Remote Work Is Here To Stay: Are You Ready?
Let’s face it, we’re in a new world. As I described in The Big Reset, remote work is now an integral part of life. Today more than half of Americans are working at home, and studies show that as many as 40 million people will make “work at home” a regular part of their job in the future. Even Japan, a country known for its long office hours, saw an 80% drop in train ridership in the last week.
For someone who has worked at home for more than 20 years, I’ve learned a lot about it. It’s not as simple as taking your laptop home and setting it up on the kitchen table. There are a myriad of issues with tools, rules, norms, and culture. And when you get this right, your team will thrive. When it’s not working well, people get upset, frustrated, and projects go sideways.
Despite the explosive growth in this topic, companies do not fully understand. Our research found that more than 50% of companies have no remote work policy and many still question whether work at home is productive. As one Japanese investment banker put it, “My boss said it loud and clear: ‘If I allow you guys to go home, you might not be focusing on your work. Who knows? You might even be drinking.”
Does Remote Work work? The answer is clearly YES. Not only does it reduce commute time, it gives people a sense of empowerment. A range of academic studies has proven that remote work increases productivity. But you have to manage it well.
I’ve studied this for years and in this article (and video above) I’d like to share what we’ve learned. And as part of our focus on The Big Reset, we are also launching The Remote Work Bootcamp along with 40 comprehensive learning resources in the Josh Bersin Academy to help.
Over the coming weeks, we will also be publishing The Remote Work Playbook as well as a series of articles about how to learn at home, the psychological impact of working at home, and information on tools, goal-setting, performance, and talent management for remote work.
The Five Big Topics In Remote Work
Let me briefly discuss the five big topics you have to think through, and you will work through these topics in the Bootcamp.
There are a lot of “remote work tools.” Our Remote Work Playbook lists more than 30 different tools to consider, and the number is growing rapidly. Not only do you need communication and messaging tools, you need a place to share documents, goals, project plans, sketches, as well as tools for learning, recognition, feedback, and surveys. There are lots of platforms that provide these tools, and our Playbook will help you sort them out.
You also have to make them easy to use. Nobody has time to learn how to use ten different platforms to get their work done: err on the side of simplicity and integration, so this is now a big theme for HR Tech strategies.
Second, there are a lot of basic rules to establish. How much will we pay for laptops, phones, and internet access? Will we pay people for overtime if they work off-hours? How do we manage security, passwords, authentication, and data loss? What if my PC or device breaks or is stolen? What are our password and authentication rules?
Third, we have a wide range of “behaviors” to consider. First of all, when do we email, text, or message a bunch of people? Is it ok to post personal photos and if so, where? How often can I call someone during the day? Are cameras always on for online meetings?
How do we manage our personal space and time? Can my dog, child, or spouse show up during a meeting? Is it ok if my office space is noisy? Can I schedule meetings at night since I know many people have family responsibilities during the day? How fast should I respond to messages?
These are “norms” that build over time, and most of them are created by leaders. You, as a leader, have to be exceptionally careful. If you send messages on weekends, for example, you’ll create stress. If you show up late to online meetings, others will do the same.
A big topic in remote work is meetings: how many and how do we manage them. In mature “remote work” environments there are not a lot of standing meetings. Some companies have a weekly “standup” meeting where everyone shows up, cameras are on, and the leader reviews goals, metrics, big projects, and issues.
Then there are the “Quick Connect” meetings where we need to “gather around” to deal with an issue. Don’t forget 1:1 calls, it’s still important to check in with people on a personal level. And many companies have “Hump Day” meetings on Wednesday (with storytelling or music), recognition meetings (meetings where new people introduce themselves or you can give thanks), and meetings for global issues or projects. You have to decide which ones to convene.
I also learned that “open calendars” are crucial. You have to tell people to use their online calendar and make it available to everyone. This helps people schedule calls and reduces the number of interruptions.
The fourth area is culture, perhaps the biggest topic of all. When people are remote, they work “as best they can” and they often need help or may want to collaborate at a given time. So your job as a leader may be harder.
Do I need my boss’s approval when I make a decision? Should I be cc’ing everyone on every message I send in Slack or Teams, or should I communicate 1:1? If I feel upset by a message, should I keep it to myself or speak up? And how will I be evaluated when my manager doesn’t really know what I’m doing every minute?
All these cultural issues have to be worked out, and each individual will behave differently. I know from my own work experience that some people will work hard and never speak up, but they may gossip to peers. Others will actively engage and push back on topics. You as a leader and team-mate have to find this balance, and listen very hard to everyone.
Keeping People Connected:
And then there’s the issue of keeping people connected. What if someone feels lonely or needs help? Do we have a weekly conference call or video session to catch up? How much financial information do we share? How do new employees get acquainted? How do we recognize a success, new baby, or major event in someone’s life?
Remember also that every company, team, and leader is a bit different. Some people love to chat on the phone, so they’ll call you all day. Others would rather text, so they’ll text and never call. And some are intimidated by management, so they’ll just be quiet and won’t speak up at all.
(If you’re a designer, by the way, read this great article from Toptal on remote work as a creative professional.)
The fifth topic is resilience. Remote work can be exciting, but it can also be relentless. Work starts the minute you wake up, and it ends when you to sleep. W
We have to help people maintain natural levels of energy, focus, and wellbeing. This is harder than you think: not only are remote workers often alone, they are interrupted (children, pets, family) and often work very long hours. The whole rhythm of “sleep, commute, work, home” is thrown off balance.
