Many of you reading this post will be doing so working from home, possibly for the first time. Over the past few weeks, remote working has become a sudden reality as organizations globally encourage people to work from home due to the coronavirus. And it’s creating real challenges for those who aren’t used to supporting a remote workforce. I’ve had this post rumbling around in my head for some months now – largely because we’re shaping a different way of working at PLOS as we downsize our downtown San Francisco space by 50% (and save $1m annually). While the ideas below are influenced by my thinking about a longer-term and permanent transition, much here will be useful for those of you who have been forced to adapt quickly to a temporary situation (including a final section with tips and tricks from our remote PLOS team members).
Why go remote?
Many organizations still hold on to the notion that to manage teams effectively, you need to be there with them in person. But increasingly, the workplace of the future is taking shape as one in which people have the flexibility to work remotely with teammates around the world. In Upwork’s 2019 Future Workforce Report, 55% of hiring managers agreed that remote working is not only more common now, but that this will grow significantly over the next decade.
When I arrived at PLOS, we had a strict “no remote staff” policy in place which pretty clearly made little sense. We’re a non-profit operating in the highest cost area in the US and as we all know, publishing salaries for junior staff are challenging even in lower cost areas. As a result, we were experiencing very high turnover in our early career roles and were losing talented mid-level staff as they moved to more affordable locations. It was also increasingly hard to hire and retain talented staff in high-demand areas such as digital marketing, where we were in competition with the local tech market. Finally, the cost of office space in downtown San Francisco was increasingly punitive.
In addition to the strong “push” factors for expanding our remote team there were also strong “pull” factors. By far the most important for us was being able to attract the best industry talent. One of the things I’m most proud of in my first few years at PLOS is the incredible team we’ve built at mid-senior management level – including the Scholarly Kitchen’sown Ann Michael – none of whom would have joined us if we’d insisted on relocation to the Bay Area. Increasingly, organizations are going to suffer in their recruiting if they’re not willing to have staff – at all levels – work remotely.
Many employees are increasingly expecting greater flexibility to work from home regularly, if not fully remote. People want to work remotely more to avoid daily commutes, reduce distractions, and increase work-life balance. For those of us in the non-profit world and in high cost locales, this flexibility can be one component of making your organization a great place to work and able to compete in the local talent pool. A recent survey of 3,500 remote workers found that 98% of them want to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers. And according to research from psychologists, when done right remote working can increase productivity, creativity and morale.
What do organizations need to consider?
Above all, the pivot to expanding your remote workforce is a shift in mindset and really only works if you start to think as a “remote first” organization. The transition to full or partial remote working is more difficult for those of us who started out as face-to-face organizations and it can feel uncomfortable. Technology tools are important, but they are not a silver bullet and they alone won’t make remote working a success. Remote working doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing arrangement and we’ve learned a lot from early adopters:
- Assess carefully which roles are suited to remote working. If you’re at the beginning of a transition you might be better to focus on “knowledge workers” who work fairly independently and need to concentrate (though arguably almost all roles can be successful remotely if the right culture and infrastructure is in place).
- Hire the right people — not everyone is well suited to working remotely. Those who work remotely need to be able to deliver while working pretty independently without a lot of external structure.
- Think about how you’re going to get the work done. There is much to be said for face-to-face collaboration when it comes to things like problem solving but there are now many technology solutions for sharing team updates, video chats, document sharing and editing, even virtual whiteboarding tools.
- That said, choose your tools carefully. Slack seems to be a mainstay but think about how to use all of the features to make it most productive, at the same time recognizing employee’s different personal styles. It’s better not to enforce everything in a standardized way.
- Decide how you’re going to equip and support remote employees. Will you cover home office set-up? What about ongoing costs? And training?
- Above all, you’ll need to rethink your communication and people policies – it’s critical to ensure that remote employees don’t feel like second-class citizens. Communication is the glue that makes remote working productive, emotionally satisfying and cohesive and so it has to be a cultural priority. You should also reevaluate other policies such as performance assessment and promotion opportunities to make sure they don’t favor on-site workers.
Managing remote teams
As an employer, it’s critical to maintain a community for all workers despite their physical location, and to require manager training specific to remote workers as well as provide the latest technological advancements in digital collaboration tools across the organization.
This can be a significant shift for managers who are used to – and comfortable with – managing people they see every day. Too often we’re used to using measures like busyness and working late as proxies for productivity and effectiveness. Instead, managers need to let their teams know exactly what outcomes matter to them and then reward them for achieving and exceeding those outcomes. And honestly, while this is crucial for managing remote employees, it’s how we should be managing our staff anyway – less micromanagement and more empowerment, choice, and accountability at the individual level.
Technology tools such as Slack are not only essential as work tools but to humanize and let out emotions. We’re less likely to notice when someone is bored/frustrated/overwhelmed in a remote context, so it’s important to foster casual interactions individually and collectively. Research has also shown that teams with strong group identities (for example, who share more personal information) tend to build stronger connections and trust. Distance from an office and team can contribute to employees feeling detached from the organization’s bigger purpose and larger goals. Regular meetings, which can be by phone or video conference, can help managers understand when employees are working on, where they’re stuck, and what they’ve accomplished.
