Above is Coby Chapple, designer and front-end developer giving a presentation on how to make remote working not suck, while showing a map illustrating how spread out many members of the Github team are. He says “At GitHub, approximately 75% of our 245 employees work remotely, regularly covering over 100 cities around the world at any one time. Making this work for everyone isn’t easy, but it’s definitely achievable, and with the right approach can become one of your company’s greatest strengths.”
Remote working and distributed teams have been on the rise over the past few years and while remote work is not suitable for every company it does have its advantages for some. Advantages like access to a larger pool of talent and happy employees, which in theory leads to better business results. The trend towards remote work merits really thinking through what types of tools and support systems need to be in place in order to make remote working successful.
Forrester Research’s US Telecommuting Forecast notes that 34 million Americans work from home. This number is expected to reach a staggering 63 million – or 43 percent of the U.S. workforce – by 2016. This number is so significant, it bears repeating – 43 percent of the U.S. workforce will work from home just three years from today. This is a figure too large and an opportunity too valuable for organizations to ignore.
- The New Workplace Reality: Out of the Office (Wired Magazine)
The tools and support systems to make remote working successful will be different from company to company. Part two of this post (coming soon) will highlight what a few different companies are doing in this space to allow remote working to flourish. First, let’s explore the three main tenants of what makes remote work successful: communication, coordination, and culture.
When working with people, it’s common to experience a breakdown somewhere along the way. It’s almost always because of a lack of communication. Communication might be the most important thing we do and it can be challenging even when you’re all in the same room! Now imagine that your team is comprised of people in different places and time zones.
Remote Communication Requires Structure
Without structure and guidance around how people should communicate many of us may resort to the easiest and arguably lowest form of communication: email. Tools like Slack and Hipchat are great for trying to recreate “the room” but if not used and implemented properly can be a huge distraction and do more harm than good.
Remote Communication Should Mimic Togetherness
Great communication in the remote workplace should mimic how people communicate when they are together: face-to-face. The next best thing to actually being close enough to touch someone’s face is of course videoconferencing. At the core of this though is something larger, which is being accessible. If we truly use videoconferencing to try and replace dropping by someone’s desk to have a conversation, we’ll simply video them each time we want to chat instead of only setting time aside once a day for a video meeting. I recently worked on a project remotely and due to the iterative nature of the work, I had several short video convo with one of the main stakeholders every day.
It’s All About Flow
Teams that work together share a common vision and goal. To execute on that vision, team members need to discuss ideas and intimate project details. This sort of communication is best done in al conversation, not in a chat program or over email. It helps teams to maintain a good working pace and the frequency of communication can help the team feel connected and on the same page. It may take some instruction, guidance and handholding to get people into the habit of talking when they have questions as opposed to relying on email alone. As with each of these main tenants, this requires a plan and some organizational structure to support and help foster adoption.
Another challenge remote teams face when working together is coordinating not only on the projects they’re working on, but understanding what other teams are working on, the progress of the company overall and how everything fits together. There are strategies we can borrow from how people work when they’re together in the same room, here is one example: Pivotal Labs (and many other teams and companies) have stand up meetings at the same time every single day. When you’re team is in a bunch of different time zones, there may only be one or two hours out of the day that work for everybody, but find it! If you’re unfamiliar with stand up meetings, I’ll Google that for you so you can find out more.
In Addition to Project Management Apps
Stand up meetings allow teams to understand what other people are doing on the project today and what was completed yesterday. This is in addition to any formal project management software you might use like Asana or Basecamp. Successful coordination requires a plan of action on how teams will coordinate and ideally someone at the helm to make sure people are executing on that plan.
I once worked in a company where employees were contracted out to other companies. You might meet someone one day and literally never see them again. You may work closely with some designers on your team for awhile and then be out of touch for a few weeks while they’re off on assignment. Building a culture in this environment was and is extremely difficult. When you think about the things that go into creating a culture, everything comes back to people. Specifically, getting to know people, spending time with them and having fun.
Build Trust & Everybody Wins
When you are able to do this with people, you not only build trust but you feel like a team and you’re more willing to work together, help one another and are more incentivized make sure everyone is successful. Again, we can borrow from what we might do when we’re in the same room. Why not have a Google Hangout session where you eat lunch with someone or have a remote coffee date, or just a conversation to talk about what’s going on in your life? It may feel less natural to schedule these sorts of events as it does when you’re in the same office or room. So again this may require having someone in charge of communicating and supporting this plan to ensure that people are doing this on a regular basis with some simple tracking.
Intuit offers remote employees a variety of specialized programs. “We have an Engagement Specialist dedicated to our remote workforce, who coordinates offerings that are global and virtual,” says Ress. “Fostering a flexible work culture is really a partnership, and it’s all about setting expectations for the experience.”
– Lessons learned from 3 companies that have long embraced remote work (Fortune Magazine)
There are three very important tenants that can make or break a remote and distributed team(s) work environment. It takes some critical and creative thinking (and likely experimentation) to see what what types of tools and support systems work within your company. Activities that mimic how people work together when actually together are very valuable. It should also be someone’s responsibility to ensure the plan is being executed on and that people don’t slip back into old habits.
Do you or have you worked on a remote team? What has and hasn’t worked for you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.