Are you really ready for all cases of remote working ?

In a last post I warned that remote working is not just about sending people home and putting them in front of a screen with a wifi connection, but also about developing and polishing individual and collective practices.

Behind the notion of practice there are several things:

  • A need
  • The way in which this need is met
  • The technology that supports it all

The last two elements are very often tied together: in an ideal world we build the use and then we choose the technology, in practice we have a technology at our disposal and we manage to make the use fit in or a persuasive salesman tries to convince us that the limits of his product must fit in the specifications of the use.

Remote working starts when everyone is in the office.

So to begin with it is essential to take a look at your needs and ask yourself :

  • If employees already know how to address them properly today
  • If there’s a better way to do it…
  • If so, set it up and have them all follow it.

You will tell me that this is not specific to remote work but that it also applies to everyday work when everyone is at the office. Yes indeed.

My observation is that in the office people develop a lot of bad practices because they can compensate by the fact that there can be a direct, physical, visual contact.

We don’t share information that should be shared, but if someone asks for it we give it orally. We see visually who is busy and who is not. We can use the non-verbal to get a message across. We can use the “off verbal” to bypass collaboration and sharing devices.

Remote working: crash test of collaborative and managerial practices

So there are a lot of bad practices going on in the office because the fact that we can physically see and talk to each other helps to compensate for them. And when we find ourselves at a distance we realize that the team eventually becomes dysfunctional.

Let it be said once and for all: remote work requires rigour and shared practices that no one can depart from because it leaves no room for error. Except in cases of force majeure, it should be reserved for people who have proven at least a certain degree of autonomy. It is an excellent crash test of collaborative and managerial practices: what works in the office but does not work remotely does not work at all and needs to be reviewed.

Let’s go back to the subject with the different use cases about which you must question yourself on two levels: uses and tools.

1°) Sharing structured and unstructured information

It’s the basics of basics. Unstructured is not too much of a problem if you consider that email is a necessary evil, poorly mastered by most, but used by all and that chat has also become mainstream.

But even on the basics there are bad habits to correct.

Yes, email is used by all but badly. One shouldn’t send a document by email, especially if it’s for other people to modify it. One should send a link to a shared document!

Second point the chat. More and more tools have their own chat. If in a company 2 or 3 different chats are used according to personal or collective tastes, there is a risk that when you try to contact someone you are looking for him on the channel he prefers. When, for example, Google Hangout/Meet or Skype and Workplace coexist, and maybe Slack and if we consider internal chats to some business tools such as project management, the dispersion of uses causes non productivity.

These are things you can easily make up for in the office by going to the person. From a distance, it doesn’t work.

2°) Creating information

In this case it is globally about the creation/editing of documents. So let’s say it once and for all: depending on the office suite you use you can use the desktop client or web client, it doesn’t matter, but there is no reason for the document to be stored on the computer. It has to be “in the cloud”, shared with the people concerned or in any case shareable. If you are unreachable, absent or whatever, anyone who is legitimate to work on the document must be able to find it and edit it.

This supposes a prerequisite: as said above, a document is shared to be co-edited and it is not circulated by email so that 5 people amend it and a sixth consolidates it.

Again, in the office we see 3 more people meeting in front of a screen to work together on a document. From a distance it doesn’t work anymore.

Today you either have Office 365 or Google Suite and you can do it. If you don’t, your information system has a major gap.

3°) Putting information in motion

Here I am not talking too much about information related to operations and projects, but about “soft” information: watch, information on the company, internal communication. This is the “social” part of the company, most often embodied by the networks of the same name, knowing that no one has the time to go and read the intranet(s), whose tone and format also make the information indigestible and not very easy to consume.

It is therefore a question of circulating the company’s information in the best possible way, whether it is top-down, bottom-up (the field also has things to say) or cross-functional, and creating dynamics and engagement on this information.

