Remote working — How to make it work for everyone?

Sam Perera
Mar 26 · 11 min read
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Image Credit — runningremote.com

COVER NOTE

I have been working on this article since early February without a set date to publish it. At that time my intention was to create broader awareness of the remote working arrangements adopted by most tech companies or departments over the past decade and to encourage a wider audience to consider adopting such practices in their own working environments.

I (and most of us for that matter) never thought that remote working would so rapidly become a critical aspect to businesses continuity, but the global COVID-19 pandemic that has unfolded before our eyes has made it so. Most organisations are scrambling to find the answers that I attempt to share in this article. The kicker, however, is that a process that would ordinarily have taken weeks-if not months-to properly design, implement and fine-tune must now be executed in a matter of days.

INTRODUCTION

In this day and age, where the notion of the work-life balance is gradually evolving into work-life integration, remote working has become a crucial discussion point both during the initial hiring process and during ongoing employment arrangements. Despite this, members of our society hold a variety of opinions and draw a variety of conclusions about this sometimes-contentious topic. Some people embrace it as the holy grail of flexible working while other people dismiss it as one of the most abused aspects of employment-both from an employer and employee viewpoint.

Whether we like it or not, this practice is only heading north with more and more organisations and industries offering the opportunity to work remotely. Not only does this offer make jobs attractive to their potential and current employees but it also allows companies to utilise their existing office space and resources more effectively and efficiently.

As a father of two kids, I have benefited from the flexibility of remote working, although it has not been without challenges. This article is an attempt to elaborate on three key areas that we should consider when implementing remote working: objectives and philosophy, culture and mindset, and technology. We should carefully consider these concepts before embarking on a remote working journey as individuals, teams and organisations. This consideration will give our remote working practices a better chance of success and ensure that both employers and employees get the value they expect.

OBJECTIVE AND PHILOSOPHY

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Objective and philosophy refer to the ideas at the heart of the initiative. An organisation must delve into its values, principles, vision and mission statements to establish reasons for allowing its employees the freedom to work remotely without constant supervision from their managers or leaders.

The ‘Why’ — Organisations should clearly define and articulate the objectives for extending their employees the flexible option to work remotely. Without measurable objectives, it will be challenging to establish a justification for remote working and to monitor the strategy’s effect on the organisation’s ways of working. It will also be challenging to identify any adjustments the process needs or, at worst, to make an informed decision to scrap it altogether.

Some examples of such measurable objectives could be a reduction in the number of sick leave days that employees submit, an increase in productivity over a given time period compared, an increase in the employees’ happiness index or savings from the reduced cost of utilities, cleaning and general maintenance of office buildings.

Intent — This is where the mindset of an organisation’s leaders is put into the test. They must have a genuine intent to make remote working work, and not just treat it as another ‘cool’ thing that the organisation can offer to employees that would eventually be seen as a ‘fad’. The most important factor in the success of remote working will be the leaderships’ willingness to give the strategy their effort, guidance, open mindset and attention to any practical issues that arise.

Teams — Consider trialling the process with one or two teams at the start. Smaller and more cohesive teams make great candidates as they will most likely reduce the number of early challenges you will face during the trial. This strategy will allow the organisation to learn fast and implement necessary changes to keep the trial on the right path until you can bring more complex and challenging teams on board.

Days — Another decision an organisation’s leaders must make is for how many days they will allow their employees to work remotely. A good number to start with is one. This way the leaders can identify any practical issues without experiencing major disruptions to business continuity, operations and productivity levels.

Security — It is important to ensure that the organisation’s security policies are revised and updated to ensure that they work as smoothly in a remote working environment as they do at office premises. This is especially relevant in the case of accessing software applications and resources like files and documents.

Organisations should engage the right employees early on in the conversation. This will reduce the practical issues their workforce might struggle with while working remotely. It will also reduce the resistance from staff whose job involves security, which is important because resistance might have an adverse impact on the overall success of the initiative.

Feedback — Leaders should take time to listen to feedback from employees and provide them with ample opportunities to voice their concerns and suggestions throughout every stage of the remote working initiative. They should then reflect on this feedback and formulate an action plan with the aim of genuinely learning and improving. The action plan should be transparent and available across the organisation, and after its release leaders should continue to seek advice and assistance from relevant individuals and departments to solve any challenges reported.

Courage — Decision-makers should be bold and test innovative approaches that specifically address the unique needs of the organisation and its business model. Leaders should create a safe and reassuring environment throughout their organisations so that individuals can suggest ideas and, where feasible, take the initiative to action those ideas.

CULTURE AND MINDSET

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Culture and mindset set the tone for the policies and procedures associated with remote working. It is important to acknowledge that people are at the heart of every process and we all need to play our part for remote working to be successful.

We’re all different — It is important to be mindful of the different cultural backgrounds that team members come from and the effect these backgrounds might have on how they operate. This could be particularly important while having meetings where some team members might not feel comfortable asking questions over remote channels even when they require clarification on certain points (see the ‘Inclusive Meetings’ subsection for further details).

Give and take — When it comes to organising activities and requiring your employees’ and colleagues’ participation, it is good to have an open mind and a willingness to be flexible. People organising such activities should take account of the time zone of each team member and ensure that no one person is inconvenienced all the time by rotating the Happy-Hour around different time zones.

Open communication — Exploring innovative ways to gather feedback from team members, allowing them to express themselves and their opinion during working hours, would be beneficial. This goes back to the cultural factor that was discussed above. Using a variety of methods will increase the chance of team members with different traits being equally heard and will increase participation throughout the day and-more importantly-during key decision-making periods.

