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It’s no secret that today’s employees want more work flexibility, and the presences of remote working positions is growing. What are the benefits for employers and employees? How do you make a remote working program work? What sort of pitfalls do companies need to watch out for?
Lisette Sutherland is a “virtual virtuoso” and the director of Collaboration Superpowers who recently released a book on the topic: A Handbook on Working Remotely — Successfully — for Individuals, Teams, and Managers. She kindly shared some of her expert insights with Dizzion.
How did you get interested in the remote working trend and become an expert in the field?
Lisette Sutherland: Back in 2006, I was working for a company that built an online project management tool. The CEO of the company was building the tool because he didn’t want to die. He was frustrated that longevity scientists from all over the world weren’t collaborating fast enough to solve the “problem of aging.” I found his purpose inspiring and worked with his team to perfect the art of online collaboration.
Through this work, a personal passion was ignited and I started talking to companies who were working virtually to find out how they were making remote working work for them. Down the rabbit hole I went. And more than 10 years later, I published a book about what I found: Work Together Anywhere, A Handbook on Working Remotely — Successfully — for Individuals, Teams, and Managers
Why do you think remote working is growing in popularity?
LS: Mainly because the technology is making is so easy and seamless to connect. In a lot of situations, commuting just doesn’t make sense anymore. And people want more flexibility for hobbies or to spend more time with their families.
But remote working isn’t only good for employee happiness purposes. Companies get the ability to expand or contract their workforce depending on their current needs. That kind of flexibility is also very powerful. And as for attracting new talent, in a lot of cases the “right person” for the job is often not easy to find in a company’s immediate vicinity and so it makes sense to look beyond your immediate borders.
What industries do you see remote working being adopted in?
LS: According to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, the industries that experienced the “greatest surge in time spent working remotely” were the finance, insurance and real estate industries, followed by transportation, manufacturing, and retail.
Based on the kinds of people who sign up for my workshops, I personally see remote working being adopted most in the finance and software development industry. The reason for the high adoption in software development teams seems obvious: they often have to work remotely, they are tech savvy, and Agile methodologies focuses teams on continuously improving. For the finance industry, I’m not sure what the reason is, but I suspect it’s a combination of cost cutting measures and not being able to find enough qualified people locally.
What are the benefits for businesses that allow remote working?
LS: Offering flexibility is one of the primary benefits people are requesting from companies. And therefore, offering flexibility is a prime way for companies to keep their existing staff. Remote options means happier workers. A 2017 FlexJobs survey found that parents rank work flexibility (84 percent) ahead of even salary (75 percent). That’s a pretty powerful statement.
But again, it’s not just staff retention. Companies are finding that hiring staff in other locations enable them to reduce costs – significantly – and therefore, increase profit.
What are the benefits of remote working for employee?
LS: In one word – Freedom! The freedom to work in the place WHERE you are most productive. The freedom to work WHEN you are most productive. The freedom to care for your family. The freedom to avoid the commute. The freedom to train for a triathlon. Managers are afraid that people won’t work if they’re not being supervised. The data shows otherwise.
What’s required for a successful remote working initiative? (i.e. management tools, collaboration technology, good hiring practices, etc.)
LS: The key to being successful with remote working is finding the optimal combination of skill set, tool set, and mind set. Easier said than done, obviously.
To start: it is essential that workers are sufficiently skilled for their positions. On top of the basics, people should have solid writing and communication skills because a lot of communication when we’re remote is written. Remote workers need to be organized, able to prioritize their activities, and have excellent time-management skills. Characteristics for any high functioning distributed team are being reliable, results-oriented, and responsive to communication.
From the interviews I’ve conducted, the secrets to success appear to be: make communicating easy, define what normal behavior is on your team, set clear expectations, make your work observable, put lots of feedback loops into place, and infuse some fun.
What are the biggest challenges companies should watch out for when starting a remote working program?
LS: According to the consensus of nearly eighty companies polled by Remote.co, what is “hardest about managing a remote workforce” is managing productivity, supporting employees, team building, and communication.
My advice for transitioning to remote is to take things slowly, train your team, and get feedback along the way. Try things in small, reversible steps. For example, start with one day per week – or work from another part of the building. Teach people how to use the tools, how to communicate and how to make their work observable. Don’t enter into this with a sink or swim mentality. It IS possible to work online as if you were in the office together, so approach the situation from a mindset of trust. Trust that it’s possible to go remote, and trust your team to be the professionals you hired them to be, and then set them up to succeed.
Any recommendations for organizations that might have data security and productivity concerns in regard to remote workers?
LS: To enable productivity, team members (remote or in-house) will want to experiment with new tools for keeping each other connected, oftentimes using company computers. But this can be a nightmare for company IT departments who have to make sure security protocols are followed. Teams need to grow with the technology. And companies need to keep their data safe.
The solution is to address security concerns from the perspective of trying to make virtual technologies both safe and effective. And some very large, very security-focused employers have embraced the remote option, as demonstrated in FlexJobs’s “100 Top Companies with Remote Jobs in 2018” list. A few players there include ADP, American Express, JPMorgan Chase, The Hartford, UnitedHealth Group, and Wells Fargo. The point is, it is possible to do. But it requires more effort from both sides of the table.
How can managers who are interested in hiring remote workers convince the business that it’s a good idea?
LS: Start by outlining what work needs to be done. Then try and demonstrate how you or the team will be fulfilling the necessary obligations. Show how going remote will add value.
Take the time to consider things from the business’s perspective. What about productivity? Reliability? What about team morale? Then decide how to demonstrate that the remote workers will be fully accessible, responsive, and, above all, productive.
Whether or not a company allows for flexible working, it’s wise have the processes in place to be able to work remotely in case it’s unexpectedly necessary. Consider various unavoidable events that can keep workers from their desks: traffic jams, public transit delays, sick children, inclement weather. With a minimal amount of preparation, a workforce won’t have to grind to a halt because of an unforeseen emergency.
It’s worth giving virtual work a try. While it might be that it’s truly not for you, the preparation you’ll need to do to give it a decent chance will make you stronger in the long run.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
LS: There isn’t a one-solution-fits-all for remote working—or one formula to follow. Each person, each company, will need to experiment to find what proves to be most productive. Remote teams are doing great things together all over the world, so know that it’s possible to rock it on your team too.
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