The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary for businesses around the world to close their offices and transition employees to working remotely. For many business owners, managers and employees this is their first time conducting business while completely remote. If you’re part of, currently managing, or are having to set up a virtual team, you may be wondering what approach is best for you in these unusual times and what it means for your team long-term.
It can be a difficult adjustment, especially when you’re used to daily face-to-face interactions with your colleagues. But there are clear short and long-term benefits to your new situation that can be found once you overcome the initial challenges of online work. By knowing what you’ll be facing and how to best adjust, you can better serve your team and develop long-term strategies that capitalize on the positive aspects of remote work.
Common challenges with remote work
Possibly the most difficult part shifting to fully remote teams during a crisis is the lack of planning that went into the transition. If you’re a manager or business owner, you’re likely having to develop or adjust remote guidelines and communication practices on the fly on top of maintaining your business, adjusting forecasts and reviewing budgets. However, by understanding the common challenges that every individual on your team may be working through right now, you can better prepare yourself and your colleagues to succeed.
Lack of face-to-face interaction
Face-to-face meetings are often taken for granted and can even be seen as a waste of time if not structured properly. That all changes when your team goes fully remote. You often don’t realize how beneficial it is to interact with teammates or hold meetings in-person until it’s unavailable to you.
Without face-to-face interaction, employees may be discouraged by the lack of direct managerial support. On the flip-side, managers may be concerned with a lack of transparency or productivity. In either case, identifying a supplement for in-person meetings and conversation is necessary for remote teams to function properly.
Lack of communication and collaboration
Stemming from the previous issue, the lack of direct communication between employees can become a problem if not addressed early on. At the office, getting information from a coworker can be as easy as walking by their desk or setting up a quick meeting, but remotely this typically quick conversation can become a mountain to climb.
This issue is complicated even further by the lack of social awareness that can develop between remote employees. An unfortunately gruff email that could typically be explained by someone having a hard day now loses that context due to the missing social interactions. If you don’t take the emotional element into account, your team may move from incredibly collaborative, to incredibly distant.
Social distancing and isolation
Another aspect of missing social interactions is the feeling of loneliness that can take over. This is especially true during the current crisis, where most employees are now quarantined within their homes. Without clear direction and purposeful online interactions, your employees may feel less valued and excited about working within the company. For more outgoing employees, this feeling of isolation can even lead to depression or other mental health-related problems if they cannot find applicable substitutions.
Lack of productivity
Working from home means there are more distractions throughout your day than usual. It can be extremely difficult to define a workspace and method for working from home that matches your capabilities in-office. For parents and pet-owners this issue is only made more difficult, as they are now having to balance work with unexpected and time-intensive responsibilities.
As a manager or owner, the best thing you can do is understand that these distractions will be normal at first and your team may not be able to maximize productivity right away. By providing support and clearly outlining goals and expectations, employees will be more likely to block out the distractions and find an ideal working environment. But it will take time.
Work-life balance adjustments
The flip-side of dwindling productivity is the potential to overwork and burnout. It can be really easy for remote employees to slip into unhealthy work habits when they cannot separate their work life from their home life. The best thing you can do is continue to encourage healthy living, regular breaks and turning work off from time-to-time. Yes, remote work may mean strange hours for some employees, but that doesn’t mean they need to be working all the time.
How to Manage Remote Teams:
As a manager or business owner, you’re likely experiencing your own challenges with remote work outside of helping your employees manage the transition. However, there are some quick adjustments you can make to not only help your staff but make your new work from home life a whole lot easier.
Establishing a regular timeline of communications with remote employees can provide a sense of regularity and normalcy for employees. There’s no hard and fast rule for what this should look like. It can take the form of a daily check-in, virtual collaboration hours or a simple weekly email to see if an employee needs to chat for example.
Find what works best for your team, the individual and yourself and set-up an initial schedule to follow. You can always adjust the consistency and form of communication as you and your team become more comfortable with remote work.
One of the initial pieces that can fall by the wayside when going remote, is the consistent sharing and immediate access to information. You don’t realize how often you share insights or get answers through a quick side conversation until it stops happening. The best way to avoid this dropoff is by pushing your team to overcommunicate.
Create additional slack channels, have virtual meetings that combine different teams, hold weekly company-wide info sessions to convey broader strategy. It may seem like overkill, but the more you encourage regular collaboration and set up the channels to do so, the more likely that everyone stays informed and encouraged.
Leverage video conferencing
One of the best tools for remote teams to leverage is video conferencing. Not only does it help with communication and collaboration, but it can also serve as emotional support for remote workers that feel isolated. It may not be the perfect replacement for in-person interaction, but it still provides beneficial face-to-face conversation and visual context that cannot be conveyed through email, chat or collaborative documents.
Develop remote social events
Developing successful remote routines and communication strategies to maintain productivity is necessary, but so is maintaining your employees’ physical and mental well-being while being remote. While typically you’d set-up team bonding events outside of work, under our current social distancing circumstances that has become impossible. Instead of simply eliminating these events, replicate them as fully online happy hours, virtual team building sessions or virtual game nights.
Similar to how meetings provide a sense of structure and normalcy to an employee’s workday, these virtual social engagements do the same for non-work interactions.
Everything mentioned up to this point ties directly into the need for transparency. This may be simple for some companies, that have transparency tied directly to their company culture, but for others, this can be difficult. As an owner or manager, you may not like the idea of sharing the difficulties of the company’s financial situation or giving everyone direct access to what other teams are working on.
You can decide how much and what type of information will be shared, but the more transparent you can be the better chance you have of keeping everyone focused and onboard.
