How to… make remote working a success

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has provoked a storm of debate with her announcement that from June, the company’s employees will no longer be permitted to work from home.  Staff have been given the stark choice of either relocating to their nearest Yahoo office – or quitting their jobs.

The business has said the decision has been driven by a desire to improve communication and collaboration.  “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” said a company spokesperson quoted in The Guardian, adding that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

The announcement appears to have been greeted with a mixture of outrage (from disgruntled Yahoo employees) and disbelief (from much of the rest of the business community).  It’s a move that seems incongruous – even a bit bizarre – in an era where thanks to huge advances in technology remote working has never been easier.

Some commentators have suggested that there may be a little more behind the announcement than it appears on the surface and that Yahoo may in fact be trying to tackle some deep-seated performance issues.  What’s interesting, however, is that some managers have come down on Mayer’s side and admitted that all in the garden isn’t rosy for them either when it comes to home-working.

Now speaking as someone who spends the majority of time working from home, I rather resent the inference that I am probably in my PJs and fluffy slippers watching Jeremy Kyle instead of pounding the keyboard.  Many remote workers will tell you that they work longer hours and are more productive when they are working remotely thanks to the extra hours gained by not having to commute and increased ability to concentrate away from the distractions and interruptions of office life.

What I would suggest, however, is that the reality is that there are some people to whom remote working doesn’t come naturally – and indeed some jobs that are not particularly suited to operating from a distance. There are also plenty of managers who still struggle with the concept of managing people they can’t see – and who need help in understanding how best to keep their remote workers motivated, engaged and performing at peak.

Putting the Yahoo-induced hoo-ha aside, there is no doubt that remote working, when managed properly, can bring many benefits to the business and that it is likely to become an increasingly prominent part of the flexible working mix.  So what do you need to do to make sure home-working works well for your business?

Support Managers

Much of the discomfort and difficulty that exists around remote working stems from the fact that managers often don’t have the skills to manage people at a distance.  Managing a remote worker is not the same as managing an employee you see every day.  Although there are some scenarios where traditional ‘command and control’ approaches may be effective, they simply don’t work in situations where you are dealing with knowledge workers based away from the office.  Managers need help to make the shift to a mindset where they are able to trust people to deliver and can judge employees on results rather than worrying about exactly how many hours they have spent chained to their computer.

Manage performance proactively

Maintaining a strong focus on performance management is important for all employees – wherever they may be based.  But it is possibly even more important for managers who are looking after distributed teams.  The key is to set clear objectives so that everyone understands their priorities and knows what is expected of them by when.  Regular informal check-ins as well as the traditional annual appraisal will give individuals a chance to raise any issues and highlight development needs as they arise.  It also means managers will be able to adjust objectives or targets as priorities or business needs change – and will be able to nip any performance problems in the bud before they escalate into major issues.  The sophisticated HR software that is now widely available can of course do much to help streamline the process and ensure discussions take place at the right time and that whatever has been agreed gets recorded and acted upon.

Choose the right people

It’s important to recognise that remote working isn’t for everyone.  Some people naturally have the self-discipline and focus to be able to work productively from home.  Others will struggle with the isolation and will miss the daily face-to-face interaction with colleagues.  If you are recruiting for a role that involves a significant amount of remote working, make sure the people you consider have the skills to self-manage and work independently.  People’s idea of what it will be like working from home is often very different to the reality.  Look out for existing home workers who may be struggling and provide them with support, both in terms of a listening ear but also with training designed to help them develop the skills necessary for successful remote working.

Facilitate communication

Thanks to Skype, social media and increasingly sophisticated smart devices, it’s never been easier for people to communicate when working remotely or while on the move.  Just because the technology is available, however, doesn’t mean people will necessarily use it – or use it in the most productive way.  Managers with remote workers need to find ways of developing an on-going dialogue with their teams, whether that is conducted in the virtual space or by regular telephone check-ins.  It’s important to make sure that people who are not physically located in the office don’t miss out on the big announcements or changes in policies and procedures – but it’s also important to provide informal communication channels to allow them to keep up with what colleagues are doing on a day-to-day basis.  Some HR technology – such as Cezanne’s OnDemand software – now encompass social platforms which allow employees to log in from wherever they may be so that they can share information and collaborate on projects.  Make sure your remote workers embrace the technology available to them – and provide support if they appear to be struggling to adjust to some of the new communication vehicles now available.

Maintain team focus

Make sure you don’t slip into a situation where remote workers are operating as ‘freelancers’ rather than as part of the business.  To quote a recent article on the Yahoo saga in The Economist, “ … it is reasonable for a company to want to discourage its employees from behaving like freelances.  After all, firms exist largely because people are more productive together than apart.”  Make sure you provide regular opportunities for remote workers to interact, bond and bounce ideas off each other face-to-face as well as in the virtual environment.  People will work together more effectively if they feel part of a team and have the opportunity to build on the relationships they have developed on-line.

What’s your view on Yahoo’s decision?  What strategies do you have in place to make sure remote working is successful in your business?