A Guide for Achieving Long-term Results for Remote Teams
Can you move all your business activities online and show high remote work productivity? Let's find out about the roller coaster called remote work.
Telecommuting was possible back in the '70s when personal computers and cell phones were just catching on. In 2020, most people wouldn't bat an eye if you said you were working remotely. You have a great Internet connection — anything is better than dial-up — and a multitude of tools that keep you connected to your coworkers and working productively.
Of course, remote work might be easy for people whose responsibility is limited to their skillset and managing their own time. Being responsible for a sole project or a company and the whole team behind it, doing your job whatever the location, letting your employees work from home, or hiring telecommuters requires some adjustments to your ordinary routine.
This article can help you determine what to expect when managing a remote team, what issues to be aware of, and what you can do, step by step, to prevent or minimize the impact of those issues.
First, we have an overview of the online business world.
The State of Remote Work Up to 2020 and Onwards
According to the Buffer 2019 report, 99% of the respondents wouldn't mind working remotely at least sometimes, mainly due to a more flexible schedule and independence of location. These are the same people who would forgo a vacancy because a company is strictly office-based.
You don't offer weekly shifts from home? You might be losing valuable professionals.
This is especially true considering that many people in Gen Z (born in 2000 and later; as scary as that sounds) will soon be adults. That generation was brought up with technology and can deal with new developments better than their closets.
While remote work is often associated with software development, it's not exclusive to engineers. People in other roles and industries can show high remote work productivity with a laptop and an Internet connection, whatever the location. Working remotely is now the norm as brands across industries begin to open their doors to this new form of work. From this report alone, 12% of respondents worked in marketing, 3% in education, and there were also respondents from government and healthcare organizations.
Along with companies that partake in some sort of remote activity, some companies are fully remote or even started online. A few prominent examples are Buffer, Doist, and Hubstaff. So, if you are considering switching to remote for any reason — it is possible to carry on your business online.
Look at how some of Silicon Valley's giants responded to quarantine. First, Google bit the bullet and allowed their employees to work from home until June 2020. Then, Facebook raised the bid and offered distance work until the end of the year. In contrast, Twitter decided to forgo any deadlines and said its employees would work from home indefinitely. Though Facebook and Google planned to start reopening offices sometime in June 2020, they later decided to keep working remotely till 2021.
Considering the housing problem in Silicon Valley and the sky-high rent in San Francisco, this transition might have been a long time coming — now, workers can move to more family or budget friendly locations, or are even opening their own online businesses. But this also means that if a company can move 100K employees and all its operations online, a small company has a good chance of undergoing the same transition and surviving.
Let's establish the quirks that make remote work different from the usual office hours.
How Is Remote Work Different? Issues Associated with Telecommuting
In this section, we look at three major issues associated with telecommuting. Please take into account that each can have negative and positive outcomes — sometimes, it's just the tip of the iceberg of personal, social, and work-life issues that you and your employees have; at other times, there is simply an obstacle that you can easily overcome.
It might seem that communication is what suffers the most in remote work because it lacks the physical component that people are used to. While close physical contact is rarely appropriate in the workplace, a kind pat on the back and a sense of closeness can increase the dopamine in the body.
Then, you need the right tools to maintain online communication. The need is not always the issue, but rather the abundance of such tools might make you scratch your head. Skype, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp, WeChat, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and internal chats in remote work productivity tools like Asana — just to name ten! There is also a work management software like Monday.com which is rising in popularity. Which one should you choose for company communication? The one that most of your employees are using already, or you may have some other criteria.
While it may be easy for you to choose a chat tool, it might be difficult for some of your employees to express themselves without the presence of another person, either because they need to see the other's facial expression, or they tend to use a lot of hand gestures.
Further, remote work lacks the office kitchen or cafeteria environment with its silly chats, friendly conversations, and a sense of community. Going remote can bring on bouts of loneliness, especially if you're used to such an environment.
Loneliness is a state of mind in which you feel emotionally drained and crave human contact. If you feel lonely more than once a week, it can be a cause for concern as loneliness correlates with depression and stress, poor decision-making, and issues with memory and learning. What affects your quality of life also affects your motivation to be the least bit productive.
