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. 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.
What are the difficulties of working remotely?
Possibly the most difficult part of 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. Employees may become discouraged by the lack of interaction and direct managerial support. Leadership can also become concerned over a lack of transparency into productivity. You often don’t realize how beneficial it is to interact with teammates or hold meetings in person until it’s unavailable to you.
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. 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. 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 has been especially true over the last year, where most employees were (and possibly may continue to be) 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, 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. 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.
Work-life balance adjustments
The lack of a barrier between work and home can also potentially lead to overworking 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.
What are 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.
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.
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.
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.
How to transition your team to remote work
Now you know the potential issues and benefits you’ll be facing through remote work. With those in mind, here’s how you can effectively set up your newly remote team for success.
1. Set and manage expectations
Actually implementing remote work is one of the most challenging aspects of the transition. Not every role is well suited for it, some employees don’t have great environments to work from home and initial performance can take a hit. To help navigate the initial complexities of establishing remote work systems be sure that you speak to your team upfront.
Outline what positions you anticipate going remote and if you foresee any remaining in office. Give a brief explanation for how you expect communication to progress, what project management will look like and if there will be opportunities for hybrid work. Once you’ve laid out the initial process, it’s time to approach your team for feedback.
Ask them how comfortable they are working remotely, what concerns they may have, and if there is anything that you can provide to help them transition. Be sure to establish expectations at this stage, that speak directly to a healthy work-life balance. You can encourage flexibility based on each employee’s situation and help them avoid feeling like they need to be on 24/7.
2. Develop communication guidelines
Onboarding your team to function remotely will be an ongoing process. Setting expectations early and engaging in regular feedback loops will help streamline the process. However, you also need to explore what communication will look like moving forward.
You, unfortunately, lose a lot of direct access to employees and coworkers when going remote. There’s no longer any opportunity for a quick sidebar, a chat over morning coffee, or the ability to run over to someone’s desk to ask a question. This lack of regular communication can dramatically impact productivity, lead to feelings of isolation and even derail projects.
So, just as you outlined expectations, you need to establish guidelines for communication. Establish more regular touch bases between teams and employees. These can be short, informal meetings meant to drive discussion and check-in on the day or week’s progress. Over time, as your team becomes more accustomed, you can look for opportunities to remove some of these meetings.
Additionally, you want to be sure your team has the right digital communication tools and is using them appropriately. An instant messaging system like Slack is great for quick questions, idea threads, and troubleshooting. It’s not great for a lengthy project update that should be conveyed through email or set as a milestone in your project management system.
Review the tools you currently use and how you use them. Explore if anything is missing in your communications pipeline and where information is falling through the cracks. If necessary, document what’s available and how it’s used to make it easier for employees (especially new ones) to reference.
3. Create metrics for success
It can be difficult to translate in-person success to remote success. This is especially true if you’re used to productivity being related to hours in office, number of calls answered, or other old school factors. When going remote, you need to shift your focus to project and solution milestones.
This is a solution mindset that helps you better focus on reaching goals and driving growth for your employees and business. These metrics can typically be directly associated with revenue, conversions, or other monetary factors. Not only do these allow for greater flexibility but they also encourage employees to focus on what’s most important for achieving specific goals.
Adopting success metrics like this can also help you better gauge performance. You can focus on the quality of work, accuracy, and general contributions to projects and milestones. This makes it easier for you and your employees to track and measure performance, helping eliminate less than positive surprises.
4. Invest in the right tools
We mentioned the need for communication tools, but there are other investments you’ll need to consider. A solid video chat platform should be the first thing you look into. While it can’t replicate what it’s like to be in the same room, being able to engage with someone audibly and visually in real-time is incredibly beneficial. It ensures that employees are still maintaining and strengthening relationships, and can even help alleviate the lack of water-cooler moments you once had.
You’ll also need to consider overall security for you and your team. Make sure you have antivirus software for company laptops, a remote VPN to encrypt sensitive internet traffic, and even a password management system. You’ll also want to be sure that you have a cloud storage solution, like Google Drive or Box, that keeps documents and data secure.
Lastly, you may need to explore virtual solutions for other in-person elements. A cloud-based HR platform, for example, maybe necessary for maintaining time off, insurance, and tracking time cards. Additionally, some employees may need specific hardware, like a monitor or keyboard, to continue doing their jobs correctly. Be sure to maintain the communication you set up and help provide solutions when necessary.
5. Deliver regular updates
Finally, with everyone being remote, the need for transparency is even more vital. Employees need to be aware of what’s going on with the company, how other departments are doing, and if/when a hybrid or in-person environment may be explored again. This can be done through a blend of regular one on ones, all-company meetings, and even decks that cover company updates.
Test and hone in on what works best for you and your team. You may find value in a weekly or monthly video call that covers financials, events, and other regular elements. Or maybe a regularly updated PowerPoint or document covering those same subjects is enough. Keep listening to your employees, take feedback, and fine-tune elements that aren’t working.
Remote work success stories
As our own team at Palo Alto Software has transitioned to remote work this year, we’ve implemented many of the communication practices mentioned in this article. Even a year 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, the 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.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated for 2021.