Remote Working as a Cultural Phenomenon
Remote working is now an established cultural phenomenon. From a societal and organizational point of view, a successful remote working policy must be a cultural imperative at an organization, with an intentionality behind it that strives to mitigate factors that weaken remote-worker success, such as poor communication, a sense of detachment from the organization, inadequate or even stifling supervision or possibly even noncompliance with local work regulations.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of organizational remote worker policy, let’s take a look at the broader societal constructs that lead to and benefit from remote working.
The first point to consider is urban development and the increasing population concentration in urban centers, in the context of “smart cities.” Despite ever-increasing demand for and strain on existing urban infrastructure, infrastructure improvements and technological innovation are slow and expensive, ergo their delay hampers the accessibility of jobs in proximate geographies. Development projects in concentrated urban centers such as Atlanta and Los Angeles, e.g. widening central transport arteries at great expense, have resulted in increases in commuting time. In other words, the necessity of remote workplace strategies is vital to overcoming the challenges facing an increasingly expanding population.
The second point is the democracy of access. Large segments of the population not concentrated in urban centers with large, diverse, sophisticated job pools are challenged to find an appropriate match with their skill set. Simultaneously, due to personal circumstances such as disability, child- or elder-care responsibility or lack of access to adequate transport, another significant subset of the population is disenfranchised from an employment opportunity. Remote working affords this subset fairer access to appropriate employment.
The societal benefits of creating a remote workplace strategy include:
- Access to qualified and affordable labor
- Reduced personal stress on the workforce confronting the challenges of ineffective infrastructure
- Reduced required real estate capacity leading to reduced capital investment and lower operating costs
- Increased net employee family income due to lower transportation costs
- Enhanced life-work balance and wellness afforded by flexibility
- Lower environmental impact
Consequent organizational risks are, however:
- Lack of control
- Lack of accountability
- Lack of collaboration
- Lack of interpersonal contact and connection
- Lack of shared purpose relative to the broader organization
In sum: how do you create an appropriate model that benefits society and simultaneously allows you to manage an enterprise-size global, distributed workforce?
Remote Working: State of the Phenomenon
Most organizations- more than 60%, by some counts – have already incorporated remote working options into their HR policies, while nearly all have reviewed their structure to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of doing so. The blossoming of ever more co-working spaces attests to the increase in workers needing somewhere to park themselves in the absence of a fixed office. But some organizations haven’t taken up the model at all and a few have walked back existing remote policies and returned to a standard everyone-in-an-office plan. Is the latter due to poorly-executed roll-outs or perhaps because remote working as a concept is inherently flawed in some way?
It’s important to examine remote working policies through the correct lens. BrandCulture’s Culture Framework, which breaks down the components of how an organization can become a great brand, is a useful tool for dissecting how culture can impact remote worker policy.
Remote Working Culture Comes From Company Leadership
Remote working standards start at the top of the organization. We don’t refer here simply to the semantics of the policy, but rather to the overall organizational values that can support a remote worker policy. Leaders must assign priorities and develop a supervisory structure that inspires employees to hit their productivity potential while allowing workers the flexibility to live the benefits of not having to commute to an office for a set number of hours each day.
This C-suite decision process may, in fact, result in not having remote workers at all. In 2013, for example, Marissa Meyer infamously called back all Yahoo remote workers to offices, sending a clear message from the executive suite. Companies like IBM and HPE did as well.
The goal is an optimal mix of onsite employees and remote workers that works for your particular organization. There are whole lists of organizations which are completely remote, eliminating certain company overhead and forcing all employees to optimize remote working strategies. Some companies follow a hybrid model allowing swaps for remote workers during different periods. Some companies insist on everyone coming together for the first week of the month, for example.
One of our favorite quotes on the subject embodies the flexibility we hope organizations build into their remote working policies: “…help fight the stigma that flexibility means working fewer hours, as it often just means having the opportunity to work different hours.”
Communicating Is (and Stays) Key
Communication is key in any organization, but even more so when companies have remote workers who won’t have easy access to in-person meetings or even informal hallway conversations to exchange ideas or information.
We see two core best practices here: ease access to important shared information, and implement tools for employees to collaborate and engage. Technology has certainly evolved since Meyer brought back her team in 2013, and there are some great ways to stay in touch. Establishing a shared drive or another file manager so all employees have access to necessary information is important. There’s no lack of great communication tools these days, from classics like Skype to relative newcomers like Slack. Our main takeaway is to invest the time to research the most appropriate platforms and make sure the whole team is comfortable effectively using a unified set of tools so that information isn’t scattered across multiple platforms.
Certain times of year are symbolically important for communication. If you have a distributed workforce periods like the end of a fiscal quarter or the winter holiday season are important times to bring together your remote workers. We love the LessAccounting example where during the winter holidays employees connect as a group by Skype, favorite beverages in hand, and buy each other Christmas presents while the recipient is on mute. This symbolism-based activity has the ancillary benefit of helping employees get to know one another a bit better.
Rewards and Recognition
Regardless of remote or in-office, catalyzing employee engagement and performance through incentives and public acknowledgment is extremely important. Make sure to celebrate successes together and recognize employees who are doing a great job by designing systems and KPIs that reward employees for great work done remotely.
AT&T, for example, has a broad array of recognition systems, not simply just cash incentives for good work. The company provides education credits, paid time off for volunteer work and other benefits that serve to reward employees while simultaneously bringing employees closer to the company culture.
Environment and Symbolism
Companies go to great lengths to create particular physical environments for their workers (think all those fancy tech campuses). The intention is to harmonize functional, emotional, self-expressive and social needs but how to replicate that same feeling for remote workers?
We suggest providing remote workers, when practical, with some cultural hallmark that serves as a touchstone of the organization. This may be smaller swag like mousepads, company-branded office materials and coffee mugs or up to the same type of desk or chair they would use if they were in the office. Whatever the physical item is, it should serve to bring the remote worker closer to the organization.
It’s also important for workers to respect general rules of office decorum regardless of their physical location, especially if connecting via Skype or another platform. No calling in from noisy cafes, be prepared, on-time, with a good internet connection, free from extraneous noise.
Case study: GitLab
GitLab is an example of a successful, fully-remote organization, even while it’s prepping for a potential IPO in 2020. The company, which creates products for software developers, has more than 600 employees working remotely, including its CEO, and relies on a variety of capabilities for communication, including an internal YouTube channel with more than 250 how-to videos for team members, tools that allow for asynchronous collaboration, and a 2,000-page employee handbook.
Two thousand pages may seem excessive, but is evidence of how much the company strives to keep its employees connected to corporate values, operational systems and the like. It’s also clear that remote-working policies originate from the top at GitLab, given that the two founders met online and never even had a physical office to begin with. GitLab has faced some challenges regarding its policy, including convincing venture investors that an office-less company can scale quickly, but continues to prove that with a strong cultural drive and solid collaboration tools, a fully remote-working organization can be highly successful.
So, Is there a Consensus on Remote Working?
In short, not really. While technology has advanced to the point that information management and collaboration tools are sophisticated enough to allow for highly successful remote working policies, some companies have decided that it’s still better to have the whole team on-site, somewhere.
The key takeaway is to take the time to evaluate your organization, its needs and those of your workforce along with the principles we’ve outlined above, and see where you fit: all remote workers? A hybrid model? Or perhaps, none at all!