Should I let my team work remotely indefinitely?

Written on 2020-06-03 by Mario Bertorelli

As some countries are starting to ease quarantine lockdowns, many companies around the world are facing a tough choice. Should they allow their employees to continue working remotely indefinitely?

Companies like Twitter, Shopify, Upwork and Facebook, have announced that they will allow permanent remote work, much to the delight of remote work enthusiasts, who see it as a potential turning point in history.

See Rodolphe’s post and full discussion here

At the same time, detractors argue that the main reason for this shift is to save costs on salaries, as these can be lower if workers don’t need to live near the office (which for tech giants often means San Francisco’s bay area, with its exorbitant rents). Several people also point out that the likes of Yahoo and Reddit tried remote work and eventually banned it, as it was not working for them.

These are valid arguments, but as many employees worldwide have, often for the first time, experienced an extended period of time working remotely, initial studies suggest that the majority would like that to continue.

Consequently, managers and leaders that are sceptical of remote work, or at least concerned of its pitfalls, are placed in a difficult situation.

In this article, we help decision-makers assess the criticalities of remote work and provide examples of how other companies have overcome them.

Specifically, we will focus on the 3 aspects that the Harvard Business Review identified as the keys to successful remote work: communication, coordination and culture.

It is reasonable to affirm that all three are easier in a co-located setting. However, remote work enthusiasts believe that because these three areas need to be intentionally addressed by remote teams, whereas they are normally taken for granted by other teams, remote teams end up being at an advantage. Moreover, technology has come to the rescue of remote teams, providing tools that mitigate the pains of not working from the same office, whilst enhancing the benefits.

In fact, in some cases, companies like Buffer, Zapier, Gitlab or Doist, to name a few, have been so good at making a virtue out of necessity, that it could be argued that they turned these potential pitfalls into competitive advantages.

Let’s deep dive into one aspect at a time, explain the risks and highlight the processes and tools that successful distributed businesses use to navigate them.

1) Communication

Why it is important

Excellent communication skills are arguably the most important trait to be a good remote worker. However, regardless of how well a single individual can communicate, it is imperative to adopt some clear communication policies throughout the company.

Why it is harder remotely

Tools like Slack & Zoom have shifted synchronous remote communication closer to in-person communication, but some issues remain:

  • Non-verbal communication is hindered in a remote context, even in a high-resolution Zoom call.
  • Asking questions and having a discussion can be harder, as you formally have to make time for it, rather than just talking it over a coffee.
  • Getting an urgent answer might be delayed, as you can’t just tap someone on the shoulder (although some remote tools like Tandem have been built to resemble that as closely as possible).
  • Finally, time differences can also pose a problem, as synchronous communication becomes much harder.

Tactics & tools to tackle this

Firstly, the main strategy that successful remote teams have adopted has been to resort to asynchronous written communication as much as possible.

Secondly, there need to be strict policies on which tools and forms of communication to use for different purposes.

At Atium, building on best practices from the remote work community, we use the following for internal communication:

  • Notion for documentation. This also includes notes from calls and meetings, internal and external.
  • Twist for chatting, distinguishing between messages and threads:
    • messages when we would like to receive a reply to a simple question.
    • threads when we want to open a longer discussion that can be replied to asynchronously. We then (try to remember to) close each thread when done, or review all the open ones at the end of each quarter.
  • Zoom for daily check-in and weekly events like retrospectives & TGIF.

Why it can be better remotely

Doing remote communication right means that almost every conversation in the company is written (or at least summarised in written form). This may hinder serendipity, but it also has considerable advantages:

  1. It forces clarity of thought, as taking the time to communicate clearly in writing induces reflection and critical thinking.
  2. It documents important conversations, increasing transparency and accountability and decreasing the chances of forgetting about things that have been said.
  3. It makes it easier to share information with a wider audience, both within and outside the company.

2) Coordination

Why it is important

Making sure that each team member is focusing on and delivering the right things for a company’s success is challenging for any business, and can become even harder in a distributed team.

Visibility and accountability are required to mitigate the need for micro-management. The better you know as a manager what everyone is accountable for, the easier it is to steer an individual’s or a team’s priorities.

