Remote work is one of the hottest topics in business right now. Even before COVID-19 forced many offices to close, remote work was on the rise. According to data collected by FlexJobs, in the United States alone, the number of employees who work remotely has grown by 44% over the last five years (and 91% over the last ten).
With access to powerful communication and collaboration apps, more and more existing companies have switched to remote or flexible work schedules. New companies are often founded with a remote-first management philosophy. COVID-19 has accelerated that trend, but even after the current crisis ends, remote work isn’t going anywhere. Looking forward, the business landscape will be more flexible, more agile, and more geographically dispersed.
That said, going remote comes with a unique set of challenges for management and company culture. It’s important to recognize the legitimate concerns that many managers have. For organizations that run on in-person meetings and physical oversight, switching to remote work can feel like a huge barrier to business as usual. How can you know that people are “putting in the time”? How do you keep people motivated? Will you miss important red flags? How can your team follow a shared vision if they aren’t together in a shared space?
If you have these concerns, you aren’t alone. In fact, a 2019 survey that found that 43% of business owners were concerned that remote or flexible work arrangements would negatively affect company culture and productivity.
The good news is that the data doesn’t support these concerns. In fact, that same survey found that 85% of businesses that instituted flexible working arrangements noticed an increase in productivity, with 63% reporting at least a 21% increase in productivity.
Micromanagement kills remote culture
The fact that the vast majority of remote businesses have seen a jump in productivity gives skeptical company leadership a reason to feel a bit less anxious. If evidence has shown that it’s possible to run a highly efficient remote organization, then the question is… what stands in the way of your organization unlocking that productivity boost?
Going remote isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. If your company has culture issues, working remotely won’t solve them. In fact, it can exacerbate problems that already exist. Many leaders already find themselves tempted to micromanage their teams, and in a remote context, it can seem reasonable to pour energy into surveillance and control. But instead of boosting productivity, remote micromanagement eats up managerial time and employee trust.
For example, to close the information gap that can arise with remote work, some managers resort to using invasive employee-tracking software. These tools let managers see through their employees’ laptop webcams at any moment, or review the details of their work web-browsing sessions. While this may offer managers a degree of confidence that their employees aren’t slacking off, it comes at a huge cost in morale and company cohesion. Micromanaging employees—in person or remote—doesn’t result in better work or increased productivity. In fact, it often does the opposite: micromanaging can lower morale and productivity, while increasing disengagement.
Building trust and autonomy
So, how can organizations thrive with an increasingly remote workforce, rather than just getting through the inconvenience of temporary remote work?
The key to making the switch is building a company culture that emphasizes, encourages, and prioritizes trust and transparency between leadership and employees. Instead of a culture of surveillance and micromanagement, remote work arrangements succeed when employees are given a high degree of self-determination and flexibility.
There are a few concrete strategies that can support this kind of work environment:
Encourage creative problem-solving
Give people the freedom to approach problems in their own way—and even (when possible) on their own schedule. This allows team members to find efficient, productive, and elegant solutions that work better for their specific competencies and interests.
Just because you’ve always done it one way, doesn’t mean that’s the only solution. Your employees may even surprise you by finding ways to improve on existing company standards or processes. When you open the door to creative solutions, your entire company can benefit.
Don’t worry so much about optics
Trust and independence also empower employees to optimize their work process for output, not optics. Rather than arranging their work so it looks best to their managers, employees who have been given the latitude to explore and self-determine will be able to focus more on project execution.
Not only does this free up managerial bandwidth for higher-level strategic concerns, but it also cultivates a more results-oriented company culture, which is what really matters in the end.
Build skills and independence
Experienced employees will have the self-motivation to deliver good work in a remote setting, but less-experienced employees may struggle at first. Giving them time to learn and adapt will help them gain the valuable skills of self-direction and independence.
This emphasis on ownership of the work product—even with more junior employees—also helps them build confidence in their professional abilities. All of that translates to better work, and a better work environment.
Communicate standards and give feedback constructively
The key to building this autonomous workforce is fostering open communication at all levels of the organization. Managers need to communicate their standards and provide constructive feedback; team members need to understand expectations and feel confident that they’re allowed to learn from their mistakes.
The key is to strike the right balance. After all, feedback from management should helpful, not oppressive or punishing. By shifting from a model of control and command to support and enablement, your remote team will start producing better work with less intervention and oversight.
A transformation in leadership culture
Remote work has huge potential, but it presents unique challenges for leadership. Making sure you have the right tools is only the first step. The bigger culture transformation takes place at the managerial level.
Once that’s been taken care of, the other questions will answer themselves. What kinds of oversight should you employ? How frequently should meetings take place? What are the best platforms for communication? How do you evaluate and track progress?
All of those questions will be answered in time, after your organization learns to approach remote work from the right perspective. If you can build and maintain a culture of trust and empowerment, your organization stands to gain enormously from the flexibility of remote work.