“Remote work is the future of work.”

— Alexis Ohanian, Reddit

“One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.”

— Jason Fried

“There is nothing more important in a group remote project than casual communication. Not just official emails and work updates, but the ability to sit back and chat.”

–David Rabin

“Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else.”

— Peter Drucker

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

“You don’t get paid for the hour, you get paid for the value you bring to the hour.”

— Jim Rohn

“Don’t confuse activity with productivity. Many people are simply busy being busy.”

— Robin Sharma

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”

— Peter Drucker

“If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.”

— Jeff Bezos

“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”

— Thomas Sowell

It’s probably good to start off by defining “remote”, “virtual”, and “hybrid” for folks like me who really didn’t know the difference:

  • Remote is simply non-office work – either part-time or full-time
  • Virtual is completely non-office work and workers
  • Hybrid is some combination of in-office and remote work for each worker and/or a combination of in-office and remote workers

So now you know. Or maybe not. Nonetheless, I’ll continue as if …

Remote work is big and it’s here to stay

Market researcher Statista estimates that 46% of U.S. workers are able to “telework” (aka work remotely over the internet). The “are able” qualifier says that many can work remotely but a significant number of these will not. Maybe half?

Remote worker recruiting and placement firm FlexJobs indicates that the remote worker pool is probably a majority:

“Employees are eager to continue working remotely or hybrid too. According to FlexJobs’ 10th Annual Survey (conducted between July and August 2021), 58% of respondents report wanting to be full-time remote employees post-pandemic, while 39% want a hybrid work environment. That’s an astounding 97% of workers who desire some form of remote work!”

“Between March and April 2021, a FlexJobs survey found that 58% of respondents would “‘absolutely’ look for a new job if they cannot continue remote work.”

This means that remote work and worker management skills and practices are going to be increasingly vital for most managers.

Employers have remote work worries too

What Employers Feared (and Found): During the pandemic, remote work has become a lifeline for many companies, keeping them in business during these uncertain times. That doesn’t mean employers don’t worry about the transition.”

“A FlexJobs study found that even though companies know remote work is necessary during the pandemic, 21% of them were “very fearful” that employee productivity would decrease. Employers were not sure how to communicate with their staff or how to hold them accountable.”

“The same study, though, found that 15% of companies that switched to remote work because of the pandemic found that their employees are more productive working from home.”

“However, employers also worry about their employees well-being. They said that they were concerned that employees might overwork themselves, and that they wouldn’t know how to set and keep proper boundaries between work and home.”

The same article notes that about a third of workers prefer the in-person office, while another third want more remote (aka hybrid) arrangements. Guess that this means that around a third are okay with either way. Sounds about right.

Remote worker productivity should be the manager’s top concern

Ensuring and assessing productivity of in-office workers has been a standard management responsibility at least forever. Physical presence of an employee means that they are working, yes? Especially if you wander about on unscheduled checks. Can’t do that for hybrid or remote people (but see scary note on “RemoteWork” software below).

Remote and hybrid workers report greater “productivity” due to reduced interruptions and unscheduled meetings. How can the boss determine whether this happy situation is in fact true?

Productivity by definition deals with actual output of something specified, within a “reasonable” period of time. Nothing to do with physical presence and time “on the job” in many cases. Implicit in the definition is that the output is of acceptable or better “quality” – quality of course that is measurable in some manner.

Productivity keywords: specified output; agreed-upon timeframe; quality metrics.

Nothing about work location, time actually working (vs. talking to the cat), or brain-relieving digressions (like trying to talk to the cat).

Note that you could also manage productivity in-office using just these three components. Why is this not done more often? The answer, as you already know, is that this is hard. And not generally ego-supporting, which is often a biggy.

Specified output: Consultants, freelancers, and contractors deal almost always with a specified output of some kind, typically referred to as a “deliverable”. This means that the manager has to be able to specify the output in enough detail to allow the worker to act. If the output is fuzzy or badly specified, the worker is likely to deliver some sort of mess. Survival as a remote worker requires one to get very good at output specificity no matter how fuzzy-thinking the manager may be.

Agreed-upon timeframe: Just like output, the remote worker requires a clear schedule. The schedule may involve regular updating to accommodate what is learned during action stages. There are of course many “who-knows-how-long-it-will-take” jobs that require breaking down into steps, or intermediate outputs, of some specified durations. Again, nothing about this is magic or new. It is generally neither easy nor rigid.

