As all the normal rules for business and social interactions are shredded daily by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, working remotely has become a lifeline for UK businesses.
Many organisations that have previously ignored remote working are making an overnight u-turn, or those that only allowed hybrid working when team workloads overflowed, now need a framework, some rules and fast ideas for keeping morale up.
But with enforced working from home likely to last for weeks and months, how will teams sustain their productivity? How can executives reorienting their businesses hope to ensure remote workers’ focus and mindfulness?
As an all-remote company with teams in 65 countries, we researched the working habits of 3,000 remote workers – before the coronavirus lockdowns – to help refine our own policies. We talked to some seasoned remote workers: one third of our survey has worked this way for 3-4 years; a quarter of them has 5-9 years’ remote work experience and one in ten has been doing it for between 10 and 15 years.
The good news is that these employees are content and productive: more than four in five say they get through their workload and almost nine out of ten are satisfied with the tools and processes they use and think management gives them autonomy. More than half the people we spoke to reckon they do their job and travel less than they did before.
Having a flexible lifestyle is clearly the most popular benefit from remote working – named by more than half of our survey – while almost four in ten say the main advantage is not having to commute.
Less predictably, perhaps, more than a one third said the best thing about being a remote worker was that they actually saved money – this was a bigger deal for them than either being able to care for their family and elderly relatives, or reducing their overall stress levels.
Managers are supporting their remote teams – in and out of work. More than four out of five in our interviewees say their company supports in-person gatherings through events and meet-ups; two-thirds are connected to remote work communities.
But remote working takes discipline. Nearly half of our survey said the biggest drawback is managing at-home distractions – well ahead of struggles collaborating with colleagues/clients, or simple isolation/loneliness, each of which troubled around a third of our interviewees.
Taking this data and seven years of life as a remote company together, we can offer some rules for building remote, productive and mindful teams.
First, if you don’t already have one, start a dedicated company handbook for protocol and processes. Writing things down is crucial to employees breaking away from their co-located habits and enabling remote teams to succeed.
Keep the company tool stack down to an absolute minimum. Start with Google Docs, a chat tool like Microsoft Teams or Slack and Zoom for video calls. And if your team needs access to internal systems through a VPN, ensure that everyone has easy access to it and the instructions are clear.
Formality for informal communications
Second, organisations forced to go remote need to take a formal approach to designing informal communication. Companies need to create an atmosphere where employees feel at ease reaching out to colleagues through a video call or a chat function to talk about non-work topics – it’s the key to establishing real workplace friendships and building trust with newly remote co-workers. Managers can also use tactics such as an always-on video conference room per team, where team members can come and go as they want – this helps people get used to remote which can seem unnatural at first.
Make time for relationships
Third, all-remote companies need to make the time in their diary regularly to get to properly know one another as people, not just colleagues.
Many of us have taken part in company meetings or “happy hours” that felt a bit contrived or even scary. We have seen the team-building possibilities of regular team video calls where everyone can add to the agenda – or weekly coffee calls where people from different teams build a rapport, as well as the informal company and departmental video meetups you might have anticipated.
UK connectivity and cloud resources have improved markedly, so video and work applications like Slack and Google docs work well from the desktop. Post-coronavirus business communication can be practical, even enjoyable, as long as you give your employees the support and confidence to practice. Zoom calls and emojis that older colleagues and office cynics previously discounted as Generation Z being frivolous could become a staple of home working – as our own survey found.
With the right focus and commitment from all sides, remote working will deliver practical working environments and potentially more engaged employees. We believe it’s the future of work.
Darren Murph is Head of Remote at GitLab