Thought leaders tend to blame millennials when companies switch to a remote work or distributed work culture (we know – we’ve reported on it). But the thought process for enabling remote work has turned inward. Instead of seeking to appease a generation, more companies are opting for a fully distributed work culture for a simple reason: it’s easier to find and retain the best people.
At TRaD Works Forum, a conference that took place in Washington, D.C. last week, leaders in distributed culture came together to discuss the future of telecommuting and distributed work. HR Dive attended two panels: one on curating a culture in a distributed workforce, and another on properly managing such a workforce.
One thing the experts agreed on: technology has largely enabled telework to shift from boutique benefit to highly-adopted workforce strategy. And millennials, while not alone in desiring telework, are voicing questions about the way we work that those even slightly older in the workforce take for granted, said John O’Duinn, a consultant who had in the past worked for companies like Mozilla.
Here are the insights we gathered from the two panels.
Why remote work brings new talent, diversity
Many companies on both panels sought to have a fully-distributed workforce from the beginning. Automattic, a web-development corporation represented on the panel by Marjorie Asturias, the company’s happiness engineer, wanted to be able to hire the best and brightest from around the world. Their goal was to avoid any overhead they could otherwise spend on people, which meant eschewing the traditional office structure.
Nicole McCabe, Senior Director, Global Diversity and Inclusion at SAP, also extolled the bonuses a remote work program bestowed on talent acquisition.The company was no longer limited to recruiting in any one spot, which allowed them to recruit top talent from around the world – including diverse perspectives that could have otherwise been shut out due to location.
Work-life balance – an oft-cited reason for including remote plans – is largely outdated. Panelists instead noted the change of semantics to work-life integration, which accepts that work and life do not have 50-50 equal roles in an employee’s life.
Flexibility can be a deal maker or breaker, especially for employees who may be entering new phases of life, particularly childbearing and taking care of sick parents. McCabe, for example, moved to a different section in her company due to her need for flexibility after she had her first daughter.
But while many employees may perceive working from home or off-site as the ideal state, the panelists noted that the impact of remote work depends on the jobs people have – and the people. Some would flounder without the structure of an office, McCabe said, and it’s important for both management and employees to work together to find which is the best fit.
The types of tools that are working
Carol Cochran, director of people and culture at FlexJobs, said her company uses Yammer, Microsoft’s workplace chat offering, to connect their distributed workforce. Employees use the tool to “share powerful events in their lives,” chat and share celebratory moments.
She added that “no program I could replicate” would be as effective or strong as what the work chat program provided her organization.
FlexJobs also uses Sococo, essentially a virtual office program that simulates an office building with the help of employee avatars. Employees use it to chat and “go into an office” together. “You can feel that sense of closeness by seeing who is around,” Cochran said.
McCabe mentioned the power of teleconferencing through Adobe Connect, so coworkers can collaborate and brainstorm virtually, and Skype for video, which she considers “critical” for the workforce thanks to its video and instant messaging capabilities.
Ensuring adoption of such tools, particularly video calling, can prove a challenge. Without proper instruction – or a strong teleworking culture in place – employees may try to opt out of video calls due to awkwardness. Panelists agreed that for such tech tools to work, an employer must embody use from the top. McCabe’s boss, for example, made it clear that she wanted to see everyone at the meeting on video chat. Employees eventually got comfortable with using the tools thanks to a directive dictated and followed from above.
But making video an integral part of the company culture can also ensure remote employees engage. Asturias noted her company wasn’t afraid to use light-hearted peer pressure to encourage employees to connect via video.
“We weren’t afraid to use an entire meeting to help someone get on video,” Asturias said.
The team also uses a survey tool on a regular basis that gauges how employees feel about the work experience. They ask questions like: Are you happy? Do you have the right tools to do your job? Do you have faith in leadership? They aggregate the responses and make results public for accountability.
Much of tool adoption comes down to cultural acceptance and equality of treatment of workers both on- and off-site.
Cochran mentioned one guiding principle: “If one person works remotely, everyone works remotely.” That means having even employees who aren’t located off site participating in video calls and similar initiatives – a smart way to avoid disengaged remote workers.
How to create organic relationships
One of the greatest challenges of remote work is avoiding the distance disconnect. In an office, relationships come naturally from daily, in-person interaction. But when the workforce is distributed, creating that natural camaraderie can be tough. The right tools – ones that help create organic connections between all members of a distributed workforce – are key to tackling that issue.
FlexJobs, for example, uses Sococo for a monthly trivia night (occasionally in brunch form) that consists of four rounds of trivia. Employees are divided into different teams, and it’s been a successful way of getting all employees across various teams to connect, Cochran said.
Employee chat tools, like Slack, have also helped create natural interactions between employees largely thanks to the ability to create channels on the platform, Asturias said. Employees can join as many channels as they like, and Automattic has channels for parents, book clubs, and other varied interests. It can prove distracting, but in many ways, essential.
“We have a love/hate relationship with Slack,” Asturias said. “But we just can’t quit.”
Many leaders of successfully distributed workforces encourage workers who live in the same city to get together for lunch when possible. FlexJobs and Automattic both reimburse employees who meet for lunch to encourage that interaction.
It can be too easy for remote workers to feel like second hand citizens, said O’Duinn. Especially if an employer isn’t cognizant of the risks.
The trouble with email
Many of the experts on the panel considered the challenges of email as a remote worker. How do you encourage people to jump on a call or a video chat – and in turn, lessen risk to co-worker relationships?
Cochran noted that as workers get buried in email, it can be easy to lose track of context and tone. Her team follows a few guidelines, including: “If you find yourself replying more than three times to an email, call” and “Assume mistake, not malice.”
Additionally, the cultural differences present in a distributed workforce can be made particularly clear in email. Some cultures are more straightforward and terse-sounding in email than others. Marjorie noted that Automattic has a multicultural workforce spread throughout the world, meaning there are occasionally miscommunications caused by email etiquette.
Add the complication of working on different schedules throughout the world, and communication tools can become a barrier instead of an optimizer.
Some organizations opt to limit use of email entirely. Asturias noted that Automattic doesn’t use email internally, opting for slack and other processes, and leave it largely for external use.
What managers can do
Managing remote work takes an active, involved manager who is ready to complete due diligence. Those working outside the traditional office must be as productive as those inside it, especially if the company is not fully distributed.
For managers who may be new to a distributed workforce, having a learning solution in place can ensure success, particularly if those managers are facing a globally distributed office.
SAP uses a mentorship program, McCabe said. When people join the team, they are assigned a mentor or buddy who is supposed to help them acclimate to the company and discern expectations.
“Everything that happens at work, you must be able to do at home,” O’Duinn said.
Amy Freshman, Senior Director of Global Workplace Enablement at ADP, added to that sentiment, noting that the most effective distributed companies level the playing field for those in and out of the office as much as possible. Perhaps instead of splitting the meeting experience between those within a conference room and those remote who are on a video call, the team could all opt to video call from their separate offices.
This approach requires some amount of trust, too. Nicole’s SAP gives leaders a trust score to give them an idea of how they may need to improve. “You don’t get trust unless you give trust,” she said. It’s a two-way street -- employees need to prove they can get their work done, but that can’t happen unless managers avoid micromanaging.
“There is so much focus on parents and families, but what about a simple individual?” Freshman said. “When is it okay to use that flexibility? We have more work to do to think about this issue more broadly.”