People have been working from 9 to 5 for a long time now. For some of us, the commute is more than an hour each way, driving to lifeless grey offices, many filled with cubicles–“day prisons”. In the past, we had to go to a specific location in order to access the tools and information we needed to do our work. But mobile devices, centralized data, and all kinds of apps and software are helping us stay connected to each other and the ability to access information from anywhere is making the traditional 9-to-5 grind unnecessary.
According to numerous reports from around the world, people are looking for more flexibility for over when and where they worked. If we can take location out of the equation, we can focus on more important criteria. Employers can hire the best, the brightest, and the most dedicated workers, and people can work on projects they like with people they enjoy.
This autonomy brings benefits to both the employer and the worker. By offering workers more flexibility they develop a positive association with their work and work environment and as a result, they produce better work. Here are five tips for working with remote teams the right way.
Tips for working with remote teams the right way
- THERE IS NO SINGLE FORMULA TO FOLLOW. First of all, it’s important to note that there isn’t a one-solution-fits-all for working with remote teams. Each person, each company will need to experiment with different tools and processes until they find what makes him, her, or them, the most productive.
- HIGH-BANDWIDTH COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY. With today’s technology getting in touch with our remote colleagues should be a piece of cake. But the cornerstone of high-bandwidth communication is a solid, and stable high-bandwidth internet connection.
- USE WEBCAMS. If you want to work online as if you were in the office, have a sense of your remote team, you have to turn your webcam on and have a good headset that minimizes the background noise.
- CREATE A TEAM AGREEMENT. When working with remote teams you need to have each member of the team on the same page. But how do you communicate effectively with the other members of the team if you are not in the same place and don’t share the same time zones? You create a team agreement that highlights how the communication will take place, the expected response times, the tools to be used, and what each of the members will be doing.
- WORK OUT LOUD. One of the keys to working with remote teams is to let others know what you are doing. You can do this with daily standup meetings, email updates, or a plethora of online apps like Google Hangouts, Sococo, and Kubi. The idea is to simulate a new form of proximity to each other online.
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Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers podcast. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Hello, everybody, and welcome to episode 162. Happy October. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a talk for a very special event that I’ll be able to announce soon. So for today’s podcast, I thought I would give this talk to you. It’s in very draft form, but I found that sometimes doing it for an audience, even an imaginary audience, helps me to gather my thoughts and improve the speech as I go. So for listeners who are listening to this out there, if you have feedback or suggestions on how I could make this talk better, then you know where to find me. I’m at collaborationsuperpowers.com and I welcome your constructive criticism.
Now this talk is officially going to be called Working from Anywhere with Collaboration Superpowers. But for this episode, I’m calling it Bust out of Day Prison with Collaboration Superpowers, and it’s really all about how we can be happy at work and businesses can get the workers that they need when we take location out of the equation. So here we go. Way back in 2006, I lived in California and belonged to a social community that was interested in the future, technology, and staying healthy. We met up by going hiking together every Sunday. One person in the group was particularly interesting to me because he was trying to solve a strange problem. He didn’t want to die. Now there are longevity devotees out there experimenting with and researching anti-aging. There are rocket scientists, theoretical physicists, entrepreneurs, software developers. Some people practice calorie restrictions. Some research cryonics. Some work on nanotechnologies. And through his network, my death-defying hiking friend was introduced to others working towards the same goal. But no one was talking regularly or sharing data. So he built an online project management tool that would allow longevity scientists from all over the world to collaborate. Many apps exist for this now, but it was still pretty new back in 2006. A few years later I used this tool that got built when I had the rare opportunity to tour the world with my very favorite band as their merchandizer. They were called the legendary pink dots and I have been a fan since I was 15 years old. So given that I could work from anywhere, my boss agreed to let me go on tour with them. So while we were driving long hours to the next venue during the day, I would connect and work with my team online from [inaudible – 02:58] using a mobile router and at night I sold T-shirts and CDs and got to see all the shows and meet tons of fellow fans, and it was one of the best times of my life and a true aha experience because geographical constraints and collaboration are simply that: constraints which do nothing to make the work better. For centuries, employers have hired the most qualified workers who just happen to be in a particular location. That didn’t necessarily mean that the team was populated by the best and the brightest. It’s just the best who were nearby or willing to relocate. Of course, that’s the employer’s view.
From the employee’s view, the job offers they accepted were the best that they could get at the time, whether or not those jobs made them excited to get up in the morning.
