Introduction

Over the past decade, there has been a notable global trend towards more flexible working arrangements. Yet, until now, this shift has been incremental, with organisations gradually moving towards more remote and virtual working practices in line with technological developments. The COVID-19 outbreak has rapidly accelerated the requirement to work remotely, as businesses have been forced to adjust to significant disruptions to day-to-day operations and routine working practices – an issue exacerbated by the dependency of modern organisations on technology in every aspect of their operations. 

Effectively addressing this challenge is particularly critical as top talent pools increasingly prioritise modern working practices over financial motivations. 

The most likely reason a millennial would quit their job is a lack of workplace flexibility – a trend that is likely to grow as the ability to remotely manage all aspects of our lives becomes increasingly prevalent. Organisations, therefore, face an existential risk, both operationally and in terms of talent, if they do not proactively respond to the changing environment. The momentum caused by COVID-19 has created opportunity to fast track this shift.

There are three key factors for consideration when implementing a successful remote working strategy: location, technology and people. While the technology and location factors serve as the foundation to any remote strategy, it is the people who are responsible for delivering the tangible organisational benefits associated with remote working. Recognising the nuances associated with people will be the most challenging element to get right. This paper focuses on strategies for designing an effective operating model and people strategy for remote working. 

If the operating model is designed correctly and implemented effectively, there are multiple benefits beyond the attraction and retention of top talent which can be realised. These include:

  • An increase in employee health and wellbeing, as reduced travel times and improved work-life balances contribute towards enhanced morale and greater productivity 
  • The digitisation of processes and improved data management practices, creating opportunities for enhanced data analytics and insight-driven decision-making 
  • Downstream cost savings through the optimisation of physical infrastructure
  • Access to a global talent pool and increased range of skills at a lower average cost due to the decentralisation of employee base
  • Potential to drive increased productivity through a geographically distributed workforce can maintain a 24/7 operation across time zones

In this paper we present a number of practical recommendations designed to help remote working staff maintain relationships, engagement and effective performance management.

There are two key principles to keep in mind when designing and implementing remote working operating models and people strategies.

  1. A disciplined and deliberate approach – Much of what makes for effective remote working is the consistent application of good management practice. Many managers (particularly those with more experience) loosen their adherence to processes over time, in favour of more intuitive and ad-hoc management practice. Reverting to tightly defined processes may feel cumbersome, but establishing good discipline up front will set teams up for success
  2. Conversation not communication – Establishing frameworks and guard rails, and sticking to them as outlined above is important; however, given the transition required will take time. Individuals and teams will differ in their acclimatisation to new ways of working, and retaining an open dialogue is vital. This needs to go beyond sending out emails / announcements and surveys to collate feedback. It will likely require dedicated time to engage in genuine conversation to understand and address challenges and opportunities

Identifying the right balance of remote working for your organisation 

Countless studies attest to the benefits of remote and flexible working, with organisations globally reaping the benefits of a distributed workforce. 

Yet, the same organisations, and many more, have highlighted common pain points associated with a transition to this type of operating model. 

An organisation’s approach to remote working differs depending on a range of factors, including the locations of the workforce and the ability to adapt and digitise manual processes. Nevertheless, the success of a shift to a remote working model is ultimately determined by the workforce’s ability to adapt to a new way of working. Critically, transitioning specific people and functions must be aligned to the drivers for a remote working strategy. The following key factors should be considered:

  • Some functions will naturally be more suited to adopting remote working practices due to the task-orientated nature of their roles and, therefore, should be used as test cases   
  • Look to pockets of positive deviance in the organisation, those teams that may already be engaged in effective remote working, understand and emulate the successful elements of their approach
  • Any resistance to this change must be planned for and managed effectively, gaining the critical mass required to achieve the targeted benefits 
  • Ensuring that the change in operating model and people strategy is communicated clearly and effectively is key to securing the required buy-in from the employees for a successful transition

Framework to establish an effective remote working operating model and people strategy

There are three key components to a people strategy when adopting a new operating model that facilitates effective remote working:

  1. Building Relationships – Establishing a trusted relationship with, and across, your remote team from the outset is critical to setting up your team to leverage different working models successfully
  2. Ensuring Engagement – Maintaining engagement between your entire team (including both on-site, remote and hybrid resources) to drive collaboration and effective communication, especially as the team adapts to new ways of working and individuals move between on-site and remote locations
  3. Managing Performance – Defining new mechanisms to measure success consistently between different employee profiles (on-site, remote, hybrid; full-time, part-time, contingent; etc.)

Focusing on these components will allow you to maintain those elements of your culture that drive success.


