Skipping the commute, keeping close to your kids (human or fur-baby), attending conference calls in your pajamas...it's a pretty sweet deal. The option to work from your kitchen table (or your back patio or local coffee shop) can "spark joy" in many office-bound employees. And the performance-boosting benefits (and cost savings) of remote work are being increasingly extolled and embraced by agile startups and industry titans alike.

Caveat emptor ("buyer beware")

Here's the catch, however. Remote work is a whole different animal from office work. When companies try to impose a traditional office model on remote work environments, they're asking for trouble. Too quickly, the freedom, flexibility, and uninterrupted time to focus that represent the best of the remote work model can start to give way to a new set of challenges.

At their worst, employees in remote work environments can experience a growing sense of isolation and "silo-ing," along with an insidious encroachment of their work life into their private life (since the built-in boundary of the physical office is absent).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the virtual, synchronous communication between team members (and leaders) that often accompanies remote work can begin to feel like a disorienting barrage of digital noise that interferes with focus and productivity.   

How do you ensure that remote work remains a "best of times" proposition--one that even Dickens himself would approve of? Here's what remote teams (and their leaders) need to know to make remote work, work.


Rethink Your Model and Metrics  

As an organization shifting from in-office to remote work, the largest change that must be made is the move from measuring progress by time "clocked in" to measuring progress by meeting critical goals and aligning individual workflows with business objectives.

It's not always an easy journey, but if done right, it's one that can increase both your employees' productivity and purpose.

Rather than trying to hold employees to a 9-5 workday model, encourage employees to work during the hours they're naturally most productive and in the increments most suited to them.

Also, take into account that it makes sense for many employees to invest longer work hours at the beginning of their work week (when energy reserves are typically at their highest) and progressively shorter work hours as the weekend approaches (as energy reserves wane). This is an approach that harnesses natural energy flows rather than fighting against them.

Don't assume that quality work gets done only in the daytime or with sustained hours of intense focus or by working the same number of hours every day. Not everyone is built for running marathons, and it's important to recognize and respect those who run their best race as sprinters.

Stay connected

Remote work can get lonely.

While those who are more introverted may thrive in remote work settings, it may not take long for extroverted personalities to feel the lack or loss of social connections with their teammates and the sense of camaraderie this brings.

Even for introverts, remote work can be socially challenging, and regardless of personality type silos pose a clear and present danger to any organization.

For leaders, it's especially important that you stay connected and communicative with remote employees. As Carol Cochran, Director of People and Culture at FlexJobs, explains, "In a remote environment, people who don't communicate don't exist. Discover what the opportunities for engagement are and take advantage of them."

Leaders who fail to regularly communicate with employees not only effectively "ghost" them but also leave employees feeling invisible.

In any organization, it's critical that people have the experience of being appreciatively "seen"--and in remote work situations, leaders have to work extra hard to make up for the lack of physical visibility and in-person interaction. Go out of your way to be virtually present and transparent, reaching out to warmly acknowledge your staff's efforts, clarify objectives, elicit questions, and impress upon your team that you're mindful of them and their needs.

Set boundaries

While certain set times of teamwide availability may be necessary for collaboration, it's important to set clear boundaries and guidelines about communication and expected response times.

For example, at Zen, some of our team members have embraced the "Work smarter, not harder" Pomodoro Technique.

When any of us see a tomato emoji in the Slack status of one of our teammates, we know they're involved in an intensive, 25-minute Pomodoro session that we shouldn't interrupt unless absolutely necessary. The tomato emoji also signals to us that under normal circumstances, we shouldn't expect a response to an earlier communication until we notice the tomato emoji has been cleared, signaling our teammate's Pomodoro session has ended.

At Zen Media, our team has been able to achieve remarkable levels of collaboration and form exceptionally close bonds -- all from our home offices. We've done this by creating processes that support connection and collaboration, with technology playing a supportive role: we rely on Slack to keep us in synchronous communication; we connect via video conferencing several times per week (at least!) on Google Hangouts, and we regularly interact on each others' social pages.

Even when we have no need to collaborate and are working on independent projects, it's not unusual that we choose to hang out on conference calls together for the sheer sake of each other's company.

Creating a healthy, productive, and supportive remote work environment is absolutely possible. Once you've established the right mindset, find the tools, processes, and routines that work for you and your team, and before you know it, you'll be off and running.

Published on: Jun 7, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.