The debate over remote work rages on. This past March, IBM announced that the 2,600 employees of its U.S. marketing department would now be required to work on-site or look for other jobs. The decision was stunningly ironic — after all, IBM was a pioneer and vocal supporter of the remote-work movement — and it was also at odds with the reality that remote work is now a mainstream idea that is here to stay.
Consider: a 2017 Gallup poll showed that 43% of U.S. respondents perform at least some of their work remotely, four percentage points more than in 2012. And a 2016 survey conducted by Citrix reported that 84% of Canada’s IT decision makers have staff working remotely either full- time or part-time, with the greatest commitment to remote work seen in companies with the highest revenues.
So, how can your organization make remote work succeed where so many others have failed? To Chris Presley, Director of Consulting at Pythian, success begins with prioritizing people over technology. “Of course, remote work wouldn’t be possible without the technology behind email, collaboration apps like Slack and video conferencing,” he says. “But succeeding with remote work actually depends more on the people using that technology.” From 35 countries around the world, Pythian’s workforce operates remotely to provide IT services including Cloud Solutions, DBA Services, Advanced Analytics and DevOps. Our 20-year track record of success combined with close to ten years of managing remote teams has helped Presley along with Alex Lovell-Troy, VP of Transformation, identify four must-haves to make it work.
Must-have #1: The right people
“An employee who shines in an on-site role could very well crash and burn as a remote worker,” says Presley. “Talent and ability are only part of the formula for success off-site. The secret sauce in remote work is the personality of a self-starter.” Successful remote workers are the ones who get their energy, motivation and discipline from within, he says. Those who seek it elsewhere will never be top performers. In addition to an extensive evaluation of skills, qualified candidates are required to take a FIT personality test which examines previous behavior, a method used to predict future behavior. The test also helps assess whether or not the candidate is a good fit culturally.
Must-have #2: Strong distributed teams
Your people may be working independently, but in a successful remote workforce, they’re never working alone. Lovell-Troy says “There has to be a high level of synergy. This synergy must be a constant theme and the foundation on which you build high-performing teams.” He adds that “strong remote teams are greater than the sum of their parts.” They offer diverse ideas and experience that can deepen a shared pool of knowledge. They also allow for steady work to continue seamlessly, without interruptions or delays. Projects that are complex or time-sensitive can be handed off from time zone to time zone so that contributions come from personnel who are fresh and rested. Another key element that drives synergy is regular communication—this is the glue that binds the team together.
Must-have #3: Over-communication
In a remote workforce, lack of communication is the silent killer. Frequent updates and check-ins by video (remote facetime via video is always encouraged) are crucial to keeping team members engaged and clear on priorities and next steps. It is also an excellent opportunity to bring shared learning back to the team through presentations or describing solutions to difficult problems they’ve encountered on the job. Presley adds that the communication doesn’t have to be all about work.
“It’s critical for the leader to build camaraderie through informal conversations about sports, family, hobbies or anything that will help you connect on a personal level,” he says. Online birthday parties? Virtual whiskey tastings where 7 p.m. in North America is 8 a.m. in Australia?
Presley and Lovell-Troy whose teams are distributed across several time zones, stress that keeping a global team engaged sometimes calls for unconventional thinking.
Slack and other online chat rooms are helpful tools that create a sense of community among remote workers. They break down time zone barriers as users can pick up and join in conversations when they wake up. Another useful app that makes it easy to schedule team meetings is worldtimebuddy.com—and you won’t have to worry about calling a colleague in the middle of the night.
Must Have #4: A culture of remote worker first
It is equally important for corporate headquarters to create a culture that is inclusive and remote friendly. It’s too easy to fall into the “water cooler” meeting habit where decisions get made by team members who are physically present. Remote friendly companies teach people they can have water cooler meetings in-person, but then someone from that meeting must go back and share the outcome digitally with the rest of their team. And at Pythian, nobody calls a meeting without adding a GoToMeeting or a Google Meet link. The assumption is that someone will be remote at every meeting. Equipping conference rooms with oversized screens means that remote employees can be “present” at the meeting. Double Robots also create an opportunity for remote team members to attend “in person.” Lastly, for companies like Pythian who have not only remote workers but workers across the globe, meetings that affect all employees, like “All Hands”, meetings are rotated through different time zones so that the same teams are not inconvenienced each time there is an early start or late night.
As more industries develop their business digitally, it’s likely that the traditional, in-person workplace will someday be equivalent to a landline — nice to have, but not usually necessary. Technology is enabling a seismic shift in work methods, but it can’t change an enduring fact: the success of any enterprise depends less on technology than it does on the people who use it.
At Pythian we are committed to being innovative and staying on top of the latest technology trends, issues, and news from the data perspective. Want to learn more? Check out The Datascape Podcast with Chris Presley.