twitter that their employees can work at home forever, the trend is unlikely to slow down.
The reality is that many knowledge workers and employers were thrust into a new reality almost overnight, unexpectedly, without the training or skills to succeed. Yet, remote work isn’t new. Many of us have been doing it in one way or another for quite some time. In the last five years, I managed and worked with teams on two continents in radically different time zones. My day started early with the Europeans and ended late with the Australians.
Long before the current crisis, many leaders were able to grow and nurture remote workforces, realizing the benefits years ahead of competitors. The challenges for managers are many but not insurmountable: company culture, employee wellbeing, group productivity. However, if not executed deliberately and mindfully, with clear policies and strategic vision, many of the benefits of a distributed workforce are not likely to be realized. In this post, I’ll discuss some best practices for moving beyond remote work and distributed teams, to scaling a hybrid remote workforce post-coronavirus.
What is hybrid remote work?
When most of us discuss remote work and distributed workforces, we tend to focus on the organization. It’s how we describe our employees’ physical location and our policies and procedures to manage remote workforces. Hybrid remote work focuses on the individual, and from there, we determine how we enable them to do their job successfully. We consider the tools to do the job, to the technology infrastructure to deliver optimal productivity.
This is the first post in a series that will evolve the idea of hybrid remote work and how technology plays a part in the transformation of the workforce.
1. A positive work culture requires overcommunication
When the majority of your team shared an office, social interactions occurred naturally. These interactions helped shape your workplace culture. It is well established that corporate culture is a core part of organizational success. Consider this: according to the Gallup, workers who are disengaged have a 37% higher rate of absenteeism, and they’re likely to make 60% more mistakes. The costs of sub-optimal culture are high.
“All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good—and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful.”
― Laszlo Bock, Work Rules!
Maintaining a positive workplace is difficult enough when everyone is in the same building. It’s even more difficult with a distributed workforce. What I’ve learned is that it is (almost) impossible to overcommunicate with colleagues working in distributed locations. I learned this from a contractor engaged to build a website back in 2015. These guys were pros. They’d check-in the most innocuous things: grabbing a coffee, lunch, minor progress updates, saying hello for the sake of saying hello.
Overly controlling managers tend to demand these things because they don’t trust their people. The opposite was true of our web developers. They simply did what any of us would do with colleagues in an office. Regular, random, communication about minuscule things that help the team see that we’re making progress to our common goal.
For example, I speak with ZAG’s sales director multiple times a day, and our CEO at least once a day. The business development team at a scheduled time each day, and then many times each day via our collaboration tool Microsoft Teams.
We talk business specifics and generalities, painting bedroom walls, weekend plans, and closing deals. We use chat, video, phone. We do so regularly, and I’m yet to have anyone accuse me of overcommunicating.
On behalf of my colleagues, we encourage you to overcommunicate.
2. Change your management mentality to better match a hybrid remote workforce
To successfully manage a remote workforce, embrace the remote culture. Although many of us are adapting to the “new normal,” we all know it isn’t “normal.”
Managing a remote workforce requires a different management mentality. You have to trust your people genuinely. Laszlo Bock, who I quoted earlier in this post, writes:
“Work is far less meaningful and pleasant than it needs to be because well-intentioned leaders don’t believe, on a primal level, that people are good. Organizations build immense bureaucracies to control their people. These control structures are an admission that people can’t be trusted. Or at best, they suggest that one’s baser nature can be controlled and channeled by some enlightened figure with the wisdom to know what is best.”
This approach is not a path to success.
Many managers who have worked only with onsite employees tend to micromanage to compensate for the lack of person-to-person contact. It will seem counterintuitive, but the right path is to back off. Instead, work on building trust. Even more counterintuitively, build trust with regular check-ins. Not on the minutia of their work, instead of on the minutia of their wellbeing. Trust your team to do the work they did in your building equally well in theirs. But don’t assume that they’re doing well when their world is suddenly upside-down.
