As ideas about traditional office structures are challenged, barriers are breaking down and employees are learning to work remotely. Trust, it turns out, is a key element in making remote work successful.
Quiip, a business specialising in social media and online community management, has 20 employees located around the world – and no head office.
“We questioned the suit-wearing, nine-to-five model – and did something about it,” says general manager Julie Delaforce. “We ditched nine-to-five. We ditched full-time. We ditched the suits. We even ditched the office.”
“[Quiip is run by] a global team which not only chooses where it works, but when,” she says.
The flexibility of a distributed workforce helps Quiip attract and retain top talent.
“It creates high-performing teams, increases productivity and makes for happier, healthier employees, while eliminating the dreaded commute and reducing absenteeism and stress.
"There’s also the obvious advantage for our bottom line as we don’t have the overheads of having a physical workplace.”
Long commutes have become a major headache for workers, particularly in metropolitan centres.
“I spent the first 15 years of my working life commuting three hours a day and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate having those 15 hours a week back,” Delaforce says.
A group of Queensland Government employees recently took part in a trial that allowed them to work remotely in one of two hubs located in Brisbane’s outer suburbs. The results were positive: participants’ commutes were reduced by an average of 70 minutes a day and 83 per cent reported feeling healthier.
Remote work is an option for staff at Private Media, a digital media organisation with offices in Melbourne and Sydney.
“It means that we still have access to the right people without having to be restricted by where they are geographically,” says Zoe Dattner, publisher at Private Media’s business website, SmartCompany.
Dattner lives in country Victoria, a two-hour commute via train to Melbourne’s CBD. She works remotely at least one day a week and manages a team of 11 staff, who also work from home at various times. It’s a successful formula, “as long as they are delivering their work and contactable in the hours I need them to be”, she says.
“I’ve never worked with anyone who had a negative experience working remotely.”
CPA Q&A. Access a handpicked selection of resources each month and complete a short monthly assessment to earn CPD hours. Exclusively available to CPA Australia members.
Have internet, will travel – as long as there's connectivity
Remote work is impossible without the right technology in place. “High speed internet is our greatest ally,” Delaforce says. “We don’t consider work a place you go to. If there’s reliable internet, we’re good to go.”
At Quiip, almost all work is done online via social networks or online forum software.
“Workplace by Facebook is our virtual office, where client teams and head office talk business,” says Delaforce.
“We host virtual brainstorms for creative content ideas. We use Asana for project management, When I Work for rostering shifts, 15five for staff one-on-ones. We catch up with clients with Go To Meeting. We’re big fans of Xero for accounts management.”
At SmartCompany, all systems are integrated on the cloud. The editorial and commercial teams use WordPress and Salesforce respectively, and the Google Suite Platform.
“You can log in anywhere in the world on any device and everything is connected – you can have access to any document that we’re all working on,” Dattner says.
“Having everything in the cloud means there is no risk of duplicating documents or making errors.”
For meetings, SmartCompany switches between Google Hangouts and Skype – but connectivity is a persistent issue.
“Internet access in major cities is not great, so often we have to resort to our conference call number,” she says.
Both Delaforce and Dattner agree that relationships require extra attention in a virtual environment. “Personal connection is the thing we work hardest at,” Delaforce emphasises.
Biannual retreats allow staff to “catch up in person and workshop business problems”, while online forums like Workplace by Facebook offer scope for social engagement as well as work-related tasks.
“We chat about our latest Netflix binges in the watercooler area,” says Delaforce.
“We have morning tea breaks and after-work drinks and celebrations via Google Hangout.”
Slack, a popular collaboration tool, plays a similar role at SmartCompany. It’s a space where team members can play, which helps relationships flourish, says Dattner.
“It’s an environment where you can be really informal. You can create groups where you discuss something silly that has nothing to do with work – it’s the equivalent of standing around the watercooler. We use it like social media.”
4 elements that make remote work work
Remote work hinges on trust between employees and managers. The authors of the Queensland-based study identified four elements that make remote work successful: trustworthiness; independence; ability to be a team player; and "outcome-orientated work that is discrete and can be completed in separate parts".
Time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders, writing in the Harvard Business Review, offers a number of tips for remote workers: establish working hours, and set boundaries with others to avoid distractions from work-related tasks.
It is important to clearly delineate between work and home.
"It's all about routine and knowing when you have to switch off [from] work and switch to your own time," says Delaforce, who recommends setting up a home office.
"Even if it's a corner of your lounge room, a distinct work space create a distinct head space, so you can feel productive."
After a fast internet connection, the key to making remote working successful is good communication, Dattner maintains, who is in "constant contact" with her team.
"We do a lot of sharing of thoughts and ideas. It keeps people motivated because they've always got something new to focus on."
Which social collaboration software is right for you?