5 Ways to Embrace a Distributed Workforce

Posted September 28th, 2021

Working remotely isn’t new. The Basecamp folks wrote a book about it in 2013, but even before that many were already working away from a central office. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were moving to a workforce that was distributed across the country or even the world. Some of the reasons include access to additional talent, reducing labor costs, and providing freedom for employees to work where they choose. 

Why might you want to embrace a distributed workforce? Matt Mullenweg of Automatic (WordPress) lays out out a few reasons in this short video:

Matt Mullenweg: Why Working From Home Is Good For Business

So yes, distributed work is here to stay whether or not your company embraces it or struggles with it. At Incogneato we have decades of experience working on remote teams and during that time, we’ve collected some tips and tricks to share with you. There are many ways to embrace a remote workforce but we think these five will be the most impactful. 

1. Foster a culture of trust.

Many companies are going to an unlimited (or more accurately non-tracked) vacation policy. Rather than limiting how much time employees can take off, they trust employees to take however much time they want while considering their tasks and responsibilities. This sort of policy eliminates the need for time-consuming tracking and accrual practices and sets the stage for a relationship built upon trust. 

Likewise, remote work policies should be trust-based. Trust-building starts in the recruiting and hiring stage and continues indefinitely. Interviewers and hiring managers should stress what will be expected of new hires and candidates should be selected based upon self-direction and maturity. 

Managers should be hesitant to micromanage employees, and trust that they will accomplish what was jointly agreed to. Communication should be honest and transparent and you should make time to get to know each other.

4. Make Time Together

Making time to be together: If possible you should establish “together hours” where 50+% of the team is expected to be online and working together. According to Harvard Business Review “teams had on average 7+ hours in the workday during which more than half the team was consistently online. Those hours are also when you should schedule business processes that benefit from having greater team overlap—as well as making and communicating decisions that affect the entire group.”

But regular check-ins between managers and direct reports, standing meetings with cross-functional project teams, and time for social interactions with subjects that fall outside of work topics and duties should be prioritized. 

Even if your workforce is mostly remote, it can be extremely valuable to also occasionally come together physically. Planning one or two annual meetings where everyone travels to a single location to accomplish business and social objectives will be important for effective distributed teams. 

3. Provide the tools your remote team needs. 

Don’t skimp here. The productivity of your remote employees (and thus your company) depends upon having the right tools in place. These tools consist of both software and hardware and can often be facilitated by listing preferred solutions and required applications and by providing a stipend for your  remote workforce to use to get set up with them.

Hardware

Let’s start on the hardware side. A home office setup should consist of a decent camera, a good microphone/speaker combo, and (crucially) a strong internet connection. Of course, you can go crazy with this sort of thing as Mullengweg might suggest but you need not spend that much on a setup (though the results are amazing). Here’s a baseline list of specs (and a few recommendations) for which you should look:

Desk (chair optional) – Let’s start with the basics. You should strive for good ergonomics and health wherever you set up your office. Desks that you stand at are increasingly popular due to the health benefits of avoiding long periods of sitting. The popularity of standings desks is evident in the number of companies now offering them. You can find quality choices from Uplift, Fully, and Autonomous. If you like your current desk but want to stand from time to time you can also purchase a standing desk converter. Don’t forget a pair of nice comfy pair of “house shoes” and a cushioned mat!

If you must sit (but you are willing to try a standing desk), you can opt for a tall stool, a hydraulic chairwhatever this is, or even a skateboard like thingy. For those who know they are going to sit for long stretches, splurging on a nice chair is a must and should be at least subsidized by employers. 

Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash

Monitor – Your existing monitor is likely fine, however if you are spending more time at home, upgrading what you are looking at for hours each day can be a welcome improvement. Start by determining the size monitor you want/need. Focus in on LED monitors as those generally represent the best blend of price and features today. For work, you’ll want to look at 4k monitors which tend to come with refresh rates of 60 Hz. Then look for IPS displays with either FreeSync or G-Sync. Lastly, you can determine if you want features like a USB hub built in (which helps manage all those cables) and what types of adjustments you need for height—or if you want to mount it on a a onitor arm, look for one with VESA compatibility. This ProArt Display from ASUS would be a good choice or form something a bit larger check out this 32” Dell monitor for a bit more space.

Camera – These can be pretty simple (and inexpensive). You don’t need 4k. 1080p will do just fine. In fact, many monitors and laptops already have a camera built in. Your employees may want to utilize a camera (or accessory) that can be closed physically to ensure it isn’t on when they don’t expect it to be. In most cases, this is your camera.

Microphone/Speaker – If you don’t want to spend a lot on a standalone microphone, you can avoid the dreaded echo effect by making sure your microphone and speaker are handled by a single device. You can use the mic and speakers that are equipped on your laptop, but for an upgraded experience you could try something like this or this

Software

As for software, this will relate closely to the software your team already uses and is familiar with and will tend to fall into one of the following categories: Chat, File Sharing, Project Management, Video Conferencing. Sometimes, many of these can be accommodated by one solution. For example, Google Workspace (formerly gSuite) or Microsoft 365 both provide file sharing, email, calendaring, docs and spreadsheets, chat, and video conferencing solutions. 

Some of the individual tools that are garnering the most attention (and usage) in these categories are:

Chat: Slack 

File Sharing: Dropbox

Project Management: Monday

Video Conferencing: No surprise here, Zoom

4. Explicitly define communication habits and expectations

With all these tools however comes greater opportunity to disrupt the normal flow of your workday. Now everyone will have many ways to reach out to someone. Email, Chat, Video Conferencing, and maybe even phone calls we guess.

Each is used for a different purpose, and you should orient your staff on what patterns and practices are desired in your organization. Here’s a framework you might decide to use from the authors of Remote, the Basecamp team with some minor edits, mostly for emphasis:

Chat: Quick questions and messages. We use Slack and chat throughout the day. Slack allows for setup of group channels around a particular topic. We find the old axiom, “If you have a question, someone else probably has the same question,” to be true, so for general clarification, we always have people default to the group channel so everyone benefits from the answer. 

Email: Non-urgent communication and project delivery. Email is appropriate for longer-term communication around a particular topic. We tell our team to err on the side of brevity with email. Since so many people use their phone for email, we want to send them quick messages that they will easily be able to digest and respond to on the go. 

Phone: We make phone calls from inside Slack and use a VoIP phone system. Phone calls are used for clarification when chat won’t do, and brainstorming or troubleshooting a particular project or issue

Regular (Video) Meetings: Each of our teams has a weekly meeting and each individual has a weekly one-on-one with their manager. Having these standing meetings helps us cut down on the clutter and one-off questions, since the team knows they will get a chance to address any issues during their weekly chat. It also gives everyone regular human interaction, and a chance to come up for air, joke around, present ideas and celebrate wins together.

Matt Mullenweg of Automatic also suggests that as much communication as possible be online—where it is documented so that everyone can understand the why of decisions that were made. The conversations and messages that led to a decision are all there for future review. 

5. Don’t forget to seek feedback on how it is all working

Last year we wrote about the importance of collecting feedback from remote workers. That still holds true, maybe even more so today. And although we admit to bias, we still think that collecting anonymous feedback offers advantages to other methods. You can set up a free demo of an Incogeato suggestion box in under 10 seconds.

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