Not too many years ago it was unheard of to have an employee telecommute, primarily because the technology wasn’t yet available to make it feasible. When the technology caught up and the IT boom was also attracting some of the best employees, it was not only possible to work remotely, but some prospective employees demanded it. The power had swung in their direction, and so some employers reluctantly agreed to see if they could make it work.
Over time, the employees loved it (mostly), but the employers didn’t. Having a remote workforce required more cultural change and adjustment in management styles than managers were capable of over such a relatively short period of time.
We are at a different place now, and principals are polarized. They either hate it or love it—this article is addressed to both. To those who hate it, you may find a safer way to experiment. To those already doing it, you may find ways to improve the practice. Let’s look first at the advantages and disadvantages.
ADVANTAGESHere are the advantages of allowing employees to work remotely. You save on leased space and the overhead that comes with it. You can grow without adding more space and financial commitment. You attract more self-starters because those are the employees who will thrive. Some (not all) employees will be happier, and happier employees do better work. You’ll cut down on your carbon footprint because there is no more commuting. There will be fewer distractions from other things going on in the office. You’ll have many more choices of great employees, because some of them will only take the job if they can work remotely. And finally, if you adapt well to remote workers, you’ll be more likely to work better with completely remote offices, and those same habits will help you work better with remote clients.
DISADVANTAGESThere can be less collaboration simply because there is more isolation. Often remote employees are not promoted as often, partly because principals view remote managers differently than remote employees. The remote employee can feel out of the loop, and therefore a bit undervalued. And there is the expense of the travel and lodging for those occasional times when the remote employee must visit the established office.
IMPACT OF VARIOUS ROLESOf all the functions at a creative services firm, the ones that are least likely to lend themselves to fruitful remote arrangements are these: those responsible for client management, for project management and any role with significant management responsibilities over others (like a creative director). It is much more difficult to make this work, and I would advise against it.
MEETING THE CRITERIAWorking remotely should be viewed as a reward and not as a right. In fact, your written policy should list clear milestones that must be achieved before remote employment is allowed for existing employees. For someone to be given this privilege, they should be responsible, self-motivated, disciplined, goal oriented (without you having to outline each step of the process to get to the goal) and they must consistently meet deadlines.
MANAGERS MUST CHANGEUsing remote employees brings an entirely new paradigm to the management process, and if you are a manager, there are some things you’ll need to do differently or to at least emphasize. You should have unusual skills in interpersonal communication and a clear vision for the culture that you want to create. If you don’t have those skills, work with a coach.
You have to get used to managing by results instead of managing by presence. That means identifying very clear roles, goals and priorities. And you’ll be even more effective if you understand how each remote worker prefers to communicate, and adapt to their style: mode, frequency, directness, time of day, etc. Pay attention to time zone differences, too, remembering that when someone might be fully energized, someone else might be winding down for the day.
Sometimes make a phone call instead of writing an e-mail to relieve that sense of isolation they might feel. Remote employees will work hard not to be a bother to you, the manager, and you need to get a feel for their mood and their engagement level, and the phone (or Skype/FaceTime) is the most reliable way to determine what’s up. Ask specific questions to uncover the truth.
Don’t leave remote employees out of the “thank you” loop; go out of your way to make them feel appreciated, since you won’t be as likely to pass them in the hall where you can do it in a more natural setting. Make sure remote employees are celebrated as much as local ones.
Do you want remote employees to get more done? Keep them out of needless e-mail loops, don’t require their presence at so many meetings, and discuss how much social media is appropriate while they are “at work.” You might also articulate how and when status reports will be submitted.
In summary, employ good communication and build trust. The tools are secondary; emotional and engagement gaps are deadly.
EMPLOYEES MUST CHANGEThe way that employees think about work must change, too. Encourage them to shower and get dressed as if they are going to work. That helps them get in a different frame of mind, and it also makes a better impression over video.
They should take breaks, certainly, but be brutally honest about what distracts them (social media, eating, TV, etc.). Somehow find the right amount of distraction (an open window, music, etc.), but regardless of that, they should be working in an isolated part of their home where noise will not intrude.
When everyone is giving a report, start with the remote folks to give them more presence in the call. Don’t allow them to be discounted; they should be engaged, have a point of view and be a thought leader to the rest of the company.
Make sure that remote workers follow the same information processes, avoiding an oral culture, especially when it may be difficult to reach them; set goals, direction and priorities and make them easily known. Figure out a way to instantly and constantly let others know if they are available, by phone, e-mail or instant messaging.
SETTING UP AN EMPLOYEE TO SUCCEEDInsist that employees hired as telecommuters at the outset go through three days of on-site orientation, mixing it up with as many people as possible. (It may help to hook them up with a “buddy” for that time.) The most critical element is to ensure that they absorb the culture. Preferably, and especially if you have many remote employees, there can be a special arrangement with a long-stay hotel so that telecommuters can stay and work in the main office the first two weeks of their employment, and then a week at a time twice per year. If there isn’t enough face time, there will not be the undercurrent of trust and teamwork.
While at the mother ship, they should wander the halls, meet different people over meals, engage in conversations and make themselves very apparent and heard. Also, make sure they are introduced to the IT department, who will be supporting them remotely.
Start every day with a conference call. Establish specific goals for each day, and then reporting structures to ensure that they are met.
Some days should be set aside to do lots of little things and to gather what they’ll need to get the really big things done, and then some days should be set aside to do nothing but the big things. Limit disruptions of their time on those days.
Keep current with the tools that might help you (e.g., The Next Web). Make the right tools available, like a virtual chat room and GoToMeeting, and have an Internet-based workflow data center like Basecamp or CopperProject.
Remote employees should have a separate phone line (even if it’s a mobile) with a professional sounding e-mail message so that direct client calls are handled appropriately.
Institute good backup procedures with a remote service in the cloud, and establish the ability to access company-owned computers from the home office.
Consider a standup desk that can change heights just to give them more variety.
Help them with time-management tools, like the entire GTD (getting things done) movement or the Pomodoro technique.
Finally, remind your remote employees that they won’t have a commute during which to unwind. Instead suggest doing an errand or taking a quick walk around the block after they are done for the day.
GETTING FACE TO FACE OCCASIONALLYWhen remote employees visit the home office, find ways to combine it with already-planned social times with the entire employee group.
As noted above, remote employees should spend a week at a time at the home office at least twice per year. You might even visit employees on their turf once in awhile when you are doing business in that area.
When they do come to the home office, have a special office where visiting remote employees can work, preferably nearby lots of other employee traffic so that they can chat and get to know people.
PREPARING THE COMPANY TO SUCCEEDWhatever shape your remote-work arrangement takes, make it a part of the employee interview to set appropriate expectations.
If you have remote employees, invest extra time in interpersonal skill development as an entire team. That might include personality profile work (the best is DiSC PPSS).
And whenever you do let an existing employee begin working remotely, start with a one-month trial period to see how it works for both parties. After they get established, swap team members around from time to time to keep the company culture centered. ca