Big Thinking, Culture, The Workplace

Remote work and how to get it right

We have all read the stories. The super cool Silicon Valley tech companies where every person works remotely. No office locations. No 9-5. No commute. No water cooler chat. Instead, just a group of hyper-outcomes-focussed individuals, working around the world (usually in ‘sexy’ places – think NY, Berlin or Bondi), using technology to collaborate, and then occasionally, meeting in a fabulous, exotic location for a week-long conference and bonding session.

While this may sound like a dream (and for some of us who rather like ‘hanging with the team’, a nightmare), true remote work has largely been isolated to the tech crowd, or jobs in bigger companies that are completely computer-based, with the vast majority of roles in medium to large employers tending to stick with more ‘traditional’ approaches to flexible work (such as part-time work or compressed hours).

But the tides are now changing. Over the last few months, a number of Australia’s more traditional companies have started to seriously explore true remote work, and are trialling this, in a commendable attempt to keep up with the cool, and more nimble ‘smaller end of town’ and to attract and retain great employees who have no interest in a capital city CBD commute every day. (A quick note for clarity. When I refer to ‘true remote work’, I mean the more Silicon Valley-esque approach of no central/home office locations and no requirement to work specific hours in specific locations etc.)

At mwah. we are enjoying working with a number of big Australian companies as they implement remote work. While the teams we are working with all really want to get remote work right in their organisations, I have found their foundational thinking on the topic usually starts in one of two ways;

  1. How hard can this be? Hire some great people, provide a phone and a laptop, schedule a weekly team meeting and let the good times, innovation and mega success roll on in.

or

  1. This sounds great, but I am nervous. This could all go wrong, very wrong. What if someone doesn’t do 38 hours per week, as per their contract? What if their home office is not safe? What if the kids/dog distracts them? What if they don’t talk to the team? What if they don’t work at all? And, even more scary, what if everyone wants to work this way?

While both viewpoints are in parts valid, there is absolutely a middle ground. Moving to true remote work doesn’t have to be bureaucratic and complex, but by the same token, it isn’t a ‘beer and skittles’ decision, its one that takes a little thought and pre-planning to get right.

Remote work also doesn’t (and shouldn’t be) focussed on compliance and risk management, but these factors do need to be taken into consideration so that the structure, cultural rhythm, and dare I say, processes, put in place to support work (remote and otherwise), actually do just that. 

So, with remote work becoming a more a mainstream proposition, what do businesses and Leaders need to think about and do, to get it right? There are a lot of great lessons and pieces of practical guidance we can take from our Silicon Valley Tech friends (especially Zapier, Automattic and HelpScout), who’ve been at this for years, but we can also look at very practical steps used in more traditional companies that are getting this more and more right. From our work, once a company has a committed mindset that they want remote work to be successful, three simple things matter most to getting remote work working well;

(1) Culture –Culture is quite simply, the ‘way we work around here’…or…’the way we work together’. It’s not something that should be left on its own, in the hope that something great will emerge. It needs to be curated and understood by everyone on the team.

This is even more true when you have a team of people, working in semi isolation, with limited shared experiences and daily interactions, coming together to get work done. To make it a little trickier, let’s add the further complication with the layer of differing cultural nuances and norms, that come with global teams.

For remote work to work, you need to focus on getting the culture of the team right from the start. This comes down to your team rhythms, norms, structures, processes and behaviours.

Think about the unique culture the team need to thrive, not only within themselves, but also within the context of the broader company culture they work within. Based on these needs, design and implement simple approaches to help your desired Culture come to life. Reward and amplify great examples of culture. Quickly address and rectify behaviours or performance that are out of sync.

Culture needs to be a top of mind thought for everyone on the team, especially the Leader. Check in regularly on how it is going and be honest about the good, bad and ugly.

(2) Relationships –We know from the Curtin University and mwah. Happy Workers Report released in early 2017, that Relationships (along with purpose and agency), are one the key drivers of a person’s happiness at work. But how do you get these right in a team where informal coffee chats, routine shared experiences and group banter at your desk is not a regular part of the job? What if the closest relationships you have at work are the clients that you work with regularly, as opposed to your team mates on the other side of the world?

Like culture, relationships are something that need to be prioritised and given energy to, in remote teams. For Leaders, this includes establishing deep 1:1 relationships with each team member (which can be simply through weekly video calls and daily ‘check in’ texts and chats), as well as supporting relationships to be built across the team. How? Encouraging and leading ‘fun’ banter in your comms (more on this below), encouraging (and even requiring, if necessary) your team to spend regular 1:1 time together (virtually is ok), pairing different team members up on projects, and finding ways to create personal connections between the team – “Oh Laura, I know you love photography, did you know Yen’s actually is a ski photographer” ….

This is also where physical team get togethers are critical. They don’t have to be in Maui or the Maldives like the tech companies (although I am sure your team would love them to be!), but they do need to happen, semi regularly (no less than every 6 months). The depth of relationships that can be built by some simple face-to-face time together are extraordinary and will help your team to function even more effectively when they are apart. A big investment and time commitment? You bet. Critical? Without a doubt.

(3) Communication – How you communicate, what you communicate and how the team communicates amongst themselves is what turns a group of people working remotely into a team (as opposed to a cohort of individuals who just happen to have the same boss).

The focus of communication in the tech space tends to focus on communication ‘tools’ (think Slack, Messenger, Trello etc.), as opposed to what is being communicated and how.

In a remote team, it is critical to be clear, purposeful and often, repetitive with information and messages to make sure everyone on the team is across the critical information. Beyond this, given communication is such a powerful contributor to culture and relationships, comms within remote teams needs to do more than sharing technical or company information. It needs to be a way of having fun, celebrating success, and picking up and encouraging the team during down days.  In a remote team, every single person needs to be active contributor to team communication, ensuring they are not just receiving, but are also adding to, and clarifying, messages, where needed. This needs to be a clear priority for everyone, and will help you as a Leader, ensure all the ships in your fleet are travelling to the same location.

So that’s the three. Nothing too technical, new aged, or tricky. Rather, these are the things that will inherently make sense to all of us, but unfortunately, are not always the easiest things to get right.  It can be done though. It just takes a little trial (and error), an openness to feedback, a desire to involve the team in solutions to your challenges, and an appetite and tenacity to keep rolling and evolving how you do things, until you find an approach that works.

We wish you luck as you enter into the work of remote working, and look forward to hearing your stories of success (and challenge) as we build a local Australian narrative on what this could look like for us. And yes, it may (and probably will), include people working from a café or from the balcony on their house after a morning surf.

Sonja Ankucic

Energiser | Ideator | Friend

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