We can compare it to a surgeon doing keyhole surgery: it is much much better to make a very small targeted incision to solve a problem, instead of a major cut because there is no visibility. Visibility begets trust, which as discussed later in the article, is the foundation of strong company culture.

Why it is harder remotely

Achieving a high level of visibility is difficult remotely, and as managers see their visibility slip away the instinct can be to lash out with controls that disempower employees and verge on infringing privacy (e.g. remote-monitoring employees’ screens).

That, however, is the wrong type of visibility. The number of hours worked, or whether employees check Facebook during working hours shouldn’t matter. As a manager, you have to trust your employees to make good decisions and help them prioritize their work.

Tactics & tools to tackle this

The key here is to have good project management tools and processes in place. If these tools are used consistently by the whole company, the need to see what another team member is doing at any given time is all but eliminated.

There are many project management tools which allow introducing accountability and visibility. Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Jira are some common ones. At Atium we use Notion. However, the key is not necessarily in the choice of tool, but in making sure that there are good processes in place to use them effectively.

In extreme synthesis, these are the main rituals that a successful remote team requires:

  • Clear allocation of roles, tasks and responsibilities.
  • Clear deadlines
  • Regular prioritisation of team & individual tasks
  • Regular checks on progress

Why it can be better remotely

Being remote gives an extra reason to move towards visibility and accountability. Managers and individual team members are incentivised to have clear tasks and make sure they are completed.

As Wade Foster of Zapier puts it:

“Because there is no other way to measure results in a remote team, the team inherently evaluates each other on what was completed that week. We share weekly updates on our internal blog (Async) every Friday—I bet you can imagine how it would feel to be the only one with nothing to show. That feeling creates a desire to finish something important each week.”

3) Culture

Why it is important

A study by Deloitte indicates that without a strong company culture, employee engagement will run low, leading to problems in productivity and employee retention. In 2020 this may sound like common sense, but building and nurturing a positive culture remains difficult in a co-located environment, let alone when running a remote business.

Why it is harder remotely

The foundation of any healthy company culture is trust. Research suggests that trust can be divided into two categories: cognitive and affective.

Cognitive trust is based on competence and reliability. As argued by HBR, cognitive trust can be achieved remotely by implementing the right processes, rituals and tools for communication and coordination.

Conversely, affective trust is based on feelings and in co-located companies it is typically built over serendipitous conversations by the water cooler, or whilst playing a game of ping-pong during Friday drinks.

In a remote setting, without these spontaneous social moments, it can be easy to only focus on tasks and not connect on a personal level.

Tactics & tools to tackle this

Successful remote companies are aware of this problem and invest significant energies and money into mitigating it.

The main example is in-person company retreats, which are held once or twice a year by flying everyone to the same location for a few days. These are great, but cannot be frequent enough, so other approaches are also needed.

As technology offers new possibilities, there is also an attempt to recreate virtually the informal social moments:

  • water-cooler channels on Slack
  • virtual coffee chats and one on ones, even with a serendipity aspect via tools like Donut, which randomly schedule a chat with another team member.
  • synchronous remote team-bonding activities, such as a virtual pub-quiz or escape room.

At Atium, our vision is to provide remote teams with a centralised tool to effortlessly build affective trust, via ice breakers before meetings, coffee-chat activities and team-building games (synchronously or asynchronously). Find out more here.

Why it can be better remotely

By being so intentional about culture, remote companies are often amongst the most open and transparent about their culture and this provides a sense of coherence to employees and future hires.

In conclusion

Communication, coordination and culture remain difficult to implement remotely, but rather than seeing that exclusively as a barrier, at Atium we believe there is also a tremendous opportunity.

With remote work, a manager can no longer passively hide behind spontaneous Friday drinks, ineffective meetings with too many people or vague discussions.

Leaders in the age of remote work have to be extremely deliberate about each of these aspects and ultimately this will lead to better leadership and better organisations.

Start nurturing your remote culture now

We hope you found this article useful. If you want to start consciously building trust and human connections in your remote team, we are giving free early-user access to our platform. Create a free account at atium.app