Quality metrics: This is where things can get really fuzzy no matter how good and/or smart the worker and manager may be. Many outputs will require review and testing to determine vital aspects of quality. Again, remote workers gain enough experience to get a pretty good feel upfront for what is required or expected in terms of implicit or unstated “quality” metrics.

Note that productivity typically includes “job definition”

Specifying output from most work requires scope or responsibility definition. So much these days is done by teams in which each member has a particular scope or “job” to do. Complex outputs can involve dozen or even hundreds of workers or team members. Not all doing the same thing (job) in general.

The manager usually specifies the output required (although even this is increasingly done as part of the team effort), which in turn requires specifying the team composition and role or job of each member. Output, membership, and roles can evolve from team activities, especially if the project is non-routine, complex, or not fully specified.

Most managers are pretty good at specifying output and team roles regardless of member location. Anything at all complex these days seems to get extensively documented, reviewed, and communicated. Good thing electronic paper got invented.

Job definition gets a bit trickier when dealing with individuals rather than teams. Think about a “market research” job that targets a specific customer group. No team involved. What exactly does the remote market researcher do? The answer is probably in terms of quite specific output, timeframes, and quality expectations.

Individuals in-office can get a good deal of manager handholding and guidance but this is much harder to do remotely. Fortunately, there are so many tools out there today that make coordination and instruction easier than ever.

Accountability can be a real beast to manage – anywhere

Accountability, as I’m sure you know, involves transparency, answerability-justification, compliance, and enforcement. Who knew? Anyhow, it’s the long way of saying that “the buck stops here”. Responsibility for getting something specific done, properly.

Work that involves performance and output also needs someone to be responsible for its successful performance (otherwise, it probably isn’t work but maybe just “presence”?). Responsibility specified is an essential role component. Not assigning responsibility is often a guarantee of achieving inadequate performance.

The remote vs. in-office distinction does not matter here. Somebody has to take or be assigned responsibility for output, schedule, and quality. Unless managers assign these to themselves.

Job definitions typically include responsibility assignments, no matter where the work is performed. The big difference with remote work is monitoring mechanics. Much harder to monitor progress on, say, a daily basis using some sort of reporting tool than simply dropping by the worker’s office for a quick chat-check.

Looks both happy and remote — with TV news handy it appears

Remote managing and remote monitoring are not the same

Managing involves a set of established practices (set by the manager) and processes (usually set by the employer or workplace). Ideally, these are used in a relatively light-handed manner, with a heavy reliance on worker-manager trust. Trust is so important to most interactions that it may well be the primary foundation stone for remote worker management.

Monitoring of remote worker activity and performance can be done by many standard procedures and a growing array of tools. Ideally (again), these are used in a light-handed manner that reflects strong worker-manager trust. Unfortunately, this essential trust basis appears to be under attack.

In researching for this post, I ran across some very scary information about remote employee monitoring and surveillance.

The Washington Post recently reported on monitoring and surveillance software now being used to monitor remote legal workers: “Contract lawyers face a growing invasion of surveillance programs that monitor their work”:

“The company’s “on-demand monitoring” software, RemoteDesk, can track workers’ ‘idle’ and ‘active’ time; record their screens and web-browser history; patrol their background noise for unauthorized music or phone calls; and use the webcam to scan a worker’s face or room for company rule-breaking activity, such as eating and drinking or ‘suspicious expressions, gestures, or behavior.’”

An earlier Washington Post article provides additional information: “Keystroke tracking, screenshots, and facial recognition: The boss may be watching long after the pandemic ends”:

“Market research firm Gartner says companies used more surveillance tools during the coronavirus pandemic to keep tabs on employees and monitor work productivity. The number of large employers using tools to track their workers doubled since the beginning of the pandemic to 60 percent. That number is expected to rise to 70 percent within the next three years, said Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner.”

“And the software is expected to become even more sophisticated, telling employers how to turn the data they collect into actionable measures to drive the business. Soon it might do things like tell managers how employees work together via Zoom, understand who the main contributors are and how specific patterns may lead to specific results. ‘That’s going to be the evolution of the monitoring,’ Kropp said”

To me, this trend is simply terrifying – nightmarish.

Remote work processes are also different

One of the early drivers and innovators for remote work and worker coordination is Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp. His focus is on work processes that were specifically designed for remote and virtual teams.

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin writing in Inc had an interesting take on remote working: “Does Remote Work Really Work? 4 CEOs on the Future of Their Workplaces” :

“Remote work requires different processes than office work. Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp and author of Remote: Office Not Required, is firmly anti-Zoom and pro-asynchronous work at his all-remote company, which makes tools for employee communication. Now that much of the rest of the office-worker world has experienced remote work over the past year, he’s hoping other companies embrace a bigger idea: that the nature and strengths of remote work are very different than in-person work.”

