Lessons Learned

Remote Work in a Post-COVID World

by | Mar 30, 2020

Top Executives Share How to Manage a Distributed Team and Keep Your Business Running

Table of Contents

For easier reading, this report has been divided into 2 parts:

PART 1: Changing Perceptions Towards Remote Work Due to COVID-19

  • The Skepticism Towards Working From Home
  • Is COVID-19 Erasing the Stigma of Remote Work?
  • Ensuring Business Continuity in Disaster Scenarios

PART 2: Best Practices for Remote Work

  • Best Practices for Managing Distributed Teams Remotely
  • What Are the Best Software Tools for Remote Workers?
  • Final Remarks

For best practices, tips, and software tools for running a distributed team, you may skip ahead to Part 2.

PART 1: Changing Perceptions Towards Remote Work Due to COVID-19

“I don’t think we’ll go back to the same way we used to operate.”
– Jennifer Christie, Twitter

Make no mistake: recent headlines have been grim. But there is a silver lining.

We are already seeing businesses and employees work from home as part of our social distancing measures. The underlying long-term trend already points to more remote work, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to accelerate it.

But will it permanently alter our workplace? Is there going to be a clear before and after?

The Skepticism Towards Working From Home

While remote work has gained traction over the last decade, many large employers remain skeptical that employees working from home could actually get things done. A 2012 MIT study found that managers are less likely to describe home-based workers as ‘responsible’ or ‘dependable’, leading to lower performance reviews compared to those for office employees.

This stigma existed mostly in the subconscious until it was brought to light in 2013, when the Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer, banned remote work by ordering all staff back to the office. “We often sacrifice speed and quality when we work from home,” Mayer explained her reasoning.

However, the results were disastrous in terms of attracting top talent from the labor market. Savvy businesses know that many people prefer to work from home, explains Jessica Malnik, a freelance copywriter for productized services. “Remote work allows you to open up your talent pool to anyone in the world. You are no longer limited by geography.”

Therefore, Mayer’s ban on remote work put Yahoo! in the backseat of the 21st century economy as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon charged ahead with the very same technologies that enable people to work remotely.

But this begs the question:

Why was there skepticism towards working from home in the first place?

Although technology made it easier for people to work from anywhere, managers have been slow to embrace it, thinking more work gets done at the office and face time improves team cohesion. Nico Appel at TightOps, a remote work consultancy, explains that “there is a lot of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and mostly false assumptions about the importance of where and how people get their work done. We could embrace the freedom made possible by technology, but that change is not easy for many.”

There is also a popular notion that the typical remote worker is a 1) millennial who pulled strings for a flexible work arrangement, 2) stay-at-home mom pulling in freelance income, or 3) someone at a startup. But you’d be surprised. According to Global Workforce Analytics, the typical remote worker is a senior manager over the age of 45, earns at least $58,000 per year, and works for a company with over 100 employees (CNBC, 2020).

Plus, not every job can be done remotely, and not every employee wants to work from home. Justin Cooke, the Founder of Empire Flippers who manages a fully remote team of 70 employees across four continents, says “not every employee is able to effectively perform remote work for a variety of reasons. While some of the stigma has fallen off in recent years, I don’t think it’s fair to say that remote work is some magical cure-all for improving both the health and efficiency of employees and teams.”

Some are justifiably concerned that if everyone worked remotely all the time, they might miss the benefits of face-to-face collaboration that only happens when everyone is in the same room, particularly in the creative industry (Adweek, 2020).

However, the year 2020 may well be an inflection point where remote work begins to dominate due to the ongoing pandemic.

Is COVID-19 Erasing the Stigma of Remote Work?

Due to COVID-19, many business leaders are now approaching remote work with an open mind—albeit with some caution. Noel Andrews, the CEO of JobRack, agrees that while some skepticism remains, things are changing fast. Although many organizations have not been able to imagine how certain tasks could be done from home, “COVID-19 is forcing them to give time and attention to solve these challenges as their workforce is, in many cases, mandated to stay home,” says Andrews.

