10 Benefits of Remote Work, After Two Years at Home.

It seems there have been thousands of internet blogs and Facebook posts giving advice on remote work from people that have been working remotely for less than a week – such is the internet, so why not add to the noise with my opinions too?

I don’t want to give the impression that remote work is rocket science or that I am any kind of expert, I will gladly admit that I have muddled through this last couple of years and have learned far more from my mistakes and ill-founded assumptions than through careful planning or education. However, I like to think that I have grown and learned a few things along the way.

Remote working is far more nuanced and complex than people realize and there is an awful lot of good intentions and bad advice out there. The news organizations are even worse, the BBC had an article recently that I think must have been written 20 years ago about remote work and dragged out and polished up and presented as advice, it looked like it was written by someone that had never actually worked from home and was just a series of stereotypes on home working.

Our history

A very brief history of our experience. Two years ago I was asked to create a remote office for our software consultancy division. The goal was to enable us to recruit more software delivery teams and grow the company more quickly. The constraint was that it had to be an Agile environment and had to maintain the culture of our organization.

Remote Collaborative Teams

I quickly realized that this was actually a novel idea, the vast majority of remote work is asynchronous and solo – the very opposite of Agile.
Agile, the way we do it at least, is very interactive. Our teams have impromptu meetings multiple times a day – we call these turnarounds as in an office the team spins their chairs around discusses a topic for a few minutes and then goes back to work. Achieving something as simple as that in a remote setting turned out to be very rare and more complex that I had anticipated. We also follow XP practices and Pair programming which are heavily interactive so again we wanted to avoid the conventional advice for solo work.

Over the last 2 years the Virtual office grew from 1 person to around 120 employees, we have a cross sections of all roles within a software delivery team, and we were working incredibly well. We have come up with a range of effective tools and processes. I was feeling very pleased at how quickly we had grown and how stable things were for an office that was so new. People were happy, productivity was high, turnover so far has been very low.

And then of course we had the impact of Covid-19. This meant that the rest of the organization was asked to work from home. We added 500 more people to a set up that we had designed for around 100 in the course of one weekend with almost no notice. I had the support of an amazing leadership team and an IT group who pulled out all the stops to help. Between us we managed to scale our Virtual Office from just over 100 to 650 in the space of a few days, with very very few hiccups.

That is not to say it was easy but we were able to keep the entire workforce productive based on the lessons we had learned over the previous 18 months.

So what have we learned?

  1. The right tools are important but they are only half the battle
    • Someone compared it to playing chess, you can hand someone the board and pieces but you can’t expect them to play, you can teach them the rules but even then it takes a while to be competent. The same is true with remote working tools. Most of us have them but very few of us know how to use them and even fewer of us use them effectively.
  2. Remote meetings are different, it takes time and effort to make them effective
    • We are deprived of body language and social cues, we need to reinterpret the world based on less information. There are different mechanisms we can use to achieve the same things but we must adapt.
  3. Learn how to configure your audio. YOU are causing pain to your team mates
    • That noisy keyboard, the rustling papers, eating, drinking, singing to yourself are all painful to your co-workers
    • You should probably find a friend you trust to calibrate your microphone with. Position it well and be sure you can be heard clearly. If using a headset be careful that the microphone is not near your nose or too close to your mouth, heavy breathing is not good.
    • Get a good quality headset or microphone. The built in microphones are generally poor quality and pick up all sorts of interference.
  4. Learn how to position your camera. The view up your nose is not a good look
    • I often see people with laptops have them positioned so that the camera is looking up at them, this is a really unflattering look.
    • Other common mistakes are sitting with a window behind you or in a dark room.
  5. Take regular breaks
    • Take a short walk, check in on family. Or take a short while outside or away from the computer. Change position regularly, set a timer to remind you.
  6. Get a comfy chair
    • chances are you will be spending more time snuggling with that chair than with your spouse.  Your back will thank you at the end of a long day!
  7. Be aware of eye strain
    • bright lights can be painful over time and you can turn off the blue light on monitors or turn on the night light mode to be more comfortable.
    • I struggled with this a lot and ended up buying some new light bulbs and some computer glasses to help.
  8. Find a way to differentiate between work and home
    • Shut a door, turn off computer etc. This is really important, it is very easy to get in a situation where there is no clear line between home and work. For our own sanity it is sensible to turn off notifications on your phone and close the laptop. It is far too easy to see a message and get drawn back into work late at night, or to start work before you have even finished your first coffee.
  9. Make time to socialize in meetings
    • Take 5 minutes to chat at the start of a meeting.
    • Since moving to remote work we seem to have developed a guilt at spending time socializing. I hear people apologizing for talking about personal things at the start of a meeting. Those social interactions are a key part of team building and are necessary for a high performing team they are not something to apologize about.
    • Prioritize time for social interactions. I don’t mean scheduled 30 minutes of forced networking, but maybe you could consciously catch up with co-workers when you see them, just making a little extra time being friendly before or after a meeting.
    • Our office has adopted an unofficial 5 minutes past the hour meeting start time. I still come to meetings on the hour and spend that 5 minutes chatting with anyone else that shows up early, this is a great opportunity as there is no implied pressure to get on with the agenda.
  10. Working from home does not need to be solo working
    • If you are doing solo work then hang out in a room with others doing solo work so there is opportunity for human interaction.
    • This is my biggest lesson of all. I think all of the companies that have set up asynchronous working patterns devoid of human interaction will suffer from the lack of collaboration and engagement as time goes on. Scheduled/forced socializing is not the answer.
    • Creating an environment where co-workers can collaborate or simply be in proximity to one another promotes healthy team work. We have casual chats and ad-hoc work discussions. Feedback loops are fast and effective. We feel close to our teammates and feel connected. This feeling of proximity, awareness and connectivity is incredibly valuable.

