Strategies for effective remote working

Nick Jenkins

Nick Jenkins

Nick Jenkins is Head of Data Science at Evolve and is a master of new research technologies including text analytics and AI.

Working remote is a paradigm that fundamentally changes the social and physical nature of work. In many ways it is an evolution like open office environments and hot desking. While there are some clear benefits to employers and employees, there remains some potential difficulties collaborating effectively with remote working employees. This blog post will examine some of these difficulties and suggest strategies for employees, employers and colleagues to get the most out of the experience.

The advantages to employers come in the form of reduced overheads (office space), access to a wider talent pool, and being known for an attractive company culture. For employees, it can cut down commute times, enable travel, and facilitate periods of uninterrupted work.

Issues relating to remote work stem from the lack of social and physical presence which an office provides. In many respects, technology helps to overcome these, but the solutions largely exist in good communication and teamwork practices.

Open office spaces facilitate collaboration and idea sharing. This can be especially important in start-ups or with closely connected teams. Overhearing conversations, or being pulled into adhoc meetings can facilitate this process. On the flip side, interruptions can affect work focus and potentially lead to mistakes or wasted time.

Remote work can reduce an employee’s social interaction, but it also opens new avenues for professional interaction. In my time remote working I have attended several meetups across a variety of topics such as web development, machine learning and general nerdy topics. The people you meet are usually the best part of the experience. The experience helps inject new ways of thinking back into the business.

One of the bigger challenges with the lack of physical presence is the ability to prototype solutions or to quickly address conceptual questions. In this regard, nothing beats a whiteboard, some hand gestures and verbal communication. Notwithstanding, when it is time to progress a project towards more formalised work, the remote working process remains on par with an in-office experience.

In terms of producing high quality, accurate work, remote work doesn’t change things. Good results tend to come from good briefs. Good briefs are the result of communicating the problem, then working together to share different points of view about solving it. As an analyst, I need to understand the business problem being presented by consultants. I also need to communicate the options, benefits, and expectations around timing and cost of various approaches. Starting with a well written brief sets the expectations of a project, provides a paper trail and enables further delegation.

On tasks where extended collaboration is essential, such as in training or adding knowledge redundancy to a project, there are many remote work tools to accomplish this. I have spent considerable hours with a colleague in the past two weeks on such a task. We utilised two workspaces; a collaborative workspace (a remote server) and our individual ones (our computers). This means we can both tackle a problem together. Along the way, we checked each other’s logic and taught each other new skills, while also being able to revert to our own workspaces to solve minor problems along the way, or communicating with colleagues.

Being availability to respond to colleagues is also a key consideration of remote work. This is an area where most of the onus is on the remote worker to make it work. Added to this, working remote can also involve different time-zones and working hours. Colleagues only start to notice a problem with availability when they don’t receive a response to their request in a reasonable amount of time (according to their expectations). When this is encountered, this can be a particular pain point. When in the office, a message left not responded can be followed up by a desk visit, whereas there is no synonym for remote working. There are a few strategies to deal with this, such as effectively communicating working hours, being flexible in responding to messages, and planning the day around the office.

A colleague of mine has a very good work habit of posting their work status on their skype profile on a day to day basis, for example ‘WFH 19/12/17’. This allows other colleagues to quickly get a picture of the persons day and set expectations for communication.

While we all need to respect colleagues work life balance in regards to communication, remote work has this unique challenge. Whereas remote work saves employee time on commuting, it’s a fair proposition that a remote worker should endeavour to be responsive to email and skype communications outside of normal office hours. A simple acknowledgement of an email suggesting you’ll review in detail on Monday, or a skype message to answer a quick question can go a long way to helping colleagues feel confident that you are accessible to service their needs.

It can really help to plan your day around what’s happening in the office. That may mean taking breaks when most people in the office are at lunch, or checking calendars to anticipate needs.

Working remote provides benefits for employers and employees. There are some challenges to overcome with the lack of social and physical proximity, but with the right strategies, you can make it work for you and your business.

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