There’s no denying the traditional office environment is changing. The standard setup in which employees and employers all work in the same space has become a rarity as companies continuously evolve to meet the demands of a highly competitive market. And it all comes down to assembling the strongest team possible. But finding the best people for the job doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be sitting in the company’s backyard. In fact, they might be located thousands of miles away. That little hurdle hasn’t stopped employers from hiring them though, despite the distance and challenges of remote collaboration.
According to the latest report by the Telework Research Network, there are 2.9 million American workers who identify themselves as full-time telecommuters, and nearly 45 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least part-time telework. Regular telecommuting grew by 61% from 2005 to 2009, and researchers estimate that the U.S. will reach 4.9 million regular telecommuters by 2016, a 69% increase from the current level.
Phil Montero, author of The Anywhere Office and CEO of Montero Consulting (an eBusiness and virtual team consulting firm), understands the challenges that team leaders and employees face while telecommuting and remotely collaborating. His advice for success is threefold: shift perspective, find the right tools and softly apply them, and become a conscious communicator. The result will be a highly productive virtual team that functions as smoothly as its in-office counterparts.
A Shift in Perspective
“I think there’s a misconception that working remotely is less than optimal,” Montero said. “A lot of people view it as a disadvantage to some extent as far as productivity.”
It’s those preconceived notions that often hold employers back when assembling teams, and that can result in dulling the company’s competitive edge. But Montero recognizes the initial challenges of working from home. He says it can be difficult for telecommuters to find their groove and establish a work schedule, but once they do, there is an increase in productivity that isn’t hampered by the typical workplace distractions.
“We need to look at work differently, look at how we can communicate differently,” Montero said. “It’s a shift in perspective. Not everything that works when we’re co-located will work when we’re remote. Time shifts can take place, like how not all people need to work from 9-5. We need to be open to looking at work and defining work differently in collaboration.”
Hillary Richard, a freelance journalist, has worked remotely for over three years. For her, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive, but no situation is entirely perfect.
“The benefits of creating your own schedule are enormous,” she said. “You can feel the effects immediately. I’ve found that I actually end up working more and being less stressed out. But my main concern is staying relevant. When you don’t see someone every day, it’s easy to forget about them, and that can translate to fewer responsibilities.”
For Richard, the typical 9-5 is not her reality. In fact, she’s often multi-tasking throughout the day, working at her own schedule to maximize her time and efficiency. And that includes running errands, making phone calls, and establishing her own method of operations.
“In some office environments, there’s a sense that if you’re doing something for yourself, you must not be doing work,” she said. “Maybe that’s true of some people, but if your employee is stressing out about getting all of her errands done in a one-hour window on the way home from work, she’s not focusing 100% on her job and will probably rush out at 5pm. It’s much more stressful to maintain a work-life balance when you don’t have much input on the flow of either, and I think that’s how people get burned out.”
Overcoming those initial misconceptions may not only set everything in motion but also get it moving in the best direction possible. In order to do that, Montero says people must let go of their preconceived notions of what an effective workplace really is.
“One of the things I encourage is to reverse the question,” he said. “We need to switch that around and ask how can we make that happen. Because there’s almost always a strategy or piece of technology available that can allow us to do it just as well, if not better in some cases, than when we’re co-located. How can we build trust in a team atmosphere even though we’re remote?”
Finding the Right Tools and Thoughtfully Applying Them
“A lot of times when people hear remote collaboration, they automatically think technology,” Montero said. “But it’s really the human endeavor of people communicating with each other, and technology enables that.”
So how do employers know what technology is best for their team? Montero has a system.
“I take people through what I call an ICC analysis,” he said. “They look at their work in terms of information, communication and collaboration, and it helps guide them toward which tools are best for their team and business. But it’s not just about choosing those tools, it’s about softly applying them. We need to put some thought into place, be more deliberate about our communication. It’s marrying the technology with strategy.”
The range of tools available for remote collaboration is extensive. One could get lost in the myriad choices, but Montero recommends focusing on the basics.
“I love Skype,” he said. “It can do everything. I also highly recommend some kind of project management or collaboration space. I use a program called Teamwork PM, and there’s also Basecamp and Microsoft SharePoint [Ed. not to mention Mindjet Connect]. I recommend this so teams can post documents, have a calendar and shared tasks. That is critical for keeping everyone on the same page and creating a rallying point for the team.”
What’s also beneficial about project management and collaboration spaces is that they ease the transition of new team additions. The existing comment trails and discussion boards for projects can be reviewed by new employees and team members, and they in turn can see how an idea came about and why certain decisions were made in the process.
“Having them poke around the project management space can be a tremendous advantage for getting someone up to speed,” Montero said.
Be a Conscious Communicator
“There’s a perception of team closeness that people are looking to achieve,” Montero said. “They don’t really feel like they have to have everyone physically together, but they want to capture what happens when people are physically together — which is to get to know and like each other, become friends, hang out. That creates more team camaraderie and trust, and that inherently breeds better working, co-working and collaborating communication.”
Accessibility and flexibility are two other important factors of conscious communication, and they’re major priorities for Richard when she’s working remotely.
“I’ve worked from some pretty unique places,” she said. “I’ve interviewed ski resorts from an airport terminal in the Caribbean. I’ve organized last-minute travel itineraries while waiting in line at the supermarket. I can type properly on my phone and never have to say things like, ‘I’m in the car right now, so I’ll call you in a couple of hours.’ I don’t ever want people to feel like I’m not valuing their time just because I’m not at my desk when we interact.”
Taking that extra step to think about how and why team members are communicating can be a major asset in remote collaboration. Montero advises teams to be deliberate and thoughtful in those exchanges to maximize everyone’s potential. And like most people who embrace modern forms of communication, he is quick to point out the advantages of social media in building professional relationships on a remote basis.
“I’m a big fan of social media on a number of fronts,” Montero said. “I think it can be a tremendous advantage for team members to get to know each other the same way they would outside the office. I also think from a business networking standpoint, it’s invaluable. I would encourage it, but have some guidelines for it.”
As far as becoming a conscious communicator and implementing that strategy amongst a team, Montero stresses that it’s not a one size fits all approach.
“It all depends on the team and the nature of the project,” he said. “For some, I think communicating on a daily basis would be great and easy to do. It makes them feel connected, and it’s more dynamic that way. But then there are others where I don’t think they need to do that every day. They can do it once a month, a couple times a month, or maybe once a week.”
With telework expected to increase steadily in the US, companies and their employees are thinking on their feet and adapting as they go to meet the demands of their markets. And while agility is a critical skill to have in today’s dog-eat-dog world, Montero says the most effective approach to remote collaboration is taking a little breather.
“Most people doing remote collaboration or working remotely have been thrust into it,” Montero said. “I would advise people to take a step back — take five or 10 steps back — and really look at it. What is it we do as a company and team? How do we communicate? We get so caught up in the day to day, we don’t think about what it is we do and how we do it. There’s needs to be a strategy, and it’s never too late to take a step back, get that perspective, and put that strategy into place.”
Elissa Vallano is a contributing writer to Mindjet. She’s based out of Philadelphia and is also a regular contributor to MyCityWay.