HR & Leadership

Want to Increase Productivity? Go Remote.

October 3, 2019

You might be surprised to learn that a ton of new research shows that remote work is good for both employers and employees. The remote work movement is gaining traction across a wide variety of industries as more organizations adopt a geo-agnostic approach to building a company. Don’t believe me? Check out the stats:

An independent analysis of 2017 census data showed a 91% growth in remote work over the last 10 years, and there are currently 4.7 million people in the U.S. who telecommute (up from 3.9 million in 2015).

OpenView’s recent survey about the most sought after employee benefits found that 72% of respondents value flexible working policies, including remote work.

I’ve actually been working remotely for most of my career, and it hasn’t held me—or the companies I’ve worked for—back one bit. In fact, I credit remote work for much of my success. For the last five years, I’ve been running marketing for Trello. As the company’s first marketing hire, it was my responsibility to build out the marketing strategy and team from scratch.

Perhaps just as important as being the first marketing hire, I was also the first remote member of Trello’s executive team. My arrival served as the catalyst for some cultural change that would help us embrace a remote working strategy. Today, my team is distributed all across the U.S., Spain and Brazil.

The transition from a traditional, office-based team to a remote model wasn’t without its challenges. But while the process wasn’t completely flawless, the ultimate outcome was just what we’d envisioned: a well-oiled network of remote team members who are highly productive, creative and collaborative.

If your organization is thinking about going remote, there are three areas of consideration that you should explore: the benefits (to help you sell the idea internally), the tactical details (to help you wrangle all the moving parts that go into a successful remote plan) and how to get started.

The Many Business Benefits Of A Remote Work Strategy

My personal experience with remote working grew out of my lifelong focus on productivity and efficiency. One of the things I know about myself is that I’m a very social person who is easily drawn into conversation when working in a traditional office. I’m definitely not the only one who struggles with this kind of distraction. Many people work from home because it’s the only way they can achieve the uninterrupted focus they need to actually get work done.

Recent research corroborates the idea that people get more done when they work remotely. Researchers from Harvard Business School and Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, for instance, found that examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trade Office who worked outside the office increased their output by 4.4% without negatively affecting the quality of their work. Another study from Stanford showed that a Chinese travel agency increased productivity by an impressive 13% when call center employees were allowed to work from home.

In addition to improved productivity, there are many other benefits that employers gain by going remote. Here are just a few of the top ways remote working can strengthen a company:

Reduced Overhead Costs

Working remote is often a matter of practicality for startups who can’t afford office space, but even large companies are starting to realize that a remote approach is a big money saver. Scott Mautz, an expert on employee engagement and performance, cites studies that show businesses saved almost $5 billion in 2018 by allowing employees to work from home. From real estate to general operating expenses, there are a lot of costs you can reduce or eliminate if your employees work remotely.

Better Employee Retention

Remote employees tend to be happier, healthier and more loyal to the companies they work for. A Stanford study found that there was a 50% decrease in attrition among employees who were allowed to work from home. Lower turnover means a company spends less time and fewer resources on recruiting and ramping up new hires.

More Successful Recruiting

Speaking of recruiting, a remote work option can be a very powerful differentiator in a competitive hiring market. According to Mautz, 68% of Millennials won’t sign with a company unless their package includes a work-from-home option.

Greater Workforce and Idea Diversity

A remote approach also helps you increase the diversity of your team. Being able to hire without geographic constraints puts a much wider talent pool at your disposal — giving you the opportunity to hire the best person for the job, no matter where they are located. Not only are you able to access a truly global range of talent, but you are also less likely to be influenced by unconscious bias or judgments.

Being a remote company delivers many other benefits including reduced employee stress and fewer sick days. Telecommuting also helps reduce environmental impact by lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reducing fuel consumption and improving overall air quality. Remote work arrangements can also extend the careers of older professionals and help companies close the gender gap in their hiring practices.

5 Core Considerations For Your Remote Work Strategy

Building and successfully scaling a remote team requires a whole lot of process, groundwork and expectation setting. This isn’t something that’s going to come together on its own. You need to do all the due diligence by asking the hard questions, testing out different approaches and iterating until you’ve found the right solution for your organization.

While each solution will be unique to the company’s needs, there are a number of universal considerations that every organization must address when designing a remote work strategy.

Finding the Right People

Not everyone is cut out for remote work because people are motivated by different things. Some people love the idea of being remote and independent, others like the buzz and hum of a traditional office. At Trello, we’ve developed a very comprehensive interview process that includes having candidates complete some kind of task that’s designed to assess their ability to work on their own without a ton of direction (a skill that’s obviously critical for a remote worker). We also use a series of values- and culture-focused interview questions to get a sense of a candidate’s alignment with our remote approach.

Establishing a Culture of Autonomy

On the flip side, it’s important to ensure that your company is capable of supporting a team of remote employees. It’s imperative that you create an internal environment that supports true employee autonomy. This can be challenging at first. Often, department heads who aren’t accustomed to managing remote employees can default to long-distance micromanagement. This is not helpful for the employees or the manager. Remote work is only viable if you can fully trust your employees to work autonomously.

