Three Keys to Developing Remote Work Capabilities

Apr 21, 2020

Everyday my email inbox is full of promotional emails with tips on working remotely. The “tips for working from home” email has become a must have marketing tactic. It doesn’t seem to matter if the organization has anything to do with remote working, shout out to my water utility company. So there’s a lot of info out there, not all of it good, and very little of it speaking from real-world experience.

This is an attempt to cut through some of that crap. First, a bit of background about why we’re at least a little more qualified to talk about this than my water utility company.

Nomadic has been helping teams and organizations adapt to remote work since 2015 when one of the world’s largest banks approached us to develop a learning solution that would support the transition to over 40% of their global workforce working remotely. Since then, we’ve helped 1000s of individuals and dozens of organizations adapt to remote work.

Based on our experience, here are three keys to developing remote work capabilities:

1. The medium is the message

Working remotely is still a social activity (just like most work). No one is struggling with the parts of their job they usually do on their own, the struggles of remote work are usually about remote interaction and collaboration. Therefore, the tools you use to help your people adapt to remote work must also be social and collaborative. If you are giving people a set of static resources to teach them about remote working, no matter how accurate or insightful the resources are, you are implicitly de-emphasizing the social aspect of remote work. The medium is the message.

To teach remote work to teams at scale, you have to mirror as closely as possible the kinds of interactions that happen in remote work. Remote work courses have to be social and digital, they should be team-based. And they should create spaces where people can practice.

2. Trust is everything

The key to any successful team is trust. This is even more true with remote teams. Teams that work in close physical proximity can be motivated and controlled in other ways, by fear and process (like punching the clock) or by the presence of hierarchy and office “norms”. When the physical space is removed, all you really have is trust (and some horrible virtual control mechanisms that will not work for the vast majority of people).

So what does that mean for helping your team develop remote work capabilities? It means you should have visible senior leadership buy-in for the development programs you are running and it means senior leadership should be active participants in the learning too. Leaders can speak to the importance of trust in remote working through video clips or quotes that are integrated into the learning. But most importantly, leaders should also actively participate in the social learning experience where teams collaboratively figure out how to actually build trust.

3. Tools don’t matter

The existence of tools that make remote working possible is, of course, incredibly important. Remote work before all the digital communication tools we now rely on would be immensely harder*. But teaching your people how to use those tools is largely a waste of time. People figure it out, more likely than not they’re already used to the kinds of technology you are introducing (B2C tech has been leading B2B tech for 20+ years now).

What’s far more important is to establish and teach the rules (formal and informal) that govern the use of those tools. The rules must be established and taught collaboratively, not dictated to everyone from on high, and the learning experience itself (if it follows the guidance in points 1 and 2) is the perfect place to form them.

What emerges from establishing those rules, and living them day in and day out, is a successful culture of remote work, and that’s the ultimate key to long term remote work success.

*It’s an experiment I’d like to try one day. Can you do effective remote work with no chat, but with email? Can you do it with no email or text message, just talking on the phone? I assume no phone and just the mail is pretty much impossible).

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