Remote working will not work unless you make an effort to change yourself, your leadership style and the way you judge success.
If you don’t establish trust and agreed protocols, people will feel the need to make up reasons for working remotely. They’ll be compelled to arrive before the big bosses and it’ll just become a huge mess of mistrust and disillusionment. To get it right, you need to start small, set clear goals for your experiments and make sure you go all in, half-baked remoteness does not work.
Over the past few years, I was a leader at a business seeking to push the boundaries of how work gets done, not only by employees but by the whole world. Envato, led by Collis Ta’eed is based in Melbourne, Australia and turns over $50m per year on its digital marketplace and is one of the most successful tech companies to come out of the region.
When Collis started the business with his wife and co-founder Cyan, they were traveling the world. As a result, they hired new team members remotely. Before they knew it, around 75% of the workforce was distributed around the globe.
This distribution of employees did not inhibit the company's growth, starting 10 years ago as a Flash marketplace, Envato has consistently won awards in employee satisfaction, and achieved high growth in revenue.
As a General Manager, with a background in more traditional workplaces, adjusting my leadership style to include some of the team in other countries was difficult. Not only that, people could start anytime they wanted, as long as they did their hours and started by 10 am. I am not a micro-manager, but I have been conditioned to accept this way of working as the ‘norm’. It took effort, to change. I can’t pretend that I relished the idea of managing large projects with people all over the place at different times.
I struggled to include people who attended meetings remotely and found it annoying when somebody didn’t come in for a workshop. I had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it remote friendly. I also missed having people around, with body language to help me read intent and emotion, without faces to estimate mood and motivation I was a bit lost.
I was, however, determined to make it work. I could see the benefits and I too wanted to enjoy the freedom to adjust my location based on my schedule and priorities.
After a few weeks, I quickly stopped ‘clocking’ who was there before me and who left early. I stopped judging somebody who wanted to stay in their sunny kitchen a moment longer and come in after lunch. I let go of my dogged view of being seen to be noticed. It was actually pretty easy, once I let it happen.
After a few weeks with my new team, we settled into a pattern of being in the office more often than not. That’s because we actually really enjoyed each other's company. People tended to work from home on a specific day of the week, so we all knew that most people would be at home on a Wednesday, this happened naturally, there was no policy.
It worked really well. But it didn’t just happen entirely by itself. We worked hard at it, we gave each other feedback.
A few people thought that others didn’t really work at home:
By having clear outcomes it is obvious if people are not working, wherever they are. If it means people get their work done more effectively and then decide to walk the dog and get some fresh air, then that’s fantastic. They’ll be refreshed, the work quality will improve and the dog will be happy.
Morning check-ins and Slack type tools really help maintain visibility. You can carry your phone with these apps installed, the little buzz in your pocket tells you if you need to answer something right away and you can jump on a hang out in the park. I’ve found that people feel so guilty that they walked the dog, they go back and work more hours - which I do not encourage and it takes time, to trust yourself and know that you’ve achieved the outcomes and delivered value and walked the dog!
It was hard to know when everyone would be available:
We tested ‘Sacred Thursday’, a day we all knew we’d be in the office, a day to schedule a team lunch or blow out the candles on a birthday cake or run a hands-on workshop. It went well and people looked forward to Thursday’s when we’d have a bit more banter than usual and more than likely a shared meal and some basketball in the courtyard.
Time zones might have made it hard to get quick answers:
With people working in different time zones, Envato introduced a policy that the remote worker should make reasonable efforts to work crossover hours with Australia, to ensure that team communication could continue.
Some people didn’t think that it was possible to separate home and work:
People were concerned that the team wouldn’t be able to step away from work if they worked from home. They enjoyed the ability to switch off at home, with no reminders. It’s important to note that working from home isn’t for everyone and it is entirely optional. It’s key to ensure you don’t assume everyone else is struggling with work-life integration and to trust that they are managing their time well. As a leader, it is important to role-model healthy working habits.
Some people hated digital agile boards and liked to see them radiated in the office:
We hung a big monitor over the stand-up desk with the Trello board displayed all the time. That way, if we wanted to make changes, we had to do it there. Everyone could see the board being changed, just like a physical board. Except, notes and comments were not lost and remote people could sign up for notifications of any changes. Communication about work in progress eventually improved.
Some people felt isolated or distant from the in-house team:
We put a continuously open Google hangout on another monitor, that could be joined anytime. You could see the office and if you felt like it, show yourself working at home and call people over for a chat.
Slack was full of pointless location and status updates that we didn’t need:
“I’m working from home, the plumber is coming”
We created a ‘no need to explain rule’
This meant that you didn’t need to have a reason to work from elsewhere as long as it suited your days work. This saved lots of unnecessary chit-chat and alerts as well as established trust, we don’t care the reason you want to work somewhere else, it’s up to you. It also got rid of any idea that some people were ‘slacking’ or always ‘sick’.
We needed a time of the day when we did know where everyone would be:
We agreed on a full team daily stand-up at 10 am - a compulsory catch up, no matter where you’d be.
People were not taking sick days when they really should:
It wasn’t clear if people were sick or not because they could stay in PJ’s and work from the couch, however they should rest when they’re sick. We agreed that a duvet day now and then was cool, but that sick leave was there to be taken so that people could stay healthy. Along with the no need to explain rule it meant if you were just a bit tired and fancied avoiding the commute, you could.
How can you make it work?
Before attempting remote working in whole or part, I strongly recommend that a number of foundations are in place:
Company Buy-In - If you report to somebody who doesn’t believe in remote working or flexible schedules, it’ll spoil your chances. You’ll still feel the need to explain and you won’t be given the time to show the benefits.
Leadership & Cohesion - Remote working and flexible hours will not make an underperforming team any better and neither would a high performing team succeed without regular feedback, support and the right tools to make it work. It’s a given that the team needs to be cohesive, great at their jobs, respectful of one another and have a good understanding of their mission and purpose.
Homework - Do some serious reading, find out what has and hasn’t worked for others.
A clear purpose for the team - What’s the mission, how will it be achieved, why, when and who by?
Great recruitment process - Hiring people with a growth mindset, people who are able to adapt and see the possibilities in challenge
Social contracts - Agreement on the way you’ll treat each other at work
Technology - Access to things like Slack, Trello or other equivalents, hangouts, audio and visual technology to make remote working possible
Guidelines - A basic shared understanding of the boundaries, which will change in time, but always be clear
A shared definition of success - With clear outcomes defined and a shared understanding of what success looks like, along with measurement and regular open reporting will really help everyone to see if it is working or not. Some of the benefits will be difficult to measure, so a simple Culture Amp survey might help alongside productivity/velocity metrics.
Which all leads to trust - Empowerment doesn’t begin and end with a person's choice of working location, it extends deeply into their everyday responsibilities and ability to make their own decisions.
If you have doubts, or your peers and colleagues have doubts, it won’t work.
The panacea for me would be a results only workforce, whereby people are not measured by the hours they are ‘clocked in’ but by the outcomes they achieve. This is more difficult in a services based organisation like the one I’m building now, where clients pay for time, but where there is a will, there is a way.