Zero to Anywhere
If your daily commute involves long stretches of staring at someone’s bumper, inching forward painfully slowly as you try to merge with a seemingly endless line of cars, you may not need anyone to explain the appeal of remote working. To put it simply, commuting is terrible—a waste of time and money that increases stress and hurts the environment.
So why do we commute? Because it’s always been that way. Because we believe it’s the only way to work. But companies that do things the way they’ve always been done are often just one bold competitor away from going out of business. If we believe that about what we do when we get to the office, maybe we should take the same approach to how—or whether—we commute.
Remote working isn’t necessarily simple, and it isn’t a magic wand to solve all your problems. However, it does offer significant benefits in a few areas—sometimes called the Triple Bottom Line, or the Three P’s: People, Planet, and Profit.
When people don’t have to commute, they suddenly have an extra hour or more in the day (the average American commutes 25 minutes each way to work and back). Not only that, but non-commuters can trade an unpleasant, stressful hour for one doing whatever they love to do—exercise, hobbies, or spending time with friends and family.
Commuting by single-occupant automobile, which is by far the most common means of transportation in the United States, pollutes the environment and is a major contributor to climate change. Transportation accounts for about 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Cars cost money, both to buy and to maintain. While employees often pay for their own vehicles, unnecessarily centralized work costs companies, too. Gathering everyone together in one place means you need to buy or rent a large building and keep it lit, heated, and cooled. It all adds up.
Allowing people to work where they are is better for all 3 P’s. Best of all, it can be done with no loss of productivity or team cohesiveness. This guide is all about taking the first steps to introducing remote working at your company.
There is no one right way to work remotely, and working from home all the time is not necessarily the right goal for your team. Take these guidelines and find what works for you. Maybe one day a week is perfect. For many teams, two or three remote days are ideal. For others, operating 80+ percent remotely may work. The key is to recognize the benefits and pitfalls of both remote and onsite working, and plan your operations accordingly.
Processes and Tools may be the building blocks of a good remote working system, but without the right outlook, they won’t be enough. Trust, a focus on Outputs, and Transparency are keys to a healthy and productive remote working outlook.
Lack of trust is one of the biggest obstacles to remote working effectiveness, and probably a more difficult challenge than finding the right tools or designing the right processes. In a remote working relationship (as in just about any other kind of human interaction) trust comes before everything else.
One of the most common objections to remote working comes directly from a lack of trust. “How will I know my team is working,” many managers ask, “if I can’t see them?” If that question springs immediately to your mind when someone brings up remote working, we’d like to answer your question with another question: How do you know your team is working now?
Output, not Input
If seeing the top of someone’s head in their cubicle eight hours a day is good enough for you now, you may need to refine your definition of “working.” But you probably have better ways of keeping your team, and yourself, accountable. You probably don’t just look at what people put in—hours in a chair, for example. You probably look at output, too—reports written, sales closed, widgets produced. And if you are measuring the output of people in your office, you can measure the output of people outside the office, too.
Transparency and trust work together in interesting ways. When you have transparency—when information about what other people are doing is freely available—you tend to find that trust grows. Or, looking at it another way, transparency decreases the number of areas in which people need to trust each other. After all, when you can see something for yourself, you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. And if you have a lot of information to back up most of someone’s claims, you might be more inclined to accept the claims that aren’t as well documented.
So, you’ve gotten your outlook in order. Now what? How do you go about making your remote team thrive? Three good places to start are to Communicate, Categorize, and Measure.
Communication is fundamentally important to any collaborative process, and a team without good communication won’t go far. Communication is arguably even more important for a remote team than for a co-located one. We would say that remote work improves communication skills, because it forces you to think about when and how you communicate with your teammates. Since you can’t depend on the random encounter or spontaneous drop-by, you have to consider whether chat, email, a video call, or a face-to-face meeting is the best way to handle a given conversation. Synchronous communication, which brings two people together (in person or virtually) at the same time, has great benefits and is probably best for difficult or complicated exchanges. Asynchronous communication is great because it allows each party to interact at their own convenience. No one has to be distracted or have their schedule disrupted.
