I’ve been lucky enough to have worked virtually, on-and-off, for the past 16 years. I’m in the office more often than not these days, but I’m still incredibly grateful to work for a company that trusts me enough to choose where I work.
My longest stint of remote work has been here at Batchbook, which began as a completely virtual company seven years ago, when everyone on the team worked from their homes (or cafes, or co-working spaces, or at the library). Since then we’ve learned a lot about what makes remote working both successful and challenging. The things we’ve learned have been mostly human in nature, not technical, so while there are a ton of great tools out there to help remote workers stay efficient and connected, what we’ve been practicing – and need to still practice more of – falls into three, largely-non-technical categories: communication, collaboration, and trust.
Remote work at Batchbook is as diverse as our team’s needs. We have four always-remote people and five mostly-remote people. The rest of us either work remotely one-day-a-week or just when we want or need to. There’s a big difference between someone who can come into the office once a week and someone who’s not sure exactly when they’ll be in next. It’s harder to gauge how always-remote folks are doing – whether they’re happy, feeling like part of the team, or in a rut. When they’re not around the office you don’t pick up on verbal or physical clues.
Know what makes it hard
Being aware of the disadvantages of distance is a good start. Take it to the next step by scheduling regular check-ins that aren’t specifically related to deliverables. Use this time to see how your remote colleague is doing. Are they stuck on anything in particular? Are they feeling connected to the team? Are they clear on the company’s current goals and direction? Do they have concerns or questions about anything? Getting into the habit of checking in with those you don’t see that often will remind you that they’re part of the team and, like their less-remote colleagues, need regular, personal, and thoughtful attention and interaction.
Give out some treats!
One good way to help remote workers feel connected is to involve them in special treats. Who doesn’t like treats? No one, that’s who!
Send your always-remote colleagues regular treats. There are so many ways to do this, from employee reward programs to emailed gift certificates to regular mail. We actually use the latter most often, because it feels personal.
The last round of packages we sent out stayed open in our common area for a week so that everyone could put treats in the boxes. These ranged from rainbow loom bracelets to fun stamps to handmade cards. The next round of packages will have some healthy, homemade edibles!
Be sure to include any useful swag you have as well. At Batchbook, we have these great, branded Moleskine notebooks. Regular workers can replenish their swag themselves; but obviously remote workers can’t do that, so be a pal and do it for them!
See each other
Honestly, we don’t use video a whole bunch because, as our remote team has grown, video often tends to affect call quality. But it’s still so nice to see people, so we try to send around pictures of office happenings to the whole team when we can. This helps remote workers feel like they are part of things, even if they aren’t there in person. It’s kind of like when you share pictures of your kids with your relatives on Facebook.
That whole always-remote vs. mostly-remote situation has tripped us up in the past. When you’re in the office most of the time it’s easy to holler down the hall for a head count on who’ll be in for Bloody Marys and waffles tomorrow morning. But don’t forget about people a state or 2 or 10 away! Having a birthday party? Cooking chili? Send an invite to everyone so that teammates who are close enough to come in can plan to do so and so everyone can know what’s going on.
We work across different time zones and are all remote from time to time, so it can be hard to know when someone’s available on a regular basis.
Keep your calendars up to date
We try to stay on top of when someone’s working by having everyone post their most regular hours. This way, if I can’t reach Stephanie when I expect to, then I can refer to her posted work times or check the calendar for any scheduled time off. Again, it seems simple enough, but when you don’t work regularly with someone who’s remote, then it’s best to have their schedule to refer to.
On the heels of infrequent video usage, we do obviously hop on Skype voice chat all the live long day. When working from home it’s so easy to be on mute the whole time during a meeting because you have a chatty cat or a loud clothes dryer, or a neighbor with a body shop in his back yard, or are expecting the kettle to whistle in a few minutes.
Persistent noise notwithstanding, being on mute makes it easier to be a distracted and passive participant. I recently read this great HBR article which suggested that everyone involved in a call should unmute when possible. We’ve been trying it and have definitely noticed a more natural flow to the conversation, complete with greater participation, giggles, interruptions, and real-time reactions (and yes, the occassional dog bark or crying kid).
Keep good notes
Skype’s come a long way, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s hard to hear a specific person, and when everyone’s talking at once, in all their un-muted splendor, then it’s impossible to hear much of anything at all unless you’re where the action is.
While we don’t take formal notes at every meeting, we do make a point of doing it every Monday morning at our all hands meeting. The notes are available live during the meeting so everyone can follow along, and posted on our wiki afterwards for reference. This a good way for remote colleagues to make sure all the important points are available for reference and can follow up on anything they might have questions on.
Give a little backstory
Brad recently noted that he’s – rightfully – got a thing against meeting invites with only an ambiguous title. We are all guilty of doing that from time to time, no doubt, and so we’re paying attention to the details in meeting invites: what’s on the agenda and, if it’s not totally obvious, what invitees can do to be prepared. Trust me, this small step will be super helpful to remote colleagues, especially if the meeting was set without everyone who should participate knowing about it.
Create some chemistry
Remote workers don’t get most of the ebb and flow of office banter, which is oftentimes brainstormy in nature, leading to ideas worth researching and working together on. Foster collaboration between unlikely remote and local team members so that ideas stay fresh and always-remote teammates get to meet and work with more people. This could start with a scheduled brainstorm session with new groups of people, and go from there into a one-off project to work on as a part virtual, part in-office team.
Being able to work remotely is a great privilege, and employees who know this work their butts off to keep that sweet, sweet deal. That’s not to say that remote work doesn’t have its challenges, but to me it’s always beat working in an office. There’s less distraction, I produce more, get up to stretch more, eat healthier and save money.
There seems to be a fear in some quarters that letting employees work virtually is just giving them a pass to goof of. Frankly, this is just silly. Either the work gets delivered on time and is of high quality or it’s not. Where the work gets done shouldn’t really matter.
Help them trust you
On the other side of the coin, remote workers need to trust that employers will involve them in new projects as well as what’s happening at the office. They should know that they are an essential part of the team.
Employers do well to bring them into the local fold as much as possible and hear them out when they run into problems that their local counterparts might not have to deal with so often. They shouldn’t be worried that they can’t be online from 2-2:30 because they have to pick kids up from school, because they know that what matters is that they are doing a good job with all of their work.
So, when it comes to virtual work, trust isn’t about timesheets or measuring keystrokes (ick!). It’s about being able to work together as a collaborative team, both sides valuing and involving each other.
Like most things in life, we learn what works best for our remote teammates by making lots of mistakes. Usually the mistakes are brought to light when someone’s willing to say that there must be a better way and, little-by-little, we collaborate to move in the direction of that better place.
Right now we know we need to share more pictures and be better about regular check-ins. We’re working on it. We’ve got to iterate on the Batchbook product to keep things fresh & working; and people are the same.
Reevaluate what’s working and not working regularly with your remote crew and try new things often. Your employees will be happier for it and everyone – company included – will benefit.