Practical remote working: part 3 - business processes and culture
In the last two posts we tackled what I have always found the easy parts in being an effective remote worker. In this post I am going to look at the difficult problems of business processes and culture. In order for organisations to embrace remote work and get all the benefits it provides you need to challenge some old school entrenched thinking and behaviour.
I want to explore the following topics in this post:
Clear task definitions
Mentoring junior staff
Building a cohesive team
One of the first and most often asked questions is always about productivity and output. Questions such as "Will they be working their full X hours per day?" or "How do I know they are not slacking off and delivering less than what they could?" are common.
What most amuses me about these questions is that I have worked at plenty of organisation where the on-site staff were delivering far below what they should. However, since they were present for at least 8 hours per day this sub-par delivery was never really noticed or questioned. At some organisation there was so much "busy work" going on that people never truly realised that actual work was not taking place. Yet the organisation could not understand why their key projects were running behind schedule. Let that sink in for a moment.
It is really important to realise that just because someone is visibly sitting in their seat and looks busy does not mean they are actually moving you towards your goals. "Busy work" is the absolute enemy of productivity. It sucks the life out of a team and project. It is all of the tasks that are dogmatically followed but which does not move the work forward. I have seen it most in organisations that exhibit cargo cult behaviour with regards to methodologies and productivity.
So, in order to address the concerns about productivity of both on-site workers as well as remote workers we need to change the way we measure productivity. Repeat after me: "What gets measured gets managed". The simplest thing to do is to start tracking people's deliverables. This might seem like a very strange concept for some people, but many organisations have been doing this for a very long time. I personally believe that this is the reason why Kanban and Agile delivery approaches on IT projects work better than other methodologies.
In both of the above-mentioned delivery methodologies work is split into small tasks that are assigned to or picked up by employees. These tasks are estimated by the teams that need to deliver them. This leads to more realistic estimates against which people's delivery can be tracked and which will give insight into the true progress of work and the real productivity of your teams. This way of working is not only applicable to software development teams. If you think about it carefully you will realise that all work can be broken down into small manageable pieces which can be tracked. In fact, most people taking on any complex activity will end up breaking it down into its component tasks in order to deliver it.
The biggest challenge for an organisation stuck in the X hours per day mindset of productivity is to acknowledge that it does not accurately reflect a measure of productivity. Organisations need to change their view on productivity to be one in which we measure deliverables and the output that team members produce. Once you have done that you will also have no fear about whether your remote workers are productive because you will be accurately measuring their productivity.
Clear task definitions
Once you have made the change to start measuring productivity based on deliverables you will realise the importance of clear task definitions and good communication. If you start following a methodology like Agile or Kanban you will automatically be forced to break tasks into clearly defined units of work. I therefore recommend that you look into using such a delivery methodology to help you ensure tasks are clearly defined.
If you are not looking to use such a methodology or use your own hybrid approach, then ensure that tasks a clearly defined and contains a definition that states when a task is done. This "definition of done" is extremely important for clear task definitions since you otherwise would not know when to consider a task completed. I would venture to say that it is one of the most important things required to clearly define tasks. Knowing what your "definition of done" is indicates that you have thought through the task and understand it well enough to articulate the circumstances that will allow you to consider the task completed. A task without a clear "definition of done" is not a clearly defined task.
Mentoring junior staff
Remote work is not the best option for all situations or people. It is definitely a very difficult thing to do when you have junior team members and it is something I want to highlight here to ensure people are aware of it.
In my own experience most organisations try and provide some form of mentoring for junior staff to help them get productive as quickly as possible. This mentoring and day to day assistance does work much better when people are in the same location typically because you cannot always anticipate what challenges a junior member of staff will face. Juniors are also not always that confident in asking for help when they are struggling with something. They might feel that it will reflect badly on them. It is thus much easier when a colleague is able to periodically check in with them during the day to make sure they are not stuck without getting help.
