For most office workers, remote work is a year-old practice. But across the business world, it’s been around for about three decades at least.
Cisco launched a remote-work program in 1993, and 90% of its staff in Silicon Valley took part in the experiment. Sun Microsystems that same decade adopted a similar “Open Work” program, which about 60% of its staff participated in.
Thanks to these initiatives, researchers have been studying remote work since well before the pandemic. Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor, is among them. In her new book Remote Work Revolution, to be released next week, she presents best practices for remote-work arrangements.
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When it’s done right, remote workers are more productive and happier in their jobs, Neeley concludes. That’s in sharp contrast to today, where the past year of remote work has left a significant portion of American workers burned out and looking to change employers as soon as things normalize.
Among the ingredients to getting it right is holding regular “launch” sessions. Neeley recommends quarterly meetings spanning at least an hour for open discussion about the best way for the team to work together. These launch and relaunch sessions should cover team goals, roles, constraints, resources, and norms about how to collaborate. Her late Harvard colleague J. Richard Hackman developed the 60-30-10 rule for team success. Sixty percent of success is determined by the way a team is designed, 30% depends on the initial launch, and only 10% comes down to what happens after that.
Building trust between team members is another key for remote work. “Trust is the glue that binds a team together, drives performance, and enables collaboration and coordination,” writes Neeley. “But you can’t force trust.” (p. 24) She describes the utility of “swift” trust, where virtual team members “temporarily trust one another based on sufficient evidence of competence—whether it is work samples, pedigrees, or the way someone communicates with others in shared virtual spaces.” (p. 28) Swift trust starts at a high level of trust, and ideally is backfilled over time with the connections and respect that allow the level to remain high over time.
Other tips from Remote Work Revolution:
- Colleagues can move beyond transactional relationships with each other by sharing information about themselves. “Unlike in person, where the ideal time you spend with your coworkers inevitably leads to serendipitous discoveries about one another—like how a colleague always makes a cappuccino on Fridays at four o’clock sharp—in the remote format, you have to make a point of sharing these kinds of quirks and habits,” Neeley writes. (p. 34)
- Relatedly, set aside the first six or seven minutes of meetings for informal discussion of nonwork topics, which helps establish trust among team members.
- Build trust with external clients by regularly sharing information with them via emails and short videos, creating emotional touch points such as having a birthday bouquet delivered while you’re on the phone with them, or creating interest groups of clients around interests such as wine.
- “Virtual meeting platforms fail to provide the natural conditions for real-time brainstorming,” Neeley writes. (p. 102) A best practice is to ask team members to put their thoughts into a shared document before a meeting, during which the ideas can then be appraised as a group.
- Take advantage of the strengths of virtual meetings, such as allowing for screen sharing and the use of virtual whiteboards.
- Don’t surveill remote workers using technology to track their activities. Such tools generally backfire, leaving employees feeling stressed and disempowered.
To be sure…
- Remote Work Revolution devotes relatively little focus to challenges specific to hybrid-work arrangements—where workers split time between remote work and the office. That’s what many companies expect post-pandemic. It also doesn’t directly address burnout and other mental-health concerns in significant detail.
- Neeley is concerned with remote work, but also the cultural and management complexities of distributed teams in multinational organizations. The book covers both topics, which could be frustrating for readers expecting a more focused guide to best practices for remote work.
- Some of the answers to questions about remote work that Neeley tackles vary based on the context, such as the nature of the teams and the tools being used. Her answer in the digital tools chapter, for example, is essentially “it depends”—which doesn’t always feel useful.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- “Remote work doesn’t significantly hurt job performance in any type of work,” Neeley concludes from reviewing research. (p. 57)
- In 2011, Thierry Breton announced a ban on internal email at Atos, an IT services company with over 74,000 employees where he was then CEO. He believed the volume of messages was “email pollution” that got in the way of teamwork and led people to work unnecessarily long hours, and shifted the European company to use tools such as videoconferencing and instant messaging instead.
- When it comes to group decision-making, teams with neutral relationships with each other benefit from using richer technology such as video. But teams with positive relationships and teams with negative relationships fare worse when they use video to make decisions. Leaner technology such as email appears in the case of antagonistic teams to reduce unproductive conflict.
- AppFolio, a maker of property-management software, uses “agile” methodology, and prior to the pandemic structured its agile teams’ work around daily in-person check ins and spontaneous conversations in the office. After the shift to remote work, it was surprised to find that the agile approach could be adapted to work remotely, partly because 80% to 90% of what team members needed to do was individual, focused work.
- Researchers found that in hybrid setups, workers who were remote while colleagues were in the office did not suffer from worse job performance evaluations or diminished career prospects.
- “It’s okay to spend a lot of time arguing about what route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there, but a lot of time gets wasted in such arguments if one person wants to go to San Francisco and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”—Steve Jobs in 1997, on the need to agree on team goals (p. 6)
- “The question in remote work should not be: Do I trust my colleagues? The question should be: How much do I need to trust them?” (p. 23)
- “Studies confirm that when people have the opportunity to work virtually and the flexibility to arrange the job tasks there is an increase in commitment to their companies and in performance, and a decreased likelihood for attrition.” (p. 52)
- “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” —Ernest Hemingway (p. 58)
The bottom line is that Remote Work Revolution offers reassurance that remote arrangements can actually result in more employee engagement and productivity—even if they’re not doing so now—and provides best practices for getting there.
You can read my interview with Neeley from January.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. You can read all of our book briefings here.