“There is a grand experiment going on with the pandemic, where companies are forced to attempt remote work at scale. I believe this is a silver lining that will turbocharge the remote work movement.”
– Justin Cooke

Catalina Alvarez, the Community Manager at Dynamite Circle, also points out that it’s not just employees working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re already seeing schools and teachers transitioning to online classes. Gyms and trainers are offering at-home exercise programs. It’s only a matter of time for more companies to offer remote work if they want to stay in business.”

Companies with large physical offices may also find savings in rental space as more employees work from home. “This is an opportunity for companies to look at their expenses on physical space and real estate,” says Ronnie Teja, the Founder of Branzio Watches. However, these savings could be partially offset by increased spending on resources, laptops, and other equipment to support remote workers in their home offices.

On the flip side, many employees will realize that they could do everything in their day job at home instead of at the office. “I think a lot of people will start looking for home-based jobs going forward,” says Mads Singers, who runs a management consulting company with a distributed staff of 130 remote employees. “I see it as a two-way street that will actually consolidate, where a lot of small businesses in particular will look to save on office space as well.”

Now that many people have been forced to work remotely, how are their companies handling this sudden transition?

Ensuring Business Continuity in Disaster Scenarios

When companies are forced to transition to remote work en masse, they might have difficulties adjusting since this is new to many people(Adweek, 2020). Before making that transition, they must weigh the pros and cons of remote work: “It is critical that we discuss the benefits along with the drawbacks, so that companies can be clear-eyed in their decision making,” says Cooke.

Lindsay Jacobson of CNBC reports that companies including Twitter are urgently implementing business continuity plans that incorporate a work-from-home policy to help employees follow social distancing guidelines. However, while most companies have a plan for floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters—they are not prepared for a global pandemic resulting in a lockdown that may last weeks or even months.

As a result, they are scrambling into remote work without a plan to provide enough laptops for all employees, keep their networks secure, and make sure everyone does their jobs. Many challenges remain:

  • Not all jobs can be done remotely.
  • Not all companies have enough resources to accommodate all remote workers.
  • Not all companies have identity and authentication policies prepared for secure remote access.
  • Not everyone is fit for remote work due to distractions, lack of office space, or unavailability of broadband Internet at home.

Kate Lister, the President of Global Workforce Analytics, explains that “56 percent of the workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work” (CNBC, 2020). That’s a lot of resources to provide for all these workers if they choose to go remote.

Yet, that leaves almost half of the workforce ineligible to work remotely, including teachers, healthcare providers, police officers, firefighters, and construction workers. However, Bill Wagner, the CEO of LogMeln—a remote access solution provider—offers a great idea to ‘flatten the curve’, saying that if most people eligible for remote work stays home, we reduce the risk of others catching COVID-19. “The emptying of offices and mass transit limits exposure for those who still need to go to the office,” says Wagner.

There are also network security concerns with rushing towards remote work without a proper cybersecurity policy in place. Matthew Knowland, an Operations Specialist, warns that “without proper planning and testing of [remote working] solutions, the action items hastily put into place can have terrible ramifications,” including cyberattacks, downtime, and loss of sensitive data resulting from insecure laptops being used at home.

Despite these challenges, there are companies who already have been running distributed teams successfully for several years.

Part 2: Best Practices for Remote Work

“Telecommuting comes down to trust.”
– Kate Lister, Global Workforce Analytics

Adapting to remote work can be a huge adjustment to both employers and employees. Employees not only need to have the right equipment to access their company’s network securely, but also have a home office with a door to keep children and other distractions out. 

Executives with years of experience in managing remote employees share what has worked for them:

Best Practices for Managing Distributed Teams Remotely

1. Ease into remote work by offering flexible schedules

Under normal circumstances, a larger and more established company usually would slowly ease into it by giving certain employees one or two days a week to work from home. Some employers experiment with ‘remote’ Fridays. Others allow flexible hours and monitor employees’ performance, making adjustments along the way.

Unfortunately, with lockdowns and stay-home mandates in effect, companies these days do not have the luxury to ease into remote work. They could, however, follow the best practices and software tools described in this report, or hire a remote work consultant, to make their transition successful.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

If you asked business leaders to share insights on how to manage distributed teams, you would hear a chorus of emphasis on communication. Noel Andrews is a big proponent of not only collaborating with his team about work, but also socializing with them.

