Paul Sephton of Jabra introduces his latest podcast about managing remote teams and staying productive.
What is the future for remote work and how can we use it effectively?
Whether you’re a manager, business leader or employee, this episode of Jabra’s podcast The Soundbar covers the topic of remote work from all angles.
In this episode, with Executive Professor of Management at Northeastern’s D’Amore-Mckim School of Business, Barbara Larson, we examine a manager’s guide to leading virtual or remote teams, how to work effectively from home as an employee and how a business can deploy a sustainable remote working strategy.
Paul Sephton: The one thing which everyone is aware of now more than ever in 2020 is this state of increasing remote work. That spans from companies allowing more and more employees remote working policies and there being an increasing demand by employees in terms of wanting remote work options.
We can attribute these to a few different factors, but what do you find from your research are some of the main challenges we’re still facing around remote working, but firstly perhaps what has led us to the state of increasing remote work?
Barbara Larson: This is a fascinating question. I always tell people that remote work, or as some sometimes call it virtual work, has been around since the days of carrier pigeons. I mean we have been working with people remotely forever.
But what has changed remote work, or really enabled remote work, is technology and particularly the digitization of voice of audio and video of data and the ease of transferring that information from person to person across distance. That is what has enabled remote work to become a thing, to become much more prevalent, and in some cases, almost ubiquitous in some industries.
I think in terms of what has led us there, that has been the enabler. Now there have been other factors such as concerns about the environment, increased traffic in some cases sort of crumbling infrastructure in major cities and major metro areas that has increased the demand. People are realizing that if they can work remotely, they can live a little bit further away or live where they live now and not have to deal with the commute.
Cities are now realizing that remote work is one way to decrease carbon footprint. Companies are realizing that having people work remotely is one way that they can reduce rent expense and other expenses associated with having people in the office. There are a lot of factors that are pushing the demand for remote work even as technology continues to enable it to be more feasible and more effective.
Paul Sephton: We know that things like congestion and urbanization have been part of the push factors, but we’ve also seen offices change a huge amount in the last few decades, especially the rise of the open office. We know that between colleague interruptions and issues like noise, people are finding it really challenging to be productive at work or perhaps as much as they used to be.
Remote work is something which is still a bit of a gray area, but is definitely seen to champion an increase in productivity. What are some of these benefits perhaps tying to productivity or other things when it comes to working remotely?
Barbara Larson: Benefits of remote work … let me address the productivity statement as well. What research has found at this point in a really robust way as far as productivity goes, is that for certain types of jobs productivity can increase both when working from home and then more recently with a study that I was involved in what’s called Work From Anywhere where you actually allow people to have geographic flexibility and work any and live anywhere that they want to live.
But I want to clarify that the findings so far have focused on fairly specific types of work. The type of work that tends to benefit the most we believe from remote work are jobs that are fairly independent in their content or what conversely you could say low in interdependence. Meaning that people can do the majority of their work without having to coordinate or collaborate with other people.
The gray area as you put it, is in jobs that are more collaborative. That is where you see really interesting pros and cons of remote work. I think that’s where the companies often struggle in deciding how much remote work to allow, whether to allow remote work.
Because collaboration and coordination in particular can be considerably more difficult if it’s not well managed. We see this in global virtual teams where we have teams of people working on products. That requires a specific skill set in order to maintain productivity, much less increased productivity.
As a researcher, as somebody who’s been watching this now for a number of years, and frankly working like this in many years when I was back in industry doing international finance, I was doing huge amount of virtual work there, I think there is definitely a path to increasing productivity with remote work even for collaborative jobs. But it takes much more thought and active management and training. It’s not just sending somebody to work from home.
Paul Sephton: I think we know now that a lot of people are working in distributed teams as you mentioned. 87% actually is the most recent statistic that I’ve found on it in terms of people who have at least one team member who is distributed and not everyone being centralized at a head office.
At the same time, there’s a sort of tricky thing with management where we might have technology solutions we can deploy to enable this sort of virtual work, but we haven’t necessarily caught up culturally in terms of how to best manage and adopt these technologies. We also know that a lot of managers don’t necessarily get the training once a remote work policy is introduced.
What would your crash course be in terms of the elements needed for successful collaboration amongst dispersed teams from your own learnings and research?