It is also a matter of “living together” because, since employees are also given the floor, it recreates the “water cooler” side, an analogy I have never been a fan of but which has the merit of highlighting the social dimension that is so important when people no longer see each other. And this is vital during long periods of remote working where the feeling of belonging to the company disintegrates over the weeks, especially if remote working is undergone and not chosen. In remote work we lose an essential part of the information about the life in the company: the “off”. This leads to a loss of context for the employees which is really detrimental to work.

And no, chat doesn’t fit the mission. You can create group discussions, but it’s on a subject and with a specific audience. This is more informal: sharing without knowing who will be interested and who will eventually react and participate.

Against all odds, and to my despair at one time, enterprise social networks as we knew them from 2005 to 2015 never fulfilled this goal for cultural, governance and functional reasons. Functional because companies wanted a “Facebook Like” because the tool was simple to adopt, and then demanded that it handles a lot of business use cases, workflows, and turned into a Rube Goldberg machine at the antipodes of the original model.

Finally, for this specific use case, which is not about business collaboration but about networking, information circulation, discussion and the beginning of a co-construction, only Workplace from Facebook (formerly Facebook at Work) finds favor in my eyes. And in terms of ease of use and adoption, its Chat module (Workchat), a Messenger clone, will send Skype and others to oblivion without any training. In terms of spontaneous adoption by users I have never seen better than this pair. In terms of promise kept either.

4°) Discuss

For Two people, 5 people, a group, to coordinate their work or just to make a thread of information within a team, there are multiple uses cases. And the longer the distance, the more important it is to keep the “information thread” to keep the link.

A need normally well covered by a chat solution + workplace.

Teams at Microsoft also lends itself to informal as well as more operational approaches.

But once again, it takes time for the right uses to take place. I have seen many companies where the use of the “operational” discussion was well established, but where it took time to include the “social link” dimension when moving to distance. In the meantime, some employees had already lost the link with their company.

5°) Getting organized

Now we’re starting to get into complex use cases. For many companies working remotely means doing tasks outside the office. But when it comes to organizing oneself, one comes back to traditional models, meetings, since remote working is mostly only an occasional modality of work. There is always a moment when they finally see each other.

When a critical mass of people is at a distance and/or the period of remote work is getting longer, it is necessary to know how to organise themselves at a distance. I’m not even talking about organization at the individual level, which is already a real issue, but about collective organization.

Usually one part is centralized from the top (project leader, manager) and will not be too much of a problem if at least there is an exchange. This can be done in chat or visioconference.

Then there are the permanent micro-adjustments between individuals. Orally it’s fluid. Organizing a video or telephoning each time causes too many interruptions and does not allow for a great reactivity. In chat ? It seems to me the best solution but the tool is secondary. What counts is to arrive at a decision understood by all and applied in a minimum of exchanges. This requires rules and practice.

6°) Decide

It’s even harder to decide than it is to organize. I was surprised and even shocked last December/January when transport strikes in Paris forced many people to work remotely, to see that in many companies, and not the smallest ones, it became impossible to make decisions. I am talking about people at a high or even very high level and companies which have all the means to make video-conferences.

Argument invoked: we need to see each other to make important decisions.

It is a critical use case because it can cripple a company! And one of the most unforgivable shortcomings because it’s not a question of technology (videoconferencing because a teleconference makes you lose the non-verbal), it’s not a question of uses (meeting and talking), it’s just making the link between the two.

If the problem is neither in the use nor in the technology it is in the heads and at this level of responsibility it is unforgivable. Typically the kind of case to practice and experiment voluntarily to be ready the day you have no choice and are forced to do so.

7°) Being creative

At a time when co-construction and design thinking are really starting to take root in companies (well…not yet enough in small and medium sized companies), these are systems that take place mainly or even exclusively in the workplace. Talking, discussing, animating, playing with post-its, voting, deciding… it’s much simpler when everyone is around a whiteboard.

However, if remote working becomes more widespread or is to become a long-term trend, people will have to learn how to manage and run these meetings remotely. This, even in normal times, can be useful with distant teams even without teleworking or with clients.