Wrangling Time Zones

Having access to a global talent pool is a good thing. Having to coordinate work and meeting schedules across multiple time zones, however, can be a real problem. At Trello, we have a rule that our remote workers must be available between 12 pm and 4 pm Eastern Standard Time. This allows us to schedule team meetings and ensure that there is a consistent window for real-time collaboration. This policy does put some restrictions on us (someone working from Australia, for instance, would need to be available in the middle of the night), but we knew it was important to set some firm parameters around availability in order to facilitate effective collaboration.

Building a Digital Tool Kit

A clearly defined set of tools and uses is really critical for any remote team. At Trello, we use Slack for chat, setting up multiple channels for different purposes (including some just for fun). Confluence is our shared knowledge base and single source of truth; and we use Trello to keep track of projects and all their moving pieces. Zoom is a core component of our digital toolkit as we have a rule to jump into Zoom meetings if a conversation is taking more than a few minutes over chat. In addition to the tools, we have a whole set of expectations around how we communicate and collaborate as a team. We set expectations with each new hire, and also maintain written documentation that’s available for anyone at any time.

Nurturing Strong Relationships

Getting facetime is really, really important to developing strong relationships. We have always been very intentional and committed when it comes to creating opportunities for our remote team members to really get to know one another. When you’re not in an office all the time, you don’t take that facetime for granted. If I want to have a 1:1 meeting with a stakeholder, I need to make a concerted effort to get that scheduled. The funny thing is that even though I’m remote, I’ve found myself making introductions between people who work five desks apart and yet had never spent any time together. To support this more broadly, we have a remote workplace experience person who is responsible for planning the digital analog of the types of team-building things that happen in a physical office. We also have regular off-sites, including an annual one for all Atlassian employees who work on Trello.

How To Get Started

One of the biggest challenges organizations face when launching a remote work strategy is how to get started. In my opinion, it’s best to take an all-or-nothing stance. If you do it halfway, the experience will be terrible for the remote people and for the onsite people.

Companies that just dip their toes in the water tend to set themselves up for failure. The unfortunate result is that leadership will then assume that the problem was with the remote approach, not with the way it was implemented, and the organization will miss out on all the benefits of remote working.

Remote work success requires two things:

1. Executive Buy-In

Introducing any level of remote work to an organization requires a company-wide cultural change. It’s not a small thing. For this reason, you need true commitment from your leadership team. It’s not enough for them to green light a pilot program, they have to be fully supportive and enthusiastic champions of the cause. They need to understand the big-picture benefits, dedicate resources to developing remote-friendly infrastructure and culture and be willing to work through iterations of the strategy.

2. A Well-Defined Implementation Plan

In my opinion, the best starting point is to have everyone in the company work remotely for a day or two each week. A universal approach puts everyone in the same boat, which will make it easier to identify where things break down, where the gaps are and where you could use additional technology or other tools to streamline workflows and communication. Having everyone on board will also help you develop a common language around how remote teams function.

In addition to big changes, there are also small, day-to-day things you can do to help cultivate a remote culture. At Trello, we have a rule that if one meeting participant is remote, everyone takes the meeting from their computer on Zoom. This is because everyone knows that meetings with a mix of offsite and onsite people are miserable for everyone involved. People can’t hear. There’s no way to read body language. The back-and-forth becomes very choppy. The simple act of leveling the playing field changes the entire dynamic.

Often, you’ll notice interesting cultural behaviors that can give you clues about your team’s preferred working style. For instance, I’ve worked with a number of teams that use Slack. Some teams used Slack as a way to check in intermittently throughout the day. Other teams were on Slack from morning to evening so that it functioned more like a virtual office space. People would start the day with a “Good morning!” and then say “Goodnight” when they signed off for the day. The most important thing is that everyone is using the tool the same way with the same expectations, so creating rules around tool use can help normalize expectations.

The Bottom Line: Remote Working is Here to Stay

Despite all the research, a lot of companies are still afraid of remote work. They worry that they won’t be able to tell if their employees are actually working. I find this to be a pretty silly concern. First of all, how do you know whether people in a traditional office setting are working? You don’t. In fact, there have been multiple studies that prove how little time we spend on focused productivity during a workday. One such study found that the average worker is truly productive for less than 3 hours each day. The rest of the time is spent reading the news, checking social media, conversing with coworkers, making personal phone calls, job hunting and more.

Meanwhile, when employees have more control over their environments and the autonomy to optimize their own productivity, they not only get more done, they are also happier and — ultimately — more invested in their jobs.

The fact is that the remote work trend isn’t going anywhere. In addition to the employer benefits, the ability to work remotely is a huge boon for working parents. I’m a working mom, and being able to work remotely has been a profound game changer for me in terms of flexibility and efficiency.

Just remember that going remote requires balancing a lot of logistical elements and human ones. The only way to ensure success is to cultivate a remote work-friendly culture from the top down. None of this will happen organically; it has to be carefully engineered.

But, if you get it right, your team will be stronger, more capable and more productive. Trello was acquired by Atlassian a couple of years ago, and one of the things that made me really proud was when Atlassian’s CMO commented on the strength of the relationships on our remote team. He was amazed that they were as strong as (and maybe even stronger) than some of the relationships between onsite employees.

I look forward to the day when remote work is more the norm than the exception, but until then I’ll just keep supporting my team and encouraging other people to get on board with this new way of working.