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In 2013, when Marissa Mayer banned remote work at Yahoo, she rocked a lot of worlds. Companies like BestBuy, Aetna and Reddit soon followed her lead.
Four years later, the wisdom of her decision is still being debated. Yahoo continues to struggle and Mayer is transitioning out.
In the meantime, another female executive – IBM’s new CMO Michelle Peluso – made a similar move. Again, many worlds were rocked.
Are these scenarios harbingers of doom for remote corporate workers everywhere? Or are they merely a trend to watch?
Let’s look at what these companies have in common:
- they’re well-established and of decent size
- they are/were all experiencing a need to jumpstart innovation
- they are/were all seeking to reboot their culture
Pretty Standard Corporate Woes.
What, then, specifically drove these leaders to abolish the 21st century’s hottest workforce trend?
Mayer’s rationale was that Yahoo’s turnaround could only happen if the team improved the speed and quality of their work.
This end game, she claimed, could only emerge from the “decisions and insights that come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.”
As a peace offering to the disgruntled, she bought them new iPhones and brought in free food.
Peluso Is Making A Similar Argument.
IBM, one of the pioneers of remote work, has limited this decision to the U.S. marketing group for now. As Big Blue strives to get some new technologies off the ground and out to market, Peluso’s team will play a key role.
Her conclusion was similar to Mayer’s: people need to collaborate face-to-face to innovate at light speed.
As a peace offering to her disgruntled employees, she promised amazingly inspiring workspaces.
Despite the newsworthy nature of these events, in the grand scheme of things, the incidents are relatively isolated.
Remote work is still on the rise in the corporate world. And paradoxically, the world’s most innovative companies (startups of all kinds, and even other tech leaders) are finding that remote work works for their people. And for their business.
So, why does it spark innovation for some and hinder it for others? More on this in a bit. But first, a question for you.
Is Remote Work Right For Your Team?
No doubt, your company has experimented with this idea. Or it has been planning to. Leaders frequently cite the benefits: increased productivity, happier workforce, fewer hours wasted commuting.
A recent Gallup report noted that the most engaged employees work remotely 3-4 days per week, giving them 1-2 days onsite for face time.
While it’s clear from those numbers that remote work is here to stay, whether or not it creates a competitive advantage for your company may still be fuzzy.
Should you dabble with it at all? Here’s a hit list of what to look out for:
1. Your Culture.
Start with examining your current policy on remote work:
- what is accepted and/or frowned upon?
- what needs to be shaken up?
- could remote work help?
Executives at the 2014 Global Leadership Summit forecasted that 50 to 75% of their full-time employees would be working remotely by 2020.
Referencing this same forecast, Adam Kingl, London Business School’s Director of Learning Solutions, said:
“Technology and some fundamental shifts in management thinking are behind this response. Leaders are learning how to enable their teams to flourish, and there is a recognition that the notion of a traditional 9–5, Monday–Friday, commute-to-the-office job is quickly eroding.”
If your culture is lagging, or getting in its own way, don’t wait to make a plan to encourage bite-size changes. As Jack Welch said, change before you have to.
2. Your Tools.
Is most of your work done in the cloud, or is your collaboration technology from the year 2000?
If you’re in a culture that is heavily reliant on email, consider making a switch to collaboration tools such as Trello, Jira, Slack and Zoom.
CAVEAT: According to Sean Graber, CEO and co-founder of Virtuali, even the best technology can’t make up for subpar processes. One of his team workshops exposed common process pitfalls:
Divide employees into groups of three. Show one team member an image and ask him or her to describe it to another team member over the phone (without naming it outright).
That person, based on the description, e-mails the third team member with instructions on how to recreate the image. As you can imagine, this produces a lot of laughs — and a lot of strange drawings.
To avoid playing this age-old game of telephone, put together clear guidelines for your remote staff. Not everyone communicates best in the same way.
As a leader, your biggest challenge may be to push people out of their communication comfort zones toward new tools.
3. Your Leadership.
Whatever end state you’re trying to cultivate around remote work, it’s up to you to role model the behaviours. Below are some quick tips:
- Schedule regular updates with your remote reports. Reserve some time for personal conversation. Predictable communication is more important than constant.
- Schedule regular meetings with your entire team, remote and otherwise. Use your video technology for spontaneous interaction.
- Avoid biases when it comes to performance evaluation with your remotes. Apply the same metrics across your team.
- Don’t forget to acknowledge your remote workers’ achievements so their efforts don’t go unnoticed.
Leading a remote team isn’t vastly different from leading face-to-face. It just feels that way at first.
4. Your Talent.
Chances are, some of your team is already working remotely at least part of the time. How well is it going?
Notice any trends you can track. For example, research shows that millennial workers value remote work more than boomers do. So consider how that demographic factors into your workforce planning.
Other dynamics to watch for:
- Meetings that waste time and brainpower
- A too-tight office layout that makes concentration impossible
- A team that is self-reliant and seeking more independence
- An ongoing struggle to bring in the right talent
If you suffer from any or all of the above, remote work just might be an answer.
Finding and keeping great talent may demand that you offer more flexibility.
Steve Jobs nailed it when he said “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
5. Your Competitors.
Not embracing remote work, but your competition is? Take this as a sign from the universe to change.
Because, ahem, evidently it CAN work in your industry. If you don’t get on board soon, you risk losing your edge with your employees—and your customers.
But the reality is, remote work isn’t for everybody. And it’s not for every company.
While some startups don’t even have offices, for most of us the best approach is to strike a balance. Don’t think of it as all or nothing, especially if you’re starting from scratch.
If the thought of leading this change makes you feel like a salmon swimming against a strong corporate current, listen to Muhammed Ali.
“Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”