While our workspaces can come to feel like a second home, it’s what we do and why we do it that ultimately defines our relationship with work.
I’ve worked for over a decade building, managing and participating in digital teams and communities. It’s absolutely possible to nurture productive, engaged and thriving teams over the internet — but they need some stewardship to get up and running.
When your staff are working remotely, you become an online community manager. You — or managers under you — will be guiding and overseeing as you normally would, only across a keyboard or a phone, rather than an office.
Get the tools in place
The good news is, remote working is easy in the 21st century, and there’s an array of affordable tools out here to establish your virtual workplace.
Whether it’s Facebook Workplace, Slack, Asana, Trello, Google Suite or a dozen others, find a set-up that works for your people.
Do you have an intranet already? If so, they’ll need remote access. If not, some of these tools can effectively double as a digital base.
Avoid email as your primary tool. It can build up very fast when you’re far from each other! Get a chat tool for the quick conversations, and make sure employees have access to all the tools they need to do their jobs.
Remember to leave time to train and get your people feeling comfortable using these tools, or you’ll be stalled before you start. (They’re also useful as a back-up, even if you don’t facilitate remote working very often.)
When we manage communities, we have a clearly defined purpose and reason for being. We let people know what’s expected of them in the community — specifically, what’s encouraged and what’s not acceptable.
If your people have never worked remotely before, don’t assume they know what to do or can transition comfortably. Chat beforehand about any questions or concerns. Check any assumptions, and be very clear about what you want and need to see.
If the nature of work dictates regular check-ins, make it clear that’s expected, and define what that looks like. If you need a report or status update at the end of a shift or a working day, give an example.
Give everyone the chance to switch gears in an informed way.
If you have staff or team members who take naturally to remote working, utilise them as ambassadors and evangelists. Let them lead by example and model how others can do it, and equip them to instruct or assist those who may need help transitioning to a different way of working.
People are often more comfortable chatting with a peer than the boss, and it’s important to have these surrogates in your online work community to mentor others and escalate issues.
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We’re social creatures, and one of the benefits of coming to work in a shared workplace is our in-person interactions with colleagues. These can be the first things people miss when they work remotely, which can have a flow-on effect on productivity and morale.
Harness tools that let your people enjoy digital water-cooler chat. This gives everyone a chance to get involved without pressure, and helps people maintain relationships and conviviality. It helps you build a virtual sense of place where staff feel they can be themselves and do their best work.
Trying to enforce socialising away doesn’t work, and worse, risks breeding resentment.
Remote working can be liberating and highly productive. But more than any fancy tech tools, it requires trust. If you’re already developing flexible working practices, this could be a chance to go a little further and try some new approaches.
If you’re never allowed staff to work remotely before, don’t panic.
Highly successful businesses have been working this way for a long time, and there are tried and true ways to run a smooth ship.
Have faith in your people and they’re likely to reciprocate with those shared values.
Be ready for surprises
You might find that working remotely reveals some things about your people or your working culture you didn’t expect.
These could be great — for example, relationships are sufficiently strong and healthy so that there is minimal disruption and a strong sense of connection, even at a distance.
Or they may be less welcome — for example, you find a staff member isn’t as engaged as you thought, or people are lacking motivation when they’re outside the office.
These concerns are sometimes given as reasons managers are nervous about trying remote working.
But here’s the reality. If your people are unhappy and disengaged, it’s easier for them to hide this in the office.
Working from home won’t make most people suddenly become lax — evidence suggests people actually work more hours when they’re tuned in remotely.
Distributed working actually gives you the chance to uncover any hidden performance, operational or cultural issues — it’s a chance to make your business more resilient.
So whether it’s the coronavirus, bushfire smoke, weather events, carbon footprint, or something else that has you pondering the workability of telecommuting, rest assured, you’re not alone, and it’s a worthy experiment that could permanently transform your business for the better.