The Top 10 remote work best practices

By Harry Menear
With remote work set to remain long after the pandemic has passed, here are our Top 10 best practices (for companies and employees) when working remotely

A year after the world went into some form of lockdown or another, there are very few places where things are completely “back to normal”. All around the world, enterprises continue to orchestrate large portions of their workforces remotely. Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic (the company behind WordPress, a fully remote-native company for more than 15 years) even believes that, “…90% of all the companies that are going to be changing the course of the world are going to function (in distributed teams). They will evolve to be distributed first, or they’ll be replaced by those that are.”

This worldwide, involuntary experiment with working from home is likely to have a transformative effect on the modern office - even when the pandemic has passed - and some have suggested that, by 2030, many of us won’t be coming into the office at all. With that in mind, we’ve pulled together research, data and insights from companies like Deloitte, McKinsey, RingCentral and We Work Remotely, as well as from our own experiences this year (I’m writing this in my pyjamas at two in the afternoon and I’ve never been happier or more productive) to bring you our Top 10 best practices (for companies and their employees) when working from home. 

10: Be Smart About Tracking Productivity...

A lot of the resistance to remote working in the past has come from managers who (in addition to being frightened that people might realise they aren’t as indispensable as they claim) worry that, unless employees are at their desks for nine hours a day, under their watchful eye, there’s no way to ensure that they’re being productive. 

Hailley Griffis, head of public relations at Buffer (a remote native company) says, “I’d be curious about how Fortune 500 companies are currently tracking productivity. Many companies do so simply by the number of hours that someone is sitting at their desk, which isn’t necessarily representative of what they are accomplishing. If companies have metrics they can track over time that relate to an employee’s productivity as well as the company’s success then they should be able to do that remotely as well.” 

09: Manage the Transition...

The global jump to working from home last year happened, for a lot of people, almost overnight. Now, as we begin to grapple with long term changes to the balance between working from home or the office, companies that put concerted thought into managing the transition are going to have a much smoother road ahead. 

McKinsey analysts in a recent report noted that, “Organisations thrive through a sense of belonging and shared purpose that can easily get lost when two cultures emerge. When this happens, our experience—and the experience at HP, IBM, and Yahoo!—is that the in-person culture comes to dominate, disenfranchising those who are working remotely.” They add that, because team cohesion, training and culture are going to not only become more important, but harder to change in a hybrid remote setting, managerial styles are going to have to change with them. 

08: Change Up Leadership Styles...

We mentioned already that the traditional top-down leadership style popular in a lot of large, legacy companies, is likely to be a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. As the workforce moves forward into a hybrid remote future, companies need to critically examine their managers’ capabilities. Leadership styles that worked in an office may create friction and impact productivity in a remote setting. 

McKinsey’s analysis recommend a more “inspirational approach” by cultivating informal actions that compensate for a lack of face-to-face time, embody a positive attitude towards the new model (you’d be more managerial if you smiled more, mister), and to diversify the channels through which they interact with their employees (use a blend of email, chat, video calling and - when possible - in-person interactions to create a richer relationship with your employees). 

07: Embrace Cutting Edge Tech...

While video conferencing has been a life saver over the past year, there’s plenty of research to suggest that tech like Zoom and Teams falls short in a few important ways, namely making employees feel like they’re genuinely connecting. Now, using technology exclusively as a way to foster a feeling of connection between your employees isn’t necessarily a good idea (we’ll get to that later), but there are a few cutting edge advancements, particularly in areas like augment and mixed reality, that are gaining some traction. 

Ericsson’s recent report on the future of the dematerialised enterprise notes that “The remote working experience needs to be more immersive to enable some of the benefits of the traditional office,” adding that they expect enterprise usage of XR and 5G to grow by more than 50% by 2030. 

06: Choose the Right Tools...

Project management, communication and productivity tools are an absolute necessity in the work from home world. They keep teams informed, help managers track productivity and understand their employees, and provide a much needed interface between remote workers and their employers. However, it’s vital, according to We Work Remotely, to ensure that “project management tools must be used regularly and consistently by everyone. If you decide to set up a project management tool and fail to use it - or only some of your employees use it while the others use something else - projects and essential details will soon start slipping through the cracks.” 

Pick the right tool and stick with it. Be careful about adding new features and integrations, and focus on giving your employees the training they need to be successful with them. Making sure everyone is on the same page is both trickier and even more important when you can’t wander over to Jeff in Marketing to ask him what he would say he does here

05: Subsidise Your Employees’ Internet Bill...

Employers, if your remote workers are signing onto Slack or Google Drive, or video conferencing into the Monday “pow wow” using an internet connection they pay for themselves, they are effectively subsidizing your OpEx. It would be like the IT guy coming round the office once a month, jangling it under people’s noses and saying that “the server isn’t going to pay for itself”. 

Companies build parking lots beside their lavish offices (or pay for their employees to use a nearby facility), provide food throughout the day, and sink thousands of dollars into ping pong tables for the break room (that there’s an unspoken rule that no one’s actually allowed to use because it’s fun, and fun isn’t productive). In a largely remote world, a huge number of the ways in which employers subsidise their workers’ lives are going to become unnecessary. Rather than pocketing the difference, employers need to start thinking about subsidising their employees’ internet. 

