What we learnt from remote work

By Syntax

Distributed teams are on the rise. The number of employees who work remotely more than doubled between 2005 and 2015, and there’s evidence that people who work from home can be more productive than those in the office. Hiring remote workers is also a great way to expand your potential talent pool, and it can bring a welcome shot of diversity to your culture.

But managing remote staff has to be done right. Like the rest of us, remote employees want to feel that they’re valued equally and treated fairly; otherwise they’re unlikely to stay motivated and happy in their jobs. Creating a positive environment is hard if you’re not the person who’s usually on the remote end of a video conference and misses out on the usual perks of working in an office.

That’s why we decided to have all our employees work remotely for a week. The idea came from one of our remote team members, and we agreed that by having everyone at our New Delhi Office walk in the shoes of our remote team, we’d be able to better empathize with their position and challenge the stereotype that being able to hang out in your pajamas all day is really such a great thing.

It was a great experience, and our onsite staff developed a much greater understanding of what it really means to work remotely. I’ll share some of our learnings below, but first I’ll explain the ground rules and what we’ll do differently next time, because we’ll definitely be making this a tradition.

The rules

We have a 30-person team at Syntax. For Remote Week, we encouraged our onsite staff to not just work from home but, where possible, leave town and stay with friends or relatives. You’re not really “remote” if you’re only a mile from the office. I worked from my parents house in Mumbai, for instance, and another team member visited her parents in Singapore.

We split the onsite employees in half, with one group working remotely one week and the other the next month. We did this because if all the onsite people had left at once, we wouldn’t have experienced the true dynamic of working with a team back at the office.

The experience

Overall, the exercise was a huge success. Our onsite staff experienced the reality of being a remote participant at every meeting and not getting to socialize in the office or walk up to a colleague with a question. After working five days straight at my parents’ kitchen table, I realized that having separation between home and office life is a glorious thing; I was never so happy to take a walk in the neighborhood after work. Working at home for a day here and there is nothing compared to doing it constantly. A lot of us had little epiphanies like this and were able to identify ways that working with remote teams could be made better for everyone. Just as importantly, the exercise demonstrated to our remote people that we really care about their experience.

The results

We conducted a survey before and after Remote Week to gauge its impact. Most of the changes were positive, though one or two findings suggested opportunities for improvement and blind spots in our remote experience.

Asked how likely they would be to recommend Syntax as a place to work, our onsite staff gave us an average rating of 9 out of 10 before Remote Week, and our remote staff gave us 8.2. A few weeks after Remote Week, the scores equalized at 9.1. To me, this reflects a newfound respect and appreciation for the experience of our remote team, and improvements we made after Remote Week to better support them.

Perceptions about access to learning and development opportunities also improved. Before Remote Week, 57 percent of staff said we “always” or “usually” do this well, and 6.5 percent said we don’t do it well at all. After Remote Week, 75 percent said we “always” or “usually” provide equal access to learning and development, and no one said we don’t do it well.

Not all the changes were positive. Before Remote Week, 68 percent of all staff said their managers were good at sticking to one-on-ones with direct reports. After Remote Week, this fell to 56 percent. I suspect some managers neglected to do check-ins during Remote Week because it was inconvenient and easier to reschedule them for when they were back in the office. This supported a common concern of our remote workforce: that they didn’t have as much access to their managers as their in-office counterparts.

We also decided to make some technological changes to better accommodate remote staff. Before, when remote staff joined a meeting by video, they would often see only the presentation on the screen or a room full of people watching it. We’ve now installed a second camera in our conference rooms so remote staff can see the person presenting as well, creating an inclusive experience. We also added a second display to our conference rooms so onsite staff can see the faces of remote people joining alongside the presentation slides.

We also established new norms for meetings. Remote people are invited to speak first and to interrupt conversations, to head off the dynamic where those in the room quickly start talking among themselves. And we made it the default for remote people to have their cameras switched on to build connection, though it’s not required.

Most of all, the entire experience brought our onsite and remote Rainforesters closer together. We completed our first Remote Week last October, and just started our second. We’ve also upped the stakes by encouraging people to go and stay with a remote colleague and treat them to a meal out in return. We plan to make Remote Week a biannual tradition, so new team members can experience this exercise in empathy.

The action items

If you manage remote staff at your own company, I’ll leave you with some recommendations for creating a better experience for them based on what we learned from our exercise:

Strive for parity: If you can’t match the onsite experience exactly, try to offer parity. When we celebrate Employee Appreciation Day by bringing a Bubble Tea bar to the New Delhi Office, for instance, we encourage remote people to treat themselves to a sweet treat of their choice which they can expense.

Measure: Conduct frequent engagement surveys and segment data by work status: in-office, remote New Delhi., and remote international. Do these surveys monthly, but especially before and after an exercise like Remote Week.

Norms: Establish behaviors that create an equal experience. Invite remote people to speak first in meetings. Make the default for video cameras “on.” And most importantly, promote remote staff at a comparable rate to those in the office. (This spring, 33 percent of our promotions were for remote team members, even though they’re just 27 percent of the team.)

Programs: Provide incentives for remote people to host onsite employees in their city or country. Conduct offsites that create team bonding and exercises like Remote Week.

Communications: Add extra cameras and displays to enable equal participation in video conferences. Make sure your video conferencing equipment is working properly before meetings start. Share company announcements with all staff simultaneously, so no one is the last to know.

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