The benefits and challenges of remote working

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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Tuesday, 17th September, 2013

The benefits and challenges of remote working

Remote working is becoming an industry standard, especially among digital workers. However, many organisations are afraid of this departure from traditional working practices and are unsure how to manage it effectively.

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The estimated time to read this article is 10 minutes

This post was first written by me for econsultancy.com

Not too long ago Marissa Mayer CEO and President of Yahoo! surprised the digital community by ending Yahoo’s long running policy of remote working. This caused much controversy as remote working has become standard practice among many digital workers.

Her actions led to a substantial backlash and a haemorrhaging of talented staff. But was she right? Is remote working damaging or is it something organisations should be embracing?

As somebody who is a remote worker, have managed remote workers for 12 years and also advises organisations on their digital governance issues (including remote working), I can say with a degree of confidence that the business benefits are substantial.

The benefits of remote working

There is little doubt that a degree of remote working appeals to most employees. It provides flexibility, helps with childcare and cuts down wasted time and money spent commuting. However, many would argue that just because employees like it, doesn’t necessarily mean its good for the business? That then leads us to ask what business benefits remote working brings?

Attracts and retains staff

In my opinion one of the biggest benefits of remote working is the very fact that employees like it. Remote working can be a great way to attract digital workers in a competitive market, as well as increase retention and improve staff morale.

The benefits in terms of childcare also helps attract more experienced members of staff who have family commitments, and women who often bear the brunt of juggling work and family.

Reducing commuting also puts more money in employees pockets, effectively increasing their take home pay. This makes them more expensive to other companies who may seek to headhunt them without offering remote working.

More productivity

One of the big fears among employers is that remote workers will ‘goof off’ and be less productive. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. Remote workers might not necessarily work a traditional 9 to 5, but they do put the hours in and normally get more done than an office based worker.

For a start, at least some of the time they would have spent commuting is inevitably spent doing work. Furthermore, with work constantly accessible, they tend to spend additional time in the evenings answering email and catching up.

Finally, those working from home tend to be more focused than when in the office. Employers fear that home is full of distractions such as TV, household chores and the temptation to lie in of a morning. I will not pretend that employees never succumb to these interruptions. However, they are insignificant compared to the distractions in the workplace. Phone calls, meetings, colleagues, noise and other distractions make the office a far worse place to focus than home, especially for a digital worker.

Take for example a developer. When a developer is working, he is holding much of the code he is writing in his head. This requires a lot of concentration and even a 20 second interruption is enough for him to lose his train of thought. He then needs to revisit the code to once again build that mental model. Offices are full with these kinds of micro distractions in a way home is not.

Ultimately the fear about employees ‘goofing off’ comes down to trust. Do you trust your employees? If you do, remote working is an excellent way of demonstrating it.

Demonstrates trust

When you allow employees to work from home you are telling them that you trust them to get the job done. This is a huge statement of confidence in your staff and one that the vast majority of people will respond to.

Managers often do not like the idea of employees being unavailable to monitor. They want to know exactly what those staff are up to, because that is what traditional business management says you should do.

However, those techniques are born from the industrial economy. They are based on managing low paid, low skill factory workers. Management of digital workers is a different proposition. These are highly skilled, self motivated, well paid individuals. The last thing they need is you constantly monitoring them.

You maybe reading this thinking, “You say that but you have never met Dave. He is a nightmare and I have to constantly push him.” But do you really? In my years of working with digital workers I have discovered something, if you put trust in somebody they almost always rise to the challenge. Occasionally they fail, but as long as they live with the consequences of that failure, they quickly learn that they have to pull their weight. By micro-managing people you are treating them like children, and when you do, people start behaving like them.

Nothing shows people that you consider them to be professional than allow ingthem to work unsupervised.

With remote working being a great way to build trust, motivate employees, attract new staff and increase productivity, why did Mayer decide to end the programme of remote working at Yahoo!?

The challenges of remote working

As Mayer made clear; her problem with remote working was that it undermined collaboration and communication within the organisation. She wrote:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetingsā€¦ We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

I cannot disagree with this sentiment. Remote working does create challenges in collaborating and it does make it harder to build a company culture.

However, where I disagree with Mayer is in the response to these challenges. Her answer was to ban remote working. I on the other hand believe the benefits of remote working outweigh the challenges. What is more I believe these challenges can be minimised with the use of some simple guidelines and a bit of technology.

Remote working done right

Mayer has identified the major problems for us – communication and collaboration. How then can we overcome these problems?

Let’s start by putting some working policies in place.

Working policies

First, we need to lay down some policies about availability. If people are working as part of a team, the team needs to be able to talk to one another and so they need to be available. One option is to impose core hours. The expectation is that people have to be working and available between say 10am and 3pm. Outside of those times they can work whenever they like as long as they get the work done.

The downside of this approach is that it takes away some of the flexibility that is the biggest benefit to employees of remote working. Another approach I have seen used in the past is the suggestion that users can work whenever they wish, but need to be contactable between certain hours. This is more flexible while still maintaining team contact.

The second policy I would put in place is the expectation that employees come into the office regularly. I don’t recommend expecting employees to be in on specific days each week, but I would recommend saying that they are expected to turn up as projects require.

The third policy that is crucial to successful remote working is their home working environment. At Headscape we expect those working from home to have a quiet space, separate from the distraction of family life. We have had employees try to work from the dinning room table with kids running about and it just doesn’t work.

Finally, I would put in place things that incentivise (rather than force) people to come to the office. Run regular social events and encourage people to attend or invest in your office so it’s nicer for people to work at than home. You will quickly find people happily turn up for a meeting if they are going to the pub afterwards!

With some basic policies in place, you can turn to technology to fill the remaining gaps.

Turning to technology

There are loads of great tools to help a team work remotely. At the most basic level make sure your team is on Skype. Make a point of using video calls over email or instant messaging. It makes such a difference to see people on screen and chat face to face.

Alternatively if you are doing a lot of group calls then try Google Hangout. I won’t pretend it is as good as being in a room, but it’s certainly much better than chat.

If you want to go a step further check out Sqwiggle. Sqwiggle shows constantly updating stills from your teams webcams. You can instantly see if they are at their desk and if you wish to speak to somebody you just click on their picture. They don’t have to pick up, you just start chatting. It’s the closest I have found to virtually tapping somebody on the shoulder.

Sqwiggle

Sqwiggle is the closet thing I have found to a virtual office environment.

Whatever tool you use, make use of video. You can communicate far more in a couple of minutes chatting than in a days worth of email back and forth.

Not that video is always appropriate. You may wish to consider opening a team chatroom using something like Hipchat or Campfire. These are great for impromptu discussions, and in my experience, general silliness. However, they are also great places for helping each other out. It is not unusual to post a problem to our company chatroom only to have it solved within minutes by a colleague.

Hipchat

Real time chatrooms like Hipchat are an excellent way of encouraging group discussion and collaboration.

Turning our attention to collaboration rather than pure communication, we start looking at software such as Basecamp. You could write a book on all of the different project management software available, not to mention file sharing tools like Dropbox.

However, one worth mentioning is Trello. Although not the most powerful of project management tools, it is great for managing agile projects and also for showing you at a glance who is working on what. Knowing what other people are working on is a big component to feeling like a single team.

There is so much more that could be written on this subject, but I hope I have demonstrated that remote working does have its place and it isn’t something that needs to be feared. In fact, it brings with it a lot of benefits that should be embraced.

Now over to you – what remote working tips do you have? What tools do you use? What practices have you adopted? Share them in the comments, as this is an area where we are all still learning from one another.

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