Barbara Larson: Yes. I mean research that I’ve done with Erin Makarius surveying HR professionals across New England showed in fact that there isn’t much training given around a virtual work. When there is training given, as you said, it tends to focus on technology and security policies around technology. Very little tends to focus on the social, psychological, emotional, collaborative aspects of virtual work.
When we talk about this type of work, there are a few key sort of pain points that tend to emerge pretty consistently across a lot of different types of industries. One is in information sharing, and particularly sharing of information that is often in an office setting is often kind of unspoken or implicit.
I don’t know if you work remotely, but if you work in the office at Jabra, probably after a few months there you just had a sense of who to go to for what information, who was more clued in than others, how things got done, how you could get things done.
None of this was probably given to you in a manual or in writing. You couldn’t find it on the company website. Yet, you figured it out because you were in the office. You observed other people doing things. You had a lot of trial and error yourself. When you’re remote, a lot of that is not visible at all. One thing that I do talk to companies a lot about is finding ways to make that implicit information explicit.
The next piece, which I’ve already alluded to, is coordination and collaboration with other team members. This is in some senses I think almost the biggest nut to crack. Because if this goes well, a lot of the other things tend to fall in place. This is in particular one place where not only having appropriate technology is important, but effectively mandating the use of that technology.
What I mean by that, so let’s just take an example of often when people ask me, “Well, what technology should we have?” I say, “Well, you want to have something that is fairly rich,” meaning you get a lot of information. That would be like video calls.
I used to say, “Oh, that’s something you have to spend a lot of money on.” These days that’s no longer true, right? It’s very easy with Skype or Zoom or packages like Microsoft Teams, to have that very easily accessible, very rich video communication.
But then you also want to go to the other end of the spectrum and have something that’s very easy to access and very quick like a chat function. Again, Teams has that. A lot of people use Slack for that. I also find that very effective. Ideally you would want that to be mobile-enabled so that people if they want can get notifications on their phones as well as on their laptops or desktops.
Having the technology is definitely important. Having a range of communication technology options is important, but it’s also important for management to set a very clear norm that you use this technology to communicate within this group.
This is particularly important if you have a virtual team or distributed team that has a bunch of team members in the office together and then a few people who are virtual. If you don’t have this kind of communication norm, then what happens is the folks who are remote, who are virtual, tend to feel very isolated, but also to be very isolated because there’s a lot of communication going on in-person in which they’re not being included.
But if you mandate, “This is how we communicate in this team.” If you set this up as a norm, everybody is sort of on an equal footing. That avoids or helps prevent or at least mitigate the sort of in-group out-group dynamic that can often arise when you have an in-office team with some out-of-office members.
I think there’s certainly a lot of evidence to say that it’s not just having the technology, it’s also really setting a culture around how we use this technology with the objective being to put everyone on a team on the same footing.
The last thing that I would want to say if I had to do a crash course, is the social aspect. People who are remote have a tendency to feel isolated. This can manifest itself initially as loneliness, but it can go further. It can have more destructive effects such as a loss of sort of a sense of identification with the organization.
The other thing that I often tell managers is to think about the social aspect and how you are bringing remote workers in socially as well as in a task-related way. Virtual happy hours, virtual pizza parties, finding ways to establish social interaction, which we define as interaction that is not related to work. That is the other thing that I think that often gets under invested in and is the third thing that I would really focus on if I were talking to managers about how to make this more effective.
Paul Sephton: It’s a bit of a hard thing to try and pin down though because often the people who are selecting and deploying the IT which businesses use are not closely connected to the culture or don’t have the ability to sort of attach a culture to the technology which they’re doing.
Do you think this is something which you would say should be in the realm of C-suite, so the CEO? Do you think that it sits with the board? Or do you think that it comes down to every individual team management or team manager to be able to set the standard and focus on it?
Barbara Larson: My answer to that would be yes. I think it’s probably all of the above. I think that in companies that are best run in terms of remote virtual work, you absolutely do see a focus on this at the level of the C-suite. But in collaboration business unit heads, in collaboration with anybody who’s essentially involved in running the business itself.
