It’s no secret that an increasing number of employers are beginning to allow their staff to work remotely, whether that be from home, from a coffee shop, or from an ever-growing number of co-working spaces. In the United States alone, 37% of workers telecommute at least two days per week and 80% of corporations plan to increase their use of flexible workers in the coming years.
What’s driving this shift?
Unsurprisingly, this shift toward greater workplace flexibility is driven largely by the emergence of the so-called millennial generation. According to the New York Times, surveys consistently show that millennials “want to work for companies that place a premium on employee welfare, offer flexible scheduling and, above all, bestow a sense of purpose.” Companies that want to attract young talent are beginning to use flexible hours and telecommuting as a recruiting tool and as a way to decrease workplace turnover. With 11% of U.S. small business owners citing hiring and retaining great staff as their number one challenge in 2016, it’s easy to see why so many companies are looking into telecommuting options.
In 2013, when Yahoo’s head of HR Jackie Reses sent a memo to staff informing them that they needed to work from the office or get out, she cited a need for “communication and collaboration” which could only be attained by “working side-by-side.”
Many employers (understandably) worry that allowing employees to work outside the office will negatively impact communication, collaboration, and – perhaps most notably – productivity. But there’s good news: plenty of companies have reported that allowing remote workers has actually boosted productivity.
But how can you be sure that your staff is truly productive if you can’t physically see them working? This question, perhaps more than any other, limits many business owners from adopting a flexible workplace.
In reality, the answer to this question is that you need to place a certain level of trust in your personnel to still do their best work when they are away from the office. If you find that you are just not able to place that level of confidence in the people who work for you, allowing them to work remotely most likely just isn’t an option.
If you are comfortable taking the leap of faith, however, there is some great productivity and collaboration software out there that can help you maintain a connected (and industrious) workforce.
Water cooler conversations are important for more than just passing time at the office. Strong social connections at work have been shown to make staff more passionate about their work, in turn boosting productivity and ensuring that employees stick around longer. When teams work in close proximity, they are able to share knowledge and fresh ideas. In short, social interactions are important for engagement and retention.
At Syvantis, we have two separate offices and a number of staff that telecommute between 1 and 4 days per week. We use a variety of tools to maintain a connected culture, including Skype for Business, Yammer, and SharePoint Online.
Bright and early on Monday mornings, the staff at our Baxter office crowds into the conference room for our all-staff meeting. One person will plug in their computer, connect to a prescheduled Skype for Business meeting, and project their screen for the room to see. 140 miles south, the staff in our St. Paul office connect to the same meeting and turn on their webcams.
Webcams don’t just help management check to see if we’re secretly sleeping at our desks. We find that keeping our webcams on during our meetings, whether they be all-staff or one-on-one, helps us to create more personal connections with our remote coworkers. When I talk to a colleague at the other office, I find that face-to-face interactions via Skype mimic the experience I have when I lean over and tap on my next door neighbor’s desk for a quick question.
Most of the time when you just need a quick answer from someone, video calling them can feel like a bit much. When I need to know the answer to a quick question, I usually IM my colleagues. I find that IMs are a fast, unobtrusive way to chat, so much so that I generally prefer to send IMs to my neighbors in my office when they are clearly in the middle of something, rather than interrupting them verbally.
With Skype for Business, I can easily see if my coworkers are in a meeting, away from their desk, or available for a question. Skype for Business displays presence information (much like its consumer counterpart), which is drawn from their Outlook calendar.
If Drew has a meeting scheduled in Outlook, for example, Skype will show that he is in a meeting. It will also show if he’s currently in a conference call (i.e. talking to more than one person in a call), if he’s presenting his screen to others, or if he’s stepped away from his desk for more than five minutes.
If I’d like to pose a question to a larger group at the company, I will generally do so on Yammer. Yammer is a private social network that allows employees to collaborate across locations and departments. It’s great for organizing company events, posting company announcements, and chatting in general.
I tend to use Yammer as a way to have conversations with the teams that I work with here at Syvantis. For example, I often need to share information and ask questions of other members of our Editorial Team. I’ll simply post a question to the Editorial Team page on Yammer, which is limited to myself and the three other members of the team, and wait to hear back from them. I find that this reduces the number of meetings or calls that we need to have to discuss various topics.
You don’t have to always be in the same room to work on projects with other members of your project team. With Office 365 and SharePoint Online, you can work on the same documents at the same time and use the built-in markup tools to make comments and corrections.
Let’s say that a coworker and I have been working on a new marketing plan. We’ve split up the project so that we are each writing a portion of the plan and reviewing the other’s section. I’ll create a Word 2016 document and put it in our Marketing site on SharePoint Online. I can work on my portion of the plan while my teammate writes his piece. If he hits a block and needs some help, he can send me a quick Skype message, I’ll scroll up and provide my comments, and then scroll back down to continue working. This way we avoid exchanging a slew of emails with competing versions of the document.
Once we’ve completed our draft, we can easily share the document with others for review before presenting it to the management team. We can create a PowerPoint presentation using the same process and save it in the same team site. Team sites make it easy for us to keep everything we need for a particular project in one central place. We also may use tags (also called metadata) to easily sort through documents.
I won’t pretend that adopting these tools will take all of the guesswork and discomfort out of managing multiple locations or employing a remote workforce, but they can help to make the transition considerably easier.