Online communication allows for establishing rules, such as for reasonable response time, and reduces distractions. How often do employees approach a colleague or knock on your door? This can derail the thought process or productive mood, and it can take a while to get back on track.
If you find it difficult to talk to people without seeing them, almost every messaging app has the option to start a video chat, and you can combat a bad mood by encouraging off-topic chats and channels, video meetings, and offline events for co-workers that live in the same city.
- Requires additional tools to sustain (messengers, video conference tools, etc.)
- Difficult to explain things without personal presence
- No 'cooler talks' and friendly connections
- Loneliness and feelings of isolation
- There are far fewer distractions and more focus if all your communication is online.
- There's almost no difference between a meeting in a meeting room or a video conference, so all your meetings and brainstorming sessions can be transferred online.
- Friendly communication still exists (informal chats, online meetings, etc.) — it's a question of the corporate culture.
Time & Remote Work Productivity
Google "productivity," and you'll quickly see articles on how to boost it. Falling performance is a concern in the office, so it would surely decrease at home.
Suppose an employee misplaces priorities or spends too much time on one task? How do you track time spent on a task? How do you ensure that tasks are completed?
If these worries come from a place where you need to constantly supervise and control your employees, then either they haven't learned to take responsibility, or you are trying to micromanage. This doesn't sound like a productive on-site team, and it won't transfer well to remote work.
Another concern is that your co-workers won't be able to focus at home. It is true that home has more distractions than an office cubicle — there's your favorite duvet, your family, and a load of housework. But this is only problematic at first.
Diligent employees will adapt to this new environment, and once they do, remote work becomes less stressful and more productive. Airtasker surveyed just over a thousand US employees, half of which worked remotely. The analysis of their findings showed that remote worker productivity was higher than in-office, and remote working could lead to a healthier lifestyle. No wonder; now, they don't have to commute with a bunch of stressed-out humans!
Many apps support agile project management, help set tasks, stick to deadlines, and track time spent working.
- The team won't be able to manage their workday properly (such as wrong priorities or too much time spent on a task).
- It's difficult to control time and tasks online.
- People won't be able to focus and working from home productivity will suffer (such as atmosphere or distractions).
- It's important to hire self-motivated people who can work without a "stick."
- There are tools for tracking tasks (e.g., Trello and Asana) and time tracking software (e.g., Everhour, Timedoctor, Toggl), which maintain control for both managers and employees.
- Research shows that productivity increases when people switch to a remote setup.
- It's still important to create a comfortable distraction-free workplace. It may be a separate room (or at least table) or a co-working space.
Health and Habits
The Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged many jokes about gaining weight and being late to work while wearing PJs, but let's not take this spurt of silliness as the norm.
A drastic change of routine can cause people to turn to bad habits like eating junk food or constantly snacking because they're stressed or bored, going to sleep at odd hours, not getting ready in the morning — who's gonna see me anyway? Most of these habits are due to decreased activity: less commuting, less walking around the office, fewer gym sessions because your fitness center was near the office. At the same time, you eat more and probably drink the same amount of coffee every day. This is a recipe for feeling lethargic and falling energy levels.
While problems with inactivity can be remedied with simple habit changes and developing a morning routine, there's another aspect of working from home that can cause health issues. Remote specialists are prone to overworking. Either you don't have a strict schedule, or you can't say no to a coworker who has a nighttime schedule. Some people work in chunks throughout the day, and though having a rest is good, it's not good if you end up working at night.
On the bright side, less commuting means you can escape the stress of rush hour, and if you're not walking around the office, that probably means fewer trips to the kitchen for a snack and less distraction for your co-workers. Instead, you can develop a routine that incorporates no more hours of work than your contract requires and leaves time for leisure and physical activity. Plus, there are apps for time-tracking and managing personal to-do lists.
- Poor diet, lack of exercise, and poor sleep habits
- These things are personal, not dependant on the work setup
- It may be difficult during the first few weeks because of a new system, but generally, people tend to maintain a healthier life and a better life/work balance when working remotely (sleep, food, sports, etc. — they have more freedom to adjust to their own rhythm and don't spend hours on transport)
All these fears aren't unjust. They can be true if you don't have your work and personal life under control. However, the same issue that you fear going remote will cause can also happen in an ordinary 9-to-5 setting. It's just that online, these issues are exacerbated — easier to spot and can be dealt with.