“For employees on dedicated projects, requiring focus or creative critical thinking, working remotely can be far more productive than working in an office, he says. But a lot of companies are doing it wrong–allowing the digital distractions of constant Slack notices and interruptions of Zoom meetings to disrupt the workflow afforded by solitary work at home. He advises helping employees manage their own time and get the most out of long stretches of solo work by keeping important decisions out of real-time chat. ‘The expectation of immediate response is really toxic,’ he says. ‘What’s healthy is giving people long stretches of time to do their work without … the pressure to pay attention to a dozen real-time decisions at once.’”

Helping [remote] employees “manage their own time” seems like a wonderful suggestion for a process addition. This has of course been part of traditional in-office work but its importance has hugely increased for remote work. Remote people are on their own for long stretches of time instead of being under the routine overview of in-office managers, so have little experience with their vital time management needs. Managing remote workers requires this process change.

Remote worker engagement is another management challenge

Playvox, a provider of workplace engagement management products, had a blog post on keeping remote team workers connected and engaged (these are different): “7 Best Practices for Keeping Your Hybrid Contact Center Team Connected”:

“An engaged workforce is one in which employees are enthusiastic about their work and play active roles in the team. They’re involved in the business both professionally and socially, and are interested in contributing to a great company culture. But workforce engagement pays off for more than just your employees. It also benefits your bottom line. Gallup reports that highly engaged teams see an increase of 23% in profitability. According to Gallup, managers are responsible for 70% of a team’s engagement, which is especially vital for hybrid teams.” Remote workers have a strong tendency to become disengaged over time.

Managing remote workers and teams effectively is complex

So much has been written on this topic that only a few points could be covered in this post – mostly ones that seemed to have gained little attention elsewhere. Here are a couple of examples of what’s out there more generally:

Challenges of managing a remote team:
> How does everyone embrace the company’s culture and understand expectations from day one?
> How do you find the best people from around the world when the traditional hiring process doesn’t apply?
> How do you ensure that your team’s diverse viewpoints are heard?
> Which technology tools do you need to make it all work?
> How does everyone stay on the same page on a daily basis?
> How can you motivate productive teams without micromanaging?
> How do you know if a team member is struggling or unhappy?
> How do you help people grow professionally?
> How do you build team camaraderie and keep it going?”

What makes a successful virtual team?  To have a successful virtual team, several factors go into the process, such as:
> Promoting collaboration among teams
> Providing workers with flexibility in respect to working hours and time
> Fostering a culture of open communication
> Treating employees as individuals and addressing needs
> Celebrating milestones and accomplishments
> Using organization tools for project management and communication”

Remote work has created several kinds of virtual teams

One source thinks that there are six common types of virtual teams: networked teams, parallel teams, project development teams, functional teams, service teams, and offshore information-systems development teams.

Another views virtual teams from a project management perspective:

Examples of Virtual Teams: Not all virtual teams are the same. There are several varieties, which depend on the lifespan, objective, goals and roles of the team members. Some of them follow.”

Networked Teams: A networked team is made up of cross-functional team members who are assembled because of their experience and skills on a specific issue. The team is open to new members as needed, and those already on the team are removed after their role is completed.”

Parallel Teams: A parallel team comes from the same organization, and is tasked to develop recommendations on a process or system. They are usually only together for a short time, with all members staying on board until they’ve achieved their assigned goal.”

Product Development Teams: A product development team is a group that is brought together because of their expertise at accomplishing a specific goal. The members of this team get clearly defined roles and work independently, with their collective work combined to achieve the end goal. While not always a virtual team, when those experts are situated in different states or countries, they become virtual.”

Service Teams: A service team is made up of members who occupy different time zones. They work independently. However, their shifts overlap to offer continual service. So, for example, when one shift is complete on the East Coast, the West Coast team takes over their duties.”

Management Teams: A management team is a collection of managers from the same organization. While they often work under the same roof, if they work in different places, they become a virtual team. Management teams work together to develop corporate strategies based on organizational goals and objectives.”

Action Teams: An action team is put together for a short duration and is tasked with responding to an immediate problem. Once that problem has been resolved, the team is dissolved. As with the last example, an action team is not exclusively virtual. But as people become more familiar with working with virtual teams, the use of them increases beyond the traditional use.”

Are such distinctions helpful? Perhaps.

