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It’s time for Remote Work 3.0.

Remote Work 1.0 was the panicked rush from offices when the pandemic initially struck. Tweaks followed but after a few months most organizations chose to upgrade, making significant improvements as they realized remote staff were not returning any time soon. Now, with vaccination occurring, organizations can start to contemplate a future with more choice and how to be even more effective with the remote component of their work force.

Despite the attention remote work has received, McKinsey & Company found in a study that half the workforce has little or no opportunity to do it. They might have to collaborate in person with others, use specialized machinery, or handle deliveries that are performed out and about. Remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies. An estimated 20 per cent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could from an office.

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A number of organizations are choosing to go all remote, including an alma mater of mine, the Kingston Whig-Standard. That reminded me its open office newsroom was a pre-Facebook den of distraction, unintentionally teaching us concentration, but just as importantly through enforced eavesdropping showing best (and worst) practices. In the move to remote can this tacit transfer of knowledge – particularly for young people – be handled by Slack, Zoom and the rest? It will take some conscious planning.

Communications and culture are central to the challenge ahead. Buried within communications is the issue of assigning tasks, which deep work proponent Cal Newport has highlighted. When assigning tasks to subordinates or shuffling them off to colleagues it helps if working side-by-side so you can sense how busy they are or see it in their eyes when you delegate. E-mailing an assignment to someone in the ether allows you to be dangerously oblivious to their situation.

Recent research shows that successful remote teams communicate in bursts. Christopher Riedl, an associate professor at Northeastern University, and Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, found that you want to co-ordinate remote communication in your team so it takes place in concentrated periods followed by time walled off for individual tasks. “Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas – deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group. Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge,” they write in Harvard Business Review. Easier said than done. But better to understand that pattern than to be unaware.

Consultant Claire Lew carries that further by stressing quiet is a communication best practice. “Silence is golden in a remote team. People need quiet, uninterrupted time to get work done,” she writes on her blog, after surveying 297 remote managers and employees. “Effective remote leaders recognize this, respect this, and encourage this.”

If there’s a remote cardinal sin, she says it’s wanting to rely on real-time communication. Instead, default to asynchronous writing. When you need to use real-time communication, match the message to the channel. “An urgent message that’s expected to be read and responded to within the hour might be sent through direct message in Slack. A message that is a longer description or project outline might be posted in a certain section in Notion and is only expected to be read within 24 hours,” she explains.

She recommends a “how we communicate document.” It would include: What are the expected working hours each person has? What should the overlapping working hours for folks in different time zones be? If someone needs to be offline to run an errand or are in a meeting, how will that be communicated? How will it be communicated when someone is sick or feeling unwell? Are there any times team members should not be disturbed? What’s the expected response time to messages? Does that vary depending on what the message is, or the channel it is delivered in?

Google, with nearly 100,000 employees spread out in more than 50 countries, has given a lot of thought to remote work and published guidelines well before the pandemic. It urges managers to set team norms for communication and decision-making. “They’re often assumed rather than explicitly stated, leaving opportunities for confusion,” Google warns.

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It advises giving priority to team meetings. These are often some of the only interactions you’ll have with your team when working apart so schedule them even if there isn’t anything urgent. If the agenda is light, use the time to get to know each other better. Share the time zone burden, maybe rotating times for recurring meetings where that makes sense. Consider an hour each week when you will hold office hours for anyone on the team to connect, Barbara Larsen, a professor at Northeastern University suggests.

Each organization will have its own particular needs for Remote Work 3.0 but those ideas may help you formulate your own game plan.

Cannonballs

  • Leadership advisor Henna Inam, echoing a practice by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, asks her six questions every night that she suggests might help you as well in 2021: Did I do my best to take care of my health and well-being? Did I do my best to appreciate the good in myself and others? Did I do my best to find moments of meaning and purpose in my day? Did I do my best to write and progress my top three priorities? Did I do my best to practise curiosity? Did I do my best to practise (insert a leadership or character value for you here)?
  • A recent study found that in the downturn of 2008 – 2010 decentralized firms outperformed their rivals on sales, productivity, and above all, survival.
  • Communications advisor Allan Bonner warns that in the rush to Zoom multimillion corporations are putting “crap on the screen” for their stakeholders – subpar images that are less appealing than anything seen in movies or on TV screens, the expected standard.

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