In 2020, the pandemic forced organizations to adopt distributed work and the technologies that enable it. But what employees are experiencing now isn't really remote work, said Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting and founder of the Remote Work Association.
“We are experiencing an international contingency plan for a global catastrophe,” Farrer said. “Never in my 15 years of working remotely have I ever seen people have to be educators and entertainers for children at the same time as they're trying to manage a business. And on top of it, they’re shopping from home and worshipping from home. It's not normal.”
Which isn’t to say that with remedies, workers’ lives will go back to the way they were. By some estimates, 30% of the U.S. workforce will continue to work remote—at least part time—forever, Farrer said.
Many organizations embraced policies to support remote work even after they begin to safely welcome employees back to physical offices. That means companies are redefining work as something people do, not someplace they go. And they’re fundamentally re-imagining how teams function, organize and collaborate to get work done. To that end, Farrer shared a few pointers.
1. “Remote-First” Mindset
It doesn’t matter if part of the team works in the office and part works from home. And it doesn’t make a difference if some are overseas and others are at a client site. All are on the same team and need to be part of an “equal employee experience,” Farrer said.
“We want to make sure that we are engaging with our work in the exact same way no matter where we are,” she explained. “If we’re meeting as a team, we're all on a Zoom call.”
This extends to colleagues who may be sitting six feet apart, in a coworking space or a client’s conference room. When virtual teams approach collaboration the same way, it helps eliminate proximity bias—a tendency to overlook the role of remote workers or, on the flip side, the feeling by remote workers of being left out.
2. Overcommunication as the Rule, Not the Exception
“In remote work, overcommunication is just communication,” Farrer said.
Virtual teams need to compensate for a litany of nonverbal communication available to office-based workers—physical expressions, observation and contextual cues. To support this shift, teams should use all the communication channels available to them to over explain, ask extra questions, offer continual updates and otherwise engage with coworkers.
“At first it feels ridiculous, like you’re talking all the time, but it’s not like that,” Farrer said. “You’re just giving people visibility into your workday that they used to get by visiting the hallways, offices or cubicles onsite.”
3. Copious and Ongoing Note Taking
Remote work led teams to hold many more meetings (likely a result of No. 2)—often back-to-back-to-back meetings. Early feedback from workers indicates it can be tricky to keep track of decisions, timelines and next steps. Yes, such confusion occurred even before teams dispersed to work remotely. However, the nature and density of virtual meetings makes the challenge more acute.
“When we hear the word ‘agenda,’ everyone goes ‘ugh.’ But in remote work, it’s important to create meeting agendas and notes because it allows us to come into that synchronous time together and optimize every minute,” Farrer said.
The meeting agenda, maintained in something as simple as a shared document or as rich as a purpose-developed project management app, lays out what the team needs to accomplish. Then, the organizer or designated notetaker adds to it as the meeting progresses, ending by enumerating tasks and assignments.
“And typically, we can just keep a running agenda,” Farrer explained, “pushing down the document with new agendas added to the top so we can always see what happened last week with all the action items.”
4. Not Everything Requires a Video Call
Video collaboration platforms are a crucial enabler of remote work. But almost as soon as workers got comfortable with software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, camera fatigue set in. By its nature, the video call is a decidedly synchronous form or collaboration. But the strength of a remote-first mindset is in the fact that asynchronous work can have a more profound impact on productivity.
“The superpower of distributed companies is asynchronous communication,” Farrer said. “The more we learn how to stay unified as a team without dependency on shared time, the more we can multitask and get work done.”
Farrer encourages virtual teams to take meeting agendas and ask which parts of them—if any—really require a video call and which can be accomplished using email or messaging. Eventually, teams should develop a communication charter, which identifies the various channels available (including video calls and Slack) and offers guidance about when to use each.
5. A Healthy Work-Life Balance
Many workers are preconditioned to know when to start and stop working based on where they do it—namely in the office. Now that so many will work remotely, they need to develop new triggers and boundaries to indicate when it’s time to be productive. For some, it’s as easy as a dedicated space they only use for work. For others, it’s a routine, like a music playlist used only when it’s time to work.
“The more you can create those conditioned responses, the more you will feel that work-life separation,” Farrer said.
What some newly remote workers don’t understand, however, is that they may need to re-dedicate themselves to “play” to be better at work.
“You've got to be just as deep in your personal life as you are in your professional life—engaging with family, participating in a hobby, going outside.” Farrer explained. “Getting as deep into your personal life as your professional life creates balance, not just boundaries.”
Of course, even as workers adjust to a remote future, organizations must build the remote work technology foundation to support it. Ultimately, a remote-first mindset is rooted in what technology enables:
- A digital workspace that gives entire teams resources they need to get the job done.
- A flexible network that gives remote workers the same responsive communication experiences no matter where they are or what device they use.
- An application infrastructure that speeds service delivery to every part of the world.
“At the end of the day, technology allows remote teams to implement their own workflows,” Farrer said. “Remote work is now part of our lives forever. We've got to figure out how to do it the right way.”