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Even as bankers urge companies, especially publicly traded, to return to their sprawling office complexes because commercial loan delinquency rates are the highest since the pandemic began, remote work is now firmly embedded in work culture. While financial puppeteers pull market strings on the ground, there’s no question that workers and leaders are facing off into a new world of work.
My PR agency, celebrating 15 years in business this year, has always been remote. Much of this was out of necessity, but it was also born from my own experiences of efficiency as a remote worker in 2008. For context, in 2008, there was no Zoom and Skype was janky at best, creepy and weird at worst; there was no Slack or Teams. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and over the years, I learned a few things about managing a team remotely.
Today, I consider these systems and processes one of our greatest strengths because our talent pool is limitless and our team and clients are happier. But these systems haven’t been without trial and error, and I’ve learned productivity and outcomes are the essential success ingredients of remote-first environments.
1. Hire for emotional intelligence
In my experience, emotional intelligence is the number one attribute determining whether someone can work effectively remotely.
Studies show remote workers work longer and harder; a recent study that tracked 60,000 Microsoft workers showed the average worker saved 72 minutes in daily commuting but spent an extra half-hour each day working, an additional two hours a week.
Because of extra time spent at work, a more significant challenge is ensuring remote workers don’t burn out. As a leader, make the extra effort to ask people how they are because you won’t be running into them in the hallway — 15-minute touch bases without a string of action items are an excellent way to connect and keep emotionally intelligent people emotionally engaged.
It isn’t all that difficult to quantify emotional intelligence — emotionally intelligent employees are empathetic, self-directed, know how to express their needs, are curious, and are receptive to feedback. Emotionally intelligent people also know how and when they work best.
Progress, rather than perfection, drives emotionally intelligent people, so the next tip is critical to success in remote work culture.
Remote work culture requires mutual respect. Leaders should also be emotionally intelligent, seeking to be empathetic and solution-oriented rather than enforcers. Leaders should over-communicate their agendas and availabilities as an example rather than a requirement; emotionally intelligent team members will pick up on the signal.
2. Set clear goals and objectives
When I hear stories of managers finding out employees have been using screen trackers to make it look like they are working, I know they haven’t hired for emotional intelligence and I know they haven’t set clear goals and objectives.
Modern leaders need to rethink how we evaluate team members.
According to a Stanford University study, remote workers are 13% more productive. Why waste this productivity by insisting on hour tracking? Even in an office environment, no one sits at their desk 10 hours a day and works productively.
So rather than think of output in terms of hours worked, think about output in terms of contributions. What exactly should an employee be delivering? What KPIs should an employee be tracking for themselves? What is the contribution expected from their role? Suddenly, leaders have a clear view of their most valuable team members, and team members know what’s expected of them.
3. Use technology, but wisely
It takes 15-20 minutes to get into the flow state, which means every time we’re interrupted, we take that long to get back up to the productivity level we were at just before the interruption. We have all gotten used to the many productivity benefits of technology, but not all technology benefits productivity.
Notifications are the enemy of focus. Set up a hierarchy of communication. For example, non-urgent or outer office communication can usually happen via email. Slack and/or Teams, practically required for remote culture, are excellent for quick questions or urgent matters. But it’s essential to encourage these channels as professional communication channels, not water coolers. Having a communication channel that dings and pings with GIFs and meme threads all day isn’t productive. It’s not that there isn’t any room for fun; it’s that in a remote environment, providing focus is more critical than providing release. After all, unlike traditional office environments, a team member can take a walk around the block or cuddle with their pet for 10 minutes to blow off steam; they don’t need an intra-office chat for that. Normalize ways to blow off steam rather than having a Slack channel that pings and dings all day with minor grievances.
I’ve found that project management software is a lot more work for our teams than it saves. Some exceptions exist, but I think most teams can work effectively without a third-party platform. Excel and Google Sheets can send an email when documents are updated. Use it.
Scheduling meetings has never been more accessible, but that also means it’s more complicated than ever to have control of your calendar. Enabling company-wide “meeting-free” times (Fridays are a good day for this) is an excellent use of calendaring tools and allows everyone some guaranteed productivity time. Also, it’s great that we have so many ways to communicate, but if there are more than three messages or emails on a topic, it’s time to schedule a call. Sending emails back and forth has diminishing returns when it could be as easily solved with a 10-minute call.
Remote work is here to stay; it’s important for modern companies to find their place in this new professional order. Protecting balance, contributions and focus are the pillars of success for both leaders and their teams.