Expert Advice for Medium and Midsize Businesses

6 Ways to Build the Best Culture for Productive Remote Work

Jason Richmond
Chief Culture Officer and Founder at Ideal Outcomes

The workplace of today is not your father’s (or mother’s) workplace.  Change is so rapid it may not even be your older sibling’s workplace. The rapid advance of technology and the millennial generation’s rise into management positions have opened up immense opportunities. But they are opportunities that also bring a whole new set of challenges.

For employees, the benefits go beyond no longer being tethered to a desk and no longer forced to endure long commutes on traffic-snarled freeways. The freedom and flexibility provide an enhanced lifestyle. For businesses, the benefits are not only reduced overhead but access to a more diverse and qualified talent pool.

Remote working has become an ever-more-attractive option for both companies and employees. So much so that the number of people who work from home has dramatically increased by 115 percent in a little over a decade, according to a report created by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs. Nearly four million people, work from home at least half of the time, up from 1.8 million in 2005.

It’s a trend that’s only going in one direction and one that I see with my clients every day in spite of the fact that in 2014 Marissa Mayer, CEO of tech giant Yahoo, famously led an about-face and turned against remote working partly citing the decisions and insights that come from hallway and cafeteria discussions. Her stand was soon followed by Best Buy and Reddit and last year by IBM. (Ironically, IBM is a major player selling the infrastructure that enables secure remote working.) These companies are bucking the trend. Citrix Systems, in fact, forecasts that half the American workforce will be remote within three years, a statistic that’s unimaginable. But what if it’s only half right?

The much-talked-about millennial generation is at the forefront of this trend. Another survey shows that remote working is such an attractive proposition for millennials. In fact, when evaluating a job prospect the factors members of this generation rated more important were work-life balance (84 percent) and work flexibility (82 percent) vs. salary (80 percent) and benefits (48 percent).

Almost half of employees say they are more productive at home or remotely than in the office.

Just think about that and its implications for corporate culture. The work environment has a much greater influence than money. A corporate culture that recognizes and honors the fact that employees have a life outside of the office is one that is a magnet for talent.

In the same survey, 82 percent said they would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options. Sixty percent felt they would be more productive working from home rather than the confines of an office. And 35 percent claimed they would be willing to take a pay cut of 10 percent—even 20 percent—if given the option of remote working.

It’s hard enough to establish the right kind of culture in a traditional workplace environment, so how do you do it when your team is spread across miles, time zones, and maybe even continents?

Let’s look at some of the challenges before I offer the solutions. In a study of 1,153 employees conducted by corporate training and leadership development company, VitalSmarts, those who worked from home consistently felt ‘penalized.’ Compared with in-office workers more of them felt colleagues didn’t fight for their priorities, said bad things about them behind their backs, made changes to a project without warning them and even lobbied against them along with others. There’s also a danger of being out of sight and out of mind.

So, what can you do?

1. Take It Seriously

Switching employees to remote working is a significant undertaking and cannot be implemented casually; it should be established after careful consideration of all of the ramifications and how it will operate in practice. Plan the new workstyle. Put systems in place. Make sure online connections are secure. Don’t just jump into it.

2. Celebrate Remote

Once a small-to-medium business (SMB) decides to increase its remote workforce it’s a strategy that needs to be embraced wholeheartedly. It has to become a vital element of the corporate DNA—something that managers and employees alike live and breathe day in and day out. Even more than that, it needs to be acclaimed and celebrated for the benefits it brings to the company and the employees.

3. Keep In Touch

Communication is one of the keys to organizational success for every size company in every industry, and especially if there is a growing force of home workers.  Those who operate remotely miss out on water cooler banter and spontaneous brainstorming meetings. They’re not there to share the cake when it’s someone’s birthday or say yes to a last-minute after work social invite. These are the kind of things that build camaraderie and team spirit.

The answer is to work harder to communicate with remote workers so they never feel left out. A corporate culture only becomes fully effective when a steady stream of information flows throughout the entire organization no matter where everyone is located.

And someone needs to be in charge to coordinate the effort. Look at it like the biggest orchestra you’ve ever seen with so many different musicians playing so many different instruments. Who’s the maestro with the baton who will keep everyone performing flawlessly and harmoniously together?

4. Make Use of Tech

Fortunately, there’s a growing number of tools that can bring remote workers together with one click. These can be formal and informal; business-like and casual; informational and instructive; or just entertaining. Recreate the environment of an office to the extent that you can for everyone no matter where they are.

Check out Slack. It’s a virtual office for many companies. Communication takes place in channels, organized by project, topic, team, or whatever works in your situation. For many, it also facilitates the water cooler environment where everyone feels free to open up with news, humor and pop culture stories. GoToMeeting works well for larger groups to collaborate in real time.

5. Get Together

Online communication is a wonderful tool that allows us to see and talk to each other across the world. It enables us to work faster and more efficiently. But it cannot and should not completely replace in-person get-togethers. You can’t feel a handshake through your computer screen (well, not yet). You can’t share a cup of coffee or glass of wine in the ambience of a nice restaurant, even if you can toast yourselves long-distance.

The most thoughtful advocates of remote working know this and are also proponents of hosting retreats, seminars, conventions, summits, meet-ups—call them what you will—which physically bring remote workers together, and as often as they can. They budget for it. Plan for it. Face-to-face and in-person engenders stronger relationships and the building of an enduring corporate culture. I don’t see that ever going away.

6. Stay Flexible

The technology that enabled remote working in the first place is going to change. And if recent history is any indicator, it will change rapidly. That’s as sure as death and taxes. If your SMB was flexible enough to introduce remote working, it needs to stay flexible enough to adopt the newest technologies to make it even more productive and employee-friendly.

To Be Remote or Not to Be Remote?

Are you holding out against the trend with grim determination convinced there’s nothing wrong with running your business at all of your bricks and mortar locations? After all, you’ve been successful. Why not just continue the way that you are? Ask yourself these questions.  When a new generation of highly-qualified workers tells you it wants to work remotely is that something to be disregarded? Do you feel that the best talent pool resides right there within 25 miles of your office location, or does it exist elsewhere in the world? Why wouldn’t you want to be part of the future instead of stuck in the past?

Jason’s first book “Beyond the Plateau” is getting ready for publication. It’s an enlightening and entertaining take on what it takes to build the right kind of corporate culture to rise above the plateau that stifles growth. Powerful advice for both startups and seasoned company executives.

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