Don’t leave communication to chance! When a carefully crafted message comes in the right form, it makes everyone more effective. When communication isn’t thought through, it can be more of a burden than a boon.
Though there are successful businesses that operate 100 percent remotely, chances are you won’t—at least at first. So it’s important to categorize tasks, or job roles, that are better suited to remote or in-office work. Doing a project that requires deep-dive concentration at home can be a huge productivity boost, because you’ll have fewer distractions and interruptions. A project in its early stages that demands a lot of collaboration may be better served by getting people together in a room—at least until you get the hang of remote collaboration.
If you work at home one day a week, choosing the best tasks to do that day is key to making the whole scheme successful. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try different things and find out for yourself what kind of work lends itself to a remote approach.
If you have a team made up of people with diverse roles and personalities (as most teams are), different team members may have different needs and desires when it comes to remote working. As long as they’re productive (remember, focus on outputs), why not let them find their own balance?
Metrics are important for any business initiative. Remote working is no different. As we said earlier, if you don’t know what your team should be achieving at home, you may not know what they should be achieving in the office, either.
Introducing remote work to your team will take some trial and error. Measurements are important, so you’ll know what works for you and what doesn’t. Compare different approaches to remote working—more or fewer days out of the office, for example—to each other and to a completely in-office setup. Find the right balance of productivity, quality of life, and cost and carbon savings for you.
If all of this seems daunting, have no fear. There are literally hundreds of digital tools out there specifically designed to help you work smarter, wherever you are. Of course, a lot of workplace communication happens over email. You’ll also want to have a way to share documents—whether by allowing remote workers to access your office server from home or by using a cloud storage system like Google Drive. Three other things you’ll probably want to find are a chat client, a way to have video calls, and some kind of project management application.
From Microsoft’s Skype to startup darling Slack, chat is a vital tool for today’s collaborations, whether as part of a remote team or not. You may already be using something in your office. If so, you can probably keep right on using it. You may need to pay a little bit closer attention to things like user statuses, which show whether they’re available to chat or not. Many chat clients offer additional features.
Having a way to be virtually face-to-face is very beneficial for remote teams. Whether it’s a group Google Hangout of ten people or a one-on-one FaceTime call, video can help bridge the gap between remote and co-located work, giving the advantages of both. While most of your communication may happen over chat, an occasional (daily or weekly, depending on your needs) video call helps team cohesiveness and allows you to get visual cues that don’t come through in writing.
There are more applications than we can list to help you organize your projects. Trello is one of our favorites, because it’s simple to use and gives a great visual overview of everything that’s happening. As with chat, you may already have a solution for this. If so, keep using it. Remote working isn’t about reinventing the wheel. The key is to find an application that can accommodate as much of your work as you can. That way, everything is in one place whenever anyone needs it. When you use a project management application collaboratively, transparency (remember that?) starts to take care of itself, because everyone can see what everyone else is doing.
Start small, with one day a week. You’re on the way to being 20 percent remote! While it may be tempting to start on Friday (and indeed that may end up being your first remote day), don’t automatically default to that. Instead, consider which day may best lend itself to remote working in your situation. If you get a weekly delivery to your office, for example, someone needs to be there that day. Starting with Friday may send the message to your team that the remote day is a quasi-weekend, which is not true. Remote days are work days, with productivity expectations just like any other. Putting the remote day in the middle of the week may work better for your team, or having different people work remotely on different days may be the best solution.
Once you, your team, or your entire company are acclimated to working from home one day a week (at the end of that first month) take some time to reflect on how it’s going. Look at your metrics. Are you less productive, more productive, or about the same? What challenges came up? What did you and the team like about remote working, and what did you not like? How much family time did you get back by not commuting? How much gas money did you save? Are you able to realize any savings (like from utilities or other services) by being out of the office that one day a week?
Now your team is 20 percent remote. The next step? Go for 40 percent by working from home two days a week. Don’t forget to measure the impact and share your experience with others!