This brings me to an important point: if you trust your people and give them the tools to be successful, does it matter where they do their job? If your sales and account managers can sell skiing down a mountain, does it matter? If your engineers can manage your IT systems remotely, does it matter whether they’re in an office doing it?
What matters is that your team has the flexibility to work in a way that delivers optimal productivity. It’s not binary either, between skiing or sitting in a cubicle, and that’s the point. As a marketer, I place a lot of value on face-to-face interaction. That fact is that many tasks are challenging to solve when the team is not together in the same room. Video doesn’t solve everything. Hybrid work is about providing in and out-of-office flexibility with the technology and technical support so that for team delivers results for your business.
3. Give employees a secure place to collaborate
Five years ago, Zoom was becoming a metaphorical Silicon Valley rocket ship. Founded in 2011, the video communication solution would upend remote work. It made video comms accessible and easy to use, unlike competitors at the time. Understand though that video chats are not collaboration, and collaboration is the key to successfully distributed workforces. I know, I learned the hard way.
I’ve found only two solutions that deliver genuine remote workforce collaboration for enterprises while providing a single “pane of glass” into my workday. For me, the answer is Microsoft Teams. I have access to chat (which is quickly replacing email in many cases), workgroups, my calendar, calling, filesharing, and document collaboration—all in one application that I rarely need to leave to get my job done.
Think about this: according to a study by Igloo, 43% of employees don’t share documents because they don’t find the process of sharing easy to use. For those that do share, roughly 25% are using unsecure platforms to share confidential information. That’s more than a little scary, and should give your risk and compliance teams, or candidly the entire C-suite, nightmares.
It’s not enough to give employees a way to securely access all of the resources they need, including project information, reports, raw data, and more. The hard part, solved by Teams, is to ensure that no matter where information is located, it can be easily accessed by employees and shared securely with colleagues. This usually involves a secure cloud-based project management system, allowing employees to share important data and will include everything to track their progress.
As a longtime Zoom and Slack user, I moved on and now reply on Teams’ as my work hub. By combining video calls, chat, and calendar, I’m able to add files, to-dos, lists, planning, and task management within the single application.
4. Pick the right collaboration tools, and don’t believe the hype
Picking the right collaborative tools is critical to your team’s success. In the previous section, I mentioned solutions like Slack, Zoom, and Teams.
According to Zoom’s S1 filing, in 2019 they invested $185 million in sales and marketing. In 2020 they were caught misstating user counts, with Reuters noting that they “put its daily users at 300 million people when the figure instead referred to the number of meeting participants.” Even at 3 persons per call, 100 million daily users is an impressive number, and they deserve congratulations. But all of us deserve better. Don’t believe the hype!
I spend the majority of my workday inside Teams, which is a remarkable achievement. Your mileage may vary, make your own inquiries. I’m passionate about the future of work, productivity, and the automation of workflows, and I intend to write more about the future of work and workflows in this series.
5. Managers need to learn how to delegate to a hybrid remote workforce
Take some time to think about how you want your company to look in the future.
Will you maintain the same team structure before everyone worked in the same space? Will you retain the same leadership, line-of-business managers, or team leads? This is an opportunity to update some of your traditional management habits.
Although there is a great deal of suffering caused by COVID-19, and the subsequent shutdown of the global economy—and I do not want to diminish the impact of these things—2020 looks like being a reset year.
Trust your people, think differently, and think ahead. Reset your expectation of your colleagues, and you will find shining stars who didn’t quite fit in a traditional office environment. It’s in days like these that leaders are born.
Scaling is not only possible, it’s achievable today
The path to productive, scaled, hybrid remote workforces accelerated about a decade in the first quarter of 2020. Give your team the right collaboration solutions. Trust them with the permissions they need to do their job successfully. Secure your systems. Set clear expectations. Overcommunicate with regular check-ins, balance this with trust, and you’re on your way to scaling a hybrid remote workforce.