Remote Work and Agility: Can You Have Both?
I recently hosted a seminar at MATRIX titled Successful Agility with the Modern Workforce, where participants expressed how challenging it is to foster good communication – a hallmark of agility – when their workforce is remote and distributed. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a majority of companies into remote working in 2020, this topic is critical. Watch the full recording of a webinar I gave on this topic.
With coronavirus shutting down offices and forcing employees to work remote, employers must be diligent to make sure they have processes in place to counteract the challenges that come along with "social distancing" and self-quarantines.
So how can we build good working relationships and foster productive conversations when we are scattered among different locations and dealing with unprecedented virtual challenges? Luckily, there are ways for organizations to adapt to remote work by balancing employee and organizational needs, but ultimately, they must decide how to strike that balance.
Remote Work Becoming the Norm
Remote work has been on the rise for a while - not just since COVID-19. According to a Gallup poll, almost 25 percent of US employees work remotely nearly all the time. This number is predicted to rise.
There are good reasons for remote work to gain popularity:
It attracts workers.
In a 2017 Stack Overflow survey, over 50 percent of developers said being able to work remotely is a high priority. Many employees consider being able to telecommute a perk that saves them time and money. With remote work, they have time management flexibility and don’t have to fight long, expensive commutes to the office. Research by Gartner indicates that organizations that allow for remote work will increase retention rates by 10 percent.
It enhances productivity.
Many companies have noted a rise in productivity, with employees reporting that they get more done at home than at the office.
It saves money for companies.
In 2017, Dell announced its plans to expand its remote work offering, citing its success in attracting top talent and $12 million in cost savings per year in office space expenses.
While remote work is good for attracting talent and saving money, it is not without challenges. It is difficult to coordinate discussions when there are large time zone differences, the person you need to talk to might not be around, or you may not feel connected to your organization. Some also pointed to feeling as if remote work led to a lack of accountability, slowing the delivery of work. If collaboration is a major component of agility, how do we remain responsive when we can’t get a hold of each other? If communication is an essential element in creating high-quality value for our customers, how do I reconcile that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, but I don’t interact with my colleagues in person?
Ways to Adapt
Many organizations have answered the questions above using several different methods.
Investing in technology.
There are many technology tools today that allow remote teams to hear and see each other to help conversations be productive. Skype, Slack, BlueJeans, Webex, and Sococo are a few tools that teams have adopted to foster face-to-face conversation.
Creating working agreements.
It’s not enough to think that simply having a tool to use for remote communication will build collaboration among teams. Working agreements are a playbook of sorts for teams – created by teams – that spell out acceptable ways of working with each other. The underlying concept of working agreements is that the team shares responsibility for getting work done. Setting clear expectations of what we hold each other accountable to can stave off conflict and build trust so that teams can deliver on their commitments, no matter where they reside. Some remote teams have agreed that they will respond to each other within a certain amount of time, and some establish core hours in which they will all be available. The key here is that the teams identify their own challenges with working remotely, and brainstorm how to handle those issues as a group.
Focusing on cultural awareness.
Just because we are brought together by work does not mean that we share the same beliefs, values, and behaviors. Some organizations are examining what the cultural differences are among their remote teams and bringing those to light. Being aware of the differences and examining perceptions is the first step in being able to build good relationships when cultural differences may cause miscommunications. Once we are aware, we can be flexible and adapt our communication styles.
What’s right for your organization?
Just because remote work is trending upward doesn’t mean that it is right for every organization. Several organizations – including IBM, Yahoo, Reddit, Best Buy, Google, Apple, and Facebook – among others, have made co-location of people in certain parts of their organization a high priority.
Here are some things to think about as you consider a remote work policy or review your current one:
What is your existing culture like?
We know that good communication and accountability are keys to agility, whether your workforce is remote, distributed, or co-located. If your organization suffers from silos not communicating with each other, or from excessive politics, fear, blame, and lack of accountability, those problems will be present no matter the working arrangement. Unfortunately, remote work situations can reinforce the issues above. If that’s the case, you might want to consider bringing people together in face-to-face situations to see if that eases some of the issues above. If there is a lack of trust that people can still be effective in remote situations, examine the underlying causes of that distrust. If there is a lack of accountability, it may not be remote work that’s to blame. Get to the root of the issue.
What are your goals?
IBM determined that while remote work increased productivity, that did not outweigh what they felt was important to their survival and future success – innovation. Believing that innovation happens through face-to-face collaboration – the “water cooler effect” – IBM embarked on their co-location strategy. Many people left the organization as a result; however, their leaders wanted to set the tone that physical presence was essential to their organizational strategy.
Taking an Agile Approach to Remote Work
Draw on agility concepts to help determine how to approach the use of remote work at your organizations by running some experiments. If you are thinking about allowing for remote work, start a pilot program where remote work is tried out for a certain number of days per week, for example. If you are attempting to address underlying communication gaps, ask teams to be present in the office or on collaborative tools during certain times. Gather feedback and observations and adapt accordingly.