How to Work Together When You Don’t Work Together: A Guide to Winning in the Remote Workplace

Now that smart phones, bandwidth and processor speeds have effectively closed the physical space between us by providing instant connections to just about anyone in the world, our “work spaces” will never be the same. Distributed work arrangements are so smart, efficient and effective, there is no reason to suppose they will ever be centralized again.

More than 3 million workers in the US don’t report to an office, and it’s estimated that over 20 times more workers could leave the office for good, and fulfill their duties just as well or better than they do now. That’s some 60 million people in the US alone. As part of a successful “virtual” workforce, I’ve got some answers about how to make the leap from bricks-and-mortar to work-anywhere, without losing a step.

Our small company has employees in seven locations across the US, in four states and three different time zones. We do have a “central office” for the physical work that must be conducted with some of our clients, but only three employees regularly report there and only about 4 hours each day. Our vendors, partners and consultants, with whom we work on a daily basis are located in an additional dozen or so locations in six more states and three additional countries.

Form Follows Function

We never set out to build a global workforce, but it’s happening that way. It’s just as easy (or easier) to find great help when you forget about where they live and focus on what they can do, and how well you work together. We love our web master who lives in New Zealand, and we love the fact that he delivers work for us overnight. A skype call in the afternoon often delivers results when we wake up the next day!

Since we have a lot of client interactions on nights and weekends, having employees and contractors who work from home simply makes more sense. Why force them to be at an office when home in jammies would be so much nicer? Additionally, using contractors makes it easy to fashion the kinds of business relationships that work for us. More employees right now would force us to make decisions that aren’t right for the company at this point.

Keeping Your Culture Strong

Many employers’ concerns about remote workers immediately focus on worker productivity and how to maintain accountability, but that’s an easy issue. Creating a great culture is the harder one to get right.

Jim Collins, in his now-famous book Good to Great, outlined the characteristics that truly separate the great companies from all the rest. Among the many important concepts he uncovered was the principle of “First Who… Then What.” In other words, get the right people on the bus! If you don’t have the right people, your chances of getting where you want to go are greatly diminished.

Do you imagine that the “right” people are the ones you could trust to work remotely? Of course they are. Having the right people on board simply eliminates many of the issues that employers hate, and it creates the kinds of problems we all want to have: new and innovative ideas, a team that insists we perform at our very best, and faster evolution of the business. A culture doesn’t start from the bottom up, however. It comes from the top down. Having confidence in your leadership, and holding tight to the mission of building a great company is vastly more important than your ego. As Jim Collins also pointed out, “Level 5 Leaders” put the company first, and get out of the way. Being a resource for your talented team will always go further than trying to dictate their actions. Showing good manners, consideration and respect goes a long way to team cohesion.

And finally, focus on output, not input. Many employers get hung up on whether someone shows up late, or surfs the internet when they shouldn’t. Working remotely is for the big kids, and bosses need to remember that. If you get it done for me on time and budget, I could care less how long it actually took to do. Results are results, the rest is a distraction. To my mind, working in a central office is the biggest source of distraction I could imagine!

Using Technology that Works

The real challenge in finding the right technology to enable a distributed work force is not in whether it’s available, it’s in what to choose. We cycled through numerous platforms to settle on the solutions that work best for us, the way we like to do business, and the ways we service our clients.

Forget about operating system compatibility, document versions, software licenses and all that – our work is done in the cloud. Your own requirements will likely be very different than ours, but to give you a sample of a good small business package, we use:

  • Google Apps for email, shared docs, calendar. Simple. Love It.
  • Solve360 for CRM and light, flexible project management, works with Google apps.
  • Fonality is a voip phone system with call center management features. Great for training.
  • Skype has excellent call quality, chat and attachment sharing. Connect with anyone for free.
  • Hardware. We make sure that everyone’s computer has a recent OS, a 3GHz processor, 3GB of RAM, a fast internet connection and a good headset and camera. That’s it!

Staying in Communication

A good culture and the right technology make communication easy, but if you don’t make regular communication a habit, it doesn’t matter if you can click one button and start video chatting – people will feel frustrated, left out and start working on other things for someone else.

Make a point to catch up on a daily basis, use a project management tool to keep track of tasks that everyone can see, and be available when you say you are. Being in a conventional office, people can see when you’re busy or out to lunch. Working remotely, no one knows if you’re in or out, busy or just ignoring them. Publishing schedules for each other may be a good idea to help know when you’re available, and to set expectations for when you want to disconnect. You may also set a protocol for using skype or google statuses to let people know who’s doing what.

Working remotely with the best team you can find makes so much sense, the advantages far out weigh the challenges – if you could call them that. In truth, managing remote workers encourages you to find better workers, communicate more effectively, and focus on results. Isn’t that what you wanted anyway?

Ripley Daniels works for Without The Stress, a passport, travel visa, and immigration advisory firm located in Los Angeles.