Building and maintaining community
Building culture and creating connection often comes down to fairly basic things – seeing faces, sharing news and stories and getting to know your coworkers a little better. While this is definitely easier in person, with some thought and creativity much can be achieved virtually. A few ideas we’ve implemented at PLOS:
- We have a lot of active Slack channels for fun – plospets, bookclub, podcastclub, grub-club, lunchgames, and more. It’s important for leaders and managers to make time to engage and connect in these spaces as well as staff.
- We’re currently trialing Donut, a Slack app which matches you up with another team member who you don’t interact with much usually. They’re social rather than work focused and a really nice way to get to know people you’re less familiar with.
- Another Slack channel is for shout outs where employees can send appreciation notes – it’s a great way to recognize and appreciate people who may not be in your office.
- We also try to have ways for remote staff to join social events such as quiz nights. Some teams have set up remote coffee and donut breaks where everyone gathers on Slack.
For those who can, it’s also great to bring the organization together. At NISO, the full team comes together a few times annually – Todd Carpenter says that this is an important element of building trust and transparency and so they build in the time and budget for this. ORCID does something similar – although it may sound expensive, it’s not when you consider how much they save by not having physical office space.
How do I decide whether remote working is right for me?
Flexibility in both where you work and when you work is obviously the biggest win for remote workers. Many also appreciate the ability to craft their own day, reduced distractions, more control over their time, and an improved work-life balance. Many of the benefits for individuals have wider benefits too – a reduction in commutes is a win-win for the climate crisis. It’s an extreme example, but China’s shutdown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus has led to a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. Some questions to think about:
- Do you have a good home environment in which you can work? Many remote workers use places like coffee shops and libraries to mix up their routine, but the majority spend most of their time working from home. To be productive, even if you don’t have a home office, you’ll need to have a dedicated workspace, ideally with a desk and comfortable chair.
- How will you stay connected? In the survey of remote workers referenced above, one clear and consistent struggle for remote workers is that of isolation. This may be harder for younger workers who normally rely on work for some of their social life.
- How will you separate your work and personal life? The boundaries between work and home are very blurry so it can be hard to switch off without the traditional physical and psychological separation.
Tips and tricks for enforced social distancing
The current crisis requires us all to be as adaptable and creative as possible over the coming months. We don’t know how long this is going to last and the only certainty at this point is that things are going to get worse before they get better. For managers, it’s important to remember that this is a time of anxiety and that isolation only heightens that. One of our most important roles is staying close to our teams and helping them to create new ways to connect. It’s also quite likely that we’ll learn things from this that change our workplaces permanently – some are already predicting that we’ll never go back to the office in the same way.
In the meantime, here are some helpful “tips and tricks” from the fabulous PLOS remote team:
- You’ll likely be adjusting to a new set-up and may not have the luxury of a full home office set-up. Pay attention to your body and try different postures and set-ups until you’re comfortable. If you don’t have/can’t afford an office chair, a back support can really help with posture and comfort.
- Move! If you’re working from home it’s really easy to get to the end of the day and find that you’ve only moved a couple of hundred paces. Make time to move around and, ideally, leave the house, such as a walk at lunchtime (workrave is a good tool to help remind you about this, especially if you have RSI).
- Have a morning routine. One PLOS remote worker notes “You don’t have to dress up, but do your morning routine, drink a coffee, eat breakfast. Go for a walk, whatever it is. There have been too many times that I wake up and start working before changing even and then realize I am starving, dehydrated, and still in my PJs and its already 1:00pm.”Similarly, impose some structure on your day and be clear how and when work ends.
- You may not be able to invest in a lot of new tech, especially if this is only for the short term, but some things can really help. A headset is great to improve the quality of your calls, especially if you plan to work out of the house some of the time.
- Change up location. Many of you will probably be working from smaller homes and apartments and may well not have the luxury of a dedicated workspace. Obviously, during this time of social distancing options are limited but think about where else you can work (at a safe distance!), including outside.
- Connect! We all miss the watercooler conversations and so other communication tools become all the more important. I’ve noticed more connection and activity on our Slack channels over the past week or so – during a stressful time such as this, we need to find ways to connect all the more. Some teams are having virtual coffee-and-donut meetings, and we’re planning our first virtual bring-your-own-margarita happy hour this week.
- There’s also great advice on Twitter if you follow the #RemoteWorking and/or #WorkFromHome hashtags and in this NPR column.
Hopefully, there are some useful tips here but I’d love to hear more from those of you who work remotely, as well as questions from those of you making the adjustment. Let’s share and help each other below!
Thanks to Sara Rouhi for reading and commenting on a draft, and to the entire team of remote PLOSsians for their helpful suggestions.