What I’ve learned from 10 years of remote working

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Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my becoming a remote employee. On July 1st 2011, I started working for a company based 200-odd miles away from my home in the South of England (today SHI HQ is closer to 3,500 miles away from home). Clearly a 400-mile commute every day was not going to work, so my employer took the somewhat unusual step of hiring me as a remote employee.

Back then there were two essential bits of kit as a remote employee – a laptop and a cell phone. I have no recollection of us using Skype in those early days, although I think we did have instant messaging for text. I just remember a lot of email. A lot. And a lot of time spent holding an increasingly hot phone to my ear.

FOMO

The biggest change I noticed moving to being a remote employee when 99% of my colleagues were in an office 200 miles away was that I missed out on a lot of spur-of-the-moment conversations that happened in the office. I felt ‘remote’ in more ways than one. It was difficult to get my colleagues to think “Matt needs to be part of this conversation” even when they were in a meeting room with a perfectly good conference room phone system. And even when they did remember to conference me in, I still felt like a bit of an outsider.

That did lead to a certain amount of frustration on my part (and maybe theirs too).

On the plus side, I was able to work without distraction for reasonable chunks of my day, which certainly helped me make an impact in the early weeks and months. That also enabled me to make more of the time that I did spend in the office, focusing on using that time to meet stakeholders, get the team together, and work on important strategic projects.

I’m not sure I ever got past the ‘you’re not from around here’ attitude of some office-based colleagues, though.

My first two years of remote working did teach me some valuable lessons which have served me well over time:

  • Plan ahead to dedicate time to working with team members rather than just ‘expecting’ it to happen
  • Get most of your individual work done at home to maximize your availability to colleagues when physically in the office
  • Ensure team members are clear on their empowerment to exercise autonomy (and when not to) to avoid confusion when not physically together

Going international with Webex

In 2013 I joined a new company, again as a remote employee. Only this time the office was more than 900 miles away in a different country.  Suddenly my commute required not just cars, but planes as well.

The good news was that this company was already international, with staff in a variety of time zones around the world. Remote was standard operating procedure. Although again, in some ways it wasn’t. I was the only VP-level member of the head office team not physically located in Stockholm, so again there were impromptu discussions I just wasn’t part of.

We did by then have Webex at least. So, while sharing video was not yet common, we did have an on-demand platform for meeting colleagues without having to go through the rigmarole of setting up conference call bridges (remember those!?). And we could share files or screens, so no need to email over attachments in advance.

With colleagues located everywhere from Sydney, Australia to Austin, Texas, this was my first experience of adopting an elastic calendar. Probably the first time I really abandoned any notion of regular working hours. Each day was treated in its own right – the only rule was that I would try to avoid having both 6am calls with Sydney and 10pm calls with Austin on the same day, if possible!

The language barrier

I remember in my first few weeks of working for the Stockholm-based company, I asked the Swedish CEO. “Do you think I should learn Swedish to try to fit in better?”. His answer was surprisingly curt: “Why on earth would you do that?! Everyone across the whole company speaks English!”

But of course, it isn’t that simple. This was my first real taste of how colleagues around the world can be separated by a common language. Even simple things like the use of an exclamation point vary widely from country to country, and we all know how easily a misplaced comma can change the way we read something.

So, the heavy reliance on text-based communications, whether email or Skype for Business, was still a barrier to full understanding and cooperation.  As before, it often took meeting colleagues face-to-face to really work out whether you were on the same page or not.

Finally, Teams!

My introduction to Microsoft Teams came in 2019. I guess I was late to the party. Or my employers were. To be honest, I’ve never used another collaboration platform as extensively as Teams, but for me as a remote employee and a remote manager, it was a game-changer.

It was easier than ever to just ‘shoot a message’ to a co-worker (although of course that, too, has its downsides). Hopping on a video call was just as easily done on the spur of the moment as it was arranged in advance. And sharing files became easier than ever – you really could collaborate on a document together in real-time.

And perhaps most exciting of all for the remote employee, I would get a call through the PC from a colleague saying “Hi Matt, I’m just in the room with Steve talking about the new campaign and I wanted to get your opinion on….”. Finally, remote didn’t mean excluded.

And you’re back in the room

Almost. Today, my role at SHI involves leading a team of fantastic marketers spread across three countries (UK, US, and Canada) and seven cities. Thankfully we deal only with a total of six hours time difference across the group, although it still often means late finishes for the Brits and early starts for those Stateside.

My only visit to SHI HQ in Somerset, New Jersey to-date was for my job interview in February 2020.  Since March 2020, my entire team has been remote. In some ways, with my already nine years of remote working experience, I was the lucky one. But I hope some of that experience has helped the team become the successful unit that it has.

We live on Teams. Perhaps a little too much at times, but you’ll rarely catch me accusing someone of over-communicating. We have scheduled meetings and we have ‘open hours’ for impromptu get-togethers.

When we have meetings, we do tend to use cameras, although I am beginning to change my view on this a little and have said to my team that I would like to keep us a ‘cameras-on’ team for group calls, but that I’m happy for no-camera in 1:1s. I do understand the unease some people feel at having to be ‘camera-ready’ at all times.

Personally, I can’t wait to meet my colleagues in person. Not because I think there is any great productivity benefit to any kind of return-to-work initiatives, but because I really want to meet them in person, to have everyone in a room brainstorming, throwing out ideas, and challenging each other (you just can’t do that as effectively on video calls). And I want to share a beer with them and get to know their personalities!  We’ve done surprisingly well bringing together a brand-new team in a year of entirely remote working, but I think we’ll be an even better team when we spend at least some of our time together in person

Ten years of remote working. What has it taught me? Here are some highlights:

  1. Trust is key – and it goes both ways
  2. Technology is a huge enabler, but not yet an effective replacement for in-person contact
  3. The 9-5 only works for some – individuals and teams need to find what works for them
  4. Choose your communication channel wisely – know when it’s better to talk than text
  5. Use structure but be adaptable – plan ahead, but don’t lose opportunities to be spontaneous

I don’t want to sound flippant, but if any good has come of the pandemic it is that we have come to accept remote working as normal in a way that was almost inconceivable two years ago. That’s not to say we shouldn’t return-to-office, but it should serve to prove that we can work remotely and be an effective part of a team.

I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to start wearing Augmented Reality headsets as part of my team meetings, and my house definitely isn’t big enough to warrant its own holodeck room, but can’t wait to see how technology coming down the line will make remote employees even more productive and included.

It’s particularly exciting to see how SHI’s vendor partners are making remote team working a reality. I think we can expect more announcements in the coming months…

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