Tips for building a workforce that thrives remotely.
In 2020, companies shuttered their offices and sent workers everywhere home indefinitely. As most companies worked to make an unplanned pivot to collaborating at a distance, employees worked to figure out how to balance work life in the middle of day-to-day life at home. In a post-Covid world, there’s been a push from remote work to getting back to the office with a mixed reaction from both business leaders and employees alike.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, people need to get back to the office to feel “a part of something” in his July interview with the podcast, The Diary of a CEO. He’s not alone in his thinking. Seventy-two percent of managers currently leading a remote team would prefer their team to be in the office. The reasons differ according to business and leadership style, but as the world re-opened in 2022, most employees returned to work.
I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s remark. Perhaps he brings up an interesting perspective—without intentional interaction, we lose connection, and humans aren’t meant to lose connection. But, we lose this sentiment when we limit the conversation on remote work to only the work location itself.
Rebel began in August 2019—right before COVID hit and before the world switched to remote work. Rebel was created to be a remote company from the very beginning. The desire to build a remote company seemed like a no-brainer.
First, the best teams in the world that deliver the most innovative solutions are diverse. A remote work model lowers the barriers to diversity and introduces layers of diversity that geographic location brings: gender, race, background, experience, age, and perspective. We aren’t limited to a geographic location—we can hire the best people for the job, regardless of where they are.
Second, a remote work model allows for an intentional investment in employees and customer experience as the company grows. Instead of spending on offices, we’re able to reroute those funds to initiatives that create exceptional experiences for the people investing in Rebel.
Over the last 3 years, Rebel has learned a few lessons about building a remote team. We’ve learned how to do it well and how to improve in areas we weren’t doing well. Today, Rebel has an incredible culture. Our teams are thriving and our employees report high levels of satisfaction in feeling connected to Rebel’s purpose and our clients. But, remote work differs from running an office and requires a different behavior from leadership. Below are a few things we’ve learned along the way.
Set the expectation of inconvenience.
There I said it. Remote work is inconvenient for most leaders. It’s difficult to maintain a connection with team members. It’s hard to track productivity. It feels impossible, at times, to manufacture buy-in or motivation from remote team members. A remote work model requires more communication, consistency, and intentional investment of time into your teams from those in leadership. Yes, it can be incredibly inconvenient. But, when we intentionally design how we engage in remote work settings, we build trust with our employees, our teams become collaborative, and the connection created can be powerful. Positioning remote work as a structure you build or design, you, as a leader, are better equipped to handle the flexibility required to lead a remote team. Go ahead, expect to be inconvenienced. And, that’s okay.
At Rebel, we’ve set this expectation from the top down. This is something I’ve worked to model from the beginning. Leadership makes time for the impromptu, “hey, do you have a minute” Slack message. We encourage more internal connection points among project teams to allow collaboration and creative problem-solving. We focus on empowering our team members to make decisions and take the reigns versus trying to micro-manage. The leadership team actively makes it a point to acknowledge and celebrate individual contributions. But each of these actions takes intentional planning, thought, and action.
Create opportunities to connect.
When everyone works from a single office space, it’s much easier to “pop into someone’s office” and sit for a minute and talk about the latest client meeting or the shifts in scope or even life outside the office. But, without that shared space, team members can go for weeks without ever talking about anything other than work. To ensure you maintain a sense of belonging, work to create opportunities for team members to connect.
At Rebel, one of the ways we’ve created this opportunity is through weekly 1x1s with each of our team members. Every leader has a 1x1 with each team member once a month. That may seem like a lot, but it keeps the team connected. Leaders get the opportunity to learn more about their team members, chart progress, and better understand their challenges and hurdles. And, team members get face time with leadership that they would not ordinarily have in a remote work setting.
Get clear on expectations.
In the lack of clarity, people formulate their own narratives. In an office environment, some of the workday narratives are inferred through the activities of those around us. But, remotely individuals are left to make assumptions. This can cause conflicts on availability, consistency, productivity, work product, and even priorities. This is where we see businesses get frustrated with the remote work model. We’re quick to assume that individuals know that work expectations apply regardless of whether they work from home or at the office. But, here’s the thing—humans aren’t mind-readers. Get clear on performance expectations and the goal, why the company exists, the value you’re delivering, and why the work they are doing matters.
One of the ways Rebel solves for the lack of clarity is constantly working to get clear on expectations. We do this in a few ways. First, it’s documented. We took the time to create a baseline expectation for what it means to work from home. Second, we measure it. We use our metrics to understand our workflow better. We measure progress and pull team members into conversations about efficiencies, processes, and work product. We work to ensure we’re not just clear, we are super clear on who Rebel is, how we work, what we deliver, and why it all matters. If anyone still has questions, we’re available—because well, we create the opportunity for connection.
Over-index on communication.
Communication is necessary regardless of where you work. But, in a remote work setting, communication can single-handedly make or break the infrastructure. Because communication is vitally important for remote work models, leaders can expect to look for various communication methods. This is a space where transparency is valued even more because employees are limited in what they can infer from a remote location. Additionally, it’s entirely fair to expect high levels of communication from your team members. Everyone in the organization should be held to high standards of communication. It breeds community and connection.
This is true for Rebel. We deploy several project management systems and set up clear feedback rounds for client and internal stakeholders. Communication is something that is considered table-stakes for each of our team members. The reality is, that if a remote team isn’t communicating, they aren’t moving forward. It doesn’t get more simple than that.
Acknowledge that your culture misfires are only exasperated by remote work models.
It’s near impossible to hide your culture gaps and points of friction. Work culture is critical to the long-term success of the company. However, it’s important to note that remote work models do not hide your culture gaps, they emphasize them. If your culture, at its core, is not inclusive—you will not be inclusive working remotely. If your culture is competitive and demanding—the demands only increase in working remotely. If your culture struggles with follow-through and communication, the work environment only worsens those things. As leaders, it’s critical to define and invest in your culture to be successful at remote work models.
This is one area at Rebel we’ve been working on since day one. Culture is one part of your brand that will not wait for you to define or build it. Left alone, culture will define itself. We started out with a framework of defining culture and iterated it until it worked for Rebel. We scrapped what didn’t work and returned to the drawing board when required. Culture is a constant work in progress, as your business grows and evolves, so does your culture.
The reality of remote work isn’t going anywhere. Seventy-seven percent of employees report they are more productive when they work from home. As the world returned to work, 35% of employees can work from home full-time and 23% can do so part-time. In terms of satisfaction, the ability to work remotely increases employee happiness by at least 20%. Employers now find themselves answering the question of remote work models. Perhaps the question is less about work models and more about how as leaders, we manufacture opportunities for inclusivity and purpose from a distance. Perhaps the remote work model has the same issues of work culture we’ve been talking about for a decade, now only with a different application.