5 Key Learnings From Our Remote Work Redesign

5 Key Learnings From Our Remote Work Redesign

A recent Gallup poll found most American adults now working from home would like to continue doing so once the global pandemic ends. Our employees around the globe will soon be getting that wish.

While we at Upwork have always believed in the value of a remote workforce, the office closures and shelter-in-place orders spurred by COVID-19 caused us to take an even closer look at how we were enabling it for the long-term. This is a work in progress. But we’ve already gained some valuable insights that we thought would be worth sharing.

Here are five key lessons we learned that all businesses should consider for their own remote work programs:

1. Involve employees in whatever you do

Too many organizations make decisions from the top-down, especially in times of crisis. But if those decisions ultimately affect how employees do their jobs, gathering their input beforehand is essential.

Upwork considers itself a people-first company, so this approach came naturally to us. After quarantining began in early March, we instituted a series of in-house surveys to see how our employees were faring. Did they feel as creative being physically separated from colleagues? Were home distractions making it more difficult to remain productive? Were they online too many hours or experiencing “Zoom fatigue?” Did they feel as if we’d set them up for success or left them hanging? Were they happy overall or struggling to stay upbeat during these exceedingly challenging and potentially lonely times?

“To our relief, we found that overall people were doing okay and adjusting,” said Kelsi Rohrmann, employee enablement lead at Upwork. “Work was still getting done, and many employees and clients believed they were actually more productive and engaged than they had been in offices. Yet, employees also told us they saw a few key areas of opportunity for us to address, especially around communication and collaboration standards, tools and resources, training and future workspace needs outside of the home.”

Building on this input, we formed several employee focus groups—bringing in volunteers from multiple departments—to brainstorm and develop a pipeline of programs, experiences and events in each of these areas. This ongoing effort has already paid dividends, resulting in many great ideas that we will implement in our evolving “back to better” plan.

2. Identify best practices for staying connected

As social creatures, human beings crave connection and interaction. For this reason, it is easy to experience uneasiness or distress when working remotely. Indeed, a recent Gartner survey found 41 percent of people do not feel connected to colleagues when apart and 26 percent feel isolated.

“When building a remote work plan, we discovered it is incredibly important to make sure your communication cadences and expectations are exceptionally clear and you create ways to replicate the emotional connections you might have had in offices across any digital divide,” said Zoë Harte, senior vice president of human resources and talent at Upwork. “You really need to do whatever you can as part of your culture to create more serendipitous opportunities for connection.”

One of the ways Upwork is doing this is by de-emphasizing email and moving more communication to Slack channels as a way of increasing collaboration—and community. It also inspires more scheduled and unscheduled online social gatherings to at least temporarily replace the connections that would normally be made over proverbial water coolers. And we are hosting virtual employee and client events at the end of each month, including guest speaker series, virtual talent shows, morning meditation and yoga sessions, social happy hours and more.

These early steps appear to be working within our company, but we encourage other companies to chart their own paths to emotional connection, guided by their specific cultures and values.

3. Provide the right tools and resources

Like many companies, we’ve always had a certain percentage of employees working remotely and others spending most of their time in offices. That changed suddenly in March, and even we were surprised to learn the tools and resources we had previously provided weren’t fully adequate for this new normal.

To work remotely, you need five basic things: a connected device, such as a PC or Mac; a secure Wi-Fi connection; a dedicated space to work from; supporting tools, such as a printer, microphone, headset and smartphone; and a network capable of supporting a 100 percent remote workforce.

Theoretically, anybody working remotely would have all of this. But in practice, that’s not always the case. An office worker may never have been issued a laptop or peripheral device. They might live in an area or building with poor Internet connectivity. Their home might be small and crowded, especially with entire families currently sheltering in place. And the corporate network might be struggling to keep pace with an unexpected flood of remote workers all trying to connect during daylight hours.

“At Upwork, we spent considerable time on the back end assuring our systems  would be up to the task,” said Rohrmann. “Separately, even though all of our employees already had laptops, we issued financial stipends to purchase whatever else they felt they might need to make working from home more pleasant and productive. It might be a needed peripheral device. But it could just as easily be a potted plant to make their workspaces a little warmer and more inviting. We leave it up to the employees to decide.”

Another step we are working on is to implement a knowledge management tool so remote workers can easily search and find vital information. Of course, this means we also have to go back, clean up and organize our data so it is readily available. So we’re in the process of doing that and hope to have the tool ready for deployment before too long.

We also recognized it is too easy to get out of bed, go immediately to the computer and end up spending far more hours working than with our families. Work-life balance goes out the door. For that reason, we provided an online form employees could fill out to specify times when colleagues should not try to invite them to meetings. This allows them to set aside an hour or two to walk with a spouse, help the kids with their homeschooling or just read a book, meditate or catch up on the news.

4. Don’t overlook the importance of training

As with anything new, we learned how critical it is to offer relevant training resources. Companies often think of training as being for tools, technologies, policies and procedures. But it should also be applied to helping employees adjust to abrupt change.

One of the first steps Upwork took after the global pandemic hit was to start creating a guide outlining what we think employees of all levels should know about remote work. It covers everything from hiring and onboarding in this environment to how to find important resources, hold effective meetings and encourage communication and collaboration.

We’ve also spent considerable time focusing on mental health in light of recent events. It’s apparent many people are struggling on multiple levels lately, and we’ve learned our employees appreciate the fact that we care about their emotional needs. We are advising managers, therefore, to always remember the human aspects of the workplace. This may mean scheduling regular check-ins to see how direct reports are feeling at any given moment, or it could involve instituting formal mental health counseling programs (we plan to make one available to our employees in the coming months).  

5. Consider alternative office concepts

As a company that’s always looking for better ways of working, Upwork has been asking itself for a while now whether it makes much sense to have offices these days. Being forced to send everyone home in March really accelerated that conversation.

"We realized quickly that we needed to embark on a design thinking exercise and really determine what problem we were solving by having offices?” said Harte. “Our surveys told us employees could be just as effective remotely as in the office, so we started looking at the pros and cons of keeping them.”

Harte said offices exist for a few reasons, the most important of which is to serve customers. But if customers can just as easily be served by remote workers, then the offices may not be that necessary after all, she said. Offices also serve as collection points for employees to iterate and collaborate. Yet, if the staff is also able to do that remotely, again, the offices may not be needed. The final reason companies maintain offices is visibility, Harte noted. When they grow, they often want physical manifestations of that expansion to demonstrate a large presence and show they matter. But an increasing number of companies are demonstrating they can operate virtually without pricey real estate affecting the bottom line and still have quite a significant presence.  

So, after considering all of this, we considered whether it made sense to keep paying for physical space or if it was time to fully embrace this accelerating remote work trend. We decided on a blend of the two.

We’re giving up our San Francisco office, which is on the market. And we will continue to assess employee needs and ensure our remaining offices in Chicago and Silicon Valley are optimized for the ways in which people will be working in the future.

The global pandemic is providing an unexpected opportunity to learn more about remote work best practices, and we are taking that to heart. These are sad and difficult times for many of us. But by involving employees and clients, we can rise above any adversity and land in a much stronger place.


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5 Key Learnings From Our Remote Work Redesign
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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