“If you want to build a real team, you have to get to know them and what makes them tick.”
– Noel Andrews

Ali Marsland, the Director of The Effective English Company, holds weekly check-in video calls with her direct reports and monthly calls with all employees.

“Without good open communication channels, it’s likely that small issues will become major problems before you even know they exist.”
– Ali Marsland

However, communicating more does not mean flooding your team with superfluous emails. Information needs to be concise, relevant, and on point—and exchanged via appropriate channels. The main challenge with a remote team is to coordinate individual work with the broader strategy.

To ensure success, the following conditions must be met:

  1. Everyone knows what their tasks are.
  2. Everyone has a basic idea of what their colleagues are working on.
  3. Everyone understands how their own tasks are related to the tasks their colleagues are working on.
  4. Everyone has access to all required information needed to complete their tasks.
  5. Everyone has an equal chance to provide input.

As a management coach with over seven years of experience, during which he coached people at large companies such as Shell and Coca-Cola, Mads Singers reveals the key to communication among remote employees: “A lot of communication that naturally happens in an office does not happen in a distributed team. So you need to be a lot more focused on goals and clear expectations in terms of delivery.”

Many companies are now using video conferencing tools like Zoom to replicate office meetings at home. However, Nico Appel warns they cannot simply virtualize everything in their transition to remote work. “This just goes to show that most people, who are used to working in the same office, try to bring their habits of talking and having meetings over to remote. That won’t work,” says Appel.

Rather than focusing on the short-term technological and social challenges, teams need to learn how to communicate with purpose, clarity, and inclusiveness.

3. Make sure everyone has a voice

Every employee has their own comfort level with online socialization. While some are more extroverted than others, the more introverted ones may find it difficult to speak up when necessary. Matthew Knowland gives some great advice on how to maintain engagement among distributed team members:

“Let everyone see each other in virtual meetings and have everyone speak. This can be as simple as detailing what they are working on, any challenges, and where they could use some help from the team.”
– Matthew Knowland

At Dynamite Circle—a fully remote team who meets in person twice a year—Catalina Alvarez not only makes sure all remote employees feel like they are part of the team, but also that their work and skillsets are valued.

Having private one-on-one meetings with every team member gives remote employees a chance to provide their input and to air out any grievances or concerns that may not otherwise crop up during a team meeting. “It is really critical to have one-to-ones with every team member as well as effective team meetings,” advises Singers.

4. Focus on the results rather than face time

Managers who are used to giving performance reviews in the office may struggle to ascertain how their remote employees are performing. Therefore, it may serve us well to reframe what remote work actually is. Rather than focusing on the fact that an employee is ‘working from home’, there needs to be more emphasis on skills, discipline, attitude and professionalism.

“People do their work, and it is their own decision and responsibility to figure out how, where, and when they produce the deliverables they have committed to.”
– Nico Appel

Where people work does not matter—only that they get work done and achieve the desired results. Some people prefer to work at a library, café, or co-working space rather than at home. “Being able to work from anywhere can be a great advantage,” says Appel. “I can change my location and my output is basically unaffected.”

Managers of distributed teams, however, should consider time zones for scheduled calls and overlapping schedules with all team members.

5. Encourage remote employees to set boundaries

One problem for remote workers is that it’s hard for them to turn off. As someone who has worked remotely for over five years, there were times when I thought to myself—’let me fire off one more email before bed’—only to spend another three hours on the computer.

Having worked remotely for over ten years, Tristan King, the Founder of Grow Like An Elephant, emphasizes the importance of setting clear boundaries between work and personal time: “On one hand, you have flexibility of when to work, no commute, and so on. But on the other hand, if you don’t keep a handle on it, you can become a hermit and work 24/7 while never leaving the house. Setting boundaries is super important.”

What remote employees can and should do is to stick to consistent work schedules, and coordinate these schedules with whom they report to. Once they finish work for the day, that’s it—no more checking email or answering Skype calls until the following morning. On the flip side, they should limit their time on social media during their working hours.

