Remote work can be a win-win opportunity for employers and employees alike. The benefits to your employee engagement, retention and morale, as well as your ability to expand your talent pool and attract and hire stronger candidates, are all well known.
But remote work offers unique challenges that companies must address to make the most of their remote work strategies. Maintaining a sense of connection with remote employees, ensuring technology helps rather than hinders collaboration and innovation, and overcoming the potential for employees to feel isolated and excluded are areas where most companies struggle.
There are four major “pillars” necessary to support a successful remote work strategy, says Andrew Hewitt, an analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals at Forrester Research. Without those four major supports, a remote work strategy won’t be successful, whether your organization is planning for long-term remote work capabilities across your workforce or are suddenly faced with a substantial need to enable remote work because of a larger crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the major benefits of a remote work strategy is flexibility, but paradoxically, without a solid structure underpinning that, there’s no way to realize that benefit. That means leaders need to carefully plan out every aspect of a remote work strategy and be able to communicate to their reports what that looks like in practice, day-to-day.
You should lay out standards around the types of roles that can be performed remotely, how past performance factors into a person’s ability to work remotely, what the expectations are for clocking in and out, communication, check-ins, breaks and meals, deadlines, meetings — all of the things people are still responsible for, says Jayne Mattson, founder of CareerEngage and author of You, You, Me, You: The Art of Talking to People.
“This is basic stuff. When are your people expected to ‘get to work’? How will general communication happen? What routines can you either continue, or can you set up?” Mattson says. “Developing those routines is one of the most important elements of successful remote work strategies. Get up at the same time, get ready and dressed as though you’re going to the office. Designate times for breaks, for meals, and absolutely make sure there’s a start time and an end time to your day — delineating ‘off time’ from ‘work time’ is especially important.”
But, remember that each person will have their own unique twist on remote work based on their situation, so transparency is critical, says Scott Bales, vice president of delivery and solution engineering at Replicon.
“You should set expectations early and often,” Bales says. “Providing guidelines, setting boundaries and reviewing the basics are among the most important steps to take. There will be questions — be accessible and provide clarity on priorities, milestones, performance goals and more. Outline each team member’s availability and ensure you can reach them when needed.”
For example, Bales suggests finding out which members of your team are early risers? Which are night owls? Which have children, or are caring for elderly family members? How might that impact their work schedules, and how can you accommodate those?
“You should always get to know your people’s unique personalities and circumstances, but in a remote work situation it may be even more important,” says Mattson. “What is motivating them? What are their constraints? Do they need to pick up kids from school and leave their afternoons open, but then log on later at night? Successful remote work strategies require a mindset shift as well as a practical one — as long as their work is getting done and it’s still meeting performance standards, then when the work is done shouldn’t be as important.”
Training can be an invaluable part of your remote work strategy, for setting out the rules and expectations and for enhancing soft skills, says Christy Pambianchi, chief human resources officer of Verizon. Leverage your existing learning and development organization to deliver training on managing remote teams, as well as effective communication, collaboration, even empathy and leadership training, she says.
“Some people will need to get training to make this successful, so try to see how you can deliver this training virtually,” she says.
The second major pillar of a successful remote work strategy is culture, says Forrester’s Hewitt. A “remote first” culture is firmly grounded in the structure you put in place, and it has to be intentional and deliberate, he says. “Remote-first means that you’re intentionally thinking about remote workers, asking for their input about what they need to be successful, and doing what’s necessary to fill those needs,” Hewitt says.
It’s a lot more difficult to nurture and maintain culture in remote work situations, says Sheryl Haislet, CIO at Vertiv, so extra effort has to be applied to make sure culture remains a priority.
“Naturally, there’s a lot of interaction when you’re in-person that doesn’t happen in a remote situation,” Haislet says. “So you have to make sure you’re intentional about creating those opportunities instead of leaving them to chance. We’re having all-employee meetings every couple weeks to keep that contact, we’re setting up one-on-ones, video chats and other tech-enabled ways to stay connected — not just about work, but about personal lives; sharing pictures and videos and stories about pets and children. Having virtual happy hours, following colleagues on social media, sharing relevant articles and stories.”
The downside of a remote strategy is that it can throw off work/life balance and blur the line between the two. It’s important to make sure remote workers and teams have time to step away from work and focus on their personal lives, too, says Haislet. “I think it’s less work/life balance anymore, with so much remote work capabilities everywhere, and more like a blend. Sometimes you have to make time for those other responsibilities, and know when you need to step away,” she says.
One of the biggest adjustments remote workers must make is the lack of commute, which many people use as a buffer that delineates home life from work life. When your commute is reduced to a trip down the hall, things can get muddled, says Fran Berrick, founder and career coach of Spearmint Coaching.
“The commute is often a fundamental part of people’s routine, and gives them a separation between work and off times,” Berrick says. “That can be a huge change, so leaders need to disseminate good information and best practices for creating new rituals and habits. It requires that leaders and workers do better calendar management and time management so they’re not overwhelmed and there’s a clear start and end to the day.”
Without technology, remote work would be nearly impossible. But technology needs go far beyond communication apps such as email, or collaboration and chat solutions such as Zoom or Slack, says Hewitt. While organizations do need to make sure they have platforms for that in place, they also need what Hewitt refers to as “systems of work” technologies.
“We know from our research that as much as 30 percent of what constitutes employee engagement is technology,” Hewitt says. “What leads to engagement is your ability to make progress in your work every day — and the technology you use is directly tied to that. How does tech enable or hinder that progress?” It’s not just about how workers interaction with each other through Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Hewitt says, but how well remote access technology like VPNs work. It’s about their ability to use virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to access in-office systems. Even identify and access management technology that can allow workers to use secure systems, and call-center and support services that allow remote workers to rest passwords and other tasks.
“This impacts employee experience and engagement, because it’s really the basic access layer that lets you get your job done,” Hewitt says. “You have to look at this holistically, because it’s all of these technologies together that really make or break the remote work experience.”
And while it may seem tempting to deploy one of the myriad remote-tracking productivity monitor technologies available, know this: It’s a huge demotivator and speaks to a leadership mindset that’s more command-and-control than trust-and-respect, says Berrick.
“There’s nothing more demotivating than having your employees forced to account for every minute of every day. Or, for example, using keyloggers to capture their activity; or the technology that takes their picture every five minutes to make sure they’re sitting in front of their computer,” Berrick says. If you’re suspicious and paranoid that your employees are just wasting time, that says much more about you and your leadership ability.
“Results are ultimately what matters — are they meeting deadlines and living up to the expectations around remote work? Then that’s what they should be judged upon,” Berrick says.
Legal and compliance
Finally, take the time to understand the legal and compliance implications of a remote work strategy, says Hewitt. In the U.S., there are different tax implications that will have to be addressed depending on the geographic region where your employees live and work. Each state, region and locality will have different health, safety and financial regulations you’ll need to comply with, he says.
“In the UK, for example, you must have your home office undergo a formal inspection to make sure the company or the government isn’t liable for any health or safety issues that may occur. And, in the EU, companies have to take GDPR compliance into account,” he says. In addition, employee-sponsored healthcare delivery can differ depending on available providers.
A successful remote work strategy not only requires these concrete solutions, but also a willingness for leaders to think and work differently. Ultimately, many of the same considerations that apply in an on-premises work environment also apply to a remote environment, it’s just a matter of implementation.