Remote working – 5 lessons for your flexible working strategy

After weeks of lockdown, the world is starting to think about opening up.


Unfortunately, there will be many dark days ahead, from both a health and economic perspective, but the roadmaps announced by the government provide some much-needed hope for people.

The world we go back to will be very different from the one we isolated ourselves from a few months ago. Social distancing will continue in one form or another to avoid a second wave of the virus. Our individual priorities will also change. We’ve had time to reflect on what is important and that will inform how we use our time, energy and resources in the future.


The Reconnect Phase


I recently wrote about the four stages of managing COVID-19 as a HR department. We are starting to shift our focus to the reconnect phase. As part of this phase, where people have the option, they will not return full-time to the office. People have enjoyed doing something more productive with the time they typically spent commuting and appreciated their newfound flexibility. The ‘great remote working experiment’ wasn’t set-up in perfect lab conditions (it’s not normal to be home schooling alongside managing heightened anxiety levels) so organizations will now need to develop more sustainable flexible working practices.


The State of Remote Work


People enjoy flexible working. The 2020 State of Remote Work by Buffer identified that 98% of those people who currently work remotely want to continue for the rest of their career and 97% of them would recommend it to others. The top three benefits identified by people include greater flexibility both in terms of schedule (32% of respondents) and location (26%), not having to commute (21%) and more time with family (11%).



The challenges identified are real. The top three reasons include issues with collaboration and communication (20% of respondents), loneliness (20%) and difficulties being able to unplug from work (18%) all need to be taken seriously and addressed proactively.

Our inboxes have been saturated with articles and tips on how to do everything remotely from on-boarding to leading and from yoga to weddings. It was a new experience for many, and the information was timely and helpful. As we shift to a new form of normality, I wanted to share my own experiences successfully implementing a flexible working strategy.


Implementing a flexible working strategy


Some brief context. It was 2017 and the opportunity we wanted to realize was both financial savings and the engagement of our people. We achieved both and learnt a lot of lessons along the way.


It’s not about ‘remote working’ it’s about ‘new ways of working’


Our program was called Better Ways of Working (B-WOW – get it!). It wasn’t about moving people to work from home. It was about:


  • Challenging the way we worked
  • Creating more flexibility for people to work at any location – including their home
  • Leveraging technology more effectively
  • Most importantly (for me at least), building a culture of trust where our people were empowered (thank you Mr Pink)



Don’t shift to 100% working from home


We developed a set of principles with our people and issued guidelines to allow teams to decide how they wanted to organize themselves. We decided working from home all of the time was going to be a challenge in maintaining connection. Interestingly the Buffer research concluded that people are happiest when they work remotely for more than 76% of the time. Leaders organized their people and had regular all hands meetings to stay connected.

This approach helped address some of the challenges identified by Buffer including collaborating and loneliness. Have you ever been the only person dialling in to a meeting? It’s painful to be at the other end of the call or video conference and hard to participate unless you have good meeting etiquette. We got better at it over time, but sometimes it’s just easier to collaborate in person.


Use the right tools


We had some good tools, but we upgraded them, packaged them up and provided the training people needed to fully leverage them. We invested in Yammer as a new collaboration tool to allow asynchronous communication and to build community. We also introduced a ‘BWOW-ance’ (it was an amount of money) that people could use to buy a specific piece of kit that would make their lives better. The fact they were empowered to make the choice was worth every cent.


Communicate, communicate, communicate


We had dedicated change management and communication resources to support the project and this was critical to its success. Interventions were enterprise wide, business unit wide, location wide, team wide and individual wide (that doesn’t make sense, but you get the point). Problems were identified quickly, and solutions implemented so we could build momentum and confidence in the changes we were making. We were proactive in getting feedback through regular pulse surveys to inform our plans.


Get your leaders on board


The biggest challenge in all the work and where I personally invested most time was getting leaders on-board with the changes. They were excited about the dollar savings, but many were cynical about the level of productivity (aka being worried about losing control). Early data points helped (we had one team that had a 25% improvement in productivity by working from home) and then there was a lot of one to one coaching. The leaders who struggled with the change will be the same leaders who are struggling with the lockdown. They are used to MBWA (managing by wandering around) and their behaviour is a symptom of deeper leadership beliefs that need to be challenged.



High Performance Flexibility


I’m not a fan of the term remote working. It emphasises distance when you’re trying to build connection. Teleworking also grates as the technology has fortunately evolved beyond telephones. I like the phrase that Cali Williams Yost, founder of flex+strategy group has coined – High Performance Flexibility.

The last two months haven’t been a perfect experiment, but we now know that people don’t need to come to the office every day to be productive. As we move to the new abnormal, lets take the opportunity to help save the planet and do the right thing by introducing some High Performance Flexibility.

Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.