How to Build a Remote Team and Keep Your Employees Productive
Once you have accepted that there might be issues and identified your own and the team's possible weaknesses, you can work on a strategy to overcome them. Here are some simple instructions and advice for building a remote team, as well as tips for achieving maximum remote work productivity.
Communication Is Key. How is it Established?
In her statement on the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce, Brie Reynolds, the senior career specialist at Remote.co and FlexJobs, said that it was often when employees were called back to the office from a remote program that it was revealed that managers hadn't contacted them in months, in some cases — years. Can there be companies where employees do their job without any sort of feedback or encouragement? How does that even work?
There's no data on how successful those companies were during their radio silence, but it's not hard to imagine that there wasn't much development or improvement. Communication is key to maintaining any sort of relationship.
Step 0: Be easy to contact and the first to say hello
It can be difficult for some people to approach you, or they might think that the open-door policy is just you being polite. You should make the first move.
Make it a habit to contact your employees to:
- Ask how they're doing personally and professionally because you care about them more than just as a work unit.
- Give honest feedback because if they're doing something right — they need to know, and if they're doing something wrong — they need to know.
- Encourage the good work they've been doing because online, there are no pats on the back or spontaneous praise like there is in the office, and stating that you know how good a job they're doing means more than you might think.
Being in touch, giving honest, constructive criticism, and recognizing good work all help create trust and, inadvertently, make it easier for employees to pick up the phone or write you in chat if they need to clarify something about a task or something does go wrong.
Step 1: Define communication expectations
What is urgent enough to require a phone call? How much time is appropriate to expect between a sent chat message and a reply? What about emails?
Create a concise set of guidelines on communication within a team, which define:
- the response time
- what requires a phone call, a chat message, or an email
- format of a message or email
As for the last point, teach your people how to contextualize communication. For example, if an employee describes a problem, encourage her or him to include what solutions seem fit for the issue — this promotes self-organization and also means your team can deal with an issue when you're offline.
Step 2: Set up regular check-ins and meetings
It can be a daily agenda check-in or a weekly meeting to discuss the progress and plans for the next week. This:
- Ensures your team is on track.
- Identifies where you are lagging.
- Ensures your employees don't take on more work than they can accomplish.
- Shows the bigger picture of when a project can realistically be finished.
Step 3: Set clear objectives by week, month, and year
Aside from KPIs, your team needs to know what goals everyone is pursuing and what they need to do to achieve them.
Some people may need daily objectives, and here's why. Imagine you have an X project, and you expect Y to result in Z time. A lot of people learn in college that they can procrastinate for a whole semester and write a thesis in a fortnight. It's stressful and probably not well-researched, but they need to get it over with. If these people transfer the same approach to your project, the results are poor performance and burnout.
So, any project or goal needs to be distributed into smaller chunks.
Step 4: Create a learning environment
Mistakes happen on different scales. To make sure they don't blow up out of proportion, take each mistake as study material, and encourage your team to do the same.
Also, if you treat a mistake as something that can be remedied and is not the end of the world, people are more likely to admit that something is wrong.
Step 5: Encourage team bonding
The sense of unity in a team is what suffers the most in remote work, but there are ways to maintain this unity. You can create a channel for off-topic communication or schedule group meetings during which everyone can get to know each other and bond.
However, if you decide to conduct video chats, it's a good idea to talk to all your employees one-on-one to determine if they are comfortable with that sort of arrangement. This makes sure you don't force them into a situation in which they don't want to be.
Tools for online communication
Various apps are available for maintaining online communication with your remote team, including email, chat, video call, and onboarding apps:
- Mailbird: for managing email accounts and business email communication
- Slack: for creating channels of communication, chatting to coworkers, audio/video calls
- Zoom or Lark: video conferencing with a chat option
- BambooHR: for onboarding new employees and keeping contact information
Time and Productivity. How to Reach Results?
Productivity is an elusive concept. A dictionary definition would say it is a measure of effectiveness in terms of input/output. While time is a factor in productivity, many people assess it by the amount of time spent working and not by the outcomes. With remote work, when you don't see people day to day, the results of their work come into the spotlight.
