As the coronavirus pandemic has forced companies and employees to adopt remote work, both managers and their teams are beginning to realize just how drastic of a change full-time telecommuting is.
Many companies have allowed employees to work remotely for years, and many employees are used to working from home as often as once or twice a week. Unfortunately, these practices don’t come close to emulating a full-time, company-wide work from home mandate.
Most who are unfamiliar with full-time remote work tend to view organization and communication as central challenges. You can find plenty of content online that provides advice on staying organized and motivated while working from home, and the number of articles discussing the effective use of Zoom, Slack, and other workplace communication tools have skyrocketed.
These issues loom large and must be reckoned with, but people often overlook the less apparent and often more fundamental changes they will need to make in order to work effectively from home.
Beyond issues of routine and the migration of meetings to videoconferencing, lots of people assume that functionally, not much will change in their role when working remotely. If teams do the vast majority of their work on the computer and have the same weekly meetings on their calendars, why would they expect their existing strategy to stop being effective?
Although it does vary from role to role, this assumption is usually incorrect – successful and efficient remote work requires more than a motivated team and the migration of business-as-usual meetings to video conferencing.
In fields like marketing and design, remote work often requires a more fundamental re-thinking of how team members communicate and structure their day-to-day, since deliverables are more abstract and subjective.
There have been a lot of adjustments needed as people shift to remote work. But these are some of the persistent issues that cause long-term workflow issues if they’re not dealt with:
The benefits of open-ended and ad-hoc communication are usually taken for granted until you work remotely.
The first week out of the office, many people will start to notice small bottlenecks that arise in their work – issues that would normally be resolved with a quick conversation, but now require a Slack message exchange or even the scheduling of a short call.
Over time, these bottlenecks can result in fragmented and less productive work days. But the bigger concern is that they inevitably lead to an increase in assumptions made.
As workers have less of an opportunity to get clarification and establish group consensus, more assumptions need to be made when it comes to ambiguous tasks that aren’t crucial enough to warrant communication. Thus, the cohesiveness of deliverables that involve multiple people can begin to suffer slightly, which brings us to our next problem:
When it comes to initiatives or projects that span a longer timeframe, it becomes much more difficult to align expectations across team members when they don’t have the ability to interface and level outside of scheduled meetings.
Aligning expectations across different teams has always been one of the hardest things to do when managing a cross-functional project. When you work remotely, that difficulty inherent to cross-functional projects can extend to your own team!
For example, a UX-writer and UX designer normally work in perfect harmony, but remote work can result in the UX-writer drafting microcopy that doesn’t align as well as it usually does with the product design.
One unresolved question or a single assumption made can derail deliverables and lead to confusion or frustration within a team when all the puzzle pieces don’t fit together as nicely as they are used to.
Even if motivation and effort levels stay the same or increase, these issues won’t go away – they require a bigger shift in the way individuals and teams communicate and structure their day-to-day work.
Obviously, these problems exist on a spectrum based on the nature of the role and industry. However, there are many teams and some organizations as a whole (such as Zapier) that can thrive during a company-wide remote work mandate, even though they operate in spaces where other companies are struggling.
What can we learn from these organizations and their culture? How do these companies overcome the challenges of remote working?
When we look at a company like Zapier that has successfully adopted company-wide remote work for years, we can see that communication is built into the core of their company culture. They even published an entire ebook on how they manage communication as a near 100% remote workforce, it’s worth a read.
Companies and teams that effectively transition to remote work usually have communication as a central component of their culture. By extension, they are strategic and mindful when communicating, and they center their processes and workflows around communication. How can you do the same?
Working remotely means that you’ll have to be much more mindful of how you structure your workday. Tasks that have more ambiguity and moving parts should be worked on before meetings with corresponding team members so you can ask important questions and have productive conversations.
This also means that more consideration for others has to be factored into how you organize and prioritize your work, as it’s important for everyone to structure their day-to-day around crucial communications so bottlenecks can be avoided.
It’s crucial to be mindful and strategic during meetings, anticipating problems and points of ambiguity ahead of time so you can get the clarification you need to minimize assumptions made. Everyone is familiar with the feeling of leaving a meeting with more questions than you had going in – these meetings can derail projects, especially when everyone is working remotely.
For recurring tasks and weekly sync-ups, expect miscommunications and hiccups initially. Some processes that involve multiple people might transition perfectly to remote work, but others might not.
When things don’t go as well as expected, identify the areas that led to problems or ambiguity and make changes so you and your team eventually find the perfect cadence, length, and structure of communication that allows everyone to execute.
In the end, it’s almost inevitable that individuals working from home will need to reach out for clarification in an unstructured manner. The amount of messages sent on Slack and other workplace productivity tools will skyrocket, but will gradually go down as people become more accustomed to remote work.
While it can seem inefficient and bothersome, it’s never wrong to send someone an instant message if you need clarification on something. If you’re weighing whether or not it’s worth asking, it probably is!
Judgement as to where you can make assumptions and where you can’t is something that teams will develop much faster when working remotely. If there’s a silver lining to the forced experiment of company-wide remote work before we return to the office after the pandemic, it’s that we’ll all be forced to learn how to become better and more mindful communicators.
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