There are many tips and various programs to teach people about personal energy, fitness, and resilience. Let mention simply that rhythm (keeping a schedule each day), exercise (walking around and more), and pace are key. There are no boundaries to working at home, so you have to be careful you’re not working 20 hours a day. Consider:
- Send out pulse surveys regularly (some do it daily) to see how people are doing
- Fire up your EAP, so people feel comfortable calling a coach or medical advisor for help
- Improve your financial benefits – most people are stressed about money right now
- Scale-up IT support – assign someone to help with all tech problems
- Look at platforms like VirginPulse, Limeaid, Mequilibrium, Whil, Jellyvision or more – to give people personal wellbeing support.
(Here are just a few of the topics to consider, taken from the Resources in the Josh Bersin Academy.)
Zoom Is Not A Panacea
I know we all love Zoom, but already it’s clear that Zoom itself can create exhaustion. When you’re in a meeting with cameras on, people feel obligated to look straight ahead, sit up straight, and not move around. We’re already hearing stories of people becoming exhausted from days of home video conferences. Turn it off for periods of time, and consider letting only the person who’s speaking show their camera.
And today its much more than just having good tech. You need to create a visual persona – this is the new “you” to the team and the company.
Consider some of the creative things going on now: people are creating Zoom backgrounds and winning awards. The Snapchat Camera lets you change your eye color and even hairstyle. My daughter just won an award from Zoom for the most creative scene background (it is a movie of her boss wandering around).
People are even re-arranging their houses and offices so they look good. Not only is this part of the new “connected life,” you should make it fun and empowering. I always take a minute on Zoom calls to joke about how long my hair has become, for example.
Creating Psychological Safety.
And this leads me to another important topic: the role of psychological safety and trust.
The reason some companies don’t often have remote work policies for remote work is that they don’t trust people to be on their own.
One of our clients (an engineering firm) put a monitor on home workers’ computers so it beeps whenever a worker is not typing for more than 3 minutes. This does not create a sense of trust.
The real issue of trust is creating what Amy Edmondson (Harvard faculty) calls “psychological safety.” Giving people the freedom to speak up and be themselves.
In her book, “The Fearless Organization,” she details this topic and it’s worth learning about. Amy’s model is adapted below:
As this chart shows, if you drive performance hard (like the engineering firm I mentioned), you have to give people space. Many of you have call center, sales, service, and consulting people at home. These are people-centric jobs so your team needs time and space to listen, learn, feedback, and relax. If you don’t give them trust and space they’ll take out their anxiety on your customers.
The keys to this are several: have 1:1’s with people; schedule open calls to discuss issues; give people time to recover from meetings; do a lot of listening and ask people how they’re doing.
My Journey Into Remote Work
I had a 20-year journey down the path of working at home. In 2001 I was abruptly laid off and started working at home during a recession. I had to buy a new computer (shared with my kids) and set up a place to work (our spare bedroom). I started working alone, and soon enough I was hiring others to help. We worked from home, talked on the phone frequently, and had lunch at a local coffee shop. I had a lot of “team meetings” at my dining room table.
As we grew the company to 70+ people I discovered how important, nuanced, and difficult this would become. In the early days, we had weekly “Monday morning meetings,” which were an hour to get everyone on the same page. These started as group discussions and then shifted to “presentations” by various teams. We recorded them and eventually moved them to different times. They became an institution and nobody wanted to miss them.
We had the basic tech (messaging, file sharing, and email) but we needed lots of training. We had Salesforce, Confluence, and a few other systems – but whenever we bought something that was hard to use it slowed us down. So we kept things simple and had to train people all the time. No matter how “easy” your tools may be, some people will struggle – so you need a “helper” to train people along the way.
As we grew I realized we needed to reinforce our culture, so I wrote two papers “The Five Principles of Bersin & Associates” and “Secrets To Becoming A World-Class Analyst.” These were my own “observations” of how we should work together. It was developed based on my own philosophies, and it helped people feel a “part of the team” from the start. I was reluctant to write these but it really helped us grow.
You should do this yourself. I recommend you read David Hassell’s article discussing “remote work mindset.” It’s filled with ideas he learned in running his company (15Five, a company focused on tools for remote work).
A Remote Work Program, not just Policy.
One more final point. Remote work will change the way your company operates, so you need both a “remote work policy” and also a “remote work program.” The policy will gives people direct guidelines and guardrails (Tools and Rules). The program creates the Norms, Culture, and Resilience to perform well.
And once you have a remote work program, your organization becomes more scalable. You can hire people in remote locations; you can create redundancy and 24-hour operations; and you can respond more quickly to Black Swan crises like the one we are experiencing now.
Your HR programs remain: programs like goal setting, feedback, rewards, recognition, and leadership behaviors can all be adjusted for remote work.
The Remote Work Bootcamp
We are here to help. I highly recommend you join The Remote Work Bootcamp, a new collaborative program in the Josh Bersin Academy that will bring you together with your entire team to learn about, discuss, and create “your remote work experience.” We have more than 8,000 members of the Academy today and we’re all learning about remote work together!
We’ve piloted this program with more than 200 people already and the results are spectacular. This program includes videos and examples from some of the world’s most interesting companies, and it will step you through the issues, giving you a chance to discuss and develop the tools, rules, norms, and culture you need. (And as an added bonus, you get to see my desk in detail!)
All Josh Bersin Academy members immediately have access to this program, and we’re going to run it on a continuously available basis. We are including more than 40 learning resources (tips and playbooks) and we will create an entire channel to share policies and best practices in the Community.
I’m excited that we’re really making “remote work” a focus and priority in “The Big Reset” ahead. Join us on this journey, you’ll find it one of the most empowering and exciting things we do in HR.
Final note: we are also reducing the cost of the Josh Bersin Academy (to $25 per month or $250 per year for all our programs) to support our community during this time. Please join us!