While it is much easier to help junior members of staff when everyone is on-site it does not mean that there are no solutions for making it work remotely. One such solution is to schedule regular check in points throughout the day with your junior team members. Here they are able to ask questions related to their work and can get guidance. If you have fostered a good culture with open communication, then they should also become comfortable in getting in touch when they are unsure about any part of the work they need to do.
A second option is to ensure regular periods of on-site work where juniors and their senior team members are in the same location and work together. This can take the shape of doing X amount of days per week in the same location for a certain period of time until the junior team members are productive enough to transition to a larger portion of remote working.
Yet another approach, which has worked really well for me in the past when I was a junior, was to have a set period of time in the office with your senior team members at the start of your employment. Not all of them had to be there all of the time. It was simply important that there was one of them to help guide you through your tasks. After this period, you are assigned a mentor who would then work with you to ensure you progress your skills and always have a point of contact.
The approach I described last was used by the company I joined for my first job straight out of university. They were a niche consulting company specialising in demand and inventory management who sold a software solution as part of their offering. Due to their well thought out approach they were able to send me to a client who was 2,000 km away from the main office two months after me joining them. I was able to function as a delivery consultant on my own with this client for the duration of the 6-month project. I always felt like I had the support I needed when I required it. I was able to function effectively on this project due to their open and efficient communication, the extremely professional behaviour of my colleagues and their understanding of how to support people working remotely on client site. Some of my fondest memories of my career are still from my time working for this company.
Building a cohesive team
It is important to ensure that you build a cohesive team in your business. When your organisation has remote workers, it is important to foster a culture that ensure this includes those remote workers as well.
One of the most damaging things that can occur is for managers and workers that work in the office to create a culture of "Us vs Them". This can happen without it being a conscious decision. By not following some of the previous guidelines for effective communication, equipment and software, the perception can arise in the office that it is difficult to work with remote colleagues. This would of course be a false assumption because the challenges being experienced are being created by on-site employees and not the remote workers. If this is left unchallenged to run its course, then the end result will be this divisive culture resulting in the remote workers being seen as second-class employees. In the end the benefits of remote work will not be available to anyone.
In order to address the previously mentioned problem it is imperative that management enforce good policies that will ensure all parties involved follow the best practice recommendation to make communication as efficient as possible. It is always a big help when some of the management team take advantage of the remote work option and does that on a regular basis themselves. This will ensure that they have first-hand experience in how their company is doing in making remote work seamless.
Isolation is always a big issue for remote workers. We as human beings are social creatures by nature. We all handle isolation in different ways and can cope with it to varying degrees. Some people prefer to be isolated while others cannot stand it at all. One challenges with remote work is to ensure that employees have the ability to be connected with the organisation as a whole to feel part of the team. This can take the form of annual company events that bring all employees together as well as smaller regional events that bring those working in the same region together. These events are a great way to allow people to feel part of the overall vision of the company they work for. In addition to these broader events it is also useful to encourage teams to have remote hangout sessions or coffee sessions informally during the week. This is a good way for remote teams to take a breather the way office bound employees in a team might take a coffee break together.
A second way of dealing with potential issues relating to isolation is to allow employees to choose the level of remote work that they are comfortable with. In an article written in the Harvard Business Review it was clear that not all employees would benefit from remote working and that allowing people to choose this option resulted in the best outcome.
Your company culture and the way you approach remote working within your company are both crucial for the success of any remote working program. Remote working does not work if an organisation is not committed to making the changes required to make it a success.
In this post we looked at some of the topics that I have come up against in my own personal experience. This only scratches the surface on the list of things one need to consider when wanting to ensure effective remote working. There are entire books written about the subject and many organisations who work entirely remote have made their experiences public. The first that comes to mind is The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun, the second Remote: Office Not Required by the founders of Basecamp. Anyone who is looking to bring the benefit of remote working to their organisation will be well served to look at these resources.