Working Remotely: From Remedial to Revolutionary

I am writing this while the world is on high alert due to Covid-19. Most restaurants and schools have been shut down, airlines have cut their flight offerings in half, and businesses, large and small, are asking their employees to work from home. There is a palpable and understandable sense of fear and uncertainty around the gIobe. None of us know exactly what it all means, what will happen next, or how long this new socially distanced reality will last.

But as we all try to understand our new normal, I wanted to offer some advice to CEOs and managers who are sending their workforce home, where they will be relied upon to keep business afloat. This advice is based on having run a successful remote company for more than a decade. What I will seek to demonstrate to you is that my company’s success is partially due to our remote structure and not in spite of it.

What I have to say, simply, is “don’t panic” and “trust.” While it may feel like you are wandering into an unknown wilderness, there are well-worn paths to follow and many companies before you have stayed at the top of their industry without an office-based work culture. You will not lose your edge, productivity will not tank, and with the adoption of some readily available tools and some intentional planning, you should be able to make the transition to a distributed workforce quickly and with only minor speedbumps (assuming your business is not reliant upon providing a physical product or hands-on service).

I launched my remote company during the peak of the financial crisis of 2008. I hadn’t planned on such a move — but several key clients asked me if we could take on some projects and “go work from your couches.” We began with a half-dozen of us in a half-dozen locations. We all had internet and cell phone signals so the basics of connecting were covered… and the rest was trial and error. There were no blogs to follow, no podcasts to guide us and very few tools to choose from, but we saw the potential to “live the dream” of building a life wherever we wanted while working on things that inspired us. We had never been more nervous — or perhaps scared — but looking back we had fantastic energy, it was perfect timing, and it turned out to be the best move of our careers.

At first we were reluctant to disclose our work arrangement to our clients. We were concerned that the words “working remotely” conjured images of slackers in pajamas and would spark questions about our professionalism and reliability. Were we up to speed on the latest design, technology and marketing trends? Was our workflow secure? Would we answer the phone?

To gain trust, we had to prove ourselves over and over again with exceptional creativity, responsiveness and best-in-class deliverables. In time, our clients’ perceptions changed and our confidence grew. Skepticism turned to curiosity and then even to jealousy. As our clients sat chained to their desks, squandering precious hours on crowded commutes, they often asked on calls, “where are you right now?” romantically imagining, I suppose, a corps of digital nomads working from beachside hammocks and tranquil cafes in distant lands. The reality, as always, was a bit less sexy than they hoped, as we often logged long hours from our home offices or in local coffee shops just down the street.

The remote model worked, and frankly it had more benefits than we anticipated. We discovered the joys of being masters of our own schedules, of being able to travel when needed, and having the flexibility to manage domestic and professional responsibilities in a more integrated and balanced way. Our continued dedication to a remote company structure was our solution for the common yearning of wanting to live in a place that you love while still being able to do the work you love — or, the way I like to word it, “work from where you do your best work.” We became unwitting visionaries and business grew exponentially. Nimbleness won.

In response to growth and increasing levels of company sophistication, we implemented processes that kept everyone focused and accountable while staying connected to clients. We experimented with whatever the most productive tools were at the time. This was back when Google G-Suite was just “Apps,” before DropBox had an enterprise level, and when Slack was beta-testing its first platform. Harnessing the right tools was critical to our success when transitioning to a remote format, and will be for you as well.

While the genesis of our remote company may have been accidental, the years of experience running and growing it have made me a practiced leader in this continuously evolving model. So while the current circumstances are forcing companies into the remote model in ways we didn’t experience, I am happy to report that with the current tools at your disposal, the move to a distributed workplace is not only very possible, but it is more practical and profitable than ever.

There are, of course, legitimate big picture concerns that many companies are facing as they send their workers home. I’ll address the two that I’m asked about most: productivity and corporate culture.

Productivity: Many people ask how we keep up productivity when work time is “harder to track.” Well, first of all, work time can be tracked thanks to various easy to use apps, but the more important phenomenon I have observed is that, while counterintuitive, working remotely can actually improve productivity. Flexibility at the workplace is a predictor of worker satisfaction, and in our experience, each individual has their own hours of peak productivity; many don’t do their best work within the 9-to-5 structure. I have found that letting talent find their own schedule and work-life balance makes them happy. And by my experience and according to research, happy talent is more productive talent.

While cancelled schools combined with the new remote work reality may wreak some temporary homelife havoc, in general, remote workers are actually more focused during their scheduled working hours. Time spent working is more acutely felt when at home with loved ones, so remote workers begin to appreciate the necessity of highly concentrated and carefully scheduled work time. They may log fewer hours, but they often get much more done in less time. They may also find moments to work early in the morning or late into the evening to suit their schedules and your clients needs. The autonomy allows them to be masters of their lives while they keep growing as masters of their craft.

With the right messaging tools (we use Slack), time wasted on cluttered email traffic can be cut by 30–50%. Skipping unnecessary meetings and the inevitable social distractions of office culture also saves time. Omitting a daily commute can free up hours of stress and agitation, which also allows workers to take better care of their health. All of this can lead to a happier and more productive workforce.

Finally, and I think most importantly, trusting people to work remotely allows them to prove to their bosses, to their team members, and to their clients that they can be counted on to get the work done. They are forced to trust each other, and in doing so, they more often than not rise to the occasion and show that they are dedicated performers. The honor system empowers them to become especially honorable.

Corporate Culture: One important value of an office space is that it creates a social environment that ideally makes employees feel “a part of something bigger.” A positive corporate culture is a crucial part of attracting and retaining quality talent. We all know that humans are social by nature and that living in isolated silos is not psychologically healthy. In a remote company, extra attention must be put on creating and maintaining a sense of connection. Communication is key, and creating clear channels for teams, coworkers and managers to communicate quickly and easily is essential for keeping corporate culture and morale strong. Managers need to find the perfect balance of staying present while also creating enough space to exhibit trust and respect for their employees.

A virtual office platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams can fill the communication gap and easily address these issues. They are both productive tools for critical workplace communications, but also act as a virtual watercooler for the culturally vital chit-chat. At our company, we create internal channels that are purely social in nature and that allow our talent (who may have never met in person!) to share experiences, jokes and work tips quickly and conversationally. It creates an important sense of community while also affording managers a degree of oversight.

Using these tools, and with an explicit focus on open communication, we have been able to build a distinct corporate culture and identity rivaling that of many location-locked companies. Again, I believe that trusting your talent is an important part of this. There is a pride that comes from being trusted to do your job without the ever-present power structure of looming management. This trust empowers and motivates talent across the board. In normal times, I certainly encourage supplementing the virtual office with team retreats, co-working days and parties to further strengthen a sense of community. Clearly, these in-person gatherings are not possible in the current pandemic environment, so it is even more crucial that managers stay present and available. Establishing communication channels for both the work and social needs of employees should be top of mind from day one.

We are going through an unprecedented moment in the world. There are new challenges presented everyday for both employers and employees alike and we all have far more questions than there are answers. But as your company is forced to face a changed set of norms and quickly establish a virtual workforce, know that you can go into this new phase of your business with confidence. With proper planning, good communication, and strong leadership, your company can — and will — adapt to this new way of working. Do the research, figure out what existing tools best suit you and your employees’ needs — but most of all, create an environment of trust and support. By working remotely, you are allowing talent to choose the place where they work based on where they do their best work and you may soon find that your business is more nimble and productive than ever. Good luck!

Townsend Belisle
Founder and CEO at Haystack Needle

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