Having said that, then the technology decisions get made and ideally some sort of cultural decisions including some of these norms around communication would also be made at the C-suite level and pushed down into the organization. By the way, reinforced by the actions of the members of the C-suite. I mean these things only work if you see the C-suite doing it themselves. But then after that, then you need team leaders to reinforce those expectations. It’s absolutely critical.
Frankly if you are not in one of those companies that is those sort of the well-run company, you as a team leader can still do a lot in terms of setting norms for your own team in terms of setting expectations for technologies. Sometimes even in small investments, in small one-off investments in technology, if your company allows it, that support your own teams particular needs.
Paul Sephton: Would that sort of investment be something like video? Or what type of a supporting aid do you think is most important these days?
Barbara Larson: Yeah, well I think it’s what I said earlier about having some type of high-quality, easy to access video option. At an enterprise level, I think at Northeastern recently we’ve implemented Microsoft Teams. That is nice because it has both the rich video functionality, but then it also has the low-key chat functionality. It gets both of those things that I mentioned in one package, which is also mobile.
But that would be something that might be more difficult for an individual team leader to invest in. I think there are work arounds available if your company for whatever reason isn’t willing or able to make the investments in technology. These days there are some pretty economically feasible workarounds that you as a team leader could invest in without I think much trouble at all.
Paul Sephton: Barbara, we’ve discussed how managers and businesses can keep in place things like culture around remote work, but I think for a lot of businesses who are traditionally still office-based, the idea of introducing a remote working policy is one which is fraught with a lot of sort of ideas around chaos because it’s hard once you try and deploy it to take it back. I think ultimately it comes down to if you’re giving people the flexibility to work how they want, then there could be a lot of accusations for unfairness or a lot of trust issues.
What is the right way do you think for an organization which has no remote working policy or work from anywhere policy to introduce one? Would it be something like, “You can start off by working one day a week from home.”? Is it applying it to a small group of people? Or how have you seen large organizations successfully introduce an entirely new remote working policy without too much change or disruption?
Barbara Larson: I think the key is upfront investment in thinking this through and setting expectations and developing a written remote work policy. That would be sort of the number one thing to do first. Then as a company who has no remote work, I’d probably say focus on your low hanging fruit, right? Try to figure out what’s most likely to work well and start with those people.
Now having said that, I think most companies that do this well, they first of all established clear expectations for eligibility for remote work. Many types of jobs are better done remotely if the person has been in the company, in the office for a period of time before they go remote. That’s one thing. The other thing that companies often don’t do, and this is more at the unit level, this is more at the team leader level, is to delineate clear results-based expectations of performance while somebody is working remotely.
There are a few things in there. One is results-based expectations. Often people try to essentially micromanage what the person does. They try to manage behavior as opposed to monitoring and managing results. But also if there are norms that you do want them to follow in terms of behavior or activity or work hours, you want to have those written down as well before they go out and start working remotely.
If you want them online from nine to five then put that in writing. Don’t assume that they’re going to do that just because that’s what they did in the office.
Getting a lot of those assumptions down in writing upfront and setting the expectations is really important. It serves as a benchmark against which the employee can work, but it’s also a benchmark against which the employee can be measured. I think that’s the last part that I would say is just have the ability in your company’s written remote work policy, include there the ability to rescind the privilege for employees who are not meeting expectations remotely and outline that process pretty clearly.
Again, having all of that down in writing, frankly it also decreases legal liability for the company because they’re less open to charges of discrimination, but also it increases the odds of success.
Paul Sephton: A lot of this comes down to functions of trust. We started off by speaking about in-person face time and the value of that. Obviously, in many ways now video we know accelerates things like trust. It’s enabling better trust with remote work. But we also know that functions of trust are perhaps being shifted to other proxies like being online, being something which means you’re being productive.
What do you think the right balance is in terms of that remote work to in-person face time or perhaps video face time? We spoke about it from an onboarding perspective, but in the long run, how do you think relative to trust and trusting your team or your employees, people should be balancing that remote work with that in-person valuable face time?
Barbara Larson: I think it’s hard to generalize. I think the different people have different needs in that way. One practice that I have heard a lot of managers talk about in recent years, which I think is a good practice is having a short 10, 15 minute touch-base video call at the beginning of every day between the supervisor and a remote employee.
