Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in OthersMarch 25, 2017
Since people began telecommuting decades ago, companies have been excited about the prospects to increase productivity, reduce costs, and gain access to a much larger talent pool.
But has remote work lived up to the hype? In some organizations, yes. Automattic (the creator of WordPress) and the U.S. government are two good — and very different — examples.
A completely distributed company born out of the open-source movement, Automattic doesn’t make anyone come to the office — and most of its employees choose not to. They’re given state-of-the-art technology, $2,000 to build a home office, and a large travel budget so they can meet up with other team members twice a year in beautiful, exciting places such as La Paz, Mexico, and Amsterdam. Ultimately, these perks help the company source the best talent, which is often found outside large technology hubs like Silicon Valley and New York.
In the U.S. government, though adoption varies by department, the Office of Personnel Management reports that remote work has increased job satisfaction, reduced employee turnover, and cut costs on several fronts, including real estate, utilities, and travel subsidies.
Elsewhere, though, it’s been a different story. Marissa Mayer famously declared the end of remote work at Yahoo! about two years ago, citing the need to improve the “speed and quality” and benefit from the “decisions and insights [that] come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” In the wake of her controversial decision, several high-profile companies — including Best Buy and Reddit — followed suit.
Why are some organizations reaping benefits but others not? Conditions are seemingly ideal: More and more people are choosing to work remotely. By one estimate, the number of remote workers in the U.S. grew by nearly 80% between 2005 and 2012. Advances in technology are keeping pace. About 94% of U.S. households have access to broadband Internet — one of the most important enablers of remote work. Workers also have access to an array of tools that allow them to videoconference, collaborate on shared documents, and manage complex workflows with colleagues around the world.
So what’s the problem? The answer is simple: Many companies focus too much on technology and not enough on process. This is akin to trying to fix a sports team’s performance by buying better equipment. These adjustments alone might result in minor improvements, but real change requires a return to fundamentals.
Successful remote work is based on three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture. Broadly speaking, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal, and culture is a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement. In order for remote work to be successful, companies (and teams within them) must create clear processes that support each of these principles.
Communication. In a virtual environment, it can be difficult to explain complex ideas, especially if people aren’t able to ask questions and have discussions in real time. The lack of face-to-face interaction limits social cues, which may lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
In one of my company’s workshops, we use this simple exercise to illustrate some of the pitfalls: After dividing participants into groups of three, we show one team member an image and ask him or her to describe it to another team member over the phone (without naming it outright). That person, based on the description, e-mails the third team member with instructions on how to recreate the image. As you can imagine, this produces a lot of laughs — and a lot of strange drawings.
The way to avoid miscues and misinterpretation is to match the message with the medium. To effectively share information that is complex or personal, you often need to observe body language, hear tone and inflection, and be able to see what you’re talking about. For those purposes videoconferencing is the next best thing to talking face-to-face. At the other end of the spectrum, small, non-urgent requests are best suited to e-mail, instant messaging, or all-in-one platforms like Slack. Although this seems commonsensical, many people instinctively default to their preferred method of communication, which can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and lost productivity.
Frequency of communication also matters. Providing regular updates, responding to messages promptly, and being available at important times (especially when colleagues are located in different time zones) reduces the likelihood of roadblocks and builds trust.
Although communication happens at the individual level, companies can establish norms and provide training for their employees. The CEO of El Mejor Trato, an Argentine travel comparison site, went even further and banned e-mail for internal communications. In its place, he provided custom project management software. Employees resisted at first, but after a three-month trial period, they were hooked.
Coordination. At times, coordinating remote workers can feel like choreographing a troupe of blindfolded synchronized swimmers. Everyone should be working in harmony, but people often don’t know what others are doing and how everything fits together into a larger routine.
That’s why it’s important to create formal processes that simulate the informal ways we touch base when we are physically collocated — stopping by a colleague’s desk, for example, or eating lunch together. These interactions serve as course corrections. In their absence, it’s much more likely that people will wander astray.
To mitigate this problem, which is compounded when the entire team is virtual, managers should not only clearly articulate the mission, assign roles and responsibilities, create detailed project plans, and establish performance metrics — they should also document all that in a repository that’s easily accessed offsite. There are plenty of tools that will help you with coordination, such as Basecamp and Asana, but you also need to be disciplined about keeping documents up-to-the-minute — and that’s where process comes into play. Teams must know how and when individuals should provide updates, review deliverables, and make decisions.
Merely having processes isn’t enough. Managers must model and enforce them until they are completely assimilated. They also need to evaluate team members on how well they adhere to protocol. Otherwise, they’ll revert to old habits. It might be easier to send a quick e-mail to say a task is almost finished, for example, but people will inevitably get left out of the loop. Operating outside the established processes will undermine the team’s cohesion.
Culture. This principle is especially critical for virtual teams but also important for individuals who work remotely. Since these folks rarely meet with their teammates face-to-face, they tend to focus on tasks and ignore the team. This may work for a while, but you must develop a culture in order to foster engagement and sustain their performance over the long term.
The first step is establishing trust. Addressing communication and coordination problems will shore up cognitive trust (based on competence and reliability). But affective trust (based on feeling) is trickier to build virtually — you may need to bring team members together for short periods of time.
GitHub, which makes a platform for collaborating on software development, brings its entire team together once a year for this purpose. It also requires new hires to spend their first week in its San Francisco headquarters so they develop an understanding of the company’s culture. GitHub also rallies around its online platform with rituals that feed the culture and provide recognition for employees. One example is its #toasts forum, which functions as a virtual water cooler. Employees post major accomplishments to the forum, and colleagues from around the world post selfies toasting them — though they’re usually not drinking water. In the end, these photographs are made into a short video and uploaded to a shared repository. For remote workers located around the world, this type of quirky activity provides a connection to colleagues and to the company’s unique culture.
If in-person meetings aren’t possible and a virtual water cooler seems contrived, you can schedule regular informal calls — either one-on-one or as a group. They may not be as effective as spending time together in person, but they have the same objectives: to recognize remote team members as human beings, understand how they are feeling, and learn about their lives outside the office. It may feel awkward at first, but building a shared identity and personal connections will lead to greater engagement and better performance.
Implementing remote work successfully is difficult; it requires a thoughtful strategy and reliable execution. But when it’s done well, the reward is high: increased productivity, happier employees, and cost savings (which you can invest into building a better business). With major shifts in the workplace, such as the large increase in Millennials and the fading line between work and life, remote work will become an even more critical tool for recruitment and employee engagement. Companies like Yahoo! can try to reverse the trend, but they’re better off re-evaluating what issues led them to ban remote work and putting the right processes in place to address them.