Remote Collaboration: A Year’s Lessons

By Kelvene Requiroso

Remote work has been around for years, but COVID-19 has accelerated its rise, and it is here to stay. Forty-four percent of U.S. employees have worked from home full-time during the coronavirus pandemic, an astonishing increase from 17 percent before. Even after the pandemic subsides, 25 to 30 percent of the global workforce will continue to work remotely multiple days a week.

This mass experiment has exposed some challenges and flaws in the remote work model, but has also delivered some lessons and best practices that companies can learn from.

Creating a new work culture

Office politics, chatter, and meetings take a big chunk of work time. With remote work, a new work culture has evolved. It strips what is considered work down to the essentials. Assign a task and finish it in a set time frame. It’s a Zen-like pruning of the non-essentials. An employee spends more time, effort, and energy on an assigned task. Productivity is defined not only by the amount of work done but also by the quality of output.

Staying out of an office setting hasn’t completely eliminated chatter and intrusion from the work day—any Slack user can attest to that. But while office distractions have lessened, other demands now intrude, such as an errand or household chore that otherwise might have waited until after work. Remote work demands discipline, focus, and initiative. Employee monitoring software might create an atmosphere of distrust, so setting goals and creating a culture of performance and accountability would be better for all.

Narrowing communication barriers

Communication is a common barrier in a remote working environment. It is not because of the lack of tools. Most enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software have built-in internal communication platforms for team collaboration. But text-based messages, such as email, chat, or SMS, can be misinterpreted, so clear communication and video conferencing are needed to keep employees in touch. Video conferencing in particular brings teams together and allows for nuances of tone, body language and personality to be expressed and understood.

Getting your message across to your audience requires clarity. Written communication must be on point, truthful, and respectful. Doing so promotes trust, which anchors the success of remote collaboration.

Bridging distances

Harvard Business Review identifies three kinds of distance in remote collaboration: physical, operational, and affinity. Many remote teams consist of members from different countries, regions, and time zones. Each team member operates with a different skill set, capacity, position and mindset, so gaps and individual needs must be addressed while promoting team unity.

Advanced collaboration tools bridge physical and operational distances. You can turn time differences to your advantage with thoughtful scheduling. Since everyone has a specific function or task, expectations and goals vary. Teamwork unites all members toward a common goal. Creating virtual team rituals and events and holding regular video conferences, chats, and calls help foster trust and interdependence. Connecting people, listening, and showing empathy remedy the lack of intimacy due to physical distance.

Setting clear boundaries

Working from home saves time from the daily commute and the stress it causes. But home and work-related priorities can get muddled. The flexibility that remote work brings is valued by employees, and without clear boundaries can be equally stressful. Working on the same schedule as office work would help. Beyond the set working time should be for family and home matters. Remote employees often continue work beyond normal business hours, so setting boundaries can be for the benefit of the employee too.

Dealing with isolation

There are things we can do in an office setting that we cannot do remotely. The bond you build with an office-based team is stronger than the one you make online. In a remote team, the relationship is often rational and work-related, although it’s enough to get the work done. Video conferencing and virtual events can forge closer ties, but still, isolation can be tough to deal with, especially for singles. Having more time to spend with family or friends can offset any socialization you’re missing from the workplace.

Moving forward

Remote work is here to stay, as it allows employees to perform their jobs anywhere and can also give companies a broader market for talent. It reduces overhead costs, saves time spent on the daily commute, and increases productivity. But there’s still room for improvement. Predictability, for instance, requires digital standardization. And companies should speed up digitalization to simplify tasks and processes.

Developments in technology and innovation will continue to enhance the remote work environment moving forward, and technologies like virtual and augmented reality may soon do more to capture the rhythm of the traditional work setting.