If a supervisor has a whole bunch of remote employees, they might do that as a 20-minute conference call at the beginning of each day. I think that does a number of things that that keeps that day-to-day communication in place. That is a pretty low cost in terms of time and effort way to get face time.
One thing that I’m not a huge fan of quite frankly is the monitoring of people’s online presence. I think that actually can backfire with a lot of employees. People feel kind of insulted. They feel like they’re being treated like children essentially. I tend to lean more on the side of finding ways to grant autonomy with accountability.
Paul Sephton: Then let’s say I get that autonomy. It’s a completely different side to the coin when it comes to managing my own time.
If I’m suddenly thrust into the freedom and independence of being able to work remotely, I could suffer some negative setbacks like a feeling like I’m losing a little bit of my work life balance because it’s quite hard to separate a home office from a home life perhaps.
What do you think the right steps would be to take in terms of self-control, setting up say a remote working space and managing my time if I’m used to being bound to that sort of fixed geographic location of going into an office for set hours every day and suddenly I’m given the freedom to manage my own time and work from home?
Barbara Larson: One of the things I always say is that most of us have probably at this point seen these pictures, these photos that often accompany articles on remote work. They typically involve a mom or a dad sitting on a sofa with a laptop on their lap and a little child at their feet. I always say that is not a photo of remote work. That is a photo of what not to do if you’re working remotely.
I think that a good, strong, sustainable remote work policy is going to contain elements that address expectations around workspace and then also expectations around childcare. In most cases, I would say those expectations should be a dedicated workspace and that there will be childcare during work hours.
In terms of dedicated workspace, I think often there are some companies who will say, “You need to have a separate room with a door on it.” But I think the more common version that we see these days is companies saying, “You need to have that dedicated space.” Frankly, this is a best practice. Ideally you would have dedicated desk space that is always your work desk.
Another best practice, which I will admit I don’t always adhere to, but really it does make a difference is … this is terrible to say, but getting up and showering and putting clothes on. If you’re a five-day a week remote worker, you want to instill in yourself a habit of getting up and basically treating it as though it were a work day.
You want to get up, you want to take a shower, you want to put on something that is reasonably acceptable, at least for video for work, and you want to establish the same type of morning routine that you would have if you were going into the office just adapted to your remote work setting.
Paul Sephton: In terms of remote work and the labor market, we were previously tied when we were recruiting for jobs to a very geographically-bound area. I think talent pools are so distributed these days and work is becoming more and more distributed. Do you think that remote work will disrupt the labor market in terms of the practices we use to hire and where we seek talent from?
Because we know on the one hand that remote work policies are things people are willing to actually take pay cuts for. You’re likely to have a much happier set of employees when they have that option. You’ll retain your employees for a little bit longer with those sorts of policies in place. How do you think at large remote work will potentially disrupt the labor market at a global level?
Barbara Larson: I’m not sure that disrupt is the word that I would use, but it certainly has already changed the labor market by essentially making it a more liquid market. It has increased the range of jobs that a given individual is eligible to apply for by reducing the odds of either commute or geographic location being a factor. Now I’m sitting in Boston, I can apply for jobs in Silicon Valley. Not all jobs, but more jobs certainly than I would have been able to 10 years ago.
I think it’s made it a more liquid market, which has increased both the supply of jobs for applicants, but then also the supply of applicants for employers. I do find myself wondering when employers have been granting remote work and when they do, the practice typically is that they do not reduce salary or benefits.
If they grant work from anywhere, if you were in Silicon Valley and you got to work from anywhere privilege and you decided to move to Idaho where the cost of living is much lower, typically your employer would not reduce your salary. That you would get the benefit of that cost of living advantage.
I do often find myself wondering if employers are starting to recognize that and are trying when they do remote hires are essentially trying to recoup some of that gain for themselves by hiring at lower salaries. I suspect that is happening in some cases. There you have the employee essentially taking a pay cut in order to live where they want to live. I think that it has led more than anything at this point though to just better supply on both sides.
Paul Sephton: It will be interesting to see indeed. Barbara, just in closing thank you so much for the time. It’s been fantastic to speak to you. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation today.
Barbara Larson: Thank you, Paul. It’s been a pleasure.