Management / Remote working: the future of work?

Remote working: the future of work?

Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab,  describes how organisations can make home working effective. 

As more people work from home during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, organizations consider lower-carbon business operation and bosses up their game in the global war for talent, working remotely has acquired a fresh appeal.

Organisations that have made do with different hybrids of “OK, work from home if you have to” or banned remote working outright in case it undermined their office-based culture, are now reconsidering. But what happens when employees work remotely for months, even years? And how do managers maintain their workers’ productivity and mindfulness?

As an all-remote company with teams in 65 countries, we researched the working habits for 3,000 remote workers around the world to help us take our policies to the next level.

With a new wave of leaders and team members grappling with going remote, the research provides insights into what matters to those who adopt this way of working, charting a path for building culture around autonomy and flexibility.

One third of our survey has worked remotely for 3-4 years; a quarter has 5-9 years’ experience of this approach and a tenth have been remote workers for 10-15 years.

Remote employees are content and productive. More than four in five (84%) of the interviewees say they get through all their workload.  Nearly 90% are satisfied with the tools and processes enabling remote communications and feel that company bosses give them autonomy. More than half - 52% - reckon that they travel less by working remotely.

Remote working is recognised even if hybrid versions are more common. Only one in four of our respondents belongs to an all-remote organisation with no offices. The most common proportion of an organisation working remotely was 25-50% — chosen by 31% of the whole survey.

Managers are supporting remote teams’ work and social interactions. A big majority (82%) of remote workers say their company supports in-person gatherings through events and meet-ups, while two-thirds 66% are connected to remote work communities.

Having a flexible lifestyle is the stand-out remote working benefit, cited by most interviewees (52%) while more than one third (38%) appreciates not commuting, and almost as many (35%) likes the reduced costs involved - ahead of being able to care for family, pets, ageing/sick relatives (34%), and those citing reduced anxiety/stress (32%).

This flexibility also means that it’s not all plain sailing.

Almost half of interviewees (47%) said the biggest drawback is managing at-home distractions – while 35% said collaborating with colleagues/clients or isolation/loneliness (also 35%) were most challenging. Surprisingly, perhaps, less than one third (29%) struggled with motivation or giving too much time to work (28%) or risked burnout (28%).

Taking our research and learnings together, we can offer some rules for building remote, effective and mindful teams.

Establish a remote infrastructure

If you do not have a dedicated company handbook for protocol and process, start one now. Embracing the notion of "if it's not documented, it isn't actionable," is key to detaching from co-located norms and setting up remote teams for success.

While functioning remotely, strip the tool stack down to a minimum. Google Docs, a company-wide chat tool (like Microsoft Teams or Slack) and Zoom are all you need to start. If your team needs access to internal systems through a VPN, ensure that everyone has easy access, and instructions on usage are clear.

Be formal about informal communications

Second, organisations going remote need to be formal about designing informal communication - it’s the key to establishing workplace friendships - it springs from things other than work and helps us build trust with co-workers. Leaders need to design informal communication, and an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable reaching out to anyone to talk about non-work topics.

Depending on team size, consider an always-on video conference room per team, where team members can linger, or come and go as they please. This simulation helps acclimatisation, enabling team members to embrace the shift to remote in a less jarring way. Research indicates that people with genuine friends at work are more likely to enjoy their job, perform well and support their colleagues.

Devote time to relationships

Third, all-remote companies need to make the time to get to properly know one another as people, not just colleagues. Many of us have taken part in company meetings or “happy hours” in the past and found them a bit forced or daunting. At GitLab, we’re gaining from team-building possibilities of regular team video calls where everyone is free to add subjects to the agenda or weekly coffee calls where people from different teams bond, as well as the informal company and departmental video meet-ups you might expect.

The all-remote world isn’t always virtual: smart companies pay visiting grants so that team members can meet up, or pay the expenses of staff preferring a coworking space to home.

Better local connectivity, easy-to-use video tools and applications like Slack, make business communication simpler - and more enjoyable. Take emojis: once dismissed as idle chit chat, the corporate world is embracing them in professional settings because they help people connect and explain their approach.

Through experience and research, our view is that, with focus and commitment on all sides, remote working is the way to better work environments and more engaged employees; we believe it’s the future of work.

Darren Murph is Head of Remote, at GitLab, the single application for the DevOps lifecycle and the world’s largest all-remote company.  He works at the intersection of culture, process, transparency, collaboration, efficiency, inclusivity, onboarding, hiring, employer branding, and communication. Darren has spent his career leading remote teams and charting remote transformations.


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