For ages people have been working from 9:00 to 5:00. Every day we commute, some of us for more than an hour each way, to lifeless, grey offices, many filled with cubicles. These I call day prisons. But of course, they didn’t use to be day prisons. We used to have to go to a specific location in order to access the tools and information needed to do our work, but mobile devices, centralized data, and all kinds of apps and software are helping us stay connected to each other no matter where we are. And the ability to access information from anywhere is making the traditional 9:00 to 5:00 grind unnecessary for many of us.
According to this year’s Eurofound-ILO report, 37% of global workers telecommuted in 2015. Across Europe an average of 17% of workers telework. And in the U.S. about 34% of the workforce are working as freelancers. In the 2017 Gallup survey about the state of the American workplace, almost 40% of employees say that they would change jobs for one that gave them some flexibility over where and when they worked.
A separate 2017 FlexJobs survey found that parents rank work flexibility ahead of even salary. All of this makes me realize that if we can find a way to make location a non-issue, then we can focus on more important criteria. Employers can hire the best, the brightest, and the most dedicated workers wherever those people happen to be, and people can work on projects they like and with people they enjoy. It is undeniable that the freedom to choose one workspace and time is a benefit for the worker and a boost to the worker’s mood.
But note that that opportunity, that autonomy translates back to benefit the employer as well as the worker. Employees who have a positive association with their work and work environment can’t help but produce better work. Workers know this and we know that we need to demonstrate our productivity. In exchange for being allowed out from under a command-and-control workplace, we gladly take on a share of the responsibility of meeting our goals. For the past few years, you guys all know that I’ve been interviewing people and companies whose business models depend on successfully bridging distance. Everyone from managers, software developers, to HR directors to neuroscientists, I’ve been collecting their best practices and tips for how to get remote working right.
One of the biggest takeaways from the interviews is that there isn’t a one-solution-fits-all for remote working. There is no single formula to follow. Each person, each company will need to experiment with tools and processes to find what makes him, her, or them most productive. But what are the tools available? And what are the various processes that can work for different kinds of remote teams? I’ve learned everything I could on how to make working remotely not just workable but undeniably productive, and in some cases, preferable.
Let’s start by talking about communication. In the past, communication with remote colleagues was notoriously bad. The connections were rarely good, we couldn’t see each other, and we often found ourselves a conference room table hunched over a spider phone yelling, “Hey, Bob, it’s Lisette. Can you hear me?” That was indeed a painful way of working. We wanted to be easy to get in touch with our remote colleagues, as easy as leaning over your shoulder and asking the person at the next desk a question. It shouldn’t be technically challenging and we shouldn’t always have to schedule a meeting to get someone’s time.
Now if you’re suspiciously eyeing that old spider phone on your conference room table, you are right to do so. Technology has come a long way in the last five years, and it’s time to take another look. But there is one, big vulnerability. For a remote team to collaborate seamlessly, everyone on the team needs to have rocking-fast Internet. People think that they want to be co-located, but what they really want is high-bandwidth communication. And the cornerstone of high-bandwidth communication is a solid, stable, high-bandwidth Internet connection. Once we’ve got the Internet connection sorted, we need to use that bandwidth and turn our webcams on. I know that many people have an aversion to turning the cameras on, but as humans, we’re designed to respond to each other visually. How many of you have sat through a webinar without multitasking? Sight and nonverbal communication are a big part of our interactions. And in order to do that, we need to see each other. And yes, I know that video is not appropriate for every single situation. And it is technically possible to collaborate without video. I mean heck, we did it with the painful spider phone for years. But if you want to work online as if you’re in the office together and if you want to feel that sense of team, you’ve got to turn the webcams on. And for an extra-great connection, buy a headset and minimize your background noise. That barking dog or coffee shop sounds are fun at first, but they quickly get in the way of a productive conversation.
Once we’ve got the basics of communication worked out, we need to get people on the same page. In an office, we pick up on how the team works by spending time together and seeing each other. When we are remote, we lose a lot of that context. So how do we know what the normal behavior is on a remote team? Well, we define it by creating a team agreement. It’s a very simple process that outlines how we work together. Basically, how do we communicate with each other? What are the expected response times? What tools will we use? And how do we know what each other are doing? When we work together in the same place, we can see and hear each other. That helps us stay up-to-date by proximity. But when we’re virtual, the way that we know what each other are doing is by working out loud. Working out loud is the act of making your work observable to others. And on remote teams, it comes in many different forms, from daily standup meetings, [inaudible – 10:25], email updates, or a plethora of online apps. Some people keep their instant message status updated so that their colleagues always know what they’re working on. Some teams record their meetings for team members who couldn’t attend. Whatever the method, the idea of working out loud is to simulate a new form of proximity to each other online. And more and more online tools are being built specifically for simulating an office or a co-working environment.
