In 2019, 66% of companies allow remote work—and nearly 20% of companies are completely remote. Today, 85% of workers say remote work is what they want—a trend that is only going to continue. For the majority of businesses today, the physical address of your company isn’t the place where work gets done. As a result, leading remote workers is one of the greatest challenges facing high-growth businesses today.
In the future, remote workers won’t be the subject of articles on Forbes—just as I don’t write about the assembly line, fax machines or the importance of DOS as an operating system. Today the Siren Song of remote work is twofold: companies save on overhead, and employees live where they want. While the economics are compelling, many companies still struggle with breaking free from the traditional Office Space business model. MBWA (“Management By Walking Around”), like Bill Lumbergh’s suspenders, is becoming a thing of the past. So, how are leaders adapting to the future of work, today?
In order to capitalize on managing a remote workforce, there are four critical factors that leaders and managers have to address. Is your company ready to cross the digital divide? Because that’s what separates remote workers from headquarters. Here are the critical factors:
- Trust — Today, fears and misunderstandings are keeping leaders from accessing the full potential of managing a remote workforce. At least, that’s the viewpoint of Jordan Husney, founder and CEO of Parabol—an innovative software solution for managing a remote workforce. “The concept of trust is turned upside down, when you hire a remote worker,” Husney says. Remote workers have to start with trust: they get their laptop and corporate card shipped to them before they start the job. There are no access restrictions on the remote employee’s badge (because there is no badge). Workers can get going at midnight if they want. How can managers and leaders keep pace across time zones and country borders? Authority to accomplish tasks is provided immediately—with immediate expectations for results. Remote workers are trusted with higher expectations—making onboarding and employee training a critical factor. According to a TalentLMS survey, at least 70% of companies provide training to their remote workforce, while 17% of remote workers say they invest in their own training. The appetite for training programs that employees can trust is growing rapidly—leadership development programs have to adapt to the needs of the remote workers they serve.
- Literacy — In his book, Sapiens, the Israeli social scientist Yuval Harari describes how humanity moved through several epic revolutions—from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution to the scientific revolution and more. In this TED talk, Harari explains why humans – a relatively weak species when compared to chimpanzees, for example – have risen to dominance on this planet. “The real difference isn’t on the individual level,” Harari says. “It’s on the collective level.” Husney agrees, and points out that the secret of that collective level rests with our literacy. In simple terms, this means sharing language and the ability to connect. Harari explains that 100 chimpanzees gathered in an enclosed space would turn on each other, violently. Not so for humans. We can connect calmly in person—as well as across distances, time zones and geographies—and the power lies within that connection. Husney continues, “Most important to corporate literacy, when it comes to remote workers, is our ability and willingness to write things down.” Memorializing tasks and actions is key to managing commitments. How are your remote workers capturing assignments and milestones?
- Crushing Expectations — According to Husney, the biggest misconception around remote workers is this: “If we just get everyone in one place, we’re going to assemble a plan that will lead to certain victories.” False. In fact, when remote workers get together, there’s one thing they almost never do: work. The travel budget is spent on team building and connection, interpersonal communication and strategy—not duplication of what technology has already enabled. It’s not necessary to rub shoulders for work to get done—but it is useful from the standpoint of human connection. We want to be a part of one another’s stories, and facilitating that connection is central to the future of work. Understanding how connection complements technology is a vital part of crushing expectations and leading a remote (but connected) workforce.
- Leading Through Agreements — Companies that want to effectively lead a remote workforce will understand the value of agreements, Husney says. Within a context of greater literacy, and a forum for gathering together online around a common goal, companies will borrow from Agile processes. Agile sets up a series of required meetings. Similiarly, leaders need to establish work tasks around agreements outside of product development scrums. Written agreements define the culture of performance by overcoming unexpressed expectations. The top-down, “do it this way” strategy of the past is instantly out-of-date with remote workers: assignments are more of a two-way street. You’ve got to be really intentional about how you convey and communicate culture with a remote workforce. Is your onboarding process training leaders how to shepherd workers for performance in this new office environment? How does your organization create written mutual agreement around work tasks, KPIs and milestones?
Technology is enabling a massive shift in the way work gets done, but leaders are still struggling to keep pace with the possibilities. Considering the rising costs of overhead in cities like San Francisco, Austin and Boston, Husney muses, “Has technology outpaced our social evolution?” Perhaps. But keeping pace with technology means challenging outdated ideas: namely, that work can’t get done unless the boss can come into your office and look around. Those days are done. Remote workers are here to stay. Tap into greater trust, leverage literacy and create an onboarding process that trains for success. That’s how to lead a remote workforce with clarity, purpose and connection.