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What I learnt about remote working — you’re doing it wrong

There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about remote working and how it was going to revolutionise the workplace. However the reality is that it hasn’t really taken off as people expected, even Yahoo cancelled their WFH (Work from Home) programme.

Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer acknowledged that “people are more productive when they are alone,” but that this is to the detriment of collaboration and innovation.

With all of this in mind it was with interest that I recently started working with Hanno, a UX design company that has a completely remote working team. I was unsure about how easy it would be to align myself, get up to speed with their culture, and even communicate clearly with a team that is distributed all over Europe and Asia. It turns out that my fears were unfounded. The experience has taught me that if done correctly remote working is great!

The first thing that struck me is that the shipmates (as they refer to themselves) at Hanno never use email to communicate internally. Never. Instead they use a variety of tools to ensure that the team stay connected and they use them effectively. I actually feel like I built a stronger relationship with the Hanno crew in 2 weeks of remote working than I did with some of my colleagues that I spent years with in the next cubicle.

But don’t be fooled into believing that by investing in some tools you can suddenly transform your organisation into a remote working team. The key thing to remember is that the tools are an enabler, the real impact is made from the culture that Hanno have built around remote working. Without the right culture in place (and the right people) the tools
would become useless.

Therefore there are two key elements that many companies are missing when they attempt to implement remote working:

  1. Using the wrong tools. Unfortunately many organisations think that Skype and email are all that they need. They are wrong.
  2. Attempting to implement remote working in a company culture that isn’t ready for it.

The problem is that many organisations switch to remote working without
really considering the two key elements and this is a dangerous mistake
to make.

Despite being in remote locations on completely different time zones Hanno probably has the best communication lines that I have ever encountered. Everybody is on the same page, working towards the same goals and displaying the same values. They are more productive and they use the tools available to collaborate and innovate everyday, in contrary to what Marissa Mayer suggested about remote working.

Of course, to say that we should all switch to remote working would be foolish. It does have some negatives (nobody to go to lunch with being one) and it wouldn’t work for every organisation. Hanno is still a smallteam so it is easier for them to manage. It would be interesting to see how it works as they continue to grow (though I’m sure that they will make it work).

So if you want to successfully implement a remote working team remember to use the right tools and to develop the right culture. If you do this you will have a happier, more productive and more collaborative team.

This article originally appeared in my old blog on 24 November 2014.

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