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In 2020, companies all over the globe were forced to quickly switch to remote work. Necessitated by COVID-19 health concerns and government restrictions, this was not the smoothest transition for many. Even those more familiar with utilizing remote work features for certain teams or tasks might have been surprised by the challenges employees faced as they struggled to adapt, communicate, and maintain normal levels of productivity. Of course, remote work does have many benefits, and employees, especially younger generations, cherish the opportunity to work from anywhere and on a more flexible schedule. It’s a model that can also have wonderful implications for employee wellness as well as productivity.
According to one Harvard Business School professor, who has spent years studying remote work and the organizations that embrace this model, there are certain practices that make some remote companies more successful than others. In his recent article for the Harvard Business Review, “Our Work-From-Anywhere Future,” professor Prithwiraj Choudhury goes into detail about how employers can succeed in the future of remote work.
Choudhury is most passionate about a “work-from-anywhere” approach when it comes to setting up flexible work programs. While employers might be excited about the cost savings from a decrease in real estate expenses, they should only be a secondary reason for why a company gives up physical office space for a dedicated remote work model. The real potential for growth in productivity and profits come from expanding a company’s talent base to include workers from all over the country or even the world. Allowing talent to choose their location—especially one that may be better suited to their personal needs and well-being, such as being closer to family or in an area with a lower cost-of-living—helps to attract and retain top workers. Employers reap the benefits with lower turnover, better quality work, and increased levels of employee happiness.
Start With C-Suite Executives
Companies might be inclined to commit only certain teams or members to a remote work setting. While it is not unreasonable to have some jobs that naturally require in-person or in-office components, it does not benefit the company to keep those in leadership roles in a centralized location. In fact, by moving C-Suite and top executives off-site, the rest of the company will be more inclined to follow their lead. In order for this to work, these executives should actively embrace all of a company’s remote work features and consider themselves an example for other teams.
"This model can only work if senior managers adopt it, because if the C-suite and top managers are all in a physical building, then middle managers will all be drawn to that building to get face time," Choudhury explains.
Embrace Asynchronous Work
With a fully-remote work model, employees and teams will be performing tasks at different times and across multiple time zones. Projects in this setting cannot fit into rigid schedules as easily as those done in person and in real time. Instead of scheduling specific times and meetings to track progress with a team or ask questions, employers should embrace an asynchronous sharing of information—where employees are constantly sharing ideas, asking questions, and responding to one another. This free-flowing sharing of information is easily enabled by a messaging system or forum, like a Slack or Teams channel, or even a shared online document, where questions or data can be added and responded to as other workers become available.
Research on this approach consistently shows how global, asynchronous teams experience more innovation and creativity in their work. In this type of system, employees are more likely to share early-stage ideas and plans and welcome early feedback. There is also much less pressure for an employee to only present completed and fully-polished work as there is with formal in-person meetings. GitLab, an all-remote company, refers to this as “blameless problem-solving.” In order for employees to be successful in this atypical setting, though, employers should make sure they have the training they need to adapt to this new style of communication and collaboration.
Build A Knowledge Repository
Without the opportunity for face-to-face interactions, isolated employees are less likely to engage coworkers to learn how certain things within a company work. In order to combat confusion, successful remote companies build a “working handbook” which contains information on how things are run within the company. These should be transparent, accessible documents that can be added to and are easily searchable. It can also be a place that contains background information for projects, meeting notes or recordings, and even how-to videos.
Many companies avoid committing to fully remote work environments because they perceive that there will be an irredeemable loss in company culture, or that there will be no sense of shared purpose and community with workers scattered all over. Choudhury argues that employees, actually, do not really “long to be in the office” (though, for those with COVID-19-induced cabin fever may be the exception).
Employers can rely on technology to facilitate “planned randomized interactions” virtually; in fact, this has been a goal for many during the pandemic as people long for alternative forms of socialization. This is as simple as scheduling a group get-together online—but, unlike meetings, there are no work agendas involved.
Prepare To Invest Long-Term
The process of transforming a traditional company into a successful “work from anywhere” model requires more than just a few chaotic months during a pandemic. These changes require long-term investment and rely on senior management to lead the way. For some companies, it may be a multi-year organizational project. Major changes must be made in the way a company operates, organizes projects and tasks, and communicates. Employees might need to be retrained and job roles redefined. There may be regulatory hurdles to tackle when expanding globally or off-site. Data security, suddenly, becomes much more important. Instead of measuring productivity and success in superficial terms—such as time spent at a desk—employers must evaluate workers on the quality of their work, their ability to interact with colleagues virtually, and feedback from clients.