Managing virtual (remote) workers has become especially challenging because of technology and COVID-response drivers as well as huge numbers of workers getting a first real taste of the many benefits of non-office working. Understanding how to manage these workers most effectively is still developing.

Bottom line:

Remote work is here to stay. Now mainstream and growing. But most managers have no real idea about how to manage partially- or fully-remote workers effectively because they have never done it. You can’t manage remotes using practices designed for in-office workers. Even harder is managing a hybrid workforce. We looked here at some of the differences and options.

Related Reading

Social media marketer Buffer tackled communication, collaboration, and loneliness aspects of remote work in: “The 2020 State of Remote Work”:

“Communication, collaboration, and loneliness continue to be top challenges for remote workers and remote organizations. As we shared earlier, we’ve seen the same top struggles emerge for remote workers over the past three years: communication, collaboration, and loneliness.”

You can always talk to your cat …

“While this doesn’t come as a shock to us (we’re continually exploring how to iterate and improve our communication practices and minimize remote work loneliness), these are important issues for companies to acknowledge. Why are we struggling with collaboration and communication?”

“In a time filled with seemingly hundreds of digital products and tools to solve the problem of remote work collaboration and communication, some people might be scratching their heads as to why this is still a top concern.”

“One idea could be that while we have endless tools to help remote workers better collaborate and communicate, these tools might primarily aim to support all-remote teams. As we found in our survey results, many people are starting to work remotely while their company remains office-based. If everyone on the team isn’t communicating in the same ways, the challenge remains.”

“Amir Salihefendić is the CEO of Doist, a company that creates tools that promote a calmer way to work and live. He says that this is a struggle for every team. ‘Communication and collaboration are still the core struggles as they affect every team, and [these are] things that we haven’t fully figured out, even for non-remote teams.’”

“He goes on to explain how real-time tools can be especially challenging. ‘Even worse, a lot of remote teams are adopting practices that work when you work with people from the same timezone or the same office (e.g., real-time chat is an excellent example of bad practice),’ he says. ‘In the upcoming years, I am sure we will see tools that are made from first-principles thinking and that challenge the status quo, and we’ll see tools that highly optimize for remote-first teams.’”

“Doist’s tool, Twist, an asynchronous communication app, is an excellent example of leaning away from real-time conversations. On loneliness and remote work. It’s important to note that while loneliness is consistently selected as a top struggle for remote workers in these reports, we don’t think this implies that remote work causes loneliness.”

“Remote workers feeling lonely is also an accurate reflection of a larger-scale societal struggle with loneliness. In the U.S., loneliness has been labeled an epidemic. In the U.K., almost one-fifth of the population has reported that they are ‘always or often lonely.’”

Virtual office software provider Teamflow looks specifically at “The Challenge of Managing Virtual Team”:

“On the other hand, in a hybrid workforce fully-remote employees, those who aren’t able to be in the physical office at all, can end up feeling like second-class citizens in comparison to those who do go into the physical office a few times per week or month. Those who go into the physical office are more visible to colleagues and leadership, which may lead to proximity bias. In comparison to fully-remote workers, employees who end up going to the physical office form stronger bonds with coworkers and leaders, ultimately having an advantage at being offered opportunities, promotions, or recognition. “

“Because of these dynamics, remote and hybrid teams can struggle with cohesion and productivity, especially when companies and leaders don’t take steps to unify their hybrid team.”

Fast Company takes a run at meetings in “Hybrid work is inevitable for 2022. Here’s what the experts say is most effective”:

“Meeting-free days can help with productivity and allow employees a block of uninterrupted time to focus on complex projects. Meeting too often or with little purpose—that is, meeting for the sake of meeting—leads to fatigue and burnout. Not everyone needs to be at every meeting, yet finesse from management is required to make sure no one feels left out.”

Forbes has a helpful article on managing remote teams: “13 Tips for Leading and-Managing Remote Teams”:

“Focus on outcomes, not activity. This is widely known as a best practice for increasing engagement and empowering employees. Clearly defining the goals and desired results, then allowing employees (that have the training and resources to execute – that part is important) to develop a plan of execution enhances creativity and ownership. In a remote environment, it is even more difficult to micro-manage people anyway. Oh wait, that’s a good thing, right?!”

“Mentor more than manage. The best managers mentor and coach more than “manage.” They also understand the not-so-subtle nuances and differences between the disciplines of leadership and management. And just because we are in the midst of volatility, complexity and ambiguity, that doesn’t mean we halt any and all efforts in developing our teams – and ourselves. Sometimes that requires outside help, new initiatives, and making the time. So, get on it.”