Remote working is the future GETTY
Remote working is nothing new. Plenty of us have been doing it for years – for at least one or two days a week, if not the entire time. Nevertheless, although many companies have long had the available technology to switch their entire workforces over to remote working, they have often been reluctant to do so in practice.
The 2018 Global State of Remote Work report by videoconferencing provider Owl Labs, found that 44% of companies globally did not allow remote working at all. Furthermore, just 16% of companies were fully remote, having no headquarters and with employees either working from home or in another location of their choosing.
It’s inevitable that the largescale shift to remote working that we have seen over the past couple of weeks is going to completely shake up this state of affairs. Soon companies around the world may no longer be asking whether they should allow remote working. Instead, they are more likely to be asking whether they should allow people to work in the office, or whether they even need office space at all – especially if they operate in knowledge-based industries.
“I think we will see a fairly major paradigm shift once the virus is under control,” says Dessalen Wood, chief people officer at community intelligence platform Thoughtexchange. Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the vast majority of Thoughtexchange’s staff worked remotely, with its workforce spread across four different countries and over a dozen cities.
Wood says that prior to the crisis, many leaders were fixated on the outdated idea that ‘only certain roles’ could be done remotely. These same leaders tended to perceive people who wanted to work from home as being ‘driven by a need for balance’. As a result, remote workers were seen as lazy while more ambitious workers were ‘present and accounted for’.
Managing a remote team
Naturally, there are challenges with running a remote company – the most obvious one relating to the creation of a collegiate and collaborative culture. How do you make new staff members feel part of the team and how do you manage and motivate teams to be successful without the natural human bonds that form when people sit side-by-side each day?
“We’d always encourage virtual companies to have a structure for welcoming new staff into the team,” says Jonny Edser, founder and managing director of Wildgoose, a provider of team-building events. “So much of a good welcome is about face-to-face interaction, so you should try and replicate this via other means as much as possible.”
Edser suggests that companies that operate remotely should produce digital welcome packs for new joiners and set up conference calls with each department head so that the joiners become acquainted with their new team members and get a sense of the company. Team building among a virtual workforce can be facilitated by remote daily kick-off meetings, remote quizzes and virtual away days.
“Companies that have moved towards virtual working, even before the coronavirus outbreak, tended to devote time and resources to encouraging employee communication through meet-up activities and online ‘virtual experiences’,” Edser says.
Collaborate and learn
Rick Brownlow is CEO of Geektastic, a technical assessment platform for coders, which has a remote team of around 150, based all over the world. He emphasizes the importance of remote teams making use of technological tools such as the online collaboration platform Slack and the video conferencing tool Zoom. “I know a lot of virtual companies organize annual gatherings where everyone gets to meet each other face to face,” he explains.
Brownlow says he makes a remote company work by giving team members flexibility around their working hours while monitoring outputs to make sure everyone is delivering what is expected. “I often hear of managers worrying that if they were to move to a virtual team then productivity would dip because they can’t ‘see’ what everyone is doing,” he says. “If you are building a virtual team, you need to hire people who you can trust to deliver.”
He also highlights the importance of time zones, saying: “We make sure that our core development team have plenty of time zone overlap so that we don’t waste time waiting for our counterparts on the other side of the world to wake up.”
As well as working, remote employees should also be able to devote part of their time to training and self-development. This will benefit companies by supporting staff retention. Research by e-learning company GoodHabitz has shown that employees really value the chance to develop their skills. “In just 30 minutes a day, people could be learning how to become more assertive or how to increase their creativity and innovation levels,” says Stephen Humphreys, U.K. country director at GoodHabitz.
Today, many businesses have been forced to become remote companies simply because they have no other choice. But will they choose to go back to their old ways of working once they realize how much they could potentially save on office space and how much more productive their employees are when they operate in virtual teams? According to the 2018 Global State of Remote Work report, increased productivity/better focus was the number one reason why people choose to work remotely – above considerations such as no commute and a better work/life balance.
Vemun Waksvik, senior vice president of marketing at business meetings software provider Synergy SKY, expects to see a dramatic change. “Video conferencing tools have been around and widely available to most organizations for the last decade,” he says, “but people have preferred to sit in traffic, or on busy trains, for hours every day to physically attend meetings.”
He concludes: “This outbreak, though devastating, may be the push we needed to stop polluting the environment and wasting time and money. Perhaps the legacy of coronavirus will be that the world has been forced to rethink how it functions and does business, making changes for the better. Now, with social distancing, everything has become virtual, from yoga classes and dance lessons, to schools and industry conferences – and it is working. People have been forced to rethink how they view virtual interactions and are seeing the potential.”
This article first appeared on Forbes.