Read excerpts from Larry English’s book, “Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams” for insights into how to stay productive and connected when transitioning to remote work.
We’ve been operating our company without direct office space for over 20 years, embracing a virtual model when we’re not working at client sites or connecting in person. While working remotely has become second nature to us, that doesn’t mean it was an easy journey, and we’ve learned many lessons on how to operate a company with remote workers successfully.
My book, “Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams,” focuses on how to build a great culture when you have a mostly virtual workforce.
In the following excerpts, I’ve provided a quick guide on how to maintain productivity and a sense of connectedness as you move your teams to work from home.
Trust Your Remote Team
The immediate pushback I hear from executives considering remote work is that virtual employees will simply not work as hard as they would under in-person supervision. The reality is the opposite: remote workers end up working too much because their work is always right in front of them, and they need to learn to find healthy boundaries. We have worked with thousands of people over the last 20 years and can count on our hands how many times we’ve had an issue where someone was intentionally not working.
Based on our experience, you should trust your team when you aren’t directly observing them.
Many companies also mistakenly assume their management and measurement structures need to be revamped for virtual workers. Just like a brick-and-mortar company, if you have a good management structure in place where you are reviewing work product at an appropriate pace when someone isn’t performing, it shows up immediately. You should be able to translate your existing management structure to virtual with very little change.
If you are rushing to push your team to remote, don’t spend your time worrying if you can trust your team to work or spend time trying to figure out ways to monitor them through software. Instead, focus on training them on how to work remotely.
Prepare Your Teams for Remote Work
If you find yourselves rushing to get your employees’ set-up to work remotely, develop a training guide or cheat sheet for how to manage their day and the expectations you have for them. The most important part of that guide for them will be how to set healthy boundaries. Here are a few things they’ll need to consider:
Find a Healthy Balance
Many new remote workers worry they’ll be distracted by their home life and lack the discipline to get work done. Instead, the exact opposite usually occurs: Remote workers become more productive once freed from a traditional office environment. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise since working remotely means fewer distractions, no commute and the opportunity to take real breaks.
A productivity increase is good, but many remote workers take it too far and end up working too much. How does this happen? The boundaries between your personal and work lives disappear. The laptop is always right there in front of you, and your mobile phone is always on. Your ability to jump between work and personal tasks is suddenly a lot easier, but if you switch back and forth all day long, it quickly adds up.
I’ve found the best approach is to allow employees to create healthy boundaries that work best for them and when they are most productive during the day. Based on their life schedule, let them determine the time periods during business hours that are strictly for work, and when they’ll be taking breaks. They need to develop the discipline to respect those times so that they can achieve a healthy balance. Encourage them to share their approach with their family so that everyone knows when to leave them alone so they can stay focused on work.
Also, if someone hasn’t worked remotely before, there’s usually an adjustment period as they figure out how to make it work for their home environment and schedule. Those who are initially reluctant to make the switch usually love it once they get their new routine down.
Create the Right At-Home Approach
When employees begin to work remotely, they’ll need to form new habits and make decisions around how they get work done. The way their day flows is up to them now (to an extent). Let them architect a customized approach. This requires some experimentation, but some of the initial considerations include:
- Where will they work? – Encourage them to find a space where they can work free of interruptions and distractions. This could be another bedroom, a basement, a home office or simply a carved-out area of their apartment. If possible, their workspace should be away from the main living space to reduce the temptation to check-in outside of work hours. They will need to let family or roommates understand that when they’re in their work area, they shouldn’t be bothered. My kids have learned not to interrupt me when my den door is closed (my wife thinks this doesn’t apply to her).
- When will they work? – Remote workers usually have some flexibility on when they can start and finish work (of course, this must align with your job’s core business day). They need to establish when they’ll be working and resist the temptation to let work tasks bleed into their personal time. If they’re not a morning person, perhaps they start their day later and have a window late in the evening to finish up. If they get their best work done in the morning, maybe they get an early start and end mid-afternoon.
- When will they take breaks? – Make it okay for them to take advantage of being remote to do the things they couldn’t if they were stuck at the office. They can exercise mid-day, run an errand or spend time their child. Let them schedule time to do the things that keep them happy and energized.
