remote work and learning

I have been working and learning remotely since 2003, when I became a freelancer. I live in a fairly remote location — Atlantic Canada  — away from major metropolitan hubs. I had to understand remote technologies in order to stay connected to my peers and potential clients. There was little chance I would bump into them here in Sackville, New Brunswick. Over the past decade the work with my colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance has been mostly remote, as we span between the UK and California. Necessity has been the mother of invention for a lot of my work.

“Harold Jarche is a true pioneer. Nine years ago [2005], long before online activities were commonplace, we conducted a series of Unworkshops on the topic of web-based learning. We relied on free software. Our students came from Australia, Lebanon, Canada, Austria, the Azores, and points in between. Lessons were both synchronous and offline. To give people exposure, we used a different platform each week. I can’t imagine anyone (aside from Harold) crazy (and innovative) enough to sign up for something like this.” —Jay Cross (1944-2015), founder Internet Time Alliance

I recently came across a site dedicated to remote work — This site has a number of questions to which over 100 companies have posted responses. I would like to highlight what I think are the most interesting responses to some of the questions. While many of the responses come from start-ups I will try to focus on those from larger or more established companies. Today, the drive for more remote work, even in established businesses, is quickly ramping up. Given the current global health situation, this site, which includes a blog, is quite useful.

1. Did you switch to remote or start out that way?

At American Express, we’ve been serving customers for more than 165 years. As the environment and our own business have evolved, we’ve been receptive to new ways we could deliver our customers the superior service they’ve come to expect from American Express. While American Express has had a number of virtual roles for some time, our focused effort to expand the remote telephone servicing team began about a half decade ago.

2. How important is remote work to your business model?

American Express — Our mission is to become the world’s most respected service brand. To do that, we must be able to attract and select the very best talent, people with a passion for service. Having a remote workforce allows us to cast a wider net, reaching prospective employees who may not live within commuting distance of one of our brick-and-mortar customer care locations. We also can attract people who have the right profile but who have specific needs that make virtual work a good fit, such as parents, students, veterans and their spouses, and people with limited mobility. Having employees across time zones and with a more flexible working model also helps us respond to volumes and be there for our customers when they need us.

3. What do you consider the biggest benefits of a remote workforce?

Dell — Work flexibility allows team members options for how, where, and when to do their work. These options create a collaborative work environment between the needs of the company and the team member. A flexible workforce is just as productive (if not more so) as the traditional office model—reducing the global carbon footprint, and helping individuals balance their work life and their personal life. Bottom line: it’s an advantage and a benefit that helps Dell be successful.

4. How do you conduct onboarding for remote workers?

Goodway Group — We ship laptops pre-installed with all of the software needed. We have a dedicated training and onboarding team to guide new-hires through getting organized, settled and oriented on all of our systems and processes. All of that communication is done through email, phone and screen share.

5. What is the hardest part about managing a remote workforce?

At GitHub it’s important to us that we look after our employees. We’re not just in this for short-term productivity, we’re in this for the long-haul, and that means that you need to view the health of your people and teams a bit more holistically.

What we’ve found is that it’s actually quite hard to ensure people are making full use of what’s offered to them. It’s easy to view policies as just sets of rules about what you can or can’t do, but in a distributed company you rely on written documentation much more than in non-remote companies, so one of the challenges we’re facing as we grow is how we can make sure our management practices and internal documentation are focused on encouraging healthy behaviour. That’s the only way you’re going to get sustainable productivity and growth in the long-run.

Sutherland Global Services — Sensing everybody’s mood, level of motivation, identifying issues before they develop. With an on-site team, you get to take advantage of facial expressions, body language, etc. With the remote team, there are a lot of subtleties, often taken for granted, that are missing. Managers really need to be good listeners and learn to “read between the lines”.

6. What were your biggest fears in managing remote workers?

InVision App — Our biggest fear with regards to having a remote workforce was that individuals would feel left out, not engaged, or like they were missing out on being part of a community. We’re human beings with social needs—and we didn’t want our employees to feel hampered in that regard.

To address this, we encourage—and pay for—our employees to join their local networking groups, because we feel in-person connections are key. If someone works better in a social co-working space, we’ll support that.

We’re also very cognizant of that transition phase when a new employee comes on who has been working in a traditional office environment. We aim to help people make that transition as smoothly as possible.

7. How did you implement a remote work policy?

Dell — Our remote work policy was implemented formally in 2009 via Dell’s Connected Workplace program. This program enables eligible team members to work remotely, at variable hours or in other flexible capacities that fulfill the needs of both their job and their lifestyle. Before Connected Workplace, flexibility at Dell was informal, with most arrangements being made one-on-one between team members and managers.

8. What advice would you give to a team considering to go remote?

American Express — Some companies view a remote workforce as a means of reducing operating cost. We view it as an investment in finding the very best talent so we can deliver the superior service our customers expect. We continue to invest in better tools and unique ways to engage our very committed team of home-based employees. For example, every single employee has a webcam, and we encourage them to connect face-to-face for team meetings, feedback sessions, reward & recognition and other events. Similarly, we have invested in the right technology, data infrastructure, equipment and reporting to put our employees in a position to be successful.

Dell — First, do your due diligence. Explore if—and to what degree—your organization can support flexible work arrangements. Talk with other companies to gather best practices and lessons learned. Create remote program strategies
and policies that will work for your company. Educate leadership/management on work flexibility. Partner with IT/facilities/HR. Build a robust back office that offers training, toolkits, and FAQs. Design regular health checks and progress dashboards to measure the state of the program. Communicate and collaborate with your workforce to develop a program that allows mutual benefits and positive results.

Learning remotely

In addition to working remotely, we have to help everyone become skilled at learning in online communities and networks. I am a member of several communities of practice and host the Perpetual Beta Coffee Club. The personal knowledge mastery framework was developed out of a need to learn remotely, using internet tools to connect with experts and peers. The PKM online workshop is one way that cohorts from around the globe learn how to learn remotely.

Early Remote Work: Teletype Operator 1943 — Library of Congress

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