There’s a lingering perception that attaining a work-life balance of location independence, schedule flexibility, and career stability (let alone growth) is a bit like finding a unicorn: impossible. Although locating good work opportunities without the constraints of an office can be challenging, the benefits of location agnosticism are becoming harder to ignore, and easier to attain, for many more industries. In the growing world of remote work, the ever-more-valuable challenge remains creating better ways to provide companies with access to good talent, and employees with access to good companies. The real question is, what does good mean in this context?
Remote work is an arrangement in which employees do not commute to a central place of work. While this comes in different forms and varying degrees of decentralization, we’re going to focus on full-remote; there’s a massive difference between working from home 1–2 days per week and meeting with your team in person 1–2 times per year. In 2015, although 37% of US workers attested to working from home at least one day per month, less than 4% worked from home over 50% of the time. Most people choose to use this freedom to telecommute from home, while others, often referred to as digital nomads, utilize a multitude of mobile tools to work from different locations around the world.
We know that this arrangement can work. We see it over and over. Some of the world’s largest companies pioneered telecommuting in the 80’s, citing increasing traffic as a main concern for productivity.
But more often than not, the arrangement fails. Whether it’s a shortcoming in productivity, communication, or accountability, what we’re seeing over and over is this: culture is the limiting reagent to success for distributed companies. To put it another way, good VOIP services don’t make for successful remote teams. Good people do.
So what makes for good managers, good employees, and therefore good culture — remote or not? And why is it so hard to find, let alone build?
In a study on the importance of trust in the workplace, Dennis Reina, PhD, and Michelle Reina, PhD, find that “…organizations with a high level of trust have increased employee morale, more productive workers and lower staff turnover.”
Hold on, though. They continue to drop truths the size of tweets.
Business is conducted through relationships and trust is the foundation of those relationships.
When an organization fosters relationship and trust-building behaviors, employees focus on the work they were hired to do and productivity increases. When trust is damaged, morale and productivity begin to decline and turnover increases.
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever worked for a company, chances are that you experienced an environment on one side of this curve or the other.
In order to attain renewal, organizations must find ways to innovate and sell new products to at least keep up with market expectations. But if you replace Sales with Culture, Morale, or Trust, the innovations required to attain renewal change dramatically. They become innovations of philosophy and practice, not product.
Dennis and Michelle Reina go even further, breaking it down to three core elements of work, with the constructive and destructive behaviors for each:
1) Trust builder — Managed expectations. Mutual respect and credibility, people do what they say they will do.
2) Trust destroyer — No follow-through, disrespect and a lack of personal credibility.
1) Trust builder — Open and honest communication. Active listening, transparency and free-flowing dialogue.
2) Trust destroyer — Communication is secretive, gossip, suspicion and distrust festers.
1) Trust builder — Input is encouraged and utilized.
2) Trust destroyer — Micromanagement and selective decision-making.
Traditionally speaking, trust doesn’t scale well. The more cooks you throw in the kitchen, the higher risk you run of spoiling the broth. This is why companies develop multiple levels of ever-tightening transparency, authority, and input as they grow. This ostensibly unavoidable process ultimately leads to a decline in overall trust in the organization, decrease in morale, and an increase in turnover. If unremedied, it can be the beginning of the end. It’s all very circle of life.
Thankfully, Part II of the same study offers simple practices for (re)building trust in organizations:
T = Teach. Teach everyone in the organization how things work; make it as transparent as possible. Teach builds upon Communication Trust.
R = Reward. Make sure reward systems align with corporate values and goals. Reward aligns with Competence and Contractual Trust.
U = Unconditional support. Encourage innovation. Create an environment where mistakes are opportunities to learn, not to punish. Give employees permission to “think outside the box.” Unconditional support involves Competence Trust.
S = Share. Communicate clearly and frequently. Share involves both Communication and Competence Trust.
T = Trustworthy. Make commitments and keep them. Trustworthy parallels Communication and Contractual Trust.
Although these should be foundational for any company, employee — or relationship for that matter — that expects passion, loyalty, empowerment, and success, it’s amazing how rarely these pillars are energized. It takes time, vulnerability, and a hell of a lot of maturity on everyone’s part to do so, which is even harder to accomplish when your company is distributed across various time zones and, sometimes, languages.
In my eyes, the (remote) company doing it the best is Automattic. Why? The culture that has created Wordpress.com bleeds transparency and relentlessly practices communication. And because the organization aims to be “…democratizing publishing and development.”, they must work hard to build and reinforce T.R.U.S.T.
Automattic does this by open sourcing its biggest projects, testing prospective employees, pairing new employees with a mentor, encouraging in-person team meetups 1–3 times per year as well as a full company retreat once per year. They even publish a transparency report every year.
All that, and offers a progressive benefits list to boot:
- Open vacation policy (no set number of days per year).
- Home office setup and coworking allowances.
- Hardware, software, and continued learning reimbursement.
- Company-sponsored life insurance.
- Open maternity/paternity leave (after 12 months employment)
- WordPress branded laptop at your four-year anniversary.
- Paid two to three-month sabbatical encouraged every five years.
- All costs of company travel are covered.
- Health, vision, and dental insurance; matching retirement/pension contributions; childcare vouchers; income protection; travel insurance.
Relatively speaking, that’s pretty darn generous. But in the coming years, benefits like these will become more of a standard as companies both save on office space and continue to realize that treating employees well pays in more ways than one. It’s clear that Automattic is trying to attract good employees, and by being up front with its expectations, goals, and rules, is able to develop a trusting relationship from the jump.
Something else we can learn from this is that in order to be successful remotely, you must put more energy into developing trust than a traditional company. The barrier to entry is inherently higher for both companies wanting to distribute and employees seeking that freedom, and there’s less attempts and successes because of it.
Apparently Automattic is doing something right. Currently, over 26% of all websites on the internet use Wordpress as their CMS, and Automattic is being poised as a potential IPO in 2016 after reaching unicorn valuation in 2014.
But more importantly, it’s a good company: one that takes the time to put trust building philosophies into practice and foster an environment that employees flourish in. And that’s the true recipe for success.
Do you work or manage remotely? What organizations or platforms do you know that build trust? Join the conversation by sharing best practices, experiences, and ideas!
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