For some of us home-office could­n’t deli­ver on its promi­ses such as ‘higher produc­ti­vity’, ‘better compa­ti­bi­lity of work and private life’ or ‘higher enga­ge­ment of employees’ on a perso­nal level or on an orga­niz­a­tio­nal level such as ‘grea­ter power of inno­va­tion’. Many of us have read and expe­ri­en­ced a lot about the various digi­tal tools for video calls, colla­bo­ra­tive team and project work. A selec­tion of them have been newly intro­du­ced into most orga­niz­a­ti­ons as they are essen­tial to accom­mo­date the switch from working in an office with your colleagues to being remote. Still, they are not able to fulfill that promise alone. Solely intro­du­cing tools (and even having trai­nings for them) as well as adjus­ting some work­flows to the new setting will not be a success­ful solu­tion for orga­niz­a­ti­ons neit­her short-term nor long-term. In this arti­cle I want to shed some light on the role of digi­tal tools and the orga­niz­a­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment needed to ensure produc­tive remote teams in the long-term.

A new under­stan­ding of leaders­hip and commu­ni­ca­tion is necessary for compa­nies and employees alike in order to take full advan­tage of remote work and the digi­tal tools. Leaders­hip and commu­ni­ca­tion princi­ples rooted in micro­ma­nage­ment need to be reflec­ted upon. Trust and indi­vi­dual respon­si­bi­li­ties set new stan­dards for orga­niz­a­ti­ons. If an orga­niz­a­tion doesn’t formu­late an approach to these topic, conflicts will arise auto­ma­ti­cally — espe­cially as soon as one part of the orga­niz­a­tion returns to the office.

Fully Remote or Only Separated

The approach an orga­ni­sa­tion should define upfront will need to include the consi­de­ra­tion about stay­ing fully remote or having one part of the orga­niz­a­tion work in the office and one part remote (sepa­ra­ted). Espe­cially sepa­ra­ted orga­niz­a­ti­ons will have to tackle conflicts in the area of colla­bo­ra­tive work, exch­an­ging of ideas, or reviewing progress. There are multi­ple opti­ons avail­able for orga­niz­a­ti­ons to inter­vene early. The first option is to address the sepa­ra­tion task-orien­ted, hence foste­ring colla­bo­ra­tive work in the office and leaving concen­tra­tion work for home. Anot­her option could be to address this sepa­ra­tion employee-orien­ted: here, the employee them­sel­ves can choose where to do what. Without such expli­cit inter­ven­tion, the office as well as the home-office form their own iden­ti­ties in the minds of the employees that will be hard to influ­ence later. Most likely this will harm crea­ti­vity, moti­va­tion and effi­ci­ency – open commu­ni­ca­tion about one’s task with the team is key.

Trans­pa­rent Commu­ni­ca­tion & Documentation

Trans­pa­rent commu­ni­ca­tion within an orga­niz­a­tion whose work­force is loca­ted remotly is both hard and easy at the same time. Tech­no­lo­gi­cally spea­king it is even easier to reach all your employees online compa­red to all of them being in an office. But to get the most out of commu­ni­ca­tion for an orga­niz­a­ti­ons as a whole requi­res new skills that weren’t necessary in an office setting. The effi­ci­ent and effec­tive flow of infor­ma­tion within the orga­niz­a­tion needs to be made a prio­rity – but not from the perspec­tive of micro­ma­nage­ment. A trans­pa­rent and compre­hen­di­ble flow of infor­ma­tion is not needed as a control mecha­nism but rather to ensure that no-one is left behind. For some this might seem obvious but for others it is not — sending e‑mail updates is not the way to go here.

One of the easiest steps to trans­pa­rency within a team is sharing calen­dars, closely follo­wed by the chosen colla­bo­ra­tion & docu­men­ta­tion tool of the orga­niz­a­tion: instead of writing updates for the team or the boss, these updates, notes and so forth instantly become public know­ledge within the entire orga­niz­a­tion acces­si­ble for ever­yone willing to read it. Deli­ber­ately swit­ching from a pull-based commu­ni­ca­tion system to a push-based commu­ni­ca­tion system. Using public chan­nels to docu­ment work progress not only within the team but within the entire orga­niz­a­tion will heavily elimi­nate a number of regu­lar meetings each week. The more and the better such a system will be used the more likely are that road­blocks can be iden­ti­fied quickly, inde­pen­dent decision can be taken or across team colla­bo­ra­tion is enab­led. Besi­des writ­ten updates, such a tool can easily be enri­ched with charts and data from other systems in the orga­niz­a­tion or important messages can be recor­ded and shared with the orga­niz­a­tion instead of typing them.

A major driver behind trans­pa­rent commu­ni­ca­tion and docu­men­ta­tion is the crea­tion of a collec­tive feeling of progress and moti­va­tion. This bene­fit is enhan­ced by focu­sing on result-orien­ted work — regu­lar updates (in the morning and evening) by ever­yone on progress. Contrary to popu­lar belief remote work bears a higher risk of over­wor­king and/ or burning out than being unpro­duc­tive. As mentio­ned above this does­n’t follow the perspec­tive of micro­ma­nage­ment but serves the purpose of team coor­di­na­tion the individual/ team progress.

Room for Orga­niz­a­tio­nal Culture

As the dyna­mics change by having ever­yone or parts of the orga­niz­a­tion work remo­tely, the orga­niz­a­tio­nal culture will also need to adapt to the new situa­tion. Those so-called water-cooler talks won’t happen in the same way, new ‘tradi­ti­ons’ need to form. The orga­niz­a­tion should­n’t force employees into new inter­per­so­nal rela­ti­ons­hip ritu­als that make working remo­tely worthwhile for the colleagues. Instead, the orga­niz­a­tion should offer opti­ons like remote lunch/ dinner or non-rela­ted video calls “beer o’clock” and other expe­ri­en­ces to spark the crea­ti­vity among employees for adap­ting the culture themselves.

To improve connec­ted­ness and team spirit among employees and cele­brate even the smal­lest of wins — give space to praise and appre­cia­tion for success­ful projects or even smal­ler things such as the help one recei­ved from a colleague last week when the video-calling tool had some hiccups. Besi­des giving feed­back, orga­niz­a­ti­ons should focus on seeking out feed­back them­sel­ves as part of their culture — show humi­lity and reflec­tive abili­ties as mista­kes happen. Focus on preven­ting them in the future and not blaming.

A cultu­ral adap­tion is a long road, it is necessary to focus on many small pieces instead of some large ones — it needs clear mantra-like commu­ni­ca­tion. Don’t forget: It was the employees shaping the culture of yester­day. It will be them – inclu­ding yourself of course! – shaping the culture of today and tomor­row. A new orga­niz­a­tio­nal culture will deve­lop in time but it will need some space, not just physi­cally for sepa­ra­ted teams, but espe­cially in the calen­dars and minds of all employees.

If you need a helping part­ner in crime while chan­ging your orga­niz­a­tio­nal opera­ting system — we are here to help you.