3 Strategies for Effective Collaboration in a Remote Environment

The remote-work phenomenon, long trending upward, has suddenly taken a downward shift. Companies like Yahoo and IBM — the latter touted as a pioneer in the remote-work environment — are all pulling their workers back into the office.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall proportion of people who worked remotely either part-time or every day dropped from 24 percent to 22 percent in 2016.

If remote-work policies are being revoked across a range of industries, then what exactly went wrong with them? The truth is that large companies can have difficulty with these policies because they require unique employee skill sets and more comprehensive managerial approaches.

Rather than giving up on them as viable solutions to the traditional workplace, though, businesses should invest more in their implementation.

Ultimately, leaders can learn to balance employee needs with company needs and foster the most effective collaboration through a combination remote and in-house work environment.

Why Balance Is Essential

At its heart, remote work offers employees freedom. That freedom is essential to innovation and creativity and is exactly why that kind of work environment is promoted by the Silicon Valley work culture at companies like Facebook.

In fact, Millennials rank remote-work policies as one of their highest values, in large part because of the work-life integration these policies foster.

Moreover, when leaders establish clear employee expectations and successfully implement remote work, it can offer a slew of company and individual benefits. Management no longer has to baby-sit each team, and communication bottlenecks disappears because employees are responsible for (and understand they’re responsible for) their own actions.

Essentially, each individual is treated like an adult, and as a result, they act like adults. Employees are also happier, which lends toward greater efficiency and productivity in their roles.

Successful implementation of remote-work policies, especially when a project requires regular collaboration among team members, though, is a process. If companies aren’t willing to work with employees to find the right balance and help them gain the necessary skills, of course, this can be a problem.

Or if employees don’t explicitly understand the benefits that sort of environment affords, then working from home can quickly degrade both the collaborative and autonomous efforts in an organization.

How to Achieve That Balance

Effective remote-work policies understand the dual need for collaboration and autonomy in the workplace. These policies don’t have to present an “all-or-nothing” scenario — especially these days. There is the advent of messaging apps and other communication channels such as email.

It’s all about balance, and leaders can better structure their workplace environments by following these three strategies:

1. Better Manage Perception (Both Yours and Others’)

One of the biggest hurdles for many leaders and employees is the perception surrounding remote work.

For leaders, this amounts to a lack of trust in an employee’s ability to get the job done when left to his own devices. According to Global Workplace Analytics, about 33 percent of managers feel the need to have employees in-house in order to ensure work completion.

To combat this, leaders can outline explicit goals for their workers and use probationary periods during which they build employees’ autonomous skill sets, such as accountability and engagement.

For employees, the stigma that follows remote work policies can be equally damaging, with a Polycom Inc. survey indicating that about 62 percent of remote workers worry their co-workers think they’re less productive when at home. This stigma prohibits workers from taking advantage of flexible policies even when they exist.

Leaders need to make it clear that remote work is just as valid as in-office work by establishing clear guidelines for its application, such as designating certain days when employees can work remotely.

This way, employees know when their team members will and won’t be around and can structure any in-person collaboration needs accordingly.

2. Take Advantage of Technology

Remote work policies don’t have to abide by the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality. Quite the opposite, in fact. With messaging apps and other digital communication tools, technology can transform remote workers into a cohesive and collaborative team.

Take Slack, for example: The 3-year-old company has 5 million users and is growing, but the key to its success is that it’s a low-pressure, fun way for team members to keep in touch and work together wherever they are.

Plenty of options like this are available to companies that want to make sure the lines of communication stay open, from low-stakes chatting tools like Slack to project collaboration tools like Asana to video conference tools like Google Meetups. Even taking a conversation offline and talking on the phone from time to time can erase the physical distance by adding that little bit of human contact.

The key for leaders is to focus on a few tools that every employee can use, to establish some ground rules for their usage. Slack usage is typically for quick questions but phone calls for lengthier discussions.

Make sure that your people know how to use them. In this way, communication won’t get cut off just because an employee is working from home.

3. Develop and Implement the Processes and Systems Collectively

Working with employees to create and implement your policies and having a system in place for evaluating those policies is vital.

If employees buy into the value of the policies and have some degree of ownership in them, then they will feel more invested in their efficacy. This initial collaboration also prevents the top-down approach to implementation that can be destructive to worker engagement.

In addition, the only way to truly understand whether these policies are working is to establish a system for evaluating their effectiveness along the way. Techniques can range from in-person review sessions to online tools like 15Five that can help you catch lapses in productivity early on and deal with any dissatisfaction.

Most importantly, though, don’t abandon remote-work policies just because they don’t immediately work. Instead, adapt the operating procedure as necessary.

If remote work is declining, it’s not due to any inherent flaw in the concept — namely because no such singular concept exists.

The benefits to both the collaboration and autonomy that remote work offer are due to its versatility. It’s all about implementation. Leaders who work to find that balance within their organizations by governing perception, using technology, and working with their teams to establish and execute the specific policies will quickly find that flexible workers are better workers.