An increasing number of businesses have been pivoting to a virtual workforce model. Nearly half of all U.S. employees work remotely at least part of the time, and a quarter are fully remote. The vast majority of remote employees enjoy working from home, signaling that remote work boosts job satisfaction considerably. But when companies don’t understand how to excel at remote work, this shift can harm productivity, effectiveness, and culture—consequences that no company can afford.
Here, we share a guide for implementing a remote work environment in the right way. It’s based on years of experience, highlighting some of the not-so-obvious learnings we’ve had along our journey of building an effective virtual workforce.
Our professional services company, over 100 team members strong, has been 100% remote with no fixed office spaces for almost five years. Another organization we admire, Invision, has more than 800 employees and is very successfully working as a fully remote company. We’re part of a growing trend of virtual companies that have proven a fully remote model not only works but can be a competitive advantage.
The process of shifting your organization’s remote work culture falls into four key areas of focus: communication, tools, new ways of working, and general culture.
COMMUNICATING A SHIFT TO REMOTE WORK
The first step to changing your work model should always be clear communication from leadership. Your initial email should go out company-wide and should include a follow-up invite to a training session on how to work remotely.
During any period of transition, your team will look to managers and key influencers for guidance and support. As you prepare to transform your organization into a virtual workforce, your managers and key influencers must undergo the first round of training. Get them on board and excited and direct them to help drive new behaviors within the organization and lead the change.
The key message to communicate is that as an organization, you will be doing a significant amount of business remotely. To succeed, every team member must get comfortable with a new set of tools, new processes, and new methods to excel as a productive team.
Because this change ultimately influences how your team works together—versus how individuals do their work—it’s vital that everyone understands that this isn’t just about working from home but about re-thinking the way that they work so that remote work can be just as productive and fulfilling as working in person. When any one person fails to adopt these new ways of working, it becomes far more evident than in a traditional environment.
VIDEO COMMUNICATION IS ESSENTIAL
The first crucial step in fostering a strong remote work culture is a fanatical adoption of and commitment to video conferencing. Although this may seem like a “nice-to-have” feature, it plays a critical role in success, enhancing the effectiveness of any hybrid or fully remote company. As human beings, we ultimately feel more connected when we can see each other.
Whether we realize it or not, vast portions of how we communicate come through our body language, eye contact, and other forms of nonverbal communication. We recommend leveraging Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype for Business—not just for group meetings but for every one-on-one chat between team members.
When remote employees connect via video, it’s amazing how quickly we forget that we’re remotely connected. At our company’s annual in-person gathering, we frequently find ourselves saying that we forget it’s the first time we’ve met many of our coworkers in person because we’re so used to seeing each other.
Also, we have found that in today’s hyper-connected world, many remote employees struggle to refrain from multitasking. Being on camera typically makes team members more present, which ultimately leads to more effective communication.
Be aware that the effort to widely adopt the use of videoconferencing can be thrown off by one or two team members struggling with technology issues. To prevent this hurdle, make sure each person has high-speed internet access, a functional webcam, and a good microphone and headset. We recommend issuing a standardized USB headset with a noise-canceling microphone to avoid the lone users that cause the echoing, feedback loops, or muffled audio that can cause any meeting to break down. Taking these measures will boost the effectiveness of any meeting.
Simultaneously, if you have any on-site staff, make sure that conference rooms are properly equipped with essential tools. Invest in video equipment that allows each remote person to see the room and be seen. More importantly, the audio must work well. Dialing in for audio on the standard conference system while also connecting via a computer for video can become tedious and time-consuming. We recommend, at a minimum, adding an excellent and inexpensive conference room speaker to meeting rooms to make sure everyone can both hear and be heard.
If you want to create a truly remarkable remote work experience, we recommend the Meeting Owl. It connects to a laptop or video conferencing software and is instantly recognized as your webcam, speaker, and microphone—but with a twist. It sits in the middle of the room, and its unique 360-degree design offers an exceptional omnidirectional microphone, a powerful speaker, and, most importantly, a camera system that automatically puts whoever is speaking in focus on the screen. If you have a lot of people working remotely and want them to feel very engaged with another large group that’s gathered together in one place, this is a game-changer. We’re so passionate about how this device enhances discussion that we keep one at the company and loan it to our clients so they can experience it firsthand.
IMPLEMENT THESE REMOTE WORKING TOOLS
Although collaborative office productivity software like Google’s GSuite or Microsoft Office 365 is increasingly becoming the norm, many remote employees fall back into old habits. These can include emailing attachments to each other or working with on-site file servers versus working on files in cloud storage like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. For those of us who have worked with in-office file servers with mapped drives that are as easy to access as an additional hard drive, that concept has been replaced with similar tools within G Suite and Office 365. Each platform has introduced software that makes its cloud-based drives appear as local network file servers but without the complication of VPNs or other obstructions that IT would have historically mandated. The new approach makes collaboration flow much more smoothly.
Encourage your team members to focus on leveraging cloud-based documents that multiple team members can access, edit, and collaborate on simultaneously. This reduces the chances of confusion and speeds the completion of documents that require contributions from multiple people. Work with managers to create folder structures for cloud drives that are easy for teams to understand when storing or accessing documents in a collaborative environment. Push managers to get their teams to upload relevant documents into the cloud. Over time, you’ll discover that this behavior inherently fosters more collaboration, regardless of whether you’re remote or on-site.
Finally, implement an organization-wide business chat platform. If you’re on Google, we recommend implementing Slack versus Google’s internal tools. If you’re using Office 365, then Microsoft Teams is very effective. These tools, unlike the one-to-one messenger apps we all use every day, are truly designed to foster collaboration and broader communication within companies.
