Is remote work the solution for the future?
At Seedstars we have teams spread across multiple geographies and time zones. Last weekend I was invited by Pedro Oliveira from landing.jobs to moderate the panel “Why aren’t companies pushing for remote?” The topic resonated with me because of my day to day at Seedstars where we struggle with all the challenges of remote work plus the added communication difficulties due to being present in regions where internet connectivity is still terrible.
This article draws from my experience at Seedstars and the discussion we had on the panel.
We live in exciting times…
We unquestionably live in interesting times. We can choose to work from anywhere, something that was not possible just 15 years ago. There are many authors writing about remote work but no one has a definite answer. IBM, for example, had 40% of their workforce working remotely, this March they changed their policy and requested all employees to co-locate. Former Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette when asked how many people work remotely at Google answered: “As few as possible”. On the flip side, 25% of the US workforce is remote. Automattic, the creator of Wordpress, is entirely remote.
We are currently at a crossroads in the job market and how we organize work. Technology is connecting and reshaping the world, but people feel more disconnected than ever. How does remote work impact people’s lives and the day to day of an organization?
Remote has many advantages. For companies, it is easier to find quality people as geographical boundaries are not a limitation; they can operate almost 24h a day with the correct timezone configuration; the costs are lower because there is no need for a physical office. For employees, there is more freedom; they can work from wherever they want and are not limited by standard work schedule.
Here are the 6 take-aways from the panel of experts:
1. Make sure people feel connected and valued
Could remote work impact people’s happiness and productivity?
Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, has an interesting point. He wrote:
“Loneliness has a much more complicated effect on mortality, but its effects are just as strong or only slightly less strong than obesity and smoking.”
Remote work, by its very nature, is done by a person away from the rest of the team. It has a higher chance of making employees feel lonely and disconnected.
Organizations need to ensure every member of the team feels valued, integrated and a part of the whole. If you are considering remote work for your company, do not forget that human connection is essential and that you need to create the right atmosphere to make sure it happens.
GitLab, for instance, has daily 30 minute meetings where everyone shares details about their personal life: what movie they watched, what party they went to last weekend. Some teams at Automattic has a “feelings time” in their meetings where participants are invited to talk about what are their issues and what is worrying them. GitLab has more than 270 channels, most have a video call link attached, in their internal chat tool. Employees can connect to the video call when they are doing the same activities: coffee channel, lunch channel, etc. Even if not physically together it is possible to leverage technology to build human connections.
Fostering relationships between people is crucial!
2. Video and quality face to face
Video facilitates connection on a deeper level than just voice. It reduces communication issues as participants do not lose nonverbal cues. It also promotes more playful interactions and fosters personal relationships. Remember the last meeting when you knew that your colleagues hadn’t understood your point just by looking at them? Body language is nonexistent in a voice call. Therefore: video on by default!
3. Foster communication and don’t break expectations
Everyone on the panel agreed that improving communication is essential for remote work to be successful. When replacing the physical office, communication needs to be as efficient and as less error prone as possible. Everyone needs to be aligned. If not, a miscommunication issue can delay a project, introduce unnecessary complexity or a myriad of any other problems that will end up costing you money.
Give your employees autonomy to make their decisions so they can work asynchronously and not depend on a central structure. Although this advice is also valid for co-located teams, it is even more important in a remote setting to save time and remove bottlenecks.
Define expectations. Everyone needs to know what to do and what are the objectives of the team. Write everything down, every decision as well as the rationale behind it. If you do it, anyone can go back to the document and understand a decision. Context is essential, without it teams will not be able to thrive and work efficiently.
Never wait for consensus. Waiting for consensus in a distributed team implies a decision will take much more time. Consensus also does not necessarily mean that you will arrive at the right choice. Instead, focus in small iterations to reduce the cost of any communication errors and empower your people to move fast.
4. Promote quality in-person time
Another important point that should not underestimate is quality, in real life, face to face time. Most companies that work remotely organize meetups. For example, Automattic organizes regular team meetups and a Grand Meetup every year. GitLab has a company-wide gathering every nine months where everyone works and has fun together during two weeks.
5. Just keep the ball rolling
Creating a sense of forward movement is critical to the success of an organization and a team. It does not matter if you are working remotely for a customer or in a remote team. Make sure every meeting starts with an agenda and ends with a clear set of “next steps” with everyone in agreement on how to move forward.
6. Strive for healthy work-life balance
Another important aspect of remote work is the work-life balance. When working remotely, it’s tough to achieve healthy work-life balance. The new default of “always being available” does not help. No matter if you are a freelance digital nomad, the person in charge, or even a member of a remote team: you need to set clear boundaries between you, your teammates and your customers. Never try to be everything to everyone. If you do it, people will expect you to be available. When those expectations are not met friction will arise creating a negative atmosphere and grim consequences. Working remote is already challenging, more so if you need to be connected all the time.
After spending one hour talking with the panelists and a few members of the audience, we realized we all have the same challenges. Different people have different tricks to be successful in a remote setting. If you plan to work remotely, to create a remote company, or to transform your co-located company into a remote team, here is a list of things to remember:
1. Make sure people feel connected and valued;
2. Foster communication and don’t break expectations;
3. Video on by default;
4. Promote quality in-person time (meetups, company-wide events);
5. Keep the ball rolling;
6. Strive for healthy work-life balance.
I started this article asking if remote work was the solution for the future. In reality, this is not yes or no question. It depends on the person, the team and certainly the type of remote work. It is surely solution for some of us for a period in our lives, but as a general rule, it does not seem to be.
We are social beings, and we need to connect!
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