Summary

For me working from home has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, by encouraging collaboration and interactions throughout the day our teams are happy, engaged and effective. I hear other companies are struggling with disengaged, and lonely employees and I would strongly urge you to consider a more collaborative approach even if the work your employees are doing is solo it doesn’t mean they need to be.

Try Banning Mute in Meetings

The phrase of 2020 has become – “Sorry I was on mute” this has become a little bit of a running joke and I feel sure that nearly all of us have experienced it in almost every meeting.

Sorry I was on mute Button | Zazzle.com

But what would happen if we leaned in to the situation and simply asked people to NOT mute during meetings?

In small meetings (those under 10 people) it is bizarrely powerful. One of the things we lose with the mute button is the little murmurs of approval the laughing at jokes and even the noises of disagreement.

People often worry about the background noises, especially dogs or children but the reality is that in a small group these are much less distracting than you think they are. Unless it is particularly loud it generally doesn’t disrupt the conversation when it is a small group.

It can take a little getting used to but after a while it really improves the engagement in the meetings and for me at least it acts in a way to hold me accountable for paying attention, especially when I know people will hear my typing, the awareness causes me to pay more attention.

But what about just being in the room with others?

So I have taken this a step further and our team has an informal policy that if you are working solo you should default to hanging out in a room (voice call) with anyone else on the team that is also working solo.

This has an incredible impact on the team building impact for a remote team. Spontaneous conversations spark up and people chat as they work. I enjoy just listening to the buzz as others talk and do not find it distracting. We get to know each other more and it seems that just being in close proximity encourages more personal conversations about our histories and personal life. Just by hanging out today I learned about fishing for fun not for food and no-barbed hooks. We had a fascinating discussion about sales tax on cars and a pretty intense discussion on whether government was even needed. How many of your recent remote meetings have resulted in you getting to know your team better?

But background noise is not for everyone and we also have a room for quiet working. Which means the team can hang out nearby and can be pulled in when needed but are able to work quietly if they prefer that.

The lesson for me in this is that when you have set up your audio correctly background noise is much less distracting than you think it is, and that the quiet spaces are opportunities to build relationships and engage with your team.

Try an experiment

I’d encourage you to try it for a week, ban the mute button and try to spend time in the same audio space as your team when solo working and see the impact on your team.

Why do we have physical offices?

Seems an odd question when for over a hundred years this has been the default option, we have never questioned it and often the benefits have seemed so obvious it is rare when they are articulated. But are the benefits clear and are the benefits restricted to a physical office or are there other ways we can achieve the same outcomes?

The benefits

For most people the benefits of offices are universal truths, we accept them unquestioningly. We have seen the benefits first hand and understand them. No one questions the value of proximity to co-workers and many/most leaders have “open door” policies to benefit from that proximity to their employees and the valuable interactions it enables.

If we chose to build a physical office what would we expect?

I asked people to describe why we had a physical office, the responses below sum up the majority of the responses.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

At what cost

The benefits of a physical office are significant. So much so that we accept the considerable costs as a necessary expense to achieve the outcomes desired.

  • Office buildings are expensive, rent, bills, furniture, support staff, maintenance
  • Time, commuting takes hours for each employee everyday
  • Money, commuting is expensive, parking, food, clothing
  • Geographical limitations to hiring
  • Geographical limitations to growth
  • Flexibility – work is usually relatively inflexible
  • Meeting space is often limited by physical space
  • Growth is limited by physical space
  • Work-life balance.

But how do we maintain all or most of the benefits when remote?

