The Remote Reality: Can Working From Home Work?

Remote is becoming the new reality for many organizations. A few weeks ago the Arizona Republic asked its employees not to come back to the office, but to do their work at a Starbucks or McDonald’s.

In the newspaper’s case, managers’ motives seem tied to lowering costs, but many companies choose remote or “distributed” models for their employees as an incentive.

“There is no commute, no dealing with traffic, no costs for eating out every day, they have the freedom of their own work environment and not a jungle of cubicles,” said Anthony Licursi, vice president of customer service at Site5, a Web hosting company with 105 staff who all work remotely. The organization saves overhead costs and allows a unique flexibility for employees, not to mention being a waste-free, totally green company.

“A lot of our team travel … some go up to the mountains during ski season to work from there and jump on the slopes right after work.” Licursi said. He also appreciates the lack of contagious diseases that often pass through offices.

While working from Mexico without missing a beat is a definite perk, there are unique challenges in managing remote teams. It involves a great deal of trust. Scott Hanselman, a principal program manager who has worked at Microsoft remotely for five years, said trust is essential.

“You were hired as a professional; are you trusted to be a professional? Working remotely requires your company to trust you.” At Site5, trust is important because otherwise the culture can become too corporate and employees start to feel like they are constantly watched. To build an environment of trust, the company tries to hire the right type of person for remote work.

“We look for people who have worked remotely or who have a strong social life outside of work,” Licursi said. People who rely on their work environment for social interaction tend to struggle with remote work.

Another trust-builder is productivity, according to Hanselman. He found that requiring teams to develop a task management system helps create clear expectations. It can be as simple as emailing three weekly goals or as complex as task management software. For Licursi’s team, metrics and surveys are important to gauge customer satisfaction as well as different technology products.

“We use a combination of Basecamp, GitHub, Redmine and WordPress to manage tasks depending on what each department prefers,” Licursi said. He added that keeping teams small and intimate also helps to build trust and manage tasks because everyone’s usually collaborating on the same set of projects.

After trust, constant communication is the big make-or-break for remote employees. Licursi said Site5 has tried “just about everything over the years” to make communication quick and easy. Now his team frequently uses Jabber. Hanselman said he also has used many different tools and sticks with the most reliable. “My boss and I use corporate IM and also texting constantly,” Hanselman said. “It doesn’t matter the medium; what matters is that, during work hours, he can get ahold of me in minutes.”

Convenience is key, but Licursi added that employees have also had to develop other soft skills for effective communication, like smiley faces in texts. “You always need to be careful about how you talk to someone in a remote environment,” he said. “You’re not physically there, you can’t tell how a person feels and it is very easy for something to come across negatively via text.“ For Site5, this was initially a problem in Europe, where employees, not used to so much communication from supervisors, felt they were always on the edge of being fired. Managers learned to use emoticons and gentler phrasing to provide feedback for team members. Hanselman said he has a video camera available whenever someone wants that face-to-face interaction, which is not as easily misinterpreted.

Site5 has a 100 percent distributed employee base, but with Microsoft and the majority of companies that may have a hybrid model, remote workers tend to feel isolated from in-office peers. On his blog, Hanselman recalls times when he’s tried to chime in at group meetings and realized to his consternation that he’s muted and no one seems to notice he’s not there.

Remote employees also may feel guilt from fellow employees who think they are hanging out at the movies or lying around in their pajamas. Supervisor recognition is essential to help employees feel appreciated and acknowledged. Feedback is another key tool that companies can use to help employees know their status and keep everyone informed.

For companies with a mixed distribution model, meeting in person on a quarterly basis can help build relationships, Hanselman said. Site5 has a yearly meet up, but Licursi said the choice to go 100 percent remote, rather than 50/50 or some other ratio, was deliberate.?

“I think the hybrid model creates real problems for a company because everyone is on unequal footing and you end up with two companies with all the problems and challenges of each,” Licursi said.

Finally, transparency will improve the culture of any remote or distributed company. “You need to be willing to share more publicly with the company since there is less informal communications,” Licursi said. “One of the key parts of our culture is always feel free to ask ‘why?’”

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.