Imagine setting up a new business or expanding an existing team.
The first things many organisations do is think about adding people at an office. We need desks, computers, software, phones and all the other things that go with bringing that person online – and that takes time, effort and money.
Why do we do this?
In a world where most people we want to work with already have a desk, a computer and an internet connection that lets them get all the software and communications tech they need – why do we keep thinking working in an office is the way to go?
Or is that still the case? Research from Upwork, the freelancing website, says that two thirds of companies use remote workers. As talented specialists get harder to find, companies that are willing to offer remote working can choose from workers around the world.
Many organisations that have started up now have entirely virtual workplaces – with no central office at all.
So, what do our organisations and managers need to do to make virtual teams work well?
There are three things we need to get right.
1. Focus on outcomes, not process or how we would do it
Individuals now are developing increasingly individual ways of working – and that can be a challenge.
Take something as simple as taking notes – a fundamental part of work.
I’ve jumped from using a reporter’s notebook to a legal pad to One Note to text files to journalling software to Google spreadsheets to custom Excel files back to Moleskine notebooks.
In some businesses notes need to be recorded in a particular way for legal reasons. Reporters need to keep their notes in case they get sued. Policemen need to keep their pocket notebooks as evidence.
For most jobs, however, how people take notes doesn’t matter. What they do after that does matter.
For example, do they liberate the main points from their notes and share them with colleagues who need to know them? Does a sales person’s notes provide enough information for a service team member to take on the account?
With remote teams we need to focus on outcomes – the way things turn out – rather than the way in which they are done or the way in which we would do it.
2. Be clear on what you expect from others
I remember being on a train down to London and hearing a conversation a few years ago.
The speaker, who sounded like an entrepreneur, was quite loud and making no effort to speak quietly – but the gist of the talking was that a remote worker who was at home couldn’t be contacted on instant messaging – and that wasn’t acceptable.
Any sort of situation that makes us want to stand with our hands on our hips crossly is one where our expectations are not being met.
In this case, the entrepreneur’s expectation was that the remote worker needed to be available to contact during work hours on this system.
The worker may have had a perfectly good reason to be away from the desk at that time – or may have been in the park throwing snowballs. We don’t know – but that simple inability to contact the worker was enough to cause a work problem.
Some organisations recognise that instant messaging interruptions are as bad as actual interruptions, and set expectations that such contact is by arrangement and usual business is conducted by email.
The point is that much irritation can be avoided if expectations are clarified up front.
3. Make the effort to make contact and stay in touch
At the same time, workers will find managers much more relaxed if they make the effort to keep in touch.
Where there is little or no face to face contact, email updates, messages and phone calls can all help keep the lines of communication open.
Managers get nervous when they don’t hear anything for long periods of time. And – quite probably – when people don’t keep in touch it’s because things aren’t working and they are looking for, or working on, something else.
Lack of contact quite often leads to termination of appointments.
Interestingly – sharing personal updates before moving to business can help reinforce the feeling of being on the same team and help maintain a warmer relationship.
Many of us, if we don’t already, will experience remote working, virtual teams and more flexible ways of working.
For new starters, it will simply be the norm. For older workers, it is what they do as they move away from corporate jobs and focus on a more balanced life that looks after their health and family.
Whether we’re in offices together or on the phone – the things that make us human are what will cause us to succeed or fail.
Working towards a common outcome, being clear on what we expect from each other and taking the time to keep in touch and talk will help us manage this new world of work.