Many businesses and organisations around the world tried out remote work for the first time this year.
Some did well.
Others, not so much.
This is because remote working is not the same as working in an office.
It is not simply about “using Zoom calls”.
When trying to shift to remote work, most companies and organisations make the mistake of just copy-pasting what they did in an office.
This is the wrong approach.
Remote working differs from a traditional office environment.
Remote working requires a new way of thinking, and a new set of principles.
And with it looking more and more likely that remote working is here to stay, companies that figure this out will thrive. Those that don’t, will simply be left behind.
Why Remote Working Is Not the Same as Working in an Office
The obvious reason why remote working is not the same as working in an office, is that not everyone is in the same physical location.
Office spaces are set up to facilitate one approach to work.
And that is that there is easy, physical, real-time access to other team members.
This allows for in-person collaboration and rapid data flow – the “human broadband connection”.
Remote working setups are not the same, and you cannot simply replace in-person conversations with video calls and expect everything to function.
The human-to-human broadband communication is gone with remote working. Clear, written communication takes its place.
Real time interaction exists to a much muted degree with remote working. Clear, pre-recorded and organised screencasts take their place.
The home is a very different place from the office. There are different environmental cues, and different sets of distractions. There is no work atmosphere.
And with remote work, work becomes much more results-based than relationship-based.
This is interestingly one of the reasons that a lot of managers and business owners resist remote work arrangements. They are usually there for the politics, control and power – not the delivery of results and value to their customers.1It is also the reason that a lot of middle managers become redundant under remote working arrangements.
Why We Need a New Paradigm for Remote Work
Having eight Zoom meetings a day does not work.
Heck, even one Zoom video call a day is draining for most people.
We’ve all heard about schools trying to take classes online and having kids sit through six hours of video classes – that’s just insanity.
Remote work gives us the opportunity to let our people do deep and value-creating work… so why would we want to ruin that by putting them on-edge on video all day?
Unlike an office, you can’t just call everyone together for an impromptu chat around a table. You must schedule, prioritise and organise your calls and meetings. And minimise them.
I mentioned earlier that remote working companies focus more on results than relationships.
This means that the informal relationship-building that usually happens in an office has to take place elsewhere. This usually happens in side chats, DMs and informal get-togethers outside of work.
And this is why we need a new paradigm for remote work.
Principles of a New Remote Work Paradigm
What would these new principles look like?
We don’t need to reinvent these – we can just learn from the best practices of people and companies who have been remote working for years and decades.2It used to be called “telecommuting”.
The first communication principle for remote working is to limit meetings.
Group your meetings into as few days as possible.
One thing I like to recommend to clients, is to hold all their meetings on one day a week. That way people can block out that day in their calendar and know what to expect.
The second communication principle is to get used to using audio and screen-sharing ONLY for calls and meetings.
Video and webcams tend to be draining and aren’t really necessary.
The third communication principle is to learn to work together asynchronously.3Asynchronous in this case means “not in real time”. i.e., you send someone something, they may not see it for a couple of hours, and you may not see their reply for another hour.
This basically means record, don’t stream.
Gone are the days of “let me show you quickly”.
If you need to direct someone to do something, make a short video and share it. Don’t try to “hop on a quick five minute call” with them in real-time.
This means that you must think, clarify your own thoughts, organise them and plan a bit when creating directions. You can no longer just spew out a stream of consciousness.
The fourth communication principle is to set crossover hours.
The reality is with remote working, people will work when they want and how they want. This isn’t necessarily the same as everyone else.
The way around this is to set crossover hours.
“OK, from 11am-3pm Eastern time, everyone will be online”.
The last communication principle is that everything must be written down in a system.
Client interactions, task progress, whatever – if it isn’t written down clearly in a system somewhere, it didn’t happen.
A system like Asana with regular updates is required so that anyone can log on at any time, and get up-to-speed on what has been happening.
Work relationship principles
Private side chats must be allowed within the company.
This can be in the form of private and locked channels in Slack, or informal groups on WhatsApp or WeChat.
These should not be checked or monitored by management. Team members need the privacy and security to speak freely.
Team members should also be encouraged to meet up in-person informally.
This could be to work together, or even just for coffee.
Teams that know and like each other work better together, and these two principles help with that.
Autonomy, time and freedom
People’s autonomy, time and freedom must be valued.
This means teams should be given the ability to self-organise as they see fit.
This is the recognition that different people organise and are disciplined in different ways, and that the company is allowing for that.4I would still recommend that the final decision on what system or app stack to use sits with the company though. There is no point in having many redundant systems.
It means giving people flexibility in hours and in how they work, and not trying to monitor their work 24/7.
Results matter more
Results should be valued more than effort.
This is an uncomfortable truth for many professionals, managers and business owners.
In the absence of seeing people running around busily, or working at their desks, the only thing that really matters is results.
Either someone adds something to the value chain or they don’t.5I would go one step further and say that everyone should contribute value towards the end customer somehow.
Obviously use some common sense about this, but effort alone doesn’t cut it.
Personal principles for remote working
At a personal level, anyone working remotely needs to be organised and tech-fluent.
Being organised means:
- Being able to schedule things ahead of time.
- Being able to work asynchronously with others (as you know it will take time for people to get back to you on things).
Tech fluency means that you understand how to use email, calendars, project management systems and any other apps that the company uses.
These things are just assumed knowledge for anyone wanting to work remotely.6Training should also be provided of course.
You can find out more about these things in the time management and productivity stacks.
What To Do Next
Remote working is not just everyone sitting at home linked together by Zoom meetings.
Remote work is an entirely new paradigm of working, and companies need to adjust if they want to offer such arrangements to their teams.
Business owners can get started by reading my guide on setting up their businesses for remote working.
Professionals and team members can find out how to work productively from home.
- It is also the reason that a lot of middle managers become redundant under remote working arrangements.
- It used to be called “telecommuting”.
- Asynchronous in this case means “not in real time”. i.e., you send someone something, they may not see it for a couple of hours, and you may not see their reply for another hour.
- I would still recommend that the final decision on what system or app stack to use sits with the company though. There is no point in having many redundant systems.
- I would go one step further and say that everyone should contribute value towards the end customer somehow.
- Training should also be provided of course.
Photos by Cookie the Pom and Rafal Jedrzejek.