3 years into the remote work experiment, have we settled for “good enough”?
When the pandemic hit back in 2020, it forced all of us to rethink the way we worked together. Specifically, for those who could, working remotely entered the mainstream. That was a big shift from the days when “working from home” elicited wink-wink, nudge-nudge reactions that equated working from home with, well, not working.
Now that we’ve entered the post-pandemic era, most organizations have embraced at least some form of remote or hybrid work to help give employees flexibility because workers have demanded it. Working remotely in one form or another is here to stay.
But now, roughly three years later, there’s a problem many organizations are still overlooking: that the old way of office management doesn’t directly translate into a remote way of working.
According to Ali Green and Tamara Sanderson, the authors of the new book Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; February 7, 2023), to be an effective manager, you really need to have a remote work state of mind.
“That means you need to learn not only the people skills,” they say, “but also the tools and the project management skills in order to be an effective manager. You need to know how to set standard operating behaviors and expectations for your team. And you need to trust that employees will show up better and work harder if they are passionate about the work—it doesn’t matter where or when that work happens.”
I connected with Green and Sanderson for an email interview where they shared their best practices for managers and organizations based on their own experience in working in virtual workplaces. They also shared insights gleaned from more than 30 interviews they conducted with business leaders on how to bring remote work up to modern standards—while simultaneously building the flexibility for future capabilities.
Dispelling the myths
One of the first challenges any leader must confront is the negative myths they might believe about remote work. This covers everything from “remote workers procrastinate and fly under the radar more” to “remote workers are only productive because they work too much! I’m worried about burnout.”
“When you are inundated with conflicting, negative messaging, it is a clear sign that there are a lot of half-truths and subtle nuances that need to take center stage,” say Green and Sanderson. “For productivity, it is not about where you work (remote or not), but instead about how you approach work—such as leaning into natural chronotypes and removing unnecessary work, such as meetings with no clear structure and goals or creating templates to reuse for common work activities.
“For isolation and loneliness, these two emotions can also be felt in an office because it is not about physical presence but about connection.”
At the end of the day, Green and Sanderson say myths like these are perpetuated by employees not having the correct information, tools, or coaching to work effectively remotely.
“When managers have the knowledge to build culture effectively in a distributed fashion, it opens doors to explore connection, collaboration, and productivity,” say Green and Sanderson.
The 3 non-negotiables
Green and Sanderson say that there are three key building blocks—intentionality, trust and autonomy—that can help propel any organization forward in making remote work actually work. Without these three “non-negotiables” in place, teams will crumble under the bad behaviors everyone relied on in outdated office models.
- Managers must lead with intentionality: “To work well remotely, everything needs to be by design,” say Green and Sanderson. “The virtual distance acts as a magnifying glass on how purposeful business decisions and culture are, from big things like how you use the office in your hybrid strategy or your approach to collaboration, down to detailed deliverables and timelines.”
- Managers must build trust: “Frankly, it’s demoralizing and patronizing to build a remote culture that does not have a sense of trust,” say Green and Sanderson. “Yes, tools exist to monitor employees, but by rolling them out, you are sending a signal that your employees cannot decide how, where, or when to do their best work. Trusting your employees only because you can see them in an office is so toxic. For one, those employees may be physically present but not getting work done, and it is relying on outdated subconscious bias to measure performance, when at its core, trust needs to exist (remotely or not) to build a high-performing team.”
- Managers must respect employees’ autonomy: “Having ownership over your personal working style increases performance,” say Green and Sanderson. “It is really quite simple: the more managers can let go, the more room they are creating for employees to succeed. Autonomy is a core motivator. The ability to approach work in a self-directed manner is necessary as knowledge workers at all levels have the freedom and flexibility to control their workflow, including things like deciding where to get work done, what order to accomplish tasks, and how to leverage their skills and working style preferences to get the job done.”
Embracing asynchronous communication
How you communicate is another key element of how organizations need to rethink the remote work status quo. Specifically, organizations need to embrace “asynchronous” communication, meaning that everyone can’t expect to get an immediate response to every question they might have. Otherwise, you ramp up the risk of meeting overload and remote worker burnout.
And Green and Sanderson say it’s more than just choosing a new tool or piece of software. Using Slack, for example, isn’t effective if employees feel pressured to bend over backwards every time they hear a notification ping on their laptop.
Green and Sanderson offer the following tips for making asynchronous communication work:
- Set explicit expectations for who is directly responsible for communicating.
- Define what a deliverable looks like and when a response is needed.
- Proactively explain what will happen if the communication goes unanswered.
- Use templates when internal communication is repetitive.
- Build a centralized and easy-to-navigate knowledge base so teammates do not have to waste time looking for critical information.
Watch out for virtual burnout
There’s no way around the fact that, as a leader, it’s more challenging to keep tabs on the mental health of remote workers than those you can physically check in with. But that doesn’t mean that you can neglect the signs of remote burnout.
“The key to spotting virtual burnout is to establish a baseline of behaviors among your team and coworkers in order to be able to notice a change remotely,” Green and Sanderson. “Focus on using natural benchmarks to check in with your employees and creating a psychologically safe environment to connect with them rather than relying heavily on physical presence or a change in energy or facial expressions.”
Green and Sanderson suggest reaching out to the chatty coworker who has recently been unusually quiet in meetings or on Slack channels. Another sign is to watch for people who regularly join video meetings, camera on, but suddenly, only dial in. Even something as simple as a formerly steady employee who suddenly appears disorganized and forgets to provide weekly updates is a warning sign.
“Building in checkpoints to talk about the emotions behind the work alongside the work itself can be a low-pressure way to start a culture of checking in,” Green and Sanderson, who suggest using events such as 1:1s, project kickoffs, midpoint project check-ins and post-mortems as opportunities to talk about workload, motivation and reading the virtual room when it comes to potential burnout.
Working into the future
One thing we know to be true about workers from the younger generations is that they want employers to meet them where they are. And if the recent Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that these young people will change jobs until they find an employer who gives them what they need—which often includes the flexibility that remote work offers.
Good enough is no longer good enough. So, if your organization wants to remain an employer of choice now and into the future, it behooves you to update your thinking and approach to remote work in productive ways where everyone wins. That’s truly non-negotiable.