Here again the technology exists: Klaxoon or Google Jamboard for example. But the use cannot be decreed and requires a lot of practice before everyone can use it remotely.

8°) Controlling the work

You don’t have your employees in front of you, so it is essential to constantly monitor what they are doing, if they are sitting in front of their computer, if they are working instead of loitering on Facebook.

In my opinion it is the case of use that everyone spontaneously thinks of and it is the most useless or even the most counterproductive of all! A heritage of a culture of the little chef, of visual management which has engendered many illnesses including presenteeism.

This has been proven by numerous studies and I can confirm it through my own experience: people are more productive at a distance than at the office. The risk is not that they don’t work but that they can’t get off work because the culture of many companies even makes them feel guilty for not being at the office so they do too much! And if, because it happens, some people take advantage of it to “cheat” a little, it’s not a problem of remote work but of management. The distance only amplifies what may be imperceptible in the office.

Management… let’s talk about it. Remote management implies a paradigm shift: you no longer manage working time but results. The only measure, the only control over whether the employee works or not is whether he produces what is expected of him, whether he has the expected results. It doesn’t matter whether he took less time than expected and used the time saved to wander around on Facebook, whether he did it in his living room, kitchen or by the pool. It is up to the manager to make himself available to help, to be in a position of “servant leadership”.

Again these are things that need to be practiced beforehand because getting a manager into the remote work with his/her teams without prior practice can lead to a real disaster.

9°) Giving visibility on one’s calendar

This is the simplest thing because it is an individual discipline and not a collective one. But it is no less essential.

In the office we tend to neglect the importance of eye contact because we use it unconsciously. So and so is he available or not…you just have to look around or even walk to his desk. When you are at a distance, you lose this essential information.

So we contact people and hope they’re available. An email, an instant message, a phone call. We either get an answer or we don’t.

On the other hand, if the person is available, they will answer. But if they are busy with a videoconference or concentrating on a specific task they will not answer. Worse, they will be embarrassed, bothered by this inappropriate intrusion, especially if it is a “hot” channel like chat or phone.

That’s why it’s essential to keep calendars up to date (I assume you have shared calendars of course, otherwise…). Don’t put only meetings on them, but block some work slots according to what you plan to do during the day, even if it’s a solo work. This way before contacting you the others will be able to see that you are not available at that time and will postpone their call or use a “cold” channel like email if the subject can wait. The use of a “hot” channel is then reserved for an emergency if it is felt that the person needs to interrupt their work in progress to respond.

Of course, this requires that each one takes the time to look at the other’s agenda before contacting them. It is a reflex that is acquired very quickly as long as the rules are clear, that one has had a little time to practice it…and that the information presented by the agendas is reliable (so that they are kept up to date).

10°) Give visibility on one’ s work

The goal here is to avoid the “how far along are you?”, so easy in open space but counterproductive from a distance because the less you see the person, the more you’re going to ask them where they’re at in their work, the more you’re going to interrupt and bother them, the less they’re going to move forward.

So it’s all about making your work visible on the principle that it’s better to take a little time to do it than to waste a lot of time answering.

A few simple rules: if you use project management or shared task management tools (which I recommend), keep your progress up to date. Normally a daily update is enough because one is more in reporting, in remote work it’s to be done in real time because it becomes a tool for collective coordination.

If you also have tools for managing projects or tasks, most of them allow you to document and comment on the progress of the project. Use them to give context: “I’m almost done”, “I have a problem on this part”, “we could improve it in such a way”.

And if you have a tool as a workplace with spaces dedicated to your team and your project, give regular updates on your progress. This is the value of a practice called “working out loud” which I wasn’t a fan of in the past but which proves its value here as long as you know how to send signals while reducing the noise.

Do you have the practices and tools to do all this remotely? These are the questions that must be asked before launching a large-scale remote working policy. And those that many will regret not having asked before the imposed containment that we are experiencing. Hopefully the lesson will be learned for next time.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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