I Was the First Remote Employee at My Company. Here's How We Made It Work.
Remote work is more popular than ever and appears destined to change the way organizations work. It provides employers with the opportunity to seek talent across the world while reducing their investment in real estate and it enables employees to pursue new career opportunities without having to relocate and achieve stronger work-life balance. However, supporting remote work can be extremely challenging unless an organization is intentional about doing so and unfortunately, 63 percent of companies lack remote work policies.
As the first remote employee for a rapidly growing software company out of Salt Lake City while living in Grand Rapids, Mich., I've experienced firsthand what it takes to be successful in supporting remote work.
Get on the path to success.
So, how can we make remote work ... work? It begins with developing a strategy for supporting it. Simply hiring a desirable candidate to work remotely without first having a strategy can be a disastrous, short-sighted decision. Instead, organizational leaders should include discussions about supporting remote work in their regular strategic planning conversations and if an organization decides to leverage remote work as a strategy for future growth, it should prototype doing so with one or two employees before scaling up remote hiring.
Our company offers technology to improve workplace experiences, such as space booking software and workplace analytics, but our company's management understood the value of looking beyond the four walls of our offices to attract new talent. Before I joined the company as VP of product marketing and workplace strategy, Teem's leadership had already discussed their desire to support remote work and how to be successful in doing so. Since I began in January, we've been prototyping best practices for supporting remote work that can be helpful to any organization, big or small.
Establish collaboration protocols.
With limited face-to-face interactions, it's helpful to establish preferred ways of collaborating for the entire team. Cloud-based tools such as Slack, Google Docs, OS365 and a host of other options can be powerful as they are easily accessible, but it's best to make sure that everyone is sticking to the same platforms for specific work activities. It's also important to keep time zone differences in mind so as to not accidentally wake up someone at 5 a.m. with a spontaneous group text.
At Teem, we have adopted Slack as our primary communication tool, which has been a gift for me as a remote employee. I can not only keep track of important conversations but even go back to past conversational archives to understand the background of important organizational decisions that were made in the past. We also use Google Docs to allow us to collaborate asynchronously on important content, which improves the speed at which we cooperate and keeps everyone, regardless of where they are located, on the same page.
Most employees don't just want a job, they want to be part of something bigger -- to have a sense of belonging and purpose in their work and to be part of an organization's culture. Unfortunately, working remotely can be isolating, disconnecting people from the casual hallway conversations, the "meetings after the meetings" and other informal social interactions that occur throughout the workday. As a remedy, it's helpful to acknowledge this and ask the entire company to interact with remote team members beyond regularly scheduled meetings.
I'm fortunate to have many types of social interactions with fellow employees throughout the workday. As I often spend five or more hours a day on video or audio meetings, my Teem colleagues frequently pause in the midst of group conversations to ask if I can hear what's being discussed or to see if I have any thoughts to add. Additionally, since the mezzanine on the second floor of Teem's offices in Salt Lake City is where people causally interact throughout the workday, we have created its "digital twin" -- a Slack channel called "Mezzanine" -- for people to casually, digitally interact and share the latest meme, which allows me to partake in the fun.
Set new performance measurements.
No longer can productivity be judged by "butts in seats," yet many managers can fall into that antiquated way of thinking. In a world of mobile work, attendance does not equal productivity and it's important that organizational leaders instead measure performance based on key productivity outcomes and how an employee lives up to organizational values. And while it might be tempting to wonder whether a remote employee is working throughout the day, it's equally as important to ensure that they are occasionally turning off their work. As remote work blends home and work activities, many remote employees can fall into a trap of working throughout the day and evening, particularly while working with colleagues in different time zones, without maintaining work-life balance.
In order to ensure effective performance management with my manager and employees at Teem, we use weekly one-on-one video meetings to discuss current workloads and the relationship between pressing work activities and quarterly strategic goals. As all of us have more work on our plates than can be done in a given week, and since we aren't sitting next to each other seeing what the other is working on, we use these meetings to agree on what work should or should not be prioritized to stay on track with our strategic goals.
Build trust by being together.
In developing an organizational strategy to support remote work, perhaps most important of all is being purposeful in building trust. While employee relationships can be formed and maintained remotely, there is really no substitute for face-to-face in-person interaction to build or restore trust. Inevitably, conflicts occur throughout an organization and the lack of non-verbal communication between remote workers and their colleagues can greatly exacerbate this. As an example, a snarky comment that might generate a smile when face-to-face in a meeting room can be easily misinterpreted over a phone call and conflicts can quickly spiral between remote colleagues without a person even realizing it. For this reason, building social capital through face-to-face interactions and maintaining open, direct communication is important. Since trust is best established and restored through in-person exchanges, it's important to know when to get on a plane and be together.
At Teem, our leaders have set aside travel and expense funds to enable me to spend time with my colleagues on a regular basis, but they are also careful not to burden me with too much travel so that I can maintain a degree of balance. Typically, I head into Salt Lake City to visit for three or four days a month, and while it's tempting to pack my in-office agenda with project meetings, we have been intentional to use that time for one-on-one meetings, group meals and other times for building social connections.
Prepare for the future.
Remote work strategies may still be in their early stages for most employers, but one thing is for sure -- remote working isn't going anywhere. The companies that recognize this and identify the right processes and procedures to maximize remote work as a priority will also be the ones that can lead in employee retention, productivity and overall workplace experience.