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The Review

Out of office: How to make remote teams work for your business


Here’s how to run a remote team the right way

When technology firm IBM revealed it was rolling back telecommuting perks many called it the beginning of the end for the work-from-home trend. The tech giant helped pioneer remote working in the 1980s and since then has gone on to be a leader in the space. Before the announcement, a whopping 40 per cent of its employees in 173 countries around the world worked outside the office.

Of course, out-of-office arrangements — which let employees work from home or shared co-working spaces — in Canada remain incredibly popular. Almost half of all Canadians work remotely, according to workspace provider RegusCanada.

For IBM, the office reversal was part of a bigger strategy to increase collaboration and boost productivity after 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue. Other companies that have invoked similar policies — think Reddit, Bank of America and more — espoused similar sentiments.

But while reining in remote workers may seem like the perfect fix for productivity issues, it’s only a temporary solution. Why? It’s simple: The same problems that plague employees outside of the office can easily carry on in a new environment. To truly make a difference executives need to better communicate their expectations, say experts.

Starting off on the right foot

Tech startups have long relied on remote workers to help them rise in the industry. In fact, most companies these days offer up flexible work schedules in order to attract the best talent, especially since a majority of full-time workers,  aged 18 to 29, now prefer it. And, since millennials make up most of today’s active workforce — outnumbering both Gen-X and Baby Boomers — business leaders are keen to keep it.

82 per cent of millennials say they would be more loyal to employers if they had flexible work options, according to @FlexJobs.

Michael Prynor, founder and CEO of popular task management software Trello has found an effective way to manage remote workers that startups can employ in their own business. It all starts with the interview process, he explains in a CBNC interview. He and his team screen applicants via video conference to make sure they can effectively communicate without being face-to-face. It’s also a test to find out more about their work environment and set them up for long-term success.

“If we decide to hire someone then we go through this process of asking, ‘Do you have an office with a door that closes? If you don’t and you live in a studio, then you have to go find a coworking space if you take this job,” he says.

Trello’s requirements for remote success:

  1. Good wifi: This one isn’t a surprise since an Internet connection is required for even the most basic office work these days.
  2. Access to work resources. Workers need to be able to “log into [their machine as a local administrator” and also have access to a standard VPN for privacy.
  3. Working headset. Bad, static-laden connections are a big no-no, so workers need to have a reliable headset.
  4. An office with a door. To cut down on distractions Trello asks employees to work in an office with a door.
  5. Prioritizing responsibilities. Just like at regular offices, employees can’t expect to take care of household chores, care for children or pets during working hours.
  6. Over communicate. This piece of advice could apply to any worker. Employees should make sure stick to scheduled hours and communicate if/when problems arise.
  7. Be reachable. Employees should be able to reach remote workers via phone and other work channels.

Beat Buhlmann, general manager for note-taking app Evernote, uses a similar approach for remote workers, he explained in a podcast interview with Lisette Sutherland. That’s not all either, he explains. His team also interview employees via video and outline expectations as well as responsibilities to ensure staff understand the job requirements beforehand.

“It is important to establish communication rules in a joint team-code-conduct manner that includes teams and their wishes directly in the creation,” he says in a publicly shared guide that includes advice from some of tech’s biggest players. “When do we use chats? Why do we write emails? At what point do we pick up the phone? These answers should be a joint effort and one that is reflective of the team’s efforts versus that of one person.”

Laying the financial groundwork

Creating a so-called paper trail is critical for remote workers as well, especially since most companies don’t have one in place. Two out of five companies with remote work policies don’t have formal paperwork that outlines expectations, according to a report by Workopolis.

Related: Why community plays a pivotal role in startup success

Enter: Workable. The remote-focused company created a series of templates that both small and large businesses can use to help their company operate as effectively as possible. Another template can be found online at  Workplace Analytics that specifies everything — from pay to hours of operation– startups can utilize for their own workplace policies.

Meanwhile, for Patty Azzarello, the best thing a startup can do to help streamline remote policies already in place is designate specific work-at-home days of the week to optimize office togetherness. The entrepreneur and business advisors to companies, like Adobe and Hewlett Packard, has spent years crafting work-from-home policies that, well, actually work and shared her advice in Fast Company.

“Require pre-approval for specific work-at-home days versus people having the expectation that they can just send an email on any given day saying ‘I’m working at home today,’” she shares.

At the end of the day there are great reasons for companies to embrace remote workers, but in order for it to be effective companies need to make sure they have policies in place that will allow them to be successful and help their employees thrive.