As you work to develop and refine online collaboration keep in mind the emotional and mental state of your employees. You may not fully understand their situations like you would when interacting in-office and need to realize that each individual’s adjustment will play out differently. Some will take to it like a fish to water, and meet or exceed expectations, while others may struggle to find a productive workflow due to added distractions, isolation or communication issues.
Regularly ask how they’re doing with the new situation, listen to their concerns and focus on their responses and difficulties. At the same time, try to maintain your own stress and issues as well as you can. It doesn’t mean that you can’t express the difficulties you’re experiencing but try to focus on how you’re facing these challenges versus how stressful they are. Your employees will be looking to you for guidance and if you communicate a sense of stability it can help them express and face their own issues.
The Benefits of Going Remote
The challenges associated with going remote can be overwhelming, but if managed effectively, there are potential upsides that can be achieved. These benefits not only allow your business to thrive in the middle of a crisis, but they also may make part or full-time work in the long-term worth investing in.
Cost-cutting in a crisis
In a crisis, the potential for downsizing is an unfortunate reality, if you’re unable to minimize your cash burn rate and extend your runway through cost-cutting efforts and loans. Long-term you know it’s more cost-effective to retain employees, but it may seem impossible depending on your current financial situation. That’s where one of the benefits of a remote workforce may come in handy.
With your team being online, you can focus on cutting in-office costs that would be required to sustain your workforce as well as company-paid travel expenses, meals, and other miscellaneous costs. Additionally, staying home can minimize your employees’ personal expenses which may make it easier to implement a short-term wage cut. Making these adjustments can not only save everyone’s jobs but assures that your staff remains financially stable throughout, even with a reduction.
Long-term hiring benefits
When you work online you have access to talented people no matter their postal code. Home-based businesses allow for the continuation of great work no matter where your employees live (so long as they have internet access).
This also allows for greater outreach and hiring of talented people outside of your area without their having to move to you. With no need to relocate their families, find new schools for their kids, or endure the daily commute, you’ll attract workers who want to be part of a team that loves what they do.
Along with the ability to hire new people, home-based work allows your current employees freedom and flexibility that ultimately helps them save on childcare, travel, and other expenses.
Reduced overhead costs
Next to labor costs, one of the largest operational expenses of the traditional business is office rent and related overhead. If you’re a global business, no doubt you’ll also be feeling the pain of rising travel and accommodation costs.
Sure, making the decision to go virtual may mean an initial investment in collaboration and communication software. But it’s worth it when you weigh it against conventional business costs.
Safety and peace of mind
Working from home allows your employees to maintain their personal health by lessening the risk of them and their families contracting the COVID-19 virus. Remote work also allows employees and families a continuous form of income; things are quickly changing and businesses are having to shut down, ultimately putting countless people out of work. Moving your business online allows you to continue operating and keeps your employees safe and comfortable.
While decreased productivity is an issue during the initial transition, the potential for increased productivity later on more than makes up for it. Not having to endure the commute to a physical workplace each day is a major plus for many workers and that benefit extends to the overall business. When you consider that the average commute in the U.S. is more than 25 minutes, that’s a lot of time potentially saved each day. Your employees could be focusing on important tasks instead of sitting in rush hour traffic.
Remote work success stories
As our own team at Palo Alto Software has transitioned to remote work due to COVID-19, we’ve implemented many of the communication practices mentioned in this article. The situation is fairly new to us and we’re still facing new challenges every day. But increasing the number of communication channels, setting up regular meeting times and capping each week off with a remote happy hour, has helped our teams remain productive, opened up new opportunities to collaborate and has made social distancing feel not so lonely. While our adjustment is still ongoing, here are a few examples of successful companies that were founded with remote work in mind.
Help Scout is one company that has found success because of its commitment to a virtual working environment, not in spite of it.
Nick Francis, co-founder of the Boston-based help desk software company, writes in a blog post how the company has built its culture around working remotely. He says that the decision to “go all-in” and shun the traditional office environment is to ensure culture fit when hiring employees. For him, adopting a hybrid working model isn’t an option because, as he writes, “Trying to optimize for both will likely result in remote employees feeling like second-class citizens.”
Help Scout’s approach to virtual teams may seem extreme, but it works for them. Even the “About” page demonstrates their commitment to hiring team members based on talent, skill, and diverse perspectives, as opposed to geographical location alone.
Another globally-distributed team is Zapier, a startup offering a web automation app. Wade Foster, co-founder, and CEO has written an entire document on how the company successfully operates as a remote team. What’s their recipe for success? Team, tools, and process. Just as with Help Scout, Zapier hires team members that have the willingness and ability to work remotely. If potential hires write well and are self-motivated, that’s a good start. Difficulty trusting people or need constant social interaction? Not so great.
Zapier uses web-based tools and processes to stay organized and keep employees engaged. They have weekly team meetings—or “hangouts”—and monthly one-on-ones to allow each team member the opportunity to raise concerns and give regular feedback.
Will a remote team work for you long-term?
Remote working isn’t for everyone, but as you can see, many companies thrive in this type of working environment. Even if your business was pushed to go remote due to current global circumstances, once you recognize that—just as with centralized teams—there will be challenges, you can overcome them.
Being proactive, listening to the challenges of your team, responding to them, and finding places to grow in ways that are only possible remote teams will ultimately keep your business up and running throughout this pandemic and beyond. You may even find specific advantages that your company can adopt as part of your long-term strategy.
Keep an open mind and don’t let the frustrations of the sudden transition eliminate opportunities for long-term growth. Try to embrace the idea of fully online work, support your team and focus on the potential benefits your new situation can provide.