Because of the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, many companies are discovering the benefits and difficulties associated with a shift to remote work. I think it is fair to say that many companies did not have a contingency plan in place and the shift was not smooth nor as well planned as it could have been.
Now that the dust has settled, there is opportunity to reflect on the situation and think about a longer-term approach to a remote workforce. For many companies, this may mean that they consider transitioning some or all their workforce to a remote structure.
Like moving or opening a physical office, there are decisions to be made around layout and processes. How do you set your team up for the best chance of success and to be the most productive? With a remote workforce, those considerations do apply although they may not be as obvious.
The first step is understanding or rather deciding on the types of communication that will be right for your kind of work and your workforce. This decision will have the biggest impact on the rest of your transition. Communication is the heart of any business. Getting this right is the most important decision you will make.
The three types of remote work
Broadly speaking, it seems that there are three distinct approaches to remote work. Each is a series of trade-offs, and what is important to you and your company will help determine which approach best suits you and your organization. There is no one right choice. Each of us has a different set of priorities and constraints, so hopefully this will help highlight some of the benefits of each approach to remote work:
- Fully remote: All employees work in an asynchronous way; all communication is written. No set hours.
- Meetings only: Employees meet regularly via Webex and then work solo in-between meetings.
- Real-time collaboration: Teams work in a virtual co-located style, always online together throughout the day. Face-to-face communication in real time.
Fully remote, all indirect communication
The starting point here is to fully embrace remote work and the ability to ignore timezones and proximity. All employees can work on their own schedule. This type of arrangement maximizes the convenience of the employee, allowing them to work when, where and how they like. It also enables the employer to hire from anywhere in the world, opening opportunities in lower cost locations. The ability to work around the clock is appealing to many employers.
The challenge of working fully remote is one of effective 'written communication.' To be fully flexible means that meetings become difficult and rare. To ensure communication remains effective, all communication needs to become a written format. All work requests, requirements, updates, etc., must be clearly written and specific in nature. There is limited opportunity to discuss or clarify, so the importance of clarity becomes paramount.
Companies who have done well with working fully remote have put effort into coaching their workforce on effective written communication. Clearly written communication requires training and a lot of practice. Most of us instinctively write in an informal manner that typically requires follow-up and conversation. Working fully remote is very popular given the flexibility for employees but can lead to feelings of isolation.
Meetings only plus working solo
The meetings only approach has probably been the most common solution during the pandemic, mainly because it is the easiest transition. The tools are accessible and people are familiar with them. For those who do most of their work as solo contributors, this is not that drastically different to working in a physical office where you work in a separate space other than for scheduled meetings. The quantity and frequency of meetings varies by company and role.
Essentially companies use tools like Webex for team and company meetings. This is where decisions get made and discussions take place. People work in isolation in between the scheduled meetings and collaborate using chat tools or wait for subsequent meetings.
The meetings only method is the most intuitive for individual contributors and allows some element of flexibility for employees as they have freedom of their schedule around fixed meetings. Because of the constraint on scheduled meetings, there is a restriction on timezones with more than one or two zone-shifts becoming difficult.
Real-time collaborative remote workforce
For many teams, especially those that have adopted an agile mindset, they have found that co-located teams and real-time collaboration is what leads to higher performance. These teams find the transition to remote the hardest. They are losing the element of interaction that is most powerful for their productivity — namely face-to-face communication.
They combat this by being online in the same virtual workspace as their team, just as they would in a physical workspace. In real-time collaborative scenario there is minimal solo-work and communication is mainly real-time and direct, not via written communication. Real-time collaborative teams can maintain the agile mindset and sense of co-location. The constraint is in flexibility. The teams need to be online together all day, which increases the impact for employees in different time zones and is much more demanding on IT infrastructure and bandwidth.
With the right tools and processes, these teams can maintain the sense of co-working and close collaboration that is essential for knowledge work. In many cases, remote working helps with close collaboration as it brings members of the team who were previously physically distributed closer in the virtual workplace.
Which approach is best for you?
There are merits to each of these approaches. The type of work you perform and your company culture will help determine the trade-offs and the relative merits of each. What suits one culture may not suit another. There is no one-size-fits-all when determining how to approach this decision.
Do you work as a collaborative team with a shared goal or are you a collection of individual contributors with similar responsibilities?
Do you want to maintain a fully distributed workforce where time zones are not an issue, or do you prefer a workforce that is less distributed to enable more real-time interaction?
There are many similar questions that only your company can answer when determining your approach to this situation.
At WWT, we favor a real-time collaborative workforce as this is similar to how we structured ourselves in the physical office. We can preserve many of the benefits we gained from high performing teams. Our work is very much knowledge-work with a strong emphasis on real-time collaboration. So, we chose to operate a model primarily based on (3) real-time collaborative remote workforce, with some of our workforce modeled on (2) meetings only plus working solo where it was appropriate.
We made a deliberate and conscious decision not to adopt a fully remote workforce. Our culture is founded on relationships and real-time interactions. Despite having offices in India, Europe and the USA, we felt that an all remote approach was not right for us and our culture.
Business people and developers must work
together daily throughout the project.
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information
to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
—From the Agile Manifesto
We have been an organization that has strongly favored agile and XP techniques for over 20 years. We have high performing teams and feel that co-located teams with high elements of real-time collaboration are crucial to our success. Eighteen months ago, we created an all-remote office for agile software delivery teams with real-time collaboration at the heart of our model.
We feel we have been extremely successful, and in the first 12 months grew to 100 employees. We felt we were more productive, more profitable and had better relationships with clients and ultimately better outcomes. The office was a huge success.
When the pandemic hit in the early part of 2020, we moved the rest of our organization to this remote office over the course of a single weekend with over 700 people now working from home and productive immediately, based on the formula and processes we had established the previous year.
We have identified what we feel were some of the foundations of this success.
The current state of real-time collaboration tools, such as Webex, has focused primarily on pre-arranged stand-alone meetings with an emphasis on structured interactions. The current trend is for optimizing remote meetings followed by asynchronous solo work. This has been preferred over more spontaneous interactions and real-time collaboration.
What existing products/services fail to address is:
- that work actually happens outside of planned meetings with casual interactions, generally in smaller groups.
- that a sense of proximity and being aware of co-workers creates opportunities to interact.
- the need for spontaneous interaction, where the human-to-human interplay is optimized (example, body language, micro-expressions, etc.).
Our proposed training will address this gap by creating a feeling of going into remote work that preserves all the benefits of a physical office and human interactions: awareness, collaboration, socializing, networking, spontaneity. In addition, we see a measurable increase in engagement and productivity for virtual office remote employees.
It has become apparent that whilst every company is different and they will each have a unique approach to remote work, there are opportunities for us to share our experience and help guide other companies looking to adopt a similar methodology to remote work.
We are offering a series of workshops to help guide your organization in a transition to remote working. These workshops will span different levels of your organization and highlight the areas to consider at each level. Our focus will be mainly on real-time interactions and collaboration.
This customizable, interactive workshop is for executives who want to leverage their remote workforce for a competitive advantage to increase profitability, lower costs and maximize employee happiness. Learn how to forge high performing remote teams while preserving your organizational culture, providing effective support and fostering high-performance collaboration.
This modular workshop is for managers and other leaders who are interested in learning the tools and techniques used to support and manage remote teams. It will provide tactical skills and structured guidance to aid in planning for a successful remote workforce.
This workshop is designed for all employees who want to improve their collaboration with others, especially teammates. With hands-on experiences and pragmatic advice from our remote workforce experts, team members will be engaged with each other to find the best techniques to maximize the effectiveness of their collaboration.