The Principles of Staying Connected While Working Remotely
The workforce within a company can often be split between two broad categories: the knowledge workers and the frontline workers. As a product manager at a software company, I would fall under the first category. For the latter, think more along the lines of field engineers in various industries — people who are out and about as part of their job and whose desk is often the cab of their truck.
While working remotely may be new to many of the knowledge workers out there, it's par for the course with frontline workers. Yet the principles of ensuring such remote workers remain connected seems to me to be the same. Organizations should be able to apply these principles effectively, working with an understanding of their workforce's context and the industry and environments they are working in.
The Basics: Connectivity and Kit
The first thing remote employees need is the right kit to enable them to carry out their job. In my case that is a good, well-powered laptop, which allows me to work at home or to bring in to corporate HQ. For frontline workers, this might include specialist devices required for their particular role, as well as general purpose devices, such as a tablet or smartphone.
Next up is connectivity. Remote workers in general need to work it out for themselves what internet options they have where they live and who their local suppliers are. I changed my internet provider early in the pandemic, as the original one was proving unreliable with outages during the working day, so I moved to a faster package with a different provider and generally have had very good reliability since. I also had a colleague who at one point was driving a van around the U.S. and living either in the van or various houses across the country. He never seemed to miss any meetings due to connectivity problems, but I think his route was planned to take LTE cell coverage into account. There is no point trying to work remotely from the absolute middle of nowhere, unless it is now covered by StarLink!
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Right (Standardized) Tools for the Job
After ensuring connectivity, next up is ensuring remote workers have the right tools to stay connected. We have a myriad of options for synchronous and asynchronous connectivity available to us today, so it should not matter if your organization is all in on Microsoft tools, or uses Google Workspaces, Workplace from Meta (aka Facebook for work) or a custom set of intranet and extranet tools pulled together using best of breed solutions. What does matter is picking standard tools and making sure everyone is using them. I firmly believe that choice in this case can be a bad thing. When engineering is on Slack and product is on Teams, this leads to a messy and sometimes confusing employee experience. So sometimes we need to forego individual choice in favor of the bigger picture to reach a compromise to make sure it's easy for people to find, connect and talk with each other.
I think we saw companies struggle with this at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a push to remote working. Zoom seemed to come out of nowhere as a super popular video conferencing solution, largely based on its licensing model and the perception that it was a cheap solution for the masses, when previously only a few people in a company had GoToMeeting accounts, or not everyone had migrated to Teams, etc.
Security is another important factor for remote workers. Whether that is provided through the use of cloud-based tools with SSL connections as standard, multi-factor authentication or via a traditional VPN solution will be decided by the risk assessments carried out by the organization's InfoSec team. Having worked for major banks in the past, with quite convoluted VPN requirements, I would just note that having a highly secure remote capability probably means having the helpdesk and support staff required to support that too!
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Culture of Connection and Communication
Having the right software tools is necessary. But let’s be honest, it's really all about how you use them. It doesn't matter what app you decide to use for an “all hands meeting.” What does matter is that you have them, how often you have them, what information is imparted by leadership and if there is a channel for questions and feedback.
Culture is incredibly important when it comes to supporting your remote workers. Managers play a key role in looking after and supporting remote workers. Employees must feel trusted and yet supported, and they absolutely must not feel isolated. Communications culture will include everything from the frequency of those top down all hands meetings, to social channels on the messaging platform, to happy hour informal social meetings for team members to get together and chat about non-work stuff. The organization's corporate culture may provide a good basis for remote workers as is, or it may need some tweaking and modification, especially if the move to remote was mostly driving by the pandemic, and is now transitioning to the “new normal.” You can read more about this dynamic in Chris Ellis's article, "Do You Know Why You Are Calling Workers Back Into the Office?"
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Tools Are the Easy Part, Culture Is the Challenge
With modern information technology, getting the connectivity and software tools elements of supporting remote workers — be they frontline workers or knowledge workers — shouldn't be difficult. However, getting the cultural elements correct is.
I am lucky that I work for a company that had many remote workers pre-pandemic, and it has continued to hire people based all over the U.S. We have the tools, but also the culture to use them effectively, from the frequency of senior management speaking to everyone via all hands meetings, which are recorded for access by those who cannot make it to the live session; to hybrid design sessions with some people in a meeting room at Corporate HQ and the majority joining from their online office; to the well understood requirements for regular 1:1s and team meetings, and the good old remote social gather and the book club or astronomy channels on the messaging platform.
As always, every organization is different. The one constant is that remote employees need to be included in the discussions with management on what needs to happen to support them. Make sure you understand the needs of your remote workers and you will be able to keep the productive and happy!
About the Author
Jed Cawthorne is principal product manager at NetDocuments. He is involved in product innovation and product management and working with customers to make NetDocuments phenomenally successful products even more so.