Making Remote Work Succeed

How are you preparing for the future of work?

A few weeks ago Automattic, the company behind WordPress, announced a huge fund raise. Salesforce put $300 million into Automattic, taking their valuation to $3 billion.

This is a savvy investment by Salesforce. As a CMS, Automattic owns 59.7% of the market and powers 30% of all websites, a whopping 75 million websites globally, including a growing share of the enterprise market. As Salesforce extends its reach to all digital customer channels, having access to Automattic is a natural extension of their strategy.

What most caught my eye though in Matt’s post was a comment on the future of work:

Automattic has grown to 950 employees working from 71 countries, with no central office for several years now. Distributed work is going to reshape how we spread opportunity more equitably around the world.

There are other well-known tech companies have also gone fully remote like GitLab, Buffer & Zapier. Fully remote is still far from mainstream however. Most companies instead combine offices with the option to telecommute. This includes many enterprise companies that allow a large percentage of their workforce to work from home.

That is not to say remote working is free from controversy. It was not too long ago that IBM told employees to go back to the office and Marissa Meyer did the same at Yahoo! In a leaked memo explaining the decision, the head of HR wrote:

Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.

The reality is that the nirvana of “best decisions and insights” rarely occurs in offices. With the rise in open office configurations, collaboration has actually plummeted as face-to-face interactions decreased by 70% in favor of online channels. Furthermore, a study by Nicholas Bloom showed a 13% increase in productivity for remote employees.

Are there situations where co-located in-person teams are superior to remote teams? While some Agile teams are hardly agile in any meaningful way, there are benefits of co-located teams. Thomas Allen found that workers communicate regularly with someone six feet away four times as much as with someone 60 feet away, as shown on the “Allen curve”.

Companies will need to fully support work from home and work in office policies. The nature of modern knowledge work is that people gravitate towards the option that makes the most sense for the work required. Agile teams decide what are the most optimal work conditions and how to optimize the balance between remote and co-located. This is especially true in a job market where the limited supply of high demand skills means the best talent may be located remotely.

For organizations with significant office presence trying to navigate remote arrangements, the question becomes how to create harmony between the two. Each group, work from home and work in office, needs to feel valued and involved so that communications are transparent and resentments do not build. Below I have outlined a framework with seven core ideas to ensure that remotes and office workers have a seamless and healthy work environment.

  • Becoming Remote Friendly — Remote-centric companies will say you need a remote first culture. However this is not feasible for most companies. A better approach is to enable policies and procedures that remove the stigma working from home. For example, it should be a clearly stated policy that working from home is a valid option rather than a perk employees negotiate. Some smaller initiatives can include ensuring all meetings are over video call if one of the team’s members is remote. Even small changes help change the culture to becoming more accepting towards remote employees.
  • Leveraging Right Tools — In a remote friendly culture, you need tools that foster collaboration outside of corporate walls. If meetings are now over video calls, you should have a dependable video conferencing platform such as Zoom or Bluejeans. For real-time communications, chat solutions such as Slack and Mattermost are great for quick collaboration and syncing between team members. For managing work and getting everyone aligned to tasks, there are tools like Asana and Trello that are light-weight and easy to use. For documents, Office365 and Google Docs work well for online collaboration and file management. For canonical knowledge, tools like Confluence and Discourse can provide easy access to reusable content. Regardless of the specific tools, video conferencing, real-time chat, project management, document management, and knowledge management are the foundation for enabling remote work.
  • Proper Remote Environment — Beyond tools, remote employees need a space conducive to work and free from noise and distractions. The office itself should have plenty of light, a proper desk and chair, good sized monitors, and enough space to feel comfortable. To support the remote friendly culture, an allowance should be provided by the company to pay for equipment that would otherwise come out of an employee’s own pocket.
  • Respect for Boundaries — Just because people work from home does not mean they are slacking or mix personal and professional needs throughout the day. Rather than working less, remote employees tend to work more. It is easy to fall into the trap of working longer especially when you have real-time communications and teams across multiple timezones. Having a remote friendly culture means respecting that remote employees get to shut down for the day at a reasonable hour to attend to personal matters.
  • Trust Based Management — Implementing a remote friendly culture requires trust on the part of managers. This can be difficult for micro-managers or managers that are of the “out of sight, out of mind” variety. A new management ethos of trust needs to be instilled that believes that workers know best how to manage their workload to ensure timely completion of tasks and projects.
  • Culture of Accountability — With managers giving more trust to employees, remote workers need to hold themselves more accountable. That means communicating regularly, being transparent, and keeping the team appraised of issues. Not everyone has the discipline and work habits though to make working from home productive. Therefore the hiring process should assess discipline, work habits, and accountability for results in order to see if they are fit for remote work.
  • Optimize the Office — Office workers also need workspaces that enable them to do their best work. Open offices have had the opposite effect though, increasing noise and distractions. Offices need to be reconfigured to optimize for interactions between people. The example of co-working spaces provides an useful blueprint for the arrangement and flow of space to enable higher levels of engagement. At the same time, there should be quiet spaces and private offices readily available to allow employees to focus deeply on their work for extended periods of time without distractions.

If you are curious how other companies make remote work succeed, check out this panel talk featuring 15Five and Automattic.

How are you fostering a remote friendly culture in your company? What tool, process, or belief has helped in making remote work successful for your team?

How can we promote informal “water cooler moments” in a remote-only organization?

Great ideas in how to create interactions that foster ideas…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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