Are you a productive team lead?
Step 0: Focus on results, but time also matters
Have you ever thought that people should stop trying to be more productive and just show results? Some people are talented at seeming busy for eight hours straight, but at the end of the day, not much work is done.
One way to become productive at all is to break your tasks into smaller sub-tasks and measure the time you need to perform each one up to standard. On one hand, you are more likely to make progress on a task because you have a clearly defined algorithm. On the other hand, timing each sub-task will estimate the time required for similar assignments in the future.
There's a statistic floating around the web that humans have an extremely short attention span, even saying that it has decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in the last twenty or so years. But those figures are unreliable.
Psychologists say that it is difficult to measure the attention span of any living being. However, you can measure your ability to focus: use a stopwatch to time your work and stop it every time your mind wanders off-topic.
Step 1: Give your employees ownership of their piece of the work
Beyond that, let every member of your team see the bigger picture (project outline or roadmap, talk about it in meetings) and show how he or she fits into this picture. Responsibility comes not from orders or instructions on a task but from knowing that your work affects the outcomes of a project. This can be done by:
- Giving them the majority vote on a task — there's only one person who can be responsible for a particular task.
- Giving them a clear image of what "great" and "complete" looks like, and the scope of the task.
- Drawing a line between tasks where you can "safely" make mistakes and ones where there is little room for error.
Step 2: Prioritize the work
Doing the simpler tasks first instead of dragging them out forever, doing urgent tasks first because they are time-sensitive — that's logical,but knowing which task is urgent and what will or should take the least amount of time is not always clear. You can help your team prioritize by:
- Using statements like "this is urgent, please complete by…" or "this shouldn't take much time," and "let me know if you need help prioritizing your work for today."
- Adding a color code or words to the headline if you're using a task manager with Kanban boards.
Jira has a system of statuses for tasks, such as normal, urgent, or blocking the rest of the work. However, if you're using statuses, you should also define what each status means for your team. Like with communication etiquette, define your expected timeline for each status.
Another aspect of urgent work is that employees might have other, equally urgent tasks in progress. In an ideal world, such tasks wouldn't exist, but if they do in your team, make sure to:
- Ask what other tasks employees have in progress.
- See if any of them are urgent.
- Ask how much time would be needed to finish them
- Delegate to someone else.
Step 3: Limit work in progress
Some employees might plan more work per day than they can realistically handle. It can be discouraging if you planned to do five tasks but managed only one. It's also discouraging to other workers who counted on a task to be finished.
If you have employees who are the conqueror type — ones that deem every task as essential and want to tackle all tasks at once — work with them on prioritizing and create a table with types of tasks and time required to fully complete them. It may take some time to fill in the table, and you'll have to monitor it for some time to verify that the employees have learned to assess their abilities properly. If a 7-hour day is enough to only complete three tasks, there's no need to plan five.
On the other hand, you should monitor that your team members don't have too many open tasks (in progress) with roughly the same deadline. That's multitasking, and it shouldn't exist in the workplace. It's one thing to brush your teeth and watch TV and another to do two tasks that require cognitive function. Our brains aren't able to manage two things that require a lot of brainpower to accomplish, so if you try, neither task will be successful. Multitasking is an enemy of productivity.
Tools to use for time and productivity
Software has really changed how remote employees productivity is measured, and here are a few helpful instances:
- Asana, Trello, or Jira — task managers with Kanban boards, varying functionality, and price plans
- Toggle or Hourstack — for tracking time
- Zapier — for integrating different web applications
Taking Care of the Work Environment
An Internet connection and a personal laptop might be enough in some cases, but depending on the type of work your team members are doing, they might need more. For example, if one of your employees deals with customer support, make sure he or she has an appropriate headset and a small business phone system with VoIP software. For screen sharing purposes, many remote workers consider a co-browsing software as well.
No less important is taking into account the work environment a worker has at home. There are requirements in workplace ergonomics if we're talking about an office: the thermal conditions, humidity, lighting, and noise pollution. The standard acceptable thermal conditions are 23-26 degrees C in the summer and 20-23 in winter. This might not be appropriate for someone who always runs hot or has a medical condition, but the idea is to make sure that your team works in comfort.
