Remote working guide: how to work together when you aren’t together

More than 3 million Australians work from home, which means managing teams got that little bit more complicated. Alex Brooks explains how to work from home but make it feel like you still work together in a team.

This story was first published on B&T by Alex Brooks

Remote working can be a little like a long distance romance – you have to put in your best efforts to stay connected. Remote work can be chaos-causing rather than culture-building – just try setting up a Zoom call between New York, London and Sydney at a mutually acceptable meeting time and you will know what I mean.

There is, of course, plenty to love about remote working – flexibility is the big one. It does demand a slightly different way of working compared to the days of old, when workers were expected to clock on and clock off in full view of the boss. Search demand for the term “remote working” has grown over the last 15 years, and it’s probably never going to go away, particularly now that flexible working arrangements are not only an employee entitlement, but also a great way to attract and retain the very best staff.

Search demand for “remote working” has risen, along with the numbers of people working from home or other remote locations.

Back when I first started working from home in 2000, I felt like a lone wolf and people looked at me strangely when they discovered I had a desk at home and actually worked at it from 9am to 5pm rather than wait until the muse would strike and call me to create.

These days, working from home is nothing unusual (although I have possibly earned a more excellent return on investment from my Herman Miller office chair than most). The Australian Bureau of Statistics now actually counts the number of people who “usually worked from home in job or business”.

For most of us, there are a bazillion reasons to lap up the chance to work from home, including:

Freeing yourself from the dreaded commute

In Sydney and Melbourne, Foreseechange forecaster Charlie Nelson says “getting around” Australia’s two biggest cities is time consuming and making people worry about the amount of time being stolen from them when they attempt to commute to work. Given that it took me 20-minutes to drive just 3km last weekend, I totally get it.

Living the lifestyle you want, even if it’s far from the city

The Demographic Group managing director Bernard Salt told me that the internet and remote working technologies have freed people from the old burdens of geography. In the old days, a landline telephone number and the address on your business card dictated where you could do business. Today, people can connect from anywhere. “People don’t know whether you’re speaking from a swish Collins Street office or whether you’re doing something out on a property somewhere. Today, they judge you on your outputs rather than your geography,” Salt says.

Being more productive to fit work around your life and caring requirements

If you need to care for elderly parents or small children, working from home offers the flexibility to get personal tasks done, while also juggling work. That still isn’t easy, and remote workers who have caring requirements need experienced managers who can also care for those carers. A bank worker I know is juggling the care of her elderly mother with a child and full-time work, and loves the freedom of being able to work from home when needed. “The fact is, I get more work done in the office, free from distractions than when I’m working at home and trying to do everything else as well,” she says. “Working from home doesn’t always make you more productive – but the flexibility to choose it is really important to me.”

Taking control of your work and output in a new way

As many head offices introduce Activity Based Working (don’t call it hot-desking … even if that’s what it kinda is), many teams now have the flexibility to work in different locations and at hours that suit them. Plenty of people have the option to work from home, and may do a few days in the office to cater for face to face meetings. 

Working effectively remotely means managing tools, people and culture effectively

Remote working tip one: find tech tools that build culture

The first rule of remote working – especially if you’re part of a distributed team – is to find the technology that not only connects you all, but helps build culture, too.

When I managed a remote team of 13 people, we used Skype (mostly because Zoom hadn’t been invented) and that famous Skype swipe was the soundtrack to most of our working days. We had it turned on at a set time each day, and made video calls with each other if we needed to have a conversation. We loved finding funny videos and stickers to send to each other and make work conversations feel that little bit more human. We augmented Skype with a private Facebook group, which actually became the place to share ideas and converse freely as humans, rather than just team members.

I have loved using Slack inside offices, mostly because it’s so interesting to see how channels take on different personalities or functions. Once there are channels like “coffee club” or “burger news”, these communication tools help forge office-led friendships and a sense of connectedness. Without connectedness, you just have people struggling to find ways to collaborate, engage and be effective. No-one likes offices where people don’t talk to each other. And no-one likes working remotely without banter or feedback every now and then.

Remote working tip 2: Find the best mutually acceptable meeting times and stick to ‘em

Coordinating schedules across time zones and booking a conference room for a video chat takes more logistical brain power than dropping by a coworkers desk for a meeting or grabbing a quick coffee. Technology itself can also be glitchy – video that cuts out or horrible sound that shrieks because you’ve put a mobile phone too close to the router really ruin the vibe.

I definitely prefer face-to-face catch ups with a team but when that’s not possible, then a regular video meeting with a proper agenda is the next best thing.

In my former roles, our teams committed to fortnightly face-to-face meetings and would remotely call in the other team members, with a shared Powerpoint deck emailed around for everyone to look at the same agenda, notes and updates. Group Zoom calls are also a dream for this kind of arrangement. Everyone can see everyone else on the call, as well as get in to a shared document with visuals or notes. 

Just like real world meetings, you need to:

a) Have an agenda (it’s really important that everyone can contribute or prepare for the meeting);

b) Operate with shared rules and behaviours, like not talking over one another or allowing people to raise agenda items at the beginning of the meeting. We had our own routines for weekly meetings, based on people flagging their current workloads or projects with a red, amber or green ‘traffic light’ system which were also shared in a document with the whole team;

c) Minutes are always the best way to make sure actions aren’t missed and that everyone is on the same page. It’s still better to take handwritten minutes of actions than to attempt to “record” a meeting and transcribe it afterwards (which you’ll only do once before realising that it can take two hours to transcribe a 20-minute meeting).

It’s also really important for managers to keep up weekly, fortnightly or monthly one-on-one meetings with team members. You can’t expect people to go hiking without a map, and when you don’t work together face to face then you need to give team members the chance to ask questions, seek direction or simply know that their manager cares about them.

Remote working tip 3: project management tools – and documentation

Managing people without knowing what people are actually working on is a recipe for disaster. I’ve used everything from Google spreadsheets to Confluence and Jira to Basecamp and Trello to keep things organised. No project management tool is perfect. (Me trying to use Asana was proof of that). Forget ever finding the perfect tool and focus on finding a tool that works best for your team. 

I cannot stress enough how important it is to find the right workflow or implementation management tool for your business and team members. You’ll also need to make sure there are simple to follow instructions (ideally with screenshots or videos of your process and how you want it to be used) that you can email around for people as a reference if they get stuck.  If remote team members feel confused or bamboozled by technology, then they rebel against the tools and don’t use them. Headache. Check in regularly that project management tools are being used correctly and ideally refer to them in your communications via email or chat to keep emphasising their importance.

Remote working tip 4: Learn the art of flexibility

If you’re managing teams who work remotely, you will inevitably have to dance between customer needs, business demands and technology restrictions. You’ll also need to juggle ‘people’ demands – do they need to tell you every time they are out for an appointment, or can you all trust each other to get your work done without micromanagement? 

You often need to find solutions to accommodate staff requests that often turn you into an HR person rather than a professional doing a real job.

●  “I just burned myself making a cup of tea at home, can I take the rest of the day off as sick leave?”

●  “ My brother’s girlfriend’s dad died and I need to go to his funeral – is that paid leave?”

●  “ I need to take three weeks’ off at Christmas, but I only have two weeks up my sleeve – will you advance me the paid leave?”

Whatever tests come your way, managing remote employees is here to stay. Social media scheduling tool Buffer’s State of Remote Work  report found 99% of people plan to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers. 

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