Channels, one of the key concepts in these tools, are designed to act like focused chat rooms around very specific subjects. For example, you could create a channel for your entire marketing team to discuss broader department-wide initiatives or a more focused channel around your website that only involves the key team members who are working on that initiative. The goal of these platforms is to get your team less focused on never-ending email threads that don’t scale or make sense over time and instead create focused conversations that others can easily scan and catch up on to stay informed.
When used correctly, the combination of video conferencing, collaborative productivity tools, and a well-organized company-wide chat platform can supercharge your organization. These solutions produce highly productive, collaborative teammates who are very in sync with each other—frequently even more so than a team that sits together but is not highly coordinated.
OVER-COMMUNICATION IS KEY TO REMOTE WORK
Remote employees and managers sometimes question one another’s productivity if they can’t see which activities they’re carrying out on a regular basis. To lend insight into what they’re contributing, remote employees need to over-communicate about what they’re doing. This will help their peers and managers understand their output. For some workers, being vocal and drawing attention to themselves feels uncomfortable, but in a remote working environment, it’s key to push through this feeling and make sure that managers and peers understand what they’re working on. Overcommunication will ensure that everyone on the team feels confident that each team member is working toward the same goals. It also has an additional byproduct: an increase in collaboration and productivity.
Another effective practice, especially in fast-moving businesses, is a daily “stand-up” routine. This concept hails from Scrum-style software development but can prove useful in any organization. It requires each team member to stand up and share the work they’ve completed since the last meeting, what they’re actively focused on now, and if they face any impediments to completing those tasks. By nature, over-communication and the practice of doing “stand-ups” align with delivering outcomes and holding people accountable to their own word.
Many newly remote colleagues have told us they feel more connected and in sync with their coworkers than they had in prior traditional roles where they went to an office every day. We attribute their satisfaction with remote work to a strong culture of over-communication.
RUNNING GREAT VIRTUAL MEETINGS
Shifting to a culture of focused meetings empowered by video conferencing doesn’t happen overnight, but adopting some of these best practices will help a great deal. As mentioned, ensuring that all team members have reliable basic video conferencing equipment and tools is a foundational step, but understanding how to collaborate virtually is key.
For group meetings, require that all attendees join via video if possible. This helps everyone feel connected, but most importantly, it shows that people are mentally present and focused. Make sure everyone understands how to screen-share, and when relevant, share collaborative documents with team members in the meeting. Being able to work on one document as a group boosts efficiency and effectiveness. If some team members aren’t able to join a meeting, share a recording of it in the relevant Slack or Microsoft Team’s channel for them to review later. These are simple acts that require little or no effort once you adopt the right tools for enhancing productivity among collaborative teams.
Furthermore, we have found that the vast majority of meetings can be completed in 30 minutes and that dropping the length of the meetings gets all participants more focused on achieving an outcome in the allotted time slot. Since you may need to connect virtually with more people during the day, these shorter, more focused meetings leave more time to execute tasks or have quick check-ins with other team members, if needed.
Finally, we recommend focusing on “working sessions” versus meetings when possible. This involves meeting up to work on projects independently but synchronously. When working with colleagues to complete tasks, we find productivity soars when we bring multiple team members into a virtual meeting where we all work on our respective tasks to complete a broader initiative. This is comparable to sitting in a room to work with your colleagues. Just knowing that you can quickly discuss things in real-time while all potentially working on the same collaborative document can lead entire teams to rally toward completing a project faster on a tighter deadline. It’s also a fun way to interact with colleagues and fosters a deeper collaborative culture in a fully remote company.
REMOTE WORK CULTURE CAN BE JUST AS STRONG AS OFFICE CULTURE
In our experience, remote work culture promotes some of the best parts of a company’s culture while avoiding some of the pitfalls of traditional companies.
When you implement a remote work model properly, it will foster trust among employees, pride in their work, and a shared sense of accountability and accomplishment. We find that team members build strong personal relationships by collaborating and have increased respect for their coworkers through a deeper understanding of what they do via over-communication.
Working remotely also gives team members more time for themselves, their loved ones, and their activities outside of work, which helps people to deal with the stresses of work in a more effective manner. Healthy and happy team members tend to be more productive and focused during their work hours. Most don’t want to lose the privilege of working remotely and will make the extra effort to maintain that privilege.
Our company gathers together as a whole once per year over a two-day period. We use this time to discuss some of our most meaningful challenges but also to spend quality time together with colleagues from across the country. If you’re adopting a remote working culture, we still recommend you find ways to gather as a group on an annual or semi-annual basis at a minimum. Even as a fully remote company, you can also encourage groups to meet up for a monthly cocktail hour, dinner, or other activity on their own time. These are not company events, and they cost the company nothing but continue to foster culture. Because teammates don’t see each other in person every day, we have noticed that these events generally get a high turnout.
REMOTE WORK CAN TRANSFORM YOUR BUSINESS
From years of operating as a fully remote company, we can affirm that remote work works! Adopting the best practices of remote work will make your team better communicators and collaborators, regardless of whether they’re in a physical office or working as a fully remote company. Equipping every member of the team to effectively meet, collaborate, and communicate remotely also makes teams more conscious of how to work with other remote colleagues, clients, and third-party partners or vendors.
Whether your company’s future is 100% remote or some hybrid of on-site and remote work, these practices will modernize your organization and build a resilient culture while ramping up your company’s productivity.