Flexible work arrangements is becoming more and more popular as time goes on. It’s getting hard to even keep track of the names of what all the different arrangements are. Flextime, telecommuting, remote working, flexplace – it’s hard to keep up.
For the last six years I have been working remotely, in a variety of different setups. I’ve worked with a team (both in the same timezone and with a large time difference), as a freelancer, and and in a hybrid remote/on-site setup building Wombat.
Looking back at what has made this work, there’s one thing that I think really makes it run well:
I think this concept of empathy – really focusing on understanding the feelings and needs of other people is the bedrock of effective remote working. This is true between the company and the employees, between the employees and the company, and between the employees their coworkers.
Empathy towards Employees
Fundamentally, enabling remote and flexible work arrangements is about catering to the needs of the employees.
Different workers have different needs. Some need the structure of an office that they come to on a daily basis, and some need the flexibility to pick up their kids in the middle of the day. Some need to be out of the house, so they aren’t distracted by their laundry, dirty dishes or unpaid bills. And others want to optimize their life and save time by avoiding things like commuting or getting dressed in the morning.
Creating an effective remote work culture means finding ways to help each individual employee figure out the work arrangement that works best for them and respecting their own individual needs.
For some employees, this means letting them define their own hours and work location. For others this means paying for them to have a space in a co-working space or even renting out an office for a few employees who all live in the same area.
Happy employees means employees who look forward to doing their work, are less likely to look for other opportunities, and are usually more productive, too.
Facilitating flexible work setups also shows the employees that they are trusted. This empowers them to contribute more and care more about their company and its success.
Empathy towards the Company
Flexible work arrangements does not mean that employees can spend all their “work time” doing other things.
When you’re not working in an office, there isn’t another person on top of you all the time making sure you’re productive. So to make remote work effective, employees need to really buy in to the company vision and be responsible and self-motivated enough to really deliver.
Effective remote work is really about deliverables. Did you get your work done? Do you look for other ways to contribute to the company when you do? Do you try to make up the time you took in the middle of the day to fold your laundry?
Employees need to understand that as much as their employer wants them to be happy and fulfilled, they are also being hired to do a job. Workers who are empathetic to their company and its goals, and care to make the company succeed and going to want to maximize their productivity to make sure the company succeeds.
Empathy towards Co-workers
It’s not enough, however, for each worker to work by themselves and make sure that they are checking their own deliverable boxes. Remote work setups are in many ways optimized for maximizing individual productivity. No one will just stop by and interrupt you in the middle of something to ask you an “urgent” question (that really could have waited until you finished the task you were on.)
In a company, everyone is part of a team. And more than individual productivity, the real important thing is how productive everyone is together.
People are often dependent on others for certain things. So to me, the biggest part of having co-worker empathy can basically be boiled down into this:
Do your best to not be a bottleneck for someone else.
Don’t be a bottleneck
This means that if you have something that you’re working on that someone else needs, prioritize it. If it’s going to take a long time to finish, make sure you let them know where you are up to on a regular basis.
If someone has to approach you to ask for a status update, that means that they had to think about what they’re working on, realize that they were waiting on something from you, interrupt their train of thought to reach out and follow up with you and then waste brain cycles jumping back into whatever they were working on.
Being proactive about keeping people in the loop makes sure that you are managing expectations so your coworkers don’t get frustrated or disappointed waiting on something.
Some of this can (and should) be formalized, through daily and weekly updates, but for effective remote work it’s important for this to be an ingrained part of your company culture.
Build trust and recognition
I mentioned above that in allowing flexible work, companies show their employees that they are trusted. This trust needs to extend from the employees to their co-workers as well.
When people are not in the same room, you can miss out opportunities to thank people publicly for a job well done. As an empathetic employer, this is something you obviously don’t want to lose out on.
But this is actually an even bigger loss than it sounds because it’s not just about the person getting credit. Highlighting accomplishments publicly helps keep everyone up to date with what other people are working on, and helps encourage people to ask questions to the right person.
I once had a problem where people weren’t asking me questions about things I was the expert on, because I wasn’t in the office. I noticed this was happening and made sure to make myself more visible (virtually) in team meetings. By doing my best to perform at a high level and making sure others were aware of what I was working on, I found others were much more likely to reach out when they had a question.
Empathy towards Customers
Building an empathy-based company culture means that your company and your team are always thinking about others.
And this automatically extends to your customers as well. It means that your employees will work hard to deliver a good user experience so that your customers don’t struggle with your product. They’ll notice if there’s something that they could be doing better, and they will be responsive and respectful when your customers need support.
And when your customers know that you care about them and understand their feelings and needs, what more can you ask for?