How to make working remotely work for you

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How to make working remotely work for you


“Don’t expect technology to solve everything. It’s about the people.”

Although 20 percent of the global workforce already works remotely, some businesses still doubt if remote employees can deliver the same results as people working from the office.  What are the pitfalls and how do we avoid them?

Over 200 employees at Automattic, the company behind WordPress, never go to the office in the morning. It would be practically impossible to do so because they work in 174 different cities, in 29 countries across the globe. Automattic is just one example of the growing list of companies that work completely or partially virtually. The top 100 list of companies with remote jobs, published every year by the website, includes multinationals like Dell, Amazon, IBM and Apple.

Positive effect

Working remotely has many advantages. Cost reduction is one of them. According to a Forbes magazine report, the health insurance company Aetna - where almost half of the employees don’t have a desk at the office - saved $78 million by reducing office space. Additionally, having employees work from home had an enormously positive effect on the carbon footprint of the company. With its remote workers reducing the distance they drove per year by over 100 million kilometres, Aetna saved over seven million litres of gas annually.

An attractive option

All these things considered, working with remote teams is a very attractive option. But implementing a successful remote working strategy is easier said than done. The best example of how difficult it can be is perfectly illustrated by what happened with the online multinational Yahoo. The then newly appointed CEO Marissa Mayer discovered that a huge number of remote employees weren’t even signing in to the VPN. It was completely unclear what they were working on – if working on anything at all.

Yahoo is not the only company that had bad experiences with remote teams. A 2005 Deloitte study of IT projects outsourced to virtual work groups found that 66% failed to satisfy the clients’ requirements. An earlier study, by The Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, concluded that only 18% of the 70 remote teams they studied were ‘highly successful´. The rest were not meeting expectations.

Mythical beasts

How to make sure your company doesn’t become the latest example of failed remote working? According to Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, one shouldn’t overcomplicate things: “We approach remote workers as these mythical beasts. But you shouldn’t think about them in a fundamentally different way. They are still people working in an organisation to get stuff done,” he says in Business Insider.

It’s the last part that worries some companies. They are not so convinced that remote teams ‘get stuff done´, the same way they would in an office environment. That’s the reason why Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ban all employees from working remotely:  “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home”, read the memo she sent out to all remote workers.

Best predictor for success

There were probably many factors at play in the failure of the remote working strategy at Yahoo, but one of them was clearly the breach of trust between the senior management of the company and its employees. “Trusting people who work remotely is a key factor for success”, says Fabrice Teboul, Marketing Director Continental Europe at PageGroup.

To build that trust, companies need to start with the people that are experienced. According to a recent study on potential leaders for virtual teams, the experience of the team managers is the best predictor of success. Fabrice Teboul agrees:  “Team managers must have enough expertise and autonomy to lead on a daily basis and only escalate the more strategic and extraordinary decisions.”

Interacting with teams

The second step is to make sure that managers set clear goals for – or even better in collaboration with – their team members. “Especially when managers are not interacting with their teams on a daily basis, there shouldn’t be any doubt about the expectations” explains Teboul. “The focus should not be on monitoring whether someone is working or not. What’s important is the end result and its impact on the business.”

Pull a rope

When it comes to the output, one of the biggest pitfalls is the size of the remote teams. As projects get more complex, teams tend to grow bigger and bigger, sometimes even exceeding 100 people. How this affects the strength of the team can be shown by a simple experiment: ask a group of people to pull a rope. You will soon discover that the added value of every extra team member quickly diminishes while the number of people increases.

This is known as the Ringelmann effect:  although eight people combined have more strength than four, the smaller group performs better because they have fewer problems in coordinating their efforts. It’s, therefore, no coincidence that most sports teams, whether it’s in football, basketball or rugby, never have more than fifteen players. The reason – which they discovered when they repeated Ringelmann’s experiment in the 1970s – is quite remarkable: once the team grows bigger, people feel less responsible for the outcome and start cutting corners.

Touch base

This also has to do with another problem companies are faced with, once the number of remote employees in a team increases:  the communication breaks down. According to research by Yale School of Organization and Management an employee who works in a team of 13 people, needs to have 78 conversations to touch base with all his colleagues on a certain subject. One can imagine the impact on management once a remote team reaches a critical number: due to all the emails, messages and phone calls, clear communication becomes practically impossible.

It’s at this point where many companies fail: it’s impossible to work with remote employees or teams, without a good communication strategy. This strategy should be as much about good virtual communication systems as it should be about personal contact.  “It’s all well to manage people remotely, using tools like Skype, FaceTime, WebEX or Go to Meetings, but it’s crucial that managers meet their team members in person,” says Fabrice Teboul. “The frequency depends on how well-developed the relationship is between the manager and the team, but I would recommend meeting every quarter. It’s the best way to get to know each other and establish better foundations for the future. Technology helps, but don’t expect it to solve everything. In the end, it’s about the people.”