It used to be that when you went to work, it meant you headed to a physical location somewhere: an office, factory, quarry, shipping terminal, or wherever. But now, with the dawn of the Internet Age, more and more workers find themselves with “remote” jobs where they live and work apart from their co-workers and managers – maybe as many as 30 million of us.
Employing a remote workforce can be a great advantage to companies like mine, ITX, because it gives us access not only to talented employees who might be nearby one of our offices but also as far away as Argentina, Romania, or Spain where some of our team members live and work. It’s like tapping into an entire gold mine of talent you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
While a remote workforce offers many opportunities, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. It’s simply not enough to just tell your employees they can work from anywhere: first you need to work hard to build the kind of culture that can support their productivity wherever they might be based.
If you don’t have the kind of foundation you need for your remote workers to thrive, you can rapidly find yourself with major problems and dysfunctions. Just consider all the waves that Marissa Mayer made when she ended Yahoo’s work-at-home policy.
At ITX, we feel the benefits of accessing the 99% plus of the global labor pool that doesn’t live near our offices far outweigh the challenges of managing a distributed workforce. Based on our experience, I’ve found that they are three key challenges when it comes to making remote work workable: accountability, geo-location, and synchronicity.
The most common issue with a remote workforce is that companies fail to establish clear standards and systems of accountability with its workers. Namely, that they fail to make it crystal clear about what constitutes “working.”
For example, I recall a time when one of our workers asked if he could work from home on a Friday before he was scheduled to take the next week off for a vacation. I asked him why he didn’t just come in for the morning and then take the rest of the day off. He replied that he was out of vacation time but wanted to be home so he could do his laundry and pack for his upcoming trip.
The problem is that doing your laundry isn’t doing your “work.” This is why the notion of “working from home” has become almost a joke these days where no one actually believes you are actually focused on your job. I’d even wager that this was the main issue at Yahoo when they made their policy change.
If you have everyone working at the same physical location, then you can remove most of the anonymity or secrecy around what your employees might be doing. It’s a lot harder, for instance, to shop online or surf Facebook all day if your manager is walking around. And doing your laundry is definitely out of the question.
If you want remote workers, though, then you have to invest in the effort of making it crystal clear to everyone what their job is and what accomplishments by which they will be measured. Sprinkling in a few work activities like checking your email throughout the day doesn’t mean you worked that day.
But if you get the performance you need, such as the amount of software code produced or a certain number of sales calls placed, then it becomes far less important about how many hours that employee is working or when. And once you get to that tipping point, it becomes a natural progression to worrying less about where your workers are based.
Once you have good standards and systems of accountability, then you can start working on the other issues that stem directly from the fact that your employees are based somewhere other than the office.
One of those issues is ensuring that every employee has access to a suitable work environment. For example, if someone works from their home alongside an infant, that might not be a suitable environment. Depending on the type of job they have, coffee shops might also be problematic because of the high number of distractions around.
Another key issue when it comes to location is finding ways for remote workers to feel part of the larger team. When you work from home, you miss out on everything from ad hoc update meetings to the after work happy hour gatherings. Even if you’re able to dial into a meeting, it’s easy to miss out on important physical cues that you can only learn from watching someone’s body language.
You need to find ways to replace these physical interactions for your remote workers so they still feel part of the team or they will begin to feel like “second-class” citizens of the company.
I attended a conference in San Francisco earlier this year called Office Optional, where I picked up a couple of great ideas along these lines from a few of the presenters (it’s worth noting that quite a few attendees of the conference actually participated remotely).
For example, from Paul Hepworth, the VP of Engineering at UserTesting.com, we learned that not only do you need the right kind of technology to help integrate remote workers, such as providing wide-angle webcams and good speakers, you can also make everyone feel like part of the team by sending pizzas to everyone. We’ve added to this practice at ITX by holding our own virtual toasts where we celebrate with a delicious beverage over a video link.
Another great tip we’ve integrated, this time from David Yee, is to establish a fulltime chat connection between members of a team. Just as importantly, every conversation the team engages in – and especially those between people in the same location – must be included in the chat to ensure that everyone is on the same page and no one is left out. That includes even non-work related or personal humorous comments because they serve as the mortar keeping the team together.
Escalation is a third crucial issue you need to invest in when it comes to your remote workforce. When everyone is in the office, it’s fairly easy to build a relationship with your boss and, when something important comes up, to walk into his or her office to try and get a resolution.
But when you’re remote, it’s much harder to do that. You can’t just raise your hand and have your boss come over and help you solve a problem. And from a manager’s perspective, it can be difficult to understand that employee’s concerns because you can’t read their body language beyond their verbal cues to assess how upset he or she might actually be.
Meeting in person from time to time or using video chat are two ways to overcome this challenge.
A third challenge area in managing your remote workforce is dealing with the issues that arise when you have workers spread out among different time zones. That means you could have someone working 9 to 5 in the Eastern Time Zone and another worker on Indian Standard Time, each of whom work at the exact opposite times with virtually no overlap. If those two workers are collaborating on a project, it can be extremely challenging for them to coordinate their efforts because they can’t just hop on the phone and talk through an issue. And email really just doesn’t cut it.
Having workers in different time zones also poses challenges for celebrations and company-wide meetings – which again, can make remote workers feel like they’re cut off from the rest of the company.
To be honest, we haven’t solved this problem in our company. But we’ve found that you need to be very intentional about setting up windows of availability where those two workers understand when it is and isn’t a good time to collaborate. Another policy that we’ve found to be very effective is that any time someone holds a meeting, the results of that get together are posted on our internal chat board as a way for everyone to keep up with the latest information.
These aren’t perfect solutions – but they are steps in the right direction and ones we hope to learn from and improve upon over time.
As a whole, the key point in managing a remote workforce is that there can be so many things you take for granted when everyone works together in the same physical location. And the challenge is to put thought into how to address the needs of your remote workers and try and replace some of what they might be missing.
When you are thoughtful about addressing those needs, you make remote work workable. And when you do that, the payoff is simply huge.