You’ll attract better, happier staff and look a lot more meaningfully modern than your competitors, I promise. Don’t believe me? Ask T-Mobile CEO, Mike Sievert. “It’s clear that work will never be the same,” he said at the recent launch of T-Mobile’s new WFX offering. “Tomorrow’s workplace won’t be anything like the old work from office world, and it won’t be like today’s work from home world. It’ll be something new: the work from anywhere world.” The world Sievert is describing is one in which T-Mobile bundles together internet and 5G mobile packages for enterprises that their employees then use to work remotely. Read more here.  

04: Recognise that Zoom Just Isn’t the Same...

Despite 2020 being the year of the Zoom call, and executives freely recognising that cloud-based video conferencing almost single-handedly saved the global economy (hooray!), the psychological effect of replacing face-to-face interactions entirely with jumpty, bug-plagued video calls is becoming increasingly understood as far from a one-to-one replacement. 

In a recent article for TIME, editor Susanna Schrobsdorff writes that, “My friend Haley called me the other day. She hadn’t texted me in advance to “find a time” to chat. Nor did we have a Zoom date ‘on the calendar.’ She just up and called me unannounced. It was thrilling, this unscheduled, spontaneous conversation without a purpose or the weight of a formal catch-up. It felt like wheeling over to someone in the office to hear a joke.” 

Schrobsdorff’s point is that, with most of us having spent time with video conferencing as our only social outlet beyond texting, email and the occasional Castaway-esque rants directed at a nearby cat, “the more sophisticated the technology, the less it satisfies our need for connection.” 

This is one of the main reasons why a lot of people suggest that, for most companies, a full transition to remote work doesn’t, well, work. People are social creatures. From an employer perspective, finding ways to encourage interaction when your employees do come into the office can be great - as long as you don’t try to force the same level of interaction when your employees are working from home. The office becomes a place for face-time and the spare bedroom upstairs is a place for employees to be their most productive, immersing themselves in projects without the need to check in with their bosses every few hours over Zoom for an unfulfilling, slightly starchy chat. 

On the employee side of things, finding the right amount of human interaction (I know for some of us that’s essentially none, but we’re definitely the outliers) is a critical new piece of self care. If the chats you have by the water cooler on the two days a week you spend in the office are enough for you, that’s great. If not, think about what steps you can take in order to increase that face time (or at least the approximation of it). Join a weekly D&D group, start an office group chat exclusively for memes about Jeff Goldblum, or take a leaf out of Schrobsdorff’s friend’s playbook and just give someone a call. 

03: Choose the Right Model...

It’s become abundantly clear that the traditional, top-down, pseudo-militaristic, hierarchical structure that comfortably carried companies through the 20th Century is about as relevant as other relics of the past hundred years like the fax machine and the rotary phone; if people see you with one, you’re going to get some funny looks. 

Depending on the level of remote work you plan to integrate into your organisation, there are a number of different models that will produce better (or worse) results. Analyst firm McKinsey doesn’t recommend a fully-remote model to many companies, but also acknowledges that the fully-on-prem staff model is getting decidedly long in the tooth, noting that, “That leaves most companies somewhere in the middle, with a hybrid mix of remote and on-site working.”  

There are many shades of grey within this hybrid remote model, which are determined by your need for physical space, the size of your teams (research increasingly shows that smaller and more agile is better), and management styles (like we mentioned earlier, autonomy does not equal slacking and micromanagement does not a productive workplace make). McKinsey’s report adds: “the small teams that are the lifeblood of today’s organizational success thrive with empowering, less-controlling management styles. Better to define the outcomes you expect from your small teams rather than the specific activities or the time spent on them.” 

02: Set Boundaries, Create Spaces...

This one is mostly for remote workers, although it needs to be respected and promoted from the company side as well. Those of us who had our first real foray into the world of remote work during the pandemic may have found out the hard way that, however hard it is to maintain a remote work balance when your job was located in a different building to the one you eat, sleep and brush your teeth in, carving out the time to be productive in the middle of a busy home life can be the stuff of nightmares. According to Hailley Griffis, head of PR for remote-native company Buffer, notes that they’ve found a great deal of success by pushing cultural practices like “making sure people don’t feel they need to be on Slack all day,” and encouraging “people to take lots of breaks throughout the day." 

Again, the issue of setting boundaries with work is one that existed before remote work and will probably continue to persist for as long as there are bosses who think that their time and the job are worth more than their employees’ hours off. Companies and managers who set their own boundaries (for example: waiting to send that “urgent” email until work actually begins the next morning, rather than at 3am when they’re burning the midnight oil) will end up with staff that are less stressed, or even resentful, and more motivated to work hard during the hours they’re paid to do so. 

01: Establish Clear Lines of Communication...

When some or all of your workforce no longer comes into the office every day (or ever, for that matter), many of the old ways of communicating and connecting with colleagues and superiors go right out the window. Companies that find ways to establish new lines of clear communication between team members, other departments and management are going to experience fewer pain points and cultivate a more productive virtual office. 

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