Current events have pushed millions of businesses toward remote teams with very little notice to reconfigure operations or reset expectations. When you rapidly adopt a remote work strategy, you lose the benefits that come with a more phased approach—such as figuring out what it takes to keep productivity and morale strong.
At Upwork, we’ve had remote teams for more than a decade: most of our 1,700 team members regularly work from home offices in more than 800 cities around the world. There’s no doubt this has changed our relationship with our workforce—but it hasn’t made us any less successful. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years.
1. Implement the right tech tools
The individuals involved in a project may be located across several time zones, but there are typically overlapping periods during the day when nearly everyone can connect. We take advantage of those times to communicate in real-time using apps such as Google Hangouts or Slack.
When you can’t walk up to a remote worker and ask how they’re doing, project coordination software such as Asana, Confluence, or JIRA make it easy to pop in at any time to see for yourself. These tools provide transparency to keep everyone moving forward and on track: Not only can you see what each person is working on, it’s also clear for each person to see what they should work on next and whether they’re on schedule.
Other collaboration tools to consider:
- Screen-capture or image-sharing tools like Snagit, QuickTime, or TinyTake
- Communication and file-sharing infrastructure like G Suite, Microsoft Teams, Dropbox, or Upwork Messages
- When you’re back in the office: Video conferencing equipment or the hardware to power a system such as Google Meet
2. Develop appropriate processes and resources
Your first priority has likely been to get day-to-day operations running smoothly. But moving your remote work efforts out of crisis mode into something you can leverage takes a more formal structure.
Embracing distributed teams has become a significant factor for recruitment, retention, and access to talent. In a survey by FlexJobs, 80 percent of respondents said flexible work options would make them more loyal to their employers. Upwork’s 2019 Future Workforce Report found that younger managers in particular are embracing remote teams for a number of reasons—including agility, access to skills, increased productivity, and cost efficiencies.
Consider the entire work relationship—from finding and vetting talent, to communicating and collaborating, to payment. Remote workers may require different processes than in-house employees and those processes may change depending on a worker’s classification as an independent contractor or an employee.
The internal resources you need may include legal for worker classification. If you use an online platform like Upwork, it can be helpful to assign an internal champion to train other business partners on the technology and encourage company-wide adoption. Companies that do so often see the greatest success.
3. Communicate regularly—and with video, when possible
Communication is one of the biggest challenges for distributed teams: workers can’t just stop by a colleague’s desk to ask a question or catch up on a project over coffee in the breakroom. When this gap isn’t addressed, communication breakdowns can lead to duplicate efforts or work that’s not on track.
That’s why it takes not just the right tools but also a thoughtful cadence to help keep everyone on the same page.
Upwork’s engineering leads stay connected and promote cross-team collaboration by meeting regularly. During these meetings, they share recent projects, talk about design and architectural decisions, and collaboratively review all significant architectural changes.
We also prefer video meetings over phone calls or emails whenever possible because seeing people, even on screen, helps people connect more deeply and communicate more clearly.
4. Create a shared purpose
We all want to know our work matters. Whether an individual’s working in-house or remotely, people want to feel excited about what they’re working on. If a project will eventually provide clean drinking water to 10,000 remote villagers, let everyone involved in the project know.
At Upwork, we emphasize our company’s vision so everyone understands how they’re helping other companies—and other individuals like them—succeed.
5. Foster a sense of community
Strong teams are built on trust. This begins with choosing the right people to work on a project and continues by helping individuals feel connected to each other—like they’re part of a community.
Remote workers can feel isolated and ignored because they’re not part of the daily office interaction. But you can boost morale and dedication to a project by helping them feel safe enough to voice their opinions, and by recognizing their contributions.
Giving recognition doesn’t have to be elaborate. Our designers may send a team-wide email giving kudos to the writer of an article that got a lot of shares. For an extra thank you, we send talent company-branded items like mugs or gift certificates to a local café.
6. Set clear expectations
As your team adjusts to working remotely, make sure everyone involved in a project understands its overall goal and each person’s responsibilities for achieving it.
The creative briefs our design team uses don’t just ensure requests are completed, they also help everyone involved understand the project’s objective, timelines, and who’s in charge of what.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said: “In 30 years’ time, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.” Although this may be an exaggeration, he’s making a valid point.
It’s time companies learn how to build relationships with a remote workforce. It may not be the time you’d planned for, but that makes learning how to navigate these challenges so critical. Now more than ever, the ability to lead beyond office walls isn’t a skill that will be nice to have for the future. The time for change is here.