Building and maintaining organisational relationships 

Key Recommendations

  1. Clearly communicate the broader operational and organisational structure at the beginning of the working relationship 
  2. Clearly define and agree individual and team requirements and expectations around specific performance and engagement metrics, especially as they relate to working remotely 
  3. Manage remote delivery and review of performance through a working structure agreed between the employee and their manager

Overview

Key challenges

  • Establishing strong relationships will be key to driving employee engagement in a remote working environment and will ultimately support employee retention – A recent study by Owl Labs found that companies who have successfully implemented remote work strategies have 25% lower employee turnover than companies that do not 
  • Adopting the appropriate roles and responsibilities can be challenging for new remote employees, especially given employees do not have the benefit of observing and reacting to team dynamics to help define their role and responsibilities; clearly defining these at the outset can help shape individuals’ place within the team
  • Lack of informal communication channels can restrict the ability and confidence of a new remote worker to raise ad-hoc queries as they arise, limiting their productivity 

Key frameworks to establish

  • Easy to follow communication guidelines for each stage of the manager / employee relationship for both parties to function effectively  
  • Definition of required knowledge transfer regarding the broader context of the team’s role in the organisation, as well as the employee’s role within the immediate team 
  • Agreeing the ways of working specific to that team and how technology enables the team to deliver on its commitments including any lessons learnt from past failures
  • Providing a quality expectation / management framework to ensure there is no misalignment on key requirements  

How to achieve

Communicate the contributions expected of the team and explain how these align to its position in the wider organisation

  • Provide a detailed brief of all team roles and responsibilities and how the individual maps against these  
  • Communicate the expectations the manager has of an individual, including how KPIs will be measured and tracked (including expectations about working hours, availability etc.) 
  • Align the review of individual performance to the agreed structure to ensure consistency and remove uncertainty 

Capture and address the employee’s expectations

  • Ensure employees are given the opportunity to voice concerns, queries and working preferences, as they arise    
  • Empower individuals to create a working environment suitable for them to maximise benefits around productivity and efficiency – A 2015 Stanford University study showed remote working can lead to a 13% performance increase, and total firm productivity can increase by 20 – 30%
  • Tailor to individual profiles. Remote teams are made up of, and depend on, different personality types and attributes; early identification of these attributes supports effective individual management in the context of the wider team

Ensure openness regarding potential logistical and cultural challenges

  • Ensure adoption of the communications framework established for the team, encouraging individuals to voice concerns if the guidelines around consistent and clear communications are not followed
  • Encourage employees to identify elements of the team’s working practices that may become problematic due to their culture and ways of working
  • Establish a core, flexible working hours policy, agreeing it with individual team members to ensure that role requirements, as well as employee wellbeing, are addressed –Bloomberg reported that since the Covid-19 outbreak, US employees have logged an additional three hours per day compared to pre-Covid-19 patterns – a 40% increase

Ensuring that engagement is maintained

Key Recommendations

  1. Create an inclusive and transparent working environment, overcoming the virtual barriers by scheduling formalised engagement
  2. Maintain engagement by adjusting the approach to inclusivity, adapting the working week to respond to new challenges that arise from remote working
  3. Consider the emotive impact of communicating remotely, engage with remote and on-site team members consistently

Overview

Key challenges

  • Maintaining engagement of all stakeholders and ensuring remote workers have ample opportunity to contribute in meetings is vital; putting the responsibility on meeting owners to maintain an inclusive meeting can resolve this common challenge
  •  Building a culture to be proud of must be more intentional with more limited face-to-face interactions; consistent and regular communications of the company values at all levels of the organisation will manifest itself through a strong culture, even if the workforce is not co-located

Key frameworks to establish

  • Multi-channel communication guidelines to support group and individual interactions
  • Adapted cultural values and principles that consider the remote employee profile 

How to achieve

Expose remote workers to the entire team to drive inclusivity

  • Create a virtual working environment by embedding familiar activities from a traditional working day; promoting informal team communications (e.g. virtual coffees) can help maintain the team ethos and keep employees connected – A 2018 CIPD study indicates that ‘less interaction with colleagues’ is the second most common challenge related to remote working
  • Drive adoption of innovative tools and technologies to encourage collaborative working practices and enhance visibility; flexible download permissions on pre-authorised tools and add-ins can lower barriers to entry and improve adoption. However, this approach requires adequate training and security controls that are mandated by the executive team – A 2013 Deloitte study showed that workers are 30% happier with their workplace culture when they have access to collaboration tools
  • Over-communicate with employees. The organic transfer of information between teams is significantly suppressed by remote working, so a conscious effort needs to be made to encourage information sharing between teammates by formalising touchpoints. Both vertical and horizontal touchpoints should be added to the diary for all employees (both remote and on-site)

Maintain a connection with other team members

  • Proactively allow remote workers to contribute in meetings by structuring discussions correctly to provide those remotely connected with a chance to contribute or challenge
  • Remote working does not mean impersonal; video should be used to engage on a personal level with colleagues and the human challenges of working from home should be embraced – these all contribute to a familiarity within the team
  • Ensure a conscious effort is made to limit the informal conversations which may, by their nature, exclude particular members of the team 
  • Normalising frequent communication encourages remote and on-site employees to share challenges and successes as they occur, serving to benefit the team as a whole

Engage through multi-channel communication methods

Consider the emotive impact of the message conveyed before choosing the appropriate communication channel.

