How Employers Can Best Handle a Remote Workforce

Back in July, Carpool began the Office Anywhere experiment: one month in which all Carpool employees were heavily encouraged to work outside the office.

It was the logical extension of the communications tools and strategies we promote to our clients, and an interesting step in the evolution of the modern workplace. More accurately, that is, work without the physical workplace.

Evolutionary steps aren’t always easy, particularly when it comes to convincing businesses to let their employees work remotely. In this interview with Carpool Cofounder Jarom Reid, we examine the philosophy behind #OfficeAnywhere, discuss the advantages of a remote workforce, the disadvantages, and lessons learned so far.

(Psst! If you haven’t already, check out our earlier post, “5 Ways to Improve Communication in a Remote Work Environment,” where we highlight best practices about working remotely from the employee standpoint.)

A partial transcript of the interview is posted below. Check out the embedded video for the complete interview.

Why did you want to do the Office Anywhere experiment?

There are a bunch of reasons, but I think the main reason is productivity. I’ve always felt less productive in the office, personally, because when I’m there I find myself going into more and more meetings — just because. When I worked at home I was more productive and what I started noticing was that people would actually post to Facebook at Work saying, “Working from home today so I can be more productive.” In my mind I was like, “That doesn’t really make sense because you’re supposed to be in the office to be productive.” Yet when we want to be the most productive, we want to stay at home.

I think the enabler of that … was Facebook at Work and Yammer. Before we were on Facebook at Work, we were on Yammer, as you know, and Yammer was fine.

We realized at some point that the office we had was being replicated, by a degree, to the internal social network — it just happened to be Facebook. And because we’re more personable on Facebook, we thought we could capture a lot more of our company culture. So once we had that as our foundation, I think it’s a more effective form of an office than the actual physical location, because the physical location provides so many more distractions, whereas the digital version of the office is … asynchronous, so you don’t need to worry about being right there right now. It has a whole bunch of different functions and features that people are used to in their personal lives. It was just a natural transition.

So we’re talking about a lot of the positive aspects of this, but what were your concerns going into it?

That employees weren’t going to be as productive. It is still a concern; it’s a big concern. I think we’re more dependent on our tools now than we were before, because our tools are tracking [employee productivity].

So one of the things that comes out of this effort — going in we were aware of it, but I think it’s even more important now that we’ve experienced this Office Anywhere experiment — is the evolution of middle management. We’ve talked to clients about this, we’ve noticed it ourselves that a middle manager is essentially a glorified babysitter where the intent is, “We’ll give you 10 people that report to you and your job is to make them like you so that we can become 10 times more productive than we were when it was just you.” The evolution of that middle manager, I think, is still the same outcome, but the way you get to that point is a little different, where you’re not necessarily babysitting them every day — watching over their shoulder, making sure that their at their seat, at their desk, etc. — you’re looking at what they’re producing, their output if you will.

And so if their output is increasing, and we track that using our tools — we can look using Facebook at Work; we can look using Asana, our task-tracking tool; we can use SharePoint; we can utilize Harvest, which is our hour-tracking tool — we’ve got these tools that are telling stories about how our people are working. Because that digital footprint is there, we’re able to analyze what that footprint looks like; we’re able to see gaps.

How do you oversee a remote staff?

I use instant message as much as I can for one-on-one communication. So the three managers that report to me, my goal is to have engagement with them, of some kind, every single day. Every morning there’s a post that everyone is essentially required to do, which is “this is what I’m working on today.” I make sure that, with the people I manage, that I like those posts; I comment if I have questions; and then I make sure as soon as I can in the day, where it makes sense, I have one-on-one interaction with them.

Are there any challenges that you’re still hoping to overcome?

Trust. Trust is one of the biggest motivators that we had for this. I have to be able to trust my people, I have to be able to trust managers who are looking to help their people. There’s still hesitation for me. Some of the feedback that we got … was managers are jumping to conclusions to quickly. So what that basically means is that as I’m reading through my feed, or as I’m reading though the Microsoft group or the Facebook group, I see things pop up and I want to fix them; I want to meddle in that situation. The feedback came through that, “We understand, and sometimes we say something that we’re just looking for clarification on, it doesn’t mean management needs to jump in there and try and fix it — to trust us more.”

Lastly, do you think that other business should do this as well?

Most definitely. There are so many reasons. The four reasons that I focus on are:

Cost savings: If you can get rid your office commitments which is one of your biggest expenses outside of employees, mitigate that and utilize the office as a commodity concept — co-working spaces, etc. — I think a lot of companies will see a huge reduction in cost.

I think another important reason is sustainability. The lack of travel that has been required because most people are staying locally I think is important. The more people you have working locally working in their local community — whether it be their home, local library, coffee shop, etc. — you’re going to get less traveling. That means more time spent with family, more time spent doing the work that you want to do; you’re able to get up early, or whenever you want, essentially.

The more that we are productive, the happier we will be because we are producing something, and I think that’s something important for people to validate the effort that they’re putting in. My goal is to increase productivity, or output, and lower input. At the moment, I think it’s the other way around. We’re putting a lot of time into what we’re doing. So that productivity ratio has to switch.

And the last thing, ultimately, is work-life balance. If my efforts as an employer can help who I employ, and they’ll be happier in their life, then that’s way more important to me than the bottom line.

So other businesses who can look at those four different opportunities may be able to tell a different story in a couple of months. And I think the change will be quite drastic, fairly quickly. Now, it’s going to require a lot of change in mindset from the old-school way of working, but evolving the way you work doesn’t necessarily need to be focused around the tools you use. I think you can look at the things that … haven’t changed for a long, long time, which is the office and the way in which your people actually get the work done. They don’t need to be babysat. With a solid infrastructure that is digital, which is very inexpensive, if that is the foundation of what you build your office on instead of a physical location, I think those four areas, those four objectives, should be fairly easy to obtain.