Navigating the challenges of remote and virtual working
Employers who offer flexible working patterns that help staff to balance work and non-work commitments are attractive for many of us.
It also helps the organisation attract and retain talent and also promote activity-based working that can keep real estate costs down.
One of the central tenets of flexible working is being able to work remotely from a different location away from your office, and quite possibly away from the rest of your team. For many of us this means working from home, probably within the scope of agile working policies, although it can also mean working in a different office as a remote worker for part or all of your role. This is a pattern more typical of a larger or global in-house team.
Working from home and the flexibility of remote working are attractive, but they do come with their challenges. There persists the myth of an “easy life” perpetuated by stock photos of attractive, successful people working on their laptops on the beach or by the pool , when the reality is more likely to be you working on your kitchen table in cramped conditions, fighting for space with the kids when they return from school, completely unable to reach anybody you need to speak to back in the office.
Here are seven of the key challenges around working remotely:
Challenge one: Mindset
Probably the most significant issue associated with remote working, but especially working from home, is the mindset of your colleagues and occasionally, senior management. Working from home is somehow regarded as a “light” option or something that is considered not being “fully present” at work. There can also be an assumption that people who work remotely are trading in opportunities for career progression for a lifestyle option and are, therefore, less interested in internal promotions. In everyday working patterns, this mindset can also manifest itself as people will avoid speaking to you or calling you because they want to speak face to face.
Negative perceptions of home working have various repercussions including an impact on promotion, the cohesion of teams, and your ability to successfully interact with colleagues. Actually, when you have the right digital tools, you can be fully connected to the office and may even be working more hours than your office-bound employees, especially with less time wasted on a daily commute.
Challenge two: Visibility
An issue associated with negative perceptions of remote working is also the problem of visibility. Sometimes if you're working from home or out of the office, you can lack the visibility of your colleagues who are office-based.
Because so much communication takes place informally, you may miss the “water cooler conversations” that convey valuable information, or the nuances of communication that are conveyed face to face. Also, there's sometimes a feeling that you need to show your face in the office so senior leaders recognise that you’re contributing, and members of your team see that you’re pulling your weight.
Challenge three: Technology
Technology is a key enabler of remote working and when this is less than optimal it is a real barrier. You need a basic, reliable technology set up to be able to work properly from outside the office. Many IT functions allow employees to dial into a virtual desktop, which means they can generally access everything they would do from being on the network inside the office and all the systems, data and documents that you need.
However, this is not always the case. Not everyone might have the level of remote access, they need for example more junior staff or those who only work remotely occasionally. While most law firms support remote working to varying degrees, in-house teams may work for organisations where there may be less of a culture of flexible working and where the technology still lags behind where it should be.
Challenge four: Meetings
A very specific challenge is also around meetings. When you dial into a meeting remotely and everyone is within the same room, you are automatically at a disadvantage because you cannot see the full interactions and expressions of people who are there. And also, there can sometimes be a problem with audio in terms of you hearing them or them hearing you. Video conferencing does remove some of these issues.
Sometimes teams have impromptu meetings in a common area within the office, perhaps because all the meeting rooms are booked out. This can prove to be a challenge for remote staff because its harder for them to dial in.
There is also a problem about your perceived availability for meetings because if people only want to meet you in person, and you're in the office for a limited time, then it can be difficult to organise a face to face meeting where diaries are busy.
Challenge Five: Time zones
Managing a global virtual team across jurisdictions has multiple challenges including those around culture and language, but often it’s the time zones that have the most impact. If you're UK-based and have ever had to work with colleagues, for example, in Australia, or on the west coast of America, then you’ll have to get used to either early morning or evening calls that aren’t ideal. Of course, this virtual working challenge is an issue for both office and remote workers.
Challenge Six: Loneliness
The impact of working from home alone or being away from your team can result in loneliness. This can be far more of a problem than people realise and needs to be factored in by those involved, including HR if relevant. Not all may wish to work outside of the office.
Challenge Seven: A lack of a home office
Working from home is not always so straightforward. You may not have the space, the connectivity (if in a rural area) or the peace and quiet you need to be able to successfully carry out your role.
Of course, there are various different ways to overcome and reduce the impact of some of these challenges. While there is no magic instant solution, a few common-sense approaches can help a great detail. Here are some suggestions, many of which you may already have put into practice.
1. Arrange for regular some limited time in the office
One way to mitigate some of these problems is to arrange a time when you're in the office. And people know that you will be around. Of course, this depends on your circumstances. But it can also really help when you have a team whom many frequently remotely work and you need everyone to be together in one place at one time. If everybody knows everyone's going to be in on a Wednesday, then you can plan face to face meetings It also manages the expectations of senior managers who don't fully buy into remote working, so they are clear when you're going to be in the office.
Similarly, if you are a manager of a team and they work in remote locations, being able to visit them from time to time and work out of the same office can be very important for team coherence.
2. Be explicit and transparent about your working times
Being explicit about your working times allows everybody to know when you’re contactable and manages expectations. It also sends a clear message to those who regard remote working as not being fully present.
One way to be clear about your working hours is to include the information in your email footer or on your intranet or employee directory profile. It also helps to include the best or preferred way to get in touch with you, and potential times you may be in the office. This helps to remove a lot of the ambiguity and stress around people getting in touch. Ideally an entire in-house team should follow this practice.
3. Share the time zone burden
If you have a global team spread across challenging time zones and you need to meet regularly then it’s inevitable that somebody is going to have to compromise and work at an unhospitable hour. If you can spread the burden so it’s not always the same people on the late evening or morning call, then obviously this is a better approach.
4. Use video conferencing
The easy availability for video conferencing for all obviously makes this an option, although not everybody chooses to use it. Video definitely brings an extra dimension to team meetings and general collaboration. Although it is important to give people a choice, generally video conferencing as the default option rather than voice only, may help to foster a different team dynamic.
5. Have more online meetings
As described in our challenges, often when meetings have a mixture of people dialling and those physically sitting in a room together, it can create an imbalance with those working remotely a and be a possible disadvantage. The solution to this is to have purely online meetings where people in the office are joining the meeting from their desks. This may go against instincts, but actually it can be a highly effective strategy to streamline your meeting process.
6. Call out the doubters
Challenging the outdated views on remote working of the minority needs to be judged carefully, but generally you will have company and HR policy behind you as well a stack of research that links remote working to increased productivity. If there is a good way to call out the doubters and tackle the issues head on, then good for you.
7. Sample a bit of co-working
The rise of co-working spaces provides a lively working environment, as well as good connectivity and suites of meeting rooms. While this provides a remedy to the loneliness of homeworking the privacy and quiet required for legal work means this may not be a realistic option for everybody. But if you have an opportunity to use a co-working space and you can ensure the privacy you may need (or use it for non-sensitive projects) then it’s worth giving it a try.
Remote working provides some challenges for in-house teams, but also has considerable rewards in helping to balance work and non-work activities, as well as supporting productivity. As remote working becomes far more widespread, many of these challenges are lessening. Exploring some of the approaches suggested may also help make flexible and remote working the success it should be.To read the next article titled 'Training styles' click here.