Advantages of Remote Work
I believe your company’s performance can be improved by surfing. But before I explain what surfing is all about, I’d like to ask you three questions:
- Do people in your company work in teams spread across multiple locations or even around the world?
- Do people work in your company from home or even from a flexible location?
- How well does distributed working fit into your company?
If you work in a larger company, the answer to question 1 is certainly a clear yes. The answer to question 2 is usually not so clear. Of course, in individual cases there are people with a home office. Most have also worked from home because the child was ill or to receive a forwarding delivery. Nevertheless, “Remote Work” is rather the exception to the rule. It makes little difference whether the colleague sits in the office in Delhi or at home in a small German town.
In terms of school grades, most companies fail question 3. Remote Work is inadequate. Many companies do have various software and telecommunications solutions that support distributed work. Compared to working in co-located teams working at the same location, distributed work is significantly worse. There are even companies that give the distributed work an insufficient grade and bring their employees back to the office. IBM instructed its employees to come back to the office in 2017.1 Yahoo released a No-Work-From-Home Memo as early as 2013.2 Looking at Yahoo’s share price, it doesn’t seem to have had a positive impact on earnings. The company was even sold in 2018.
I’ve been working in distributed teams for over 10 years and have experienced many of the challenges of Remote Work myself. So I’m not surprised that companies are at war with Remote Work and distributed work due to communication problems and lack of project success. But not promoting Remote Work or even prohibiting it also means foregoing the benefits. In this article I would like to introduce three advantages of Remote Work.
Remote Work solves personnel problems
I recently had a conversation with the managing directors of an SME in the automation industry. The company is digitising factories and is urgently looking for computer scientists. These are rare in Germany and also in Europe. You usually can’t compete with the benefits of big companies. The company finally found what it was looking for in India. Remote Work is the solution to their personnel problem. You don’t even have to open your own office. Provided that the IT infrastructure is reliable and fast, the new employees can also work from home or from a co-working space. If one were to rely on co-located teams, one would have to apply for a visa for the employees, organise relocation and housing. For a small company, this is difficult to manage in terms of time and money.
The solution offers even more advantages. The company can employ people with higher qualifications. If a customer has a technical problem to solve, it can be solved the next morning thanks to different time zones. In the future, Remote Work will even make it possible to enter new markets.
Remote Work can increase performance
It’s time to solve the initial question. How can surfing improve performance in the enterprise? Let me tell you the story of Sam. Sam is a gifted surfer. Two years ago he moved from Germany to Fuerteventura. There is sea, always wind, and he can pursue his passion for surfing all year round. By the way, Sam studied Data Science. With his know-how he prepares sales data for a German company and creates sales forecasts thanks to artificial intelligence. Remote Work enables a win-win situation for him and the company. Sam doesn’t have to choose between his two passions surfing and data science. The wind and his sporting activities keep his head clear and give him new ideas. For his company this means more performance and a healthy and satisfied employee.
Sam’s story is fictional, but inspired by a real story. Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of the outdoor brand Patagonia, describes in his book “Let My People Go Surfing” how the motivation of his employees has a positive effect on his business.3
How does Remote Work work?
I have identified five aspects for successful work in remote teams over the past years. If these are taken into account, there is a good chance that Remote Work will succeed.
- “Purple Space” is a virtual space for distributed teams. It describes the framework in which the work takes place. The better the framework of collaborative work can be described, the easier it is to transfer workflows and communication channels into the virtual world. The concept of Purple Space was conceived by Line Jehle and colleagues and described in the book “Closeness at a Distance: Leading Virtual Groups to High Performance”.4
- Distributed teams need a regular rhythm of communication. This can be pictured as the human heartbeat. The timing depends on the intensity of the task. For example, a one-hour video conference can take place once a week. In addition, there is a 15-minute adjustment by telephone every day. The rest of the time communication takes place 1:1 between team members.
- Most people only think of tools when they think of Remote Work. Indeed, digital communication is an important factor. It is important to consider for which activities synchronous (e.g. telephone conference) or asynchronous (e.g. wiki) communication is used. Media richness determines how much information a communication medium can transfer. A video call is richer than a telephone call because it also transports body language. In general, you should choose the medium with the greatest richness. However, richer media usually mean more effort (higher bandwidth, equipment).
- Different cultural norms and rules come together in a virtual team. Often the team members are not even aware of their own rules and behaviors. They have been routine for many years. You follow them without thinking about it.
- Regular feedback is indispensable precisely because of the limited communication channels with a co-located team. Allow sufficient time for reflection and feedback. Were team members able to say anything they wanted to say? How carefully did everyone listen to each other? Is it ok to interrupt each other?
How do you start the topic?
There is (unfortunately) no patent recipe. The approach depends on the problem to be solved. I would like to illustrate this with two small examples:
Your employee no longer wants to live in a long-distance relationship and move to his partner’s city. Remote Work is the alternative not to lose the employee. Define a rhythm in which collaboration takes place. For example, once a month you see each other personally, twice a week you synchronise via videoconference and the rest of the communication is displayed via a chat. Analyse the communication channels and think about how they can be displayed digitally. Also plan for a regular retrospective. What has deteriorated in the cooperation? What has perhaps even improved (e.g. fewer interruptions due to open-plan offices)?
Your company wants to enter the Chinese market. You already have two Chinese employees on board who, together with the German sales team and logistics, want to win and supply the first customers. They define the framework of the cooperation. What takes place in “purple space” and what locally? For example, customer appointments do not necessarily have to be planned together. This can take place locally in China. In the “purple space”, coordination with logistics and sales takes place on the quantities required. The two Chinese team members don’t speak English that well and travel a lot with customers. That’s why they agree on WeChat as their everyday communication medium. So the two of them can give written feedback on the results of customer appointments while on the move.
I hope I was able to encourage you to embark on the Remote Work adventure. More details on the five aspects can be found on my German blog CompanyPirate. There are also numerous other impulses for Remote Work.
As CompanyPirate Tobias Leisgang inspires on the blog of the same name and in lectures people in companies to tread new paths. He is convinced that successful and sustainable business in the 21st century requires radical change.
Tobias knows the business world very well from his full-time job. Since November 2018, he has been responsible for innovation with external partners at a global automotive supplier - from group to start-up. Previously, he worked for 15 years for an American technology group in roles ranging from developer to head of systems engineering, gaining insight into companies from various industries. The challenges were solved in global teams.