What I have found odd is that since going remote many people have accepted that they have ‘lost‘ all of the benefits of a physical office. They have adopted a stance of mitigation of the loss, often abandoning practices that made them successful. I would like us to take a deep breath and look at the benefits and ask ourselves “can we achieve the same outcomes in this new environment?”. The benefits still hold true, let’s not just accept them as unattainable and look for ways of reaching the same outcomes.

Co-located Teams

I see some underlying themes in the benefits, many relate to the productivity benefits of co-located teams. In software delivery at least it is acknowledged that co-located teams are significantly more productive. The speed of feedback looks is a critical factor in building complex and often ambiguous situations. There is rarely one solution to a software problem and the ability to discuss and pivot quickly is crucial. This benefits significantly from real-time interactions and fast response times getting answers to questions quickly increases productivity.

  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together

Collaboration and co-location of teams is a crucial aspect of an Agile mindset, I believe we should be focusing on tools and processes that enable ongoing interactions and collaboration. We have too long focused on planned video conferences with set start and end times. That is not how most of us are used to working, we want ad-hoc and ongoing interactions with our teams. We want to feel co-located and able to freely interact and communicate with them. This is a significant gap in the market for online collaboration tools.

It is also evident that the current trend is to focus on asynchronous work and flexibility for employees. Companies leading the way with this have a heavy emphasis on 100% flexibility and asynchronous work. All work communication must be in writing and have the expectation of a delayed response. The goal being working around the clock and extreme flexibility for employees.

However, the cracks in this policy are already beginning to show. Flexibility is alluring in the short-term (not to mention the west coast salaries) but the lack of human interactions becomes a strain very quickly and they are modifying their model to include scheduled non-work interactions with colleagues to offset the lack of engagement and need for human interaction. This is hard to make work as it feels forced and artificial unlike ad-hoc natural interactions that occur when you are working in close proximity with each other. I personally favor a highly flexible work environment that balances large amounts of online co-location and collaboration. Our teams have similar working hours with a target of a number of overlapping hours each day where they work in the same virtual spaces having natural interactions. This works much better and is building relationships in a natural manner rather than forcing it.

Sense of community

Engagement is very difficult to measure but is a significant factor in the success of a business, many businesses put a great deal of effort in to their culture and identity and in the desire to have their employees feel they are part of something. To build relationships with co-workers and leadership. We have discovered that the better those relationships are the more successful the business will be.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other

Results from a Gallup survey of US employees showed that more than half of respondents who said they had a work best friend also reported feeling passionate about their job, with a strong connection to their company. Only 10% of people who didn’t have a close friend at work could say the same.

There are numerous studies on this topic and the conclusion is generally that friendships and relationships at work have a direct correlation to productivity, engagement and turnover.
The sense of connectivity to your peers has a strong correlation with mental and physical health as well as productivity.

In my opinion this aspect of work-life has been grossly under appreciated in the transition to remote working. The focus has been on flexibility rather than engagement. I believe this is short-sighted and that in the long run putting effort into encouraging and enabling employee interactions will be far more beneficial than flexibility.

Presence for Customers and Candidates

A physical location provides a destination and a statement to potential customers and employees. It allows visibility of how the business operates. It allows a more significant connection for people.

  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

This is perhaps the hardest to see an obvious remote alternative too. Obviously a significant internet presence is essential these days but most sales is about building relationships and establishing trust. This is so much slower and harder from a remote setting. However, it does open opportunities for co-working where companies are able to collaborate together and to see the teams working in real time.

Summary

Having created and managed a remote office for the last two year it has become evident to me that for us to achieve the same outcomes from a remote office as we have in a physical office we need to ask why we do things the way we do. We should seek the appropriate outcomes. In my opinion success in the transition to a remote office is built on four pillars.

  1. The ability for spontaneous interactions. Absolutely minimal barriers to ad-hoc conversations and interactions with your co-workers. And when I say minimal I mean minimal, every click, every text message, every potential second lost is a barrier and impedes the flow of communication and hurts productivity.
  2. A sense of situational awareness. Knowing who in your team is online and available, who is offline where people are and who they are currently interacting with is crucial to enabling the spontaneous interactions and creating the feeling you are part of an energized team.
  3. A sense of proximity or community. Feeling close to your team, the ability to casually interact with them and closely collaborate helps build relationships and creates a sense of engagement. This leads to higher productivity, lower turnover and better mental and physical health.
  4. Finally the ability to interact in small groups, the one constraint that being remote does create is the ability to participate effectively in discussions, multiple small groups is more effective than large groups even in physical offices but being remote this is magnified.

It is my belief that an effective long-term remote office strategy should be built on these pillars. It offers a great balance of flexibility with collaboration and interactions. It is great for both employee and employer. I’d like to see more tools supporting this way of working and more businesses acknowledging the need for interactions.