Remote workers aren’t avatars: They are real people who must be managed wisely, though from afar. And while critics say collaboration and innovation suffer when teams aren’t physically in the same place, work-from-home innovators are proving it’s possible to develop a high-performance culture while providing employees with workplace flexibility.
Ryan Burke is a limited partner at Remote First Capital, which is investing in the future of remote work, and former senior vice president at InVision, an online-whiteboard and productivity platform. He’s worked in a fully-remote environment for more than a decade, and at Chief Executive‘s Remote Work summit earlier this year, he shared a dozen best practices for optimizing a this kind of environment:
1) Remake hiring as a strategic tool. “You need to change the profile of the type of person you’re hiring,” Burke said. “You need to do more than say, ‘Everyone is going to go remote.’ That isn’t going to work.” Sort candidates for “innate traits versus experience,” he said. “In the new remote world, you have to find folks who are inherently proactive and focused on their own self-development.”
2) Seek innovation and collaboration anyway. “Sure, you won’t get the water-cooler conversation or people brainstorming in a room,” Burke said, “but you can dispel the idea that working distributed doesn’t enable collaboration.” The “water-cooler thing is such a myth,” anyway, he said. “Are you really bumping into people on the next floor? [Instead] create vehicles such as digital light boards, pictures of sticky notes or the creation of safe spaces for innovation sessions where everyone comes prepared.”
3) Prioritize onboarding. “This may be the single most important thing in the remote world,” he said. “People remember their first day, and it can be intimidating to ‘show up’ when you’re not in an office, and you don’t know who to talk to, and you’re sitting at home.” InVision had onboarding “scheduled for the first 90 days out, almost to time blocks of what [hirees] shoud be prioritizing.” Ask them if they’re ahead or behind, Burke advised, “[as managers], we need to make sure we have those checkmarks in place.”
4) Allow for subtle expression. Remote employees must be able to “express their mental state” even though they can’t go into a manager’s office, shut the door and vent—“a way to show vulnerability that builds trust.” This includes creating ways for workers at home to provide tonal clues using devices as simple as emojis. “Use them: They give you another indication of what the tone is, which can so often get lost and fester in a remote world.”
5) Make room for “bad versions.” Employees may fear expressing their views remotely can create a damning transcript. “When you hit a wall during brainstorms, most times that is the result of people holding back their ideas out of a fear of judgment.” So, allow a sort of permission slip that says, “What I’m about to say might not be a great idea—but that it is OK.”
6) Provide specific and ongoing feedback. “Ninety percent of employees would prefer their manager address learning opportunities and mistakes in real time, not just during an annual review,” Burke said. “Be clear and specific in feedback, focusing on impact and identifying the fix.”
7) Harness tools wisely. Productivity-enhancement platforms proliferated during Covid, “but they created the opposite [of the goal]: chaos. There are too many tools, too many departments using their own. This has negatively impacted employee engagement. Audit your tool stack all the time.
8) Promote “trust behaviors.” It’s crucial even in the relatively unsupervised remote world “to measure and hold people accountable on behaviors and activities as much as on results,” he said. “You can measure results, but are people doing the right behaviors and aligning with your company values?”
9) Meet in person—selectively. Off-site meetings “can be too much if it’s measured in days,” but instead, “get some cheap, warm champagne and just do a [collective] hike. If you do get together, you need to optimize the personal relationships that will help build the trust to foster this type of environment.”
10) Parse out recognition generously. “Figure out ways for micro interactions throughout the day to congratulate someone and give kudos,” he said, calling them “micro high-fives.” There are online programs that create a virtual pot of cash, out of which employers can reward staffers for a strong presentation, a sales win or other successes that may be more or less everyday but which can create opportunities for recognition.
11) Use meetings sparingly. Even when they’re attended remotely, “meetings are killers. You’ve got to be intentional about auditing [necessity for] meetings. Do it every quarter. They suck the life out of everyone.”
12) Commit it to writing. Rewrite the employee handbook “with fewer things, but embody and live them, then you can add more.” Things as important as “how do we work as a team” and as simple as “do we use nicknames?”