I suppose that many of you reading this are doing so because the theme of remote working is top of mind and like myself over the past year you’ve found yourself in a deep hole of blog posts and podcasts trying to give you all tips on how to work remotely, how to manage a team remotely and how to do so without burning yourself out and becoming a titrant.

Well I’m not going to bore you with another bullet point list that tells you to get a standing desk, drink more water, trust your team and don’t be an arsehole. What I wanted to write down was some of the other things I’ve learnt both over the past 10 years of being and on/off remote worker and from the past 5 years of managing a predominately remote team.

So here goes …

Learn how you work best

The year 2020 will be remembered for many things, but aside from the obvious, the positive thing it should be remembered for is that it was a time for reflection. Reflection on the ways we work, reflection on our jobs and our companies and self-reflection on our purpose, our values and what we want from life. Many people have had quite significant changes in their lives due to this period.

One of the things I have learnt from remote working and reflected on a lot during this time was the deep understanding of when and where I work best. I know that I am most creative in a room with other people but that I develop strategy through research and deep thought in a room by myself (with no distractions). I know I write emails first thing in the morning, that I can only write blog posts on the sofa (or train) and that by 4pm my brain is fried and I need to work on mostly admin. Location matters and many of us now have working situations where we can choose where we work. You need to think about this in your own settings if you are to be successful.

Not all work needs to be done at the same time, in the same place or even with the same people. Take time and understand your energy levels, when and where different types of work are best done for you - and then communicate that with people. Often we think that we need to work 9-5 Mon-Fri because that is what everyone else is doing and that is what everyone else demands of us when in fact that might not be true at all. Have open and honest conversations about this with your peers and with your team and try and build out something that keeps you all working at your peak performance and is more sustainable for all involved.

This also touches on another important point that I’ve found for myself and I recommend to all leaders wherever they are in the organisation - get therapy! I mean it! Even if you don’t think it’s for you and you won’t get anything from it - give it a try. Think of it like coaching or a buddy to bounce thoughts and ideas off if it makes it easier for you. Take the time and find someone that works for you and take the steps to learn about yourself. I have spent years now trying to learn how and why I do the things that I do, trying to build my EQ and challenge my behaviors. I can honestly say it has made me a better husband, father and leader.

Mixed-medium communications

Everyone will tell you that communication is critical and a key skill to learn irrespective of your role or the circumstances. Many of the recent blogs over the past year have emphasized the importance of over-communicating and looking towards a future of asynchronous working.

One small tip that I learnt over the past couple of years is around mix-medium communication. As a leader, all your words matter and every message you send needs to be delivered with intentionality. When doing so, the received wisdom on a communications plan (eugh! business speak) is to make sure you’re repeating your message: 2,3,4 times before people will start to get it. That is absolutely correct but the important part that many folks miss (and I had to learn the hard way) is that this should also be done through different mediums. Why? Well much like people learn differently, people also have preferred ways to send and receive any information. I prefer to receive information on slides because I’m a visual learner but prefer to deliver information in a written form because it allows me to further express context and nuance. Everyone is different and therefore it’s important to be inclusive of everyone’s needs when delivering important information. I have also found that by forcing myself to articulate things through different mediums, that with each iteration I gain something from the medium and my message gains clarity.

Hybrid-working vs Multi-location working

Everyone is talking about hybrid-working now and after a period of everyone working from home, there is a reflex (both individually and for companies) to move back into the office at least part of the time. This is being done with a range of intentions, some good and some not-so good.

What I have learnt about hybrid working is that there is value in it when it’s implemented in the truest sense i.e. assume remote and bring everyone together deliberately a couple of times a year with a clear purpose. Re-read the last statement because it’s where so many companies fall over - bring everyone together. I am seeing, hearing and reading about a lot of different hybrid working scenarios and the common mistake that many folks fall into is the hybrid working model of: some on-site and some remote at the same time via remote collaboration tools (zoom, teams etc). What happens in this scenario is that those on-site have a tendency to collaborate locally to the exclusion of those working remotely. I have also seen this occur when there are two groups of people trying to collaborate across two separate office locations. Local conversations get prioritized over the collaboration of the group.

This has lead me to reflect on definitions. When talking about cloud computing we’ve long had the debate on hybrid-cloud (using cloud services spanning multiple clouds) and multi-cloud (using multiple clouds for different workloads) including the definitions and how valid each scenario is. I think we mirror these definitions when talking about different models of working:

  • hybrid-working collaborating at the same time across locations; and
  • multi-location collaborating from the same location and different times e.g. if someone is remote then everyone should be remote.

From what I have seen hybrid-working doesn’t work but multi-location working does.

Remote is cultural

For most knowledge workers getting set-up to work from home is entirely possible. It may not be perfect (not everyone has the privileges of space and the right kit) but it’s practically possible - we’re all proven that in 2020. But by now all of you have most likely already seen the pitfalls of companies who are good at this and companies who aren’t.

Remote-first vs Remote-forced is a topic that arose when everyone was forced to be remote. Many companies and managers didn’t adapt well when the office environment and their corner offices were removed. As companies are now looking to return more of the workforce into the offices one has to reflect on the reasons why. There will be many reasons given: collaboration, team building, productivity - all of which have enough truth to them to be plausible but often hide the more common fact that management hasn’t adjusted to what’s required to support a remote-first model.

Two statements to remember:

  1. Remote work only works if the whole business get’s it (and if your boss does). A single team being remote in a company that isn’t will never really work well.
  2. If you culture isn’t at least a remote-friendly one now - it’s unlikely to ever be.

Remote working is a cultural change - for an individual, for leaders and for organisations as a whole. It takes time to learn, to grow and to change to working remote successfully. It takes effort to encourage yourself and your teams to default to asynchronous methods of collaboration and be deliberate about when you’re not. We will all make mistakes on this path (I have made sooo many!) but it’s all a journey to make sure that we’re living and working our most fulfilled lives.