To help remote employees maintain these boundaries, companies can provide guidance on setting up home office space conducive to getting things done without getting interrupted.

What Are the Best Software Tools for Remote Workers?

Even as recently as a few years ago, most applications sat behind firewalls, making remote work difficult. But cloud computing has made it much easier, even for jobs that weren’t deemed eligible for remote work 5-10 years ago.

Remote workers now use Slack, Google Docs, Zoom, and DocuSign to collaborate on their projects. Regardless of the specific tools, however, it is critical that “each tool is shared, always accessible, and that the information it contains is kept up-to-date. They must also be appropriate to represent the workflows and processes your team is using,” says Appel.

Most importantly, distributed teams need to have enough tools to cover the following areas:

  • Project Management
  • Team Communication
  • Document Sharing
  • Customer Relations

DISCLAIMER: No affiliate links are used below. I do not benefit financially by including links to any of these software tools or cloud solutions.

Project Management Platforms

For a distributed team to function efficiently, they need a shared task manager based in the cloud. From a productivity standpoint, it is important to have a task management system that helps each team member be clear on what tasks they are responsible for. Fortunately, there are countless options: “There are many task management systems and it doesn’t matter which one you pick, but it is crucial to use something,” advises Marsland.

The best project management platforms include Gantt charts and Kanban boards to help everyone track their tasks to completion, including but not limited to the following:

Other tools such as Airtable and Trello both work as Kanban-style task management tools as well as CRMs—these are popular among startups and small businesses.

“The key is to pick one and make sure everybody uses it. The biggest issue you see in businesses is when they implemented a tool where only 40%-60% of their staff uses it, and others don’t. It makes the tool useless. So you need full collaboration when you implement a project management tool that helps get the right tasks done on time.”

– Mads Singers

Not only does a distributed team need a task management platform, but they also need a way to communicate through specific channels other than email—and a team communication platform offers that.

Team Communication Platforms

Good old fashioned email has long been the bread and butter of all workers, but email should not be the primary way to manage projects, especially among a distributed team. They should communicate through more appropriate channels, depending on the situation and context.

Internal communication tools “can be used company-wide with individual channels for management, specific departments, and even silly non-work chat,” says Cooke.

Slack is one of the most popular tools that uses channels to keep team communication organized. “We all love it. It keeps conversations on different topics organized by channel,” says Alvarez. However, there are viable alternatives to Slack such as Microsoft Teams.

For client calls, conferences, and team meetings, Skype and Zoom are widely used by all kinds of businesses of all sizes.

Shared Document Platforms

Google Docs is a popular document sharing platform that can both be used internally among the team and externally with clients. SharePoint serves the same purpose, plus it can be integrated seamlessly into most companies already using Microsoft Office.

The greatest advantage of these tools is that different team members can edit the same copy of a document, as opposed to emailing revised versions back and forth.

What if a document requires a signature? How can remote workers sign a document without having to print, sign, and scan it? This is where DocuSign comes in, with e-signatures removing friction from executing contracts and agreements.

Customer Relationship Management Platforms

Sometimes employees need to handle customer-facing tasks, which is especially true for productized services such as SaaS or managed IT. To manage such tasks remotely, there are dozens of CRMs including ZenDesk,Salesforce, and HubSpot to name a few.

It’s not important which tool your company uses, but rather your company has a system with standard operating procedures (SOPs) that your team understands how to use, and that the system helps the team meet your business goals.

NOTICE: To help businesses navigate the COVID-19 crisis, Product Hunt has curated a list of tools for remote teams you can get at a discount if you act quickly.

Final Remarks

While we hope that life returns to normal sooner than later, the workplace in a post-pandemic world may never go back to what it was before. Many companies would have already gone through a transition to remote work. Some will stick with it, citing higher efficiency, cost savings, and happier employees.

Other businesses struggling with the transition can use the tools and best practices above to build remote teams with existing employees. Doing so may be difficult in the short term, but will help them become more agile in the long term. It may mean the difference between continued growth or going out of business.