As for humidity, for the standard temperature, the standard humidity is 50%. The Health and Safety Executive also says that a range of 40 to 70% should affect the perception of temperature, but once again, it will also depend on a person.
You've probably heard that one should get as much daylight as possible. That might not be possible depending on the living conditions of your team members, but make sure they know that the recommendation for normal office work and working with a computer is 500 lumen per square meter. This figure will help buy an appropriate lightbulb for the workroom.
Noise is another thing that some people might be more sensitive to than others. However, studies show that white noise — the kind of noise that oceans, forests, and, interestingly enough, some home appliances produce — can promote creativity and productivity. In fact, this study shows that 85 dB of sound is too distracting, while 70 dB is ideal for productive work.
So, if an employee lives in a hot environment, and there's no way for him or her to install air conditioning, it might be a good idea to send them an air cooler as an early birthday present, something that's affordable and contributes to an appropriate level of noise pollution and humidity.
It's also a good idea to offer partial or full compensation for a coworking space, as your budget allows.
Is Your House on Fire? Spy on and Eliminate Burnout
Burnout is real. The best way to prevent it is by leading a healthy lifestyle, eating high-quality foods, being physically active, going to bed at the right time, working on a schedule, and having sufficient rest. In reality, though, life is full of surprises, pleasant and not so much, and sometimes, you just go with the flow.
We don't need statistical data to know that most people are stressed, and this is translated into poor work performance.
Signs of burnout
- Increased irritability: snapping at other at work and home
- Falling performance: stress burns a lot of energy, and it becomes harder to do the same tasks with an equal level of efficiency as before.
- Overworking: overcompensating for the lack of effort
- Constant exhaustion: feeling like you've been running up a hill all day, but you can't fall asleep
Some things to help prevent burnout
- Open vacation policy: take a day off whenever you need as long as you don't drop off the radar while there are tasks that the project and other team members depend on.
- Mental health days: for a digital detox, when you need to reset your mind, recenter and deal with your anxieties without the pressure of work
- Options for a healthy lifestyle: a gym membership, therapy sessions, participation in sports events — anything that your budget allows
- Friendly environment and flexibility: an environment where your opinion matters, and you won't be yelled at if something goes wrong
Switching entirely to remote work, integrating telecommuting opportunities, hiring freelancers — all these require adjustments to your ordinary way of managing a team. Everything from communication to how people manage their day, what they eat, and how much physical activity they get during the day influences how well they do their job and requires a different approach from what works well in the office.
Remote work has its benefits and limitations, but you can find a positive side in a lot of these limitations. Take communication for example. You can't physically go and see a colleague to discuss something, but you can text them in a chat, email them, write a comment on a related task in your project management tool, or call them if something requires their immediate input.
You can reach high remote work productivity on a digital basis by optimizing tools to improve remote productivity — using the right ones for task and time management, onboarding features, chat rooms, and video conferencing tools. And most of all, by developing a corporate culture where people don't follow rules just because someone says so but because they understand how their work contributes to the project and influences the work of other team members.
Does remote working improve productivity?
Some studies show that people become more productive when they switch to remote work. They are also more likely to make healthy lifestyle choices.
How can I be productive when working remotely?
When it's about your personal productivity, the best way to start is by organizing a dedicated place for work. You should also assess your online and offline environment — tools, stationery, a comfy chair — and make sure you surround yourself with purposeful items. However, the harder but more beneficial thing is learning to prioritize your work and limit the amount of work you have in progress.
Does productivity drop when working from home?
Productivity can drop when working from home. This depends on your mental state, the number of distractions you have at home, and your experience with remote work. For example, if you have never worked remotely, and you have children, your productivity is most likely to drop. On the other hand, if you have worked remotely in the past and are highly disciplined, and your home is quiet for most of the day, then your productivity level can be even better than in the office.
Is it working remote or working remotely?
Working remote would imply that you are doing your job while located in a place with a less concentrated population. Working remotely means doing your job without being present in a physical office. Either phrase doesn't change the concept of remote work — working from any place that has an Internet connection, be it your home, a café, or a personal office room.