January 7, 2016
Regardless of company size or industry, working remotely is becoming a common benefit, but in some situations it can also be a hindrance. Regardless of all the amazing benefits, such as not having to go out and scrape ice off your car in 13 degree weather, having access to a proper kitchen for meals, less distractions, lack of terrible fluorescent lighting, and (of course) the dreaded building that never gets warm, working remotely can come with a lot of downsides.
The government does it, startups do it, small businesses and large business do it, and depending on the policies and procedures, a remote work program can sometimes serve as a detriment rather than a benefit. Having worked for all sorts of organizations – in-house, remote, and freelance – I’ve seen a variety of ways that organizations handle distributed teams.
The biggest challenge of a fully remote position: not turning your couch into an office. That means you need an escape, which for me is a coffee and wine bar in Arlington, VA called Northside Social. WiFi, great food and drinks, and plenty of parking; each of those benefits beat most reasons to commute directly into DC proper. Looking beyond location, there are five other primary challenges remote teams need to overcome:
Getting Initial Approval
If you’ve been planted in your organization for a while and they traditionally have a history of not allowing remote work, then you’ll likely be facing a potential uphill battle. Processes need to go into place, an internal collaboration tool needs to be used, and touch points and meetings still need to occur. Lay out your plans, make sure your role can be completed from wherever you intend to be, and make the ask.
For those just entering or expressing interest in joining an organization: that is the ideal time to ask. It’s a common question to bring up during the screening process if they allow remote work. However, even if there is a policy in place not all managers are open to the concept or do not fully embrace it.
For one freelance writer turned in-house senior copywriter, they went in the opposite direction. Claire Gallam moved from a primarily remote environment to an office setting.
“Anything digital can really be done anywhere as long as you have a good WiFi signal. During the interview process I asked them about the potential to occasionally work remotely. They were open to the idea, which made it very easy on me,” said Gallam.
One of the downsides of working from home can be with the distractions that come along with it. Whether it’s the dishes in your sink, the laundry that needs to be done, or your cat jumping on your keyboard, there will be things that pull your attention away from work. Distractions can result in becoming unmotivated and less productive. Luckily in Northern Virginia – Rosslyn in particular – we have another alternative to coffee shops: coworking spaces.
“We have people who have full-time offices or have the option to work one day a week and will work in a Cove space instead of from home, said Erin Gifford, Cove Director of Marketing. “Some just use their home space or coffee shops and come into Cove for a change. It’s just another place to go when are feeling unmotivated.”
Although a change of scene work for some, others focus on strategically planning out their week and managing their time to effectively defeat their household distractions.
“I’m kind of a planning and structure freak, and usually do high level weekly task / goal planning each weekend. So if there are time sensitive things that need to happen around the house during the work day, I factor those in,” said Director of Talent and Ecosystem at TechMedia Jaimey Walking Bear. “Otherwise, the needs of the day for work — and allowing for unexpected work things to come up — pretty much drives my focus. Anything that is not super critical or time sensitive around the house gets handled after the work day.”
Because of Walking Bear’s ability to structure and plan out his work week, he’s also able to fit in additional time that would otherwise be nearly impossible while working in an office.
“One of the biggest joys of my wife and I both working from home is getting to eat together regularly. So I also organize my day to factor that in, and take the time to enjoy that as a daily ritual. It’s also a best practice for everyone to get up off your arse throughout the workday, as a matter of health, so I try to do that too,” said Walking Bear.
Once you’ve got distractions knocked out, working remotely can actually improve your productivity. Cutting out impromptu meetings that derail your momentum, removing your morning commuting routine, and skipping the trip to Starbucks or your half-broken office coffee machine already put you on the right path to productivity.
“I think that one of the great things that being able to work remotely is that you don’t have to commute. Even if you live in DC proper and your office is in DC proper, it’s a hassle to get on the metro, to bike somewhere. Our model is that we are in your neighborhood. Getting there is very convenient. They don’t have to travel very far to get there. Able to be productive without the distractions,” said Gifford.
Another benefit to Arlington-based Cove is that you won’t get the side-eye or kicked off WiFi after spending too much time there, which is a pretty big barrier to being productive. Plus, one of the primary benefits is also having other professionals around you:
“That’s one of the hardest things in my opinion. At home, there is just no one there, no stimulation,” said Gifford. “People enjoy it for a brief amount of time, then get distracted, start doing dishes, and are not working. Apart from a coffee shop, people are coming here for a primary purpose, and that is to get things done. At a coffee shop they serve coffee, meet with friends, etc.”
The final two challenges are likely among the biggest for most organizations: communication and company culture.
Constant Communication Through Digital Tools
Slack, Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Google Hangouts, Blab, and Twitter: whichever is your tool of choice, stick to one for the organization and ensure you have regular touch points. Currently one of the more popular internal collaboration tools is Slack. It integrates well with most other tools, makes it easy to share files and unnecessary gifs (you do need to socialize and have fun after all), and communicate in real-time or asynchronously.
“We use email, Google Docs, and Google Hangouts a lot. A few team members use Trello, but I’m not a fan of that tool, per sé. We have a weekly all-hand Hangout on Mondays, as well as subcommittee type Hangouts among the Content and Marketing teams I belong to — and then ad hoc as needed. There’s so many moving parts in event production and, with 14 events planned in 2016, we’re constantly in motion. The soul of event planning lends itself to constant collaboration,” said Walking Bear.
Once your team has communication down, it’s all a matter of ensuring your team can still bond outside of work-based projects. At Tech.co, we have various Slack channels such as the ones for team celebrations and a virtual break room. Both are incredibly informal, which tie into the company’s overall culture.
Culture and Socialization
Establishing company culture is a difficult task, but adding in a distributed team or various remote employees and you truly create a challenge. Back in October during Celebrate we heard from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh on how they established their core values and set the company’s culture, and how it plots a course for future direction. Above all, Hsieh suggests developing core values and culture early on:
“Getting clarity amongst your team, it’s a small team, so hopefully you can arrive at some sort of agreement, and call each other out when that’s not happening.”
As the organization grows, so do the challenges that come along with establishing culture. To improve retention and create a bond between colleagues, setting core values in stone will be a step in the right direction.
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