- How will they stay connected with their coworkers? – Working from home can be lonely. Depending on the job requirements, they may have periods where they don’t interact with coworkers for a large part of the day. To combat this, have them schedule regular time to catch up with coworkers. This can be through email, chatting over software or just a quick call.
- How will they remain focused? – New remote workers almost always fall victim to multitasking. It’s just too tempting, especially during conference calls (e.g., “I’m going to get through these emails during this boring part of the call”). To become an accomplished remote worker, they must learn to overcome multitasking temptations and be present for the single task they’re working on. If they’re on a conference call, focus solely on the conference call. If they’re writing a report, focus solely on that. No checking emails. No scrolling through social media. If they find this challenging, try doing calls with video on. When everyone can see the video, it reduces the temptation to become distracted.
Plus, if they’re having a one-on-one call with someone and aren’t engaged, it is always going to be clear to the other person. They’ll feel unimportant.
Change the Structure of Your Meetings for Virtual Calls
Virtual meetings are where all the work gets done in a virtual company. It’s where relationships are built and your culture is reinforced, so it’s important to develop a structure and protocol for virtual meetings. Considerations need to include how meetings will be structured, what format they’ll take, and how you’ll handle sensitive topics.
Our rules for virtual meetings include:
- Make room for personal connection. On virtual calls, allow time for relationship building and vulnerability. As a leader, it’s your job to model this. Our meetings always begin with a kind of virtual water-cooler sharing. Sometimes there’s an agenda item where everyone shares their highest high and lowest low for the month. Some moderators kick-off meetings with a question like “What is the grossest food you have ever eaten?” or “If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?” Either way, for the first five minutes or so, we talk on a personal level before diving into business.
- Require engagement. We have all been guilty of being distracted on a call. Suddenly you hear your name and must beg for forgiveness and ask them to bring you up to speed. So, while we want people to have flexibility, we also believe if you are going to be on a call, you owe it to everyone to be just as engaged as if you were all in the same room. If you are doing something that will cause you to be distracted, we only ask that you let everyone know at the beginning of the call. This is one of those unwritten rules we all naturally follow — we baked engagement and consideration for others into our culture.
- Don’t require the use of video. Some companies require video for every call. We don’t. As part of our commitment to flexibility, we recognize that people might be in a car or haven’t showered yet that day, so we have always made video optional. That said, there are definite advantages to seeing someone’s facial expressions. You must decide what will work best for your company.
- Handle emotionally charged topics carefully. It’s a fact of business that sometimes you have to have hard conversations. Whether it’s a poor performance review or a heated disagreement over the best way forward on a project, emotions can run high. If we know the conversation is going to be emotional or recognize that it’s becoming that way during a call, we’ve found the best approach is to agree to address it in a different format. We try to save the really emotional topics for face-to-face discussions (this includes any performance review, good or bad). If that’s not possible and the conversation must take place virtually, we lay out ground rules ahead of time.
Choose Remote Collaboration Tools That Increase Productivity
We’ve been operating virtually for 20 years. The tools were not great when we first started. We relied on tools that barely got the job done — basic email and conference call platforms, low-end document sharing and collaboration capabilities.
Thankfully, the tools steadily improved — it’s now possible to seamlessly collaborate with anyone anywhere in the world.
For instance, we recently switched to Microsoft Teams, a collaboration suite of tools for video conferencing, chatting, and shared workspaces that make it easier to work from home. We felt a positive impact immediately. Our productivity increased, and we became a more connected, cohesive organization.
Going Remote Will Give You a Competitive Jumpstart on the Future
The future of work is remote, and the adoption of remote is accelerating: 23% of workers reported doing some portion of their work remotely. And by 2028, it’s predicted that 73% of all departments will have remote workers. Your company will need to embrace remote work if you want to win the war on talent: 71% of workers say that the option to work remotely would be a deciding factor in choosing a job, and 75% report being able to work remotely would encourage them to stick around longer.
The benefits of having remote team members are great for your business. You will have happier employees and happy employees stick around longer, take better care of your customers and improve your company’s performance.