How to Cultivate Effective 'Remote Work' Programs

Updated:2020/2/26 19:13

By: Carol Rozwell, Distinguished VP Analyst at Gartner &

Lily Mok, VP Analyst at Gartner

Remote work is on the rise. It is a global phenomenon and refers to jobs that are performed away from a corporate office in an alternate location. This paradigm recognizes that technology enables employees at all levels to work anywhere, at any time. Recent events such as the COVID-19 outbreak, make the case for remote work even more compelling.

Effective remote work programs require more than just giving employees smartphones, laptops and email access, and then allowing them to work from home. Remote work programs can be undermined by a lack of trust, when managers are not equipped to deal with employees they cannot see. Stereotypes and assumptions about what work can or can't be done remotely result in underperforming programs. Employees who are unprepared and underequipped to handle remote work demands suffer burnout, frustration and lost productivity. Moreover, application leaders fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of the infrastructure changes needed to support effective remote work at scale. In short, successful remote work programs hinge upon positive answers to the questions in Figure 1.

Figure 1. How You Answer Four Questions Directly Affects Remote Work Program Success

Source: Gartner (January 2018)

This article identifies four best practices that enable application leaders to start, or restart, effective remote work initiatives.

Establish a Trust Foundation by Empowering Both Employees and Managers to Be Effective in Remote Work Scenarios

Mutual trust is at the heart of successful remote work initiatives in the digital workplace. Application leaders must trust that their employees will act responsibly when working remotely. Employees must trust that their employer will act in their best interest and enable them to be successful.

Creating a culture of trust is a top-down responsibility. Application leaders - working with colleagues in HR and business units - have a vital role in communicating to employees that the organization:

  • Trusts them to do their work remotely.
  • Accepts responsibility to enable them to do so effectively.
  • Will fairly and transparently measure remote work productivity and performance.
  • Values their contribution and supports their career development.

How can application leaders create, enable and sustain this culture of trust? They can take actions in three areas: authority, affiliation and accountability.

The Power of Authority. Firstly, empower workers to make decisions regarding when, where and how they complete their work. Set up regular meetings to check on whether there are obstacles hindering their work. Secondly, secure technology and support services that enable both on-site and off-site workers to complete work efficiently and effectively.

The Power of Accountability. Firstly, create a transparent system of performance measurement that quantifies outcomes, not just activities or the amount of time spent on tasks. Establish assignments and goals with timelines. Track progress toward milestones on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, rather than on an hourly or daily basis. Secondly, focus on coaching, guiding and enabling managers who oversee remote workers. Determine managers' attitudes toward remote workers to ensure that no biases exist. Track the development of remote workers to make sure they progress at the same rate as on-site workers. Thirdly, facilitate knowledge sharing and relationship building across individuals and teams by suggesting nonobvious connections that remote employees can exploit. For example, have the remote worker onboard new employees from outside the team as a way of getting to know them.

The Power of Affiliation. Firstly, allow employees to invest time in building their social networks, so that they can establish and nurture trusted relationships with colleagues. This means supporting the face-to-face interactions needed to build trust as well as providing technology, such as videoconferencing, that enables richer interaction. Secondly, facilitate collaboration between on-site and off-site workers. Ensure that remote workers have counterparts in the conference room who will check in with them periodically to see if they have something to contribute. Alternatively, have everyone in the meeting participate remotely, and avoid the conference room altogether. Thirdly, support employees' personal and professional development. Repurpose some of the cost savings from the reduction in real estate expenses toward remote-worker incentives. For example, encourage remote workers to attend local events to stave off feelings of isolation. Use events as a catalyst for holding “after event” face-to-face meetings. Lastly, give remote employees opportunities to increase their visibility with the organization's leadership by assigning them to special projects or roles. Put them in situations where they can participate with people outside of their “home” team.

Determine What Work Lends Itself to a Remote Model by Analyzing Responsibilities and Tasks

There are different criteria to weigh when judging what work can be done effectively by remote workers (either individually or in teams).

One way to approach this evaluation is to examine the existing operational models. Organizations may have one or more operating models that structure how employees do some or all of their work. Three well-known models that require remote work coordination are centers of excellence, self-organizing teams and “follow-the-sun” models. (In follow-the-sun models, operations shift between global locations as the workday moves westward with the sun's movement.) In such cases, remote work processes, policies and enabling technologies become a deliberate strategy of optimizing these operational models.