For example:

  • Written communications on a group channel is not appropriate for providing direct feedback on content to a specific individual
  • Use video conferencing to deliver difficult messages to gauge visual cues and improve how the message is received – A Forbes Insights study shows that 62% of executives agree that relative to audio conferencing, video conferencing significantly improves the quality of communication and 50% agreed it improves the degree of understanding
  • Email volumes naturally increase when working remotely; urgent questions and real-time information should be communicated via instant messaging platforms – A 2019 study run by Global Banking & Finance review found that 61% of employees believe that instant messaging is the most effective way to communicate when working remotely

Additional considerations 

  • Make sure company-wide communications are relevant for both remote and on-site worker profiles; referencing specific office or geographic locations unfamiliar to a remote worker can create a disconnect 
  • Due to high pressure working environments, things will go awry at times. Adapting to a new way of working takes time and persistent reinforcement. A robust change management approach will support embedding new ways of working

Managing performance and output 

Key Recommendations

  1. Establish principles with which to evaluate the performance of the remote working team 
  2. Create a culture of coaching by holding frequent formal and informal mentorship sessions 
  3. Use necessary channels to communicate effectively and consistently to employees, ensuring they deliver against requirements whilst also maximising their potential impact 

Overview

Key challenges

  • Managers often perceive a lack of updates from their team to mean that the progress is not being made or that their teams have misinterpreted guidance that was given, resulting in wasted time and effort
  • Employees can often feel that the opportunity to demonstrate their progress and potential is restricted due to the limited amount of communication associated with remote working. It is important to manage this effectively to prevent creativity and innovation from being negatively impacted 
  • Individuals’ personal and professional development can suffer to the detriment of both the employee and the team. Managers should maintain a full view of the detailed workflows of their teams and can provide feedback where necessary to improve the process while complimenting effective progress 

Key frameworks to establish

  • Redevelopment of performance management frameworks to include not only metrics on the quality of output but also the ability and willingness to experiment and deliver increased value 
  • Establish a culture of coaching within teams to ensure that requirements for personal developments are captured and addressed, whilst remaining aligned to team activities 

How to achieve

Evaluate performance based on output and contribution to the team’s objectives 

  • Performance evaluation principles must be defined and communicated clearly and reviewed frequently to ensure that they are still appropriate to the specific task 
  • Deliverables should be broken down into critical and supplementary parts, ensuring that the rationale behind this categorisation is communicated and understood  
  • Performance metrics should be consistent across the team and aligned to the overall team objectives, whilst also giving the employee the opportunity to achieve their personal development targets

Performance metrics will differ depending on the specific role and project; however, these might include:

  • Quality of output
  • Timeliness of delivery
  • Delivery of specifications
  • Frequency of errors
  • Communication to stakeholders
  • Stakeholder satisfaction 
  • Ability to work effectively as part of a remote team
  • Capability to think innovatively and problem solve effectively 

Ensure the development of employees through remote coaching frameworks

  • Ensuring that the development of remote employees is conducted effectively relies on the manager utilising the tools available to maintain total visibility of the activities being conducted with their team 
  • Collaboration channels and shared virtual working spaces must be leveraged to ensure that informal and formal communication channels are used by both managers and employees to report and track progress, as well as raise issues and share success stories
  • The insight derived from working in this way will form the basis of the coaching conversations that the manager will lead with the employee
  • It is the manager’s responsibility to set the communication protocols (time, day, length and topic) for each coaching session, as well as to come the session prepared to discuss the specific performance of each employee
  • It is the employee’s responsibility to come to the session prepared with structured evidence of the value they have delivered and the way it was delivered. 
  • Provide encouragement and opportunity for employees to demonstrate examples of innovative problem solving that could benefit the wider team

Managers should maximise the value both they and the employee derive from coaching sessions by:

  • Encouraging participation through a personalised coaching approach, ensuring communication is culturally appropriate and using the most effective communication methods
  • Taking the opportunity to develop relationships with the employees by utilising the time to have more informal conversations, ensuring that there are no distractions that might interrupt a sensitive or important topic for the employee

Coaching should be leveraged as a method to not only discuss the output produced by the employee, but also to address and improve factors that may be impacting the employee’s morale. The approach and tone taken to these discussions should ensure this is factored into considerations.