Fundamental Differences Working Remotely
When working remotely, there’s a loss of hallway chatter, camaraderie, and serendipitous experiences with other colleagues. Everyone is much less visible, and it takes a toll on collaboration because it’s just harder to connect with co-workers, even with all the digital tools in hand. Over the years, a sense of the key skills that remote workers in particular need in the digital space has emerged. Here are some of the ones to teach at first as more workers become remote:
- Working Out Loud – In this process, popularized by the book of the same name, workers narrate their work into digital tools. This helps us support each other, keep in touch, align, and collaborate in an agile-like process, while substantially raising visibility and putting tacit information out on the network to work 24/7. I’ve called this one of the most vital skills of modern digital collaboration and it’s particularly important for remote workers so that co-workers stay connected and engaged with each other, by returning some of the positive aspects of a physical workplace through regular streams of conversational activity.
- Work coordination – Many collaboration tools are quite generic and aren’t adapted to help ensure a business process is coordinated amongst a large distributed team. The process of work coordination uses a central hub, these days based on dedicated software tools (my latest list here), to efficiently ensure marketing, sales, operations, and creative pursuits are tracked, analyzed, optimized, and driven to effective completion. But it’s the process of working in such a decentralized, yet the highly coordinated way that is a new way of working. Workers will develop the skill to spot opportunities to structure work this way and know how to create much more coordinated and digitally supported processes using the available tools and technologies.
- Using the right mode of collaboration. Now that we literally have dozens of types of collaborative tools, workers moving to a remote location and handed a large toolbox of options too often either get analysis paralysis or use a less effective option for a given situation than they should. E-mail is often the worst tool for collaboration, for example, but often the first tool to be reached for. Or a worker might use Slack for a situation that is more suitable for a mass collaboration platform like an enterprise social network or work coordination tool. The action item for enabling remote workers is to proactively provide them a cheat sheet on which tools they are best used for various tasks, and especially why, so they can apply the knowledge in situations that no guidance is available for.
Cultivate a Culture and Mindset
Going beyond the individual, it helps to prepare the broader organization to create an environment that’s more effective for remote working. Especially since digital tools are so core to enabling remote work, it’s important to understand how much they shift the art of the possible, not just on individual digital skills and habits, but how these digital tools change and improve the culture of the organization itself. Or more accurately, what’s possible digitally and how the organizations innately thinks and works co-evolves together.
However, when a rapid change happens, such as moving to remote work in a short period because of the coronavirus, the cultural shift needs an acceleration process or the technology can pull well ahead of what the organization is ready for. Here are some cultural and mindset changes that the more open and participative nature of digital tools enable, especially in a remote working environment:
- Open participation and inclusion. Digital processes and business activities in the latest generation of digital tools is far more inclusive, more of what I call an “anyone can participate” model. This is vital to embrace when workers feel disconnected from the home office and not sure of where they belong. However, not everyone is ready to have stakeholders digitally show up and not just watch but actually join in. Open-source software and crowdsourcing have become mainstream and have shown this model not only works but is amazingly powerful. Yet organizations are not always ready for this kind of hierarchy-busting. Proponents of remote work should prepare the ground for this and get these ideas out into the organization to be ready for the types of powerful new modes of work that remote workers will tend to gravitate to overtime. This includes mass collaboration, self-organizing around problems/exceptions/opportunities, and wielding influence over the network at scale. It’s also highly advisable to create a remote working community or digital innovation group within one of the organization’s collaboration platforms to have this conversation. Get senior leaders on board and involved in what is essentially a digital transformation of the workplace using communities of change agents and digital support groups.
- Digital learning and sensemaking. Workers must be given extra time to study and learn the tools and the skills of remote work. Culturally, an expectation should be provided that learning going forward will be much more continuous and frequent. Back this cultural message up with educational opportunities, new tools, and relevant content about remote work regularly. Some organizations also have a remote work support team that engages with remote workers, provides help upon request, and uses analytics to find workers who need help and guidance. Creating and demonstrating a supportive environment for getting up to speed on remote work must be a top short term objective and medium-term investment. This includes sensemaking, or dedicated time to organize their lives, ideas, and knowledge around new operational realities involved in remote work.
- Network leadership. It’s now easier and more effective to lead and engage with an organization as a leader (any kind of leader, such as executive, subject matter expert, process owner, etc.) in digital channels than any other way. While in-person leadership will remain important, it’s being eclipsed by what is now possible with modern digital channels. Leaders can wield great influence and visibility within an organization and establish tone, culture, and communicate broadly with great efficiency to drive organizational objectives forward. The Corporate Executive Board noted in a landmark report that the network leader is one of the most important new skills that modern executives must adopt, yet is the one that is also the least taught or supported. Teaching this is key not only to make remote working successful for remote executives but for them to create the more evolved digital culture that properly enables and supports remote work and the new possibility it enables.
Summary: How to go digitally remote
As recently noted as to why the digital employee experience is so challenging today, you can’t change the technologies that people use, without also helping them change their skills and habits in the process. While many organizations will be tempted to pave the cowpath with remote work, just replicating what was in the office at the home or local co-working studio, this would be a mistake and a missed opportunity for many organizations.
Instead, as coronavirus may end up making us — at least temporarily — far more isolated than most of us ever have been at work, we may likely have a key opportunity to create a compelling new digital remote work environment that is far more engaging, participatory, and full of human connection, context, and contact that we’ve ever had before. I urge you to try innovative new tools, establish important news skills, shift your culture digitally, and prepare for whatever is beyond coronavirus and the current distractions it is causing us. Let’s use our new remote work effort to begin to build a genuinely better and more effective organization.
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David WB Parker is a principal of Parker Associates of Jacksonville, Florida, marketing consultants to the real estate industry; President of PTC Computer Solutions, IT Specialist, and an active real estate sales professional with Barclay’s Real Estate Group based in Jacksonville, FL. He can be reached at 904-607-8763 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.