The remote reality: Working in (and managing) a remote team
Thanks to flexible working legislation and a shift in cultural attitudes, remote working has become more common in business over recent years. In fact, remote working has become such a norm, that these workers are going one step further, and travelling internationally – all whilst holding down a steady career.
You or your company might not be ready to leave the office behind and rely on a team scattered around the world, but the prospect that all business could work this way as standard in the next five or ten years is an idea that’s more reality than fantasy.
With this different working style comes challenges, as well as benefits. Things like communication, workload management and differences in perception and expectations as to what it means to work remotely all need to be tackled head on to make the transition work.
Caroline Saunders of 4 C Marketing, a PR and marketing agency, suggests one of the main complications is separating home life and work life, particularly when there’s lots to be done around the house.
“The biggest challenge is distractions,” says Caroline. “When you work remotely, and particularly from home, the everyday tasks of washing, cleaning, ironing, and cooking surround you.
“You have to be really self-disciplined to manage those boundaries between work and home and ensure that both get the attention they deserve.”
Working alone, and relying only on yourself for motivation, means that setting personal boundaries is one of the biggest challenges of working alone. Working remotely as part of a wider team presents its own, often more complex issues, especially in an international business. For those living and working in a different time zones, choosing a schedule for work can be tough.
Barcelona-based James O’Neill works as Senior Director of Product at Legal Nature, a Los Angeles company that provides legal documents.
He says: “Although flex-working is great, it’s not without its challenges. If you work across multiple time zones, or have your headquarters based far away, you will always need to adjust your life somewhat.
“For me, there is a nine-hour difference between Barcelona and HQ, which quite often means late meetings and long nights when something comes up. Also, as your colleagues are used to you not being in the office, there’s always the expectation that you are contactable.”
Larissa from StudyPool, which offers online help with homework, also highlighted the difficulties of working in a team based across different time zones, noting that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it’s hard to get a hold of people.
“Urgent things are a lot harder to deal with, since delivery times depend not only on you but the rest of the team involved,” she says, “and these people may have other priorities in a different time zone.
“If you’re someone who struggles with organizing and planning ahead, being part of a remote team can be a challenge.”
While many remote workers are often freelancers, those who are working as part of a larger, permanent team will have a manager who is responsible for what the team delivers – which comes with its own concerns.
James Clark from advertising consultancy firm Colorful Studios suggests one of the most difficult elements is bringing the team together to celebrate successes, and Travis of online language tutoring site Langu has similar issues.
He offers: “The cons are that it’s harder to cultivate a rich company culture, and there is less spontaneous ‘magic’ resulting from experiencing things together.”
Company culture and communication are clearly the primary challenges of managing a remote team, but it is possible to make this arrangement work with consistent effort.
Rebecca Newenham, Founder and CEO of Get Ahead VA, a remote personal assistant service, says: “Managing a team of remote workers requires a particular set of skills. Communications skills through telephone and email really come to the fore, and social media is a key tool for us to engender a team spirit.
“We use a Facebook group to share ideas, as well as following and interacting with each other through Twitter and LinkedIn. This helps us to build relationships with each other and stay in touch, despite being physically distant.”
Social media, now a personal tool for long distance communication, is coming to the forefront of helping to manage the professional side, too. Coupled with instant messaging apps such as Slack, and teleconferencing software, teams that work in different areas clearly benefit from replicating the same level of communication you’d experience in the office, alongside of working from wherever suits your working style best.
Rebecca also highlights the importance of face-to-face contact – even if it’s only occasional.
“I organise an annual Christmas event where we try and get everyone physically together to celebrate the end of another successful year,” she says.
“It’s always a real highlight for me – watching the team grow every year and hearing our virtual assistants chatting with each other and talking about the benefits of remote working.”
The realities of remote working, especially as part of a larger team, don’t always make things straight forward. It seems communication and team spirit are the biggest challenges faced by both managers and workers, but by utilising tools and apps, and ensuring everyone makes the effort to keep in touch, the benefits of remote working can shine through.