A few remote teams at Spotify work together daily using Google Hangouts. They have a Hangout open at all times and everyone connects via video with the microphones on mute. This is just like working in the same room together. They can see each other, and when someone has a question, they simply unmute themselves and ask.
A virtual office is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an office you go to online. Sococo is one of the companies that creates virtual offices. When you log in, you see a floor plan and avatars that represent your fellow logged in colleagues. You can move yourself from room to room, but you can only hear and speak to those who are in the same room with you, just like at an office. Just being able to see where everyone is in the virtual floor plan makes colleagues feel more accessible and gives the team a surprising sense of togetherness. You no longer need to schedule the time to talk to somebody. Just knock on their virtual door.
If you thought that virtual offices sounded far out, let me introduce you to telepresence. Telepresence is a combination of technologies that gives you presence somewhere other than your actual location. In this modern age, you really can be in two places at once. The Kubi allows you to beam in, just like with Skype, to any tablet device, and move yourself from side to side and up and down. That probably doesn’t sound all that excited. However, the simple movement has some powerful effects. For one, the person beaming in can control where they’re looking, which means that they can see and follow whoever is talking at the table or look at the whiteboard. From the perspective of those who are at the table in the flesh, the movement of the Kubi gives the remote participant a more human presence in the room.
Other telepresence robots are drivable. This means that you can beam into what is basically a tablet on wheels and drive yourself around using the arrow keys on your keyboard. Half of the employees at the suitable technology office beam into work. A former employee [Aaron Rapacki – 13:03] shares there are beams everywhere in our office. Many of our remote staff log into the beam all day as if they’re working so others can find them. It’s the one-to-one representation. And the fact that it is easy to use what makes the beam so powerful. Just like strolling up to somebody at their desk, people will stroll up to their beams and just talk to them.
Okay, but let’s go back down to earth. This point bears repeating. We love having options concerning our schedule, our workspace, and how long it takes to reach it. And we love getting to choose work that is meaningful to us with colleagues and clients who also take pride in the work that they do and surround themselves with competent teammates. Over and over in the interviews, I heard that while salary is important, there came a point where people valued working on interesting projects with people they liked more than how much their pay packet was worth. If you’re a manager or director, whether or not you plan to allow flexible work options at your company, it’s good to have the processes in place to make it possible to work outside the office in case it’s unexpectedly necessary. Consider the various unavoidable events that can keep workers from their desks. Traffic jams, public transit delays, sick children, bad weather, with a minimal amount of preparation, your workforce won’t have to grind to a halt on account of some sudden contingency.
The information that I’m collecting paints a bright picture of the possibilities available to us today. Plus, given that businesses are constantly adapting and the technology of remote collaboration is always improving, the future looks to me even more promising. As I continue to interview people who work remotely, I meet more and more people from all over the world who actively pursue the work that they love. And when I think back to my grey cubicle and day prison, I think about all the people who currently view their work equally as dim. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The technology exists to bridge the distance between a dedicated worker and a job worth getting up for in the morning.
Thank you for listening, everybody. This is a first-draft edition of a talk that I’m going to be giving in mid-November in Lithuania. It’s unofficially called Bust out of Day Prison with Collaboration Superpowers. If you have any feedback or ways of making this talk better or information you wish I covered, just get in touch. You can find everything you need at collaborationsuperpowers.com. And if you want to find out more about all the interviews with remote people and companies who are doing great things, then sign up for the newsletter. Every other week we send out tips, tricks, best practices, interviews, and all kinds of great stuff that will help make your remote experience awesome. So get yourself signed up, collaborationsuperpowers.com/newsletter.
A big thanks to our awesome podcast producer Nick Jaworski. He’s the one that makes us sound so pro. You can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com.
And another big thanks to our dazzling designer Alfred Boland. He’s the one that makes us shine so bright. You can hire him to make you look cool at bolanden.nl. All right, everybody, until next week, let’s bust out of our day prisons and be powerful.