Be transparent — Colleagues should make their remote working schedule visible to all the related teams they work with. One of the best ways to achieve this is to add remote working days to your existing leave or holiday calendar. They can also bring those days up in their daily or weekly huddles and as part of sprint planning activities (if you organise your teamwork into sprints). They can also set reminders using the team’s instant messenger software to send out alerts in the morning so the whole team is aware of their working arrangements.

Plan your day — It is important that people working from home ensure they have a sufficient amount of work to fill their day and keep them productive. If a workplace provides a limited bandwidth to allow employees to access the office network over the internet, they should make local copies of documents they plan to work on remotely. They should also make short notes about activities they need to complete during the day so you don’t miss anything important or end up not completing the work they initially intended to.

Make your work visible — Team members should constantly share their progress of your work during the day. They should keep updating the status of their work items in the work management tool with corresponding comments. They can type in a short message of the progress made and give a heads-up about any assistance they might need from their teammates and any upcoming meetings or chats they might want to have before they can progress further.

For example @here team, I have raised a pull request on story APP-12656 and waiting on Winston to review it, or @Silvia, I have tested the story APP-25676 and updated my test results under the comments section, could you please have a look?

Inclusive meetings — It might not be possible to make meeting-free days for everyone who is working remotely. It would therefore be more practical to agree on how to best organise, prepare and effectively conduct meetings that include remote participants. Some strategies include:

  1. Providing context: Share the meeting agenda upfront and include all relevant background information, clearly defined meeting objectives, desired outcomes, any relevant preparation work and prior notes from any related meetings.
  2. Setting clear phases: If you’re the facilitator of the meeting, make sure that the phases of the meeting are laid out clearly and are accessible so that people participating remotely can easily follow the meeting and make an impactful contribution.
  3. Letting them see the meeting room: Ensure the remote participants can see the meeting room in the office and hear what’s being discussed clearly.
  4. Looking for visual clues: Before the meeting, agree on visual clues that remote workers can use to grab the attention of other team members and keep looking out for them so everyone in the meeting gets an opportunity to speak up. Team members who usually feel reserved and shy about speaking up tend to become even more silent while participating remotely. Ask open-ended questions to encourage them to express their views.
  5. Preventing distractions: Call out off-topic conversations that might distract the participants during the meeting. It is also important to allow only one conversation at a time to reduce unnecessary noise within the room and to allow remote participants to follow each conversation properly.
  6. Using illustrations: Use visual illustrations and drawings whenever possible to provide better clarity on the matter that is being explained or discussed.
  7. Let others see you: If you’re a remote participant, letting others see you is probably the most effective way to make your presence felt amongst other participants and to increase the chances of making an effective contribution during the meeting. Enabling video during a meeting must be the norm rather than the exception.
  8. Share your surroundings: As a remote participant share a bit about your surroundings when the time is right. For example, kids and/or pets at home, an artwork, a photo hung on the wall appearing in the background or something interesting about your garden if you have chosen to sit outdoors would be a great icebreaker and probably enable others to connect with you on a deeper level.
  9. Post-meeting updates: Share notes, action items and photos of the whiteboard with people working remotely immediately after the meeting to ensure they could take in the meeting in the same level of detail as the people who were at the office.
  10. Equal opportunities: Involve people taking part remotely in the actual decision-making process and not just as passive listeners. Ask questions actively both during the meeting and as part of any follow-up conversations before the final decision is made. Ensure that any decisions are communicated to team members within the office and those working remotely at the same time as much as practically possible.

TECHNOLOGY

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Finally, both employers and employees need to consider carefully their technological requirements and what tools they require to be effective while working remotely.

Connectivity — Organisations should invest in a robust and reliable internet connection as it is the number one technical reason most remote working arrangements fall through the cracks. A connection that is reliable and fast will provide an uninterrupted pathway and facilitate the exchange of data between the employees’ remote locations and the office building whether it is during a video conference, presentation or simply in order to access a file that is stored in the office network.

Software — Software is equally important for providing an efficient and effective working environment for all. Video conferencing, file sharing, Virtual Private Network (VPN), up-to-date virus scanning, and productivity applications that support collaboration amongst team members are pivotal to this. It is also important to consider how bespoke software that has been purpose-built for an organisation’s needs (such as customised ERP packages) will behave when accessed remotely. The expectation should be that such a software package would continue to offer the same level of functionality remotely without compromising the organisation’s cybersecurity.

Training — Employees should be provided with sufficient up-front and ongoing training on any equipment and additional software to be used during remote working. People who are constantly struggling to initiate a video conference, share a screen during a presentation or hear what a remote caller is saying will often conclude that remote working is disastrous when in fact it is the knowledge about how to use the technology that needs improving.

Access — Working with security decision-makers and operational teams to arrange simple and transparent login mechanisms can prevent users from having to jump through complicated user authentication and validation processes. One great approach is to implement a ‘single sign-on’ system to allow remote users to access all required organisational resources with the same user ID and password. Two-factor authentication can provide enhanced security.

SUMMARY

These three aspects, when considered carefully and implemented properly with the right intentions, will most definitely make remote working work for your organisation. They will increase levels of employee engagement, lead to a workforce that is much more agile, responsive and self-organising. This will lead to a business with a more robust operating model and a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) built into its DNA.

Remote working is here to stay. Let us all do it right and get the most out of it.

Thanks for your time reading through this article. I hope you stay healthy and safe during these challenging times!

Momenton

Momenton

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