Another useful approach is to conduct real-life tests of working in virtual offices. “Work” consists of the assignments and tasks that are needed to achieve a specific organizational goal. As such, there is no inherent understanding of “place” in this concept of “work.” Place or proximity becomes relevant only when it's needed to achieve a goal. Specific tasks may or may not be “place-dependent.” Manufacturing, healthcare delivery, and brick-and-mortar retail selling are tasks that relate to a place or a location. However, 3D printing technology and virtual goods, including ideas, digital documents or digital products, make work much less place-dependent.

Enabling effective remote work involves five interrelated actions:

  • Determine how much remote work your firm can handle. Work is essential to the organization's functioning. Figuring out which specific assignments and tasks can be done remotely, perhaps supported by redesigned business processes, is critical to making remote work programs a success.
  • Base eligibility on the work, not the person. Eligibility should not be personality-based because of the potential for discrimination.
  • Establish outcome-based performance measures. Monitor progress steps and milestones. Outcome-based metrics often require a major shift in expectations, employee accountability and managerial responsibility.
  • Determine whether a remote work trial period is necessary. This option allows people to try out a remote work opportunity before making it a permanent decision.
  • Seek feedback on employee performance from peers. While obtaining peer review is a good idea regardless of whether an employee is a remote worker or not, it becomes especially important when the manager lacks visual clues about employee-to-employee interaction.

Prepare Employees for Remote Work Demands by Setting Accurate Expectations and Enabling Supportive Interactions

Remote work can be equally novel - and unsettling - for employees, managers and the organization at large. Depending on where workers and facilities are located, organizations may want, or need, a combination of remote, traditional and mobile work. Figure 2 shows the average allocation of time for each location. These preferences indicate that workers want the flexibility to work from their choice of locations and to feel productive regardless of where they are.

Figure 2. Average Time-Split Preferences Across Different Work Locations

Source: Gartner (August 2019)

Creating remote work programs benefits both employers and employees. By implementing a systematic approach to effective remote work, employers can win significant advantages, including:

  • Reduction in real estate expense.
  • Lower employee absenteeism.
  • Increased employee retention.
  • Improved employer brand.
  • Access to a larger talent pool.
  • Potential to create a more diverse organization

Effective remote work programs enable increased employee productivity and reduce employee stress, according to an array of studies. However, remote work is not free of human costs: Loneliness is a major factor in employee burnout.

Enabling new hires to quickly build workplace networks is key to counteracting loneliness and optimizing employee effectiveness in remote work programs. Application leaders should lead by example by becoming experts in tools that make communication and collaboration effective. To build and sustain healthy trust, application leaders must also create opportunities for ongoing interactions with and among remote workers, their teammates and their managers. Frequent check-ins with remote employees help them feel less isolated.

Stress-Test Your Technology Infrastructure to Determine Its Capability to Support Remote Work

Remote work technology infrastructure enables effective performance by remote workers. The specific elements of this infrastructure will depend on the type of work for a given role. Infrastructure decisions must account for training, support and levels of service, so that employees are enabled to work well from multiple disparate locations.

Most organizations have at least some existing remote workers, whether sanctioned officially or allowed by informal arrangements. Application leaders should stress-test the existing technology infrastructure to ensure it has the scale to support remote work. They also need to determine whether the infrastructure has the necessary capabilities for accelerating digital business and for increasing employees' engagement.

Technology decisions can also change the nature of responsibilities and tasks - enabling them to be done remotely. Application leaders should assess the different ingredients in the technology mix to optimize the experience of remote workers. These are some of the questions that they need to address:

  • Employer-supplied technology: What equipment will we provide to employees? How will we manage those assets during their useful life? What process will we use to dispose of those assets?
  • Home office expectations: Are there minimum requirements we expect employees to meet, such as having a room or space dedicated for work?
  • Network access: Is there a minimum internet speed employees need to procure? Who will pay for internet access?
  • Videoconferencing: Will we provide videoconferencing capabilities for all employees? How will we compensate for areas with low bandwidth?
  • Collaboration tools: What additional applications and tools should we add to our infrastructure to enable more effective interaction for remote employees?
  • Technical support: Does our current technical support strategy need to change in order to effectively support remote employees?
  • Office resource scheduling: How will we make it easy for remote workers to find available space to work when they have the need to come into the office?

Finally, a foundation of trust is essential to the success of remote work programs. If that is not present, then remote work programs will fail.

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