flexible-working

The pitfalls of remote working – and how to overcome them

Remote working offers an unparalleled set of benefits – but comes with a bunch of serious drawbacks. If you really want to make the best of remote working, you’ve got to tackle these problems head-on and commit to a business-wide strategy.

It’s 2019. Communication via video, text and voice across continents is instantaneous, easy, and essentially free. We’re living in the future – and businesses are starting to realise the immense opportunity this offers. One of the most oft-cited examples of these opportunities is remote working – where employees work outside a centralised office, not as part of irregular, working-from-home sessions, but as the primary way they do their jobs.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits to embracing remote working: you get to pick from a massive – potentially global – talent pool. You make your business more attractive to people whose lives don’t easily fit into traditional, 9-5 office jobs. You can save huge amounts of money on office space, and your employees can avoid the steady pile-up of expenses on coffees, lunches and commutes. Various studies suggest that that remote workers can be highly productive. Last, but definitely not least – you get to hand your employees a hefty chunk of flexibility and independence.

With a list of benefits like that, it’s easy to charge into remote working head-first, anticipating massive rewards… but do that, and your business will likely end up in some serious trouble.

The reality is that remote working requires a significant commitment. It comes with its own unique set of problems – and your business will need to have spent a good chunk of time thinking about these, and their solutions, if you want to make this move successfully.

To help you prepare, we spoke to a variety of companies which have embraced remote working – and really knocked it out of the park.

We spoke to two people who have stellar experience managing the realities of highly-remote working: Andreas Klinger, the Head of Remote at AngelList, and Sara Bent, a People Ops specialist at HotJar.

Problem 1: Loneliness.

We put this one first because it’s one of the most overlooked issues with remote work – and one of the most damaging problems.

Humans are social creatures, and many of us rely on our workplaces to provide us with a large portion of our social interaction each week. Remote workers could end up barely seeing their colleagues – with their human contact limited to Slack messages, emails and calendar invites.

The result can be a very real threat to your employees’ mental health. In an office, a good manager might quickly pick up on someone 'who’s not feeling themselves' – and offer them some early support. That’s much, much harder when your communication is messages, emails and the odd video call. Doist has a fantastic article by their CEO about how living the no-strings-attached “digital nomad” lifestyle ended up turned into a nightmare of loneliness, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

The solution: build sociable spaces

You need to spend some serious time constructing ways for remote workers to interact socially with other people in the business. You can’t just hope these interactions will happen naturally (as they often do in an office) – you have to build spaces where people can have them.

Hotjar – which is a fully remote company – really threw themselves into this, implementing:

  • “Coffee Break” calls – any team member can message another for a 10 minute chat about anything – mimicking the chat that happens around the office coffee machine.
  • “Bonfire Calls” – each Wednesday, everyone has the chance to jump on a group call and spend time chatting, playing games (charades is apparently a particularly popular choice) and getting to know each other.
  • Work Together Allowance – team members are allocated a set amount each year which they can spend on travel and accommodation – so that they can spend time working with another team member.
  • Regular full-company retreats – because getting everyone in a room is still an invaluable way of bonding your team
Hotjar has actually been a more communicative, open and sociable company than any other I've worked at. I had been concerned that remote working could get lonely at times, not working in the same location as others. Hotjar has actually been the opposite of that.  -Sara

Problem 2: communication gets tricky

When compared to face-to-face conversations, every form of remote communication has some sort of drawbacks. Slack messages are easy to ignore or miss. People take ages to reply to emails. Video or voice calls are fiddly, and get ruined by dodgy internet.

And that’s just the “official” communication channels. Remote workers can lose out on all sorts of subtle, “unnoticeable-until-they’re-gone” types of communication. A chat around the coffee machine where you find out about a project that you’d love to be involved with. A running joke that boosts the bonding between your team members. Someone’s body language, or their intonation, which completely changes the tone of a conversation.

The solution: build a culture of effective communication

Effective communication needs to become a core aspect of your company’s culture.

This starts at the top – so set an example by being highly responsive to all messages, and focusing on communicating clearly in everything you do.

Be clear about what sort of responsiveness you need from your team members – and always hold yourself to that same standard.

Finally – don’t get frustrated. Sometimes, things are going to be trickier to communicate than they would be in person – accept this, and remember that there are benefits that come with this type of communication too: you can think over your messages in more detail, edit and improve messages later on, and recall conversation archives at the touch of a button.

“I’m not sure there actually is a product which really works for remote communication. To understand a conversation on Slack, you either have to be around as it happens, or you have to retread loads of ground. Perhaps some day we’ll have a product focusing on discussion summaries – which would be extremely useful for remote teams.”  - Andreas

Problem 3: productivity challenges

Offices are – and always have been – designed to help people be productive. There’s plenty of very legitimate criticism of them, but it’s also undeniable that, for some people, they really do fulfil their intended purpose.

Bedrooms, kitchens, coffee shops – or wherever your remote workers choose – are not designed with productivity in mind. They’re casual, distraction-filled places, far removed from the supervisor peering over your shoulder, or the colleague who needs your work done to hit their deadline. There are plenty of people who thrive in these spaces – but, being entirely honest, many people don’t, and will struggle to produce work at the same level and speed as they would in an office.

The solution: hire the right people

You can sidestep this problem entirely with effective hiring. According to Sara, there’s a few things that are absolutely crucial for someone to fit in at Hotjar: they’ve got to be self-motivated, independent, and committed to growing and improving.

Sara also talked about the importance of hiring people who were committed to openness and transparency – so they’ll be comfortable bringing up any problems they’re having with work, allowing the team to help them out.

“There’s already a location barrier between team members. If you’re not operating transparently, you’ve just built up another barrier – which might just end up being insurmountable” - Andreas

The real, overarching solution

All of the above solutions are fine, but there’s one larger action which makes all of the above actions much easier.

You need to go all in. Both Andreas and Sara stressed that this was the real message they wanted to get across: if you really want to feel the benefits of remote working, partial commitment is not an option.

The more a business is split between remote working and centralised, office-based working, the harder it is to build in policies which make remote working succeed. The businesses that have truly successful remote working cultures are the ones that have embraced it as the primary way of working.

"For us, a lot of the challenges of remote work have been managed easily – because Hotjar has been set up to deal with them from the very beginning" -Sara

A 50-50 split of remote and centralised, office-based workers is a nightmare. When you’re hiring, you’ll have to constantly switch between looking for someone who will fit into an office, or someone who will thrive remotely - and never develop an instinct for either one. All your effort in building up a culture of effective communication and building sociable spaces will be wasted on the half of your team that works in an office.

“Whenever you’ve got a company which is divided between remote and office-based workers, problems will crop up. Eventually, employees will start asking themselves whether one of the groups are being treated as second-class citizens.” - Andreas

But if your company is 90% remote workers, you can really commit to building the perfect culture, the right behaviours and the necessary structures to make this work. Don’t waste your time dithering: go big or go home.

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