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Switching from office to remote working: a guide

Masha Swain
27.11.2020
We share our experience and outline research on remote working.

More and more business leaders support the idea of working from home and flexible schedules. New technologies contribute to this. What started as a forced and temporary measure for the duration of the pandemic now has every chance of becoming a long-term solution for many.

In this article, we will share our own experience and tell you about the facts and research on switching to remote working.

Pros and cons of remote work


"I go to work — it's dark. I go home — it's dark. At weekends, I sleep all day."

Office worker suspected of being a vampire

Advantages

1. Expanding the search area for employees. In today's business environment, competition for good specialists is very high, particularly when you are competing against much bigger companies..

For us to provide a similar offering to the big consultancy firms, we decided to hire staff overseas. Two of our senior specialists are based in Germany and our developers are mainly in Russia and Ukraine. This allowed us to save money and develop our business without surrendering control to investors, but, perhaps more importantly, when there are no territorial restrictions, the choice of great specialists becomes much wider.

I should mention here that my co-director and I both speak Russian, and, given my pre-existing network there and the really high quality of technical specialists in Russia and the C.I.S., it was an easy decision to make. Essentially what I'm saying here is that cost should not be your top priority; be sure to have a plan and ensure you are hiring people that fit with your organisational culture, not just because they are cheaper.

2. Efficiency. In our experience, remote work leads to increased personal effectiveness in the long run. You do not need to spend time on the way to and from the office, statistics show that employees are less likely to take sick days at a remote location and all this adds up to a noticeable increase in efficiency.

Of course, remote working does mean giving up certain elements of 'control', but it should be understood in a modern business setting that constant monitoring, micromanaging and chasing of staff members decreases productivity. If you feel this is necessary, either you haven't given your team the chance to show you how well they can work independently, or you have hired staff that don't fit in with your organisation's culture and don't share your beliefs and desires for the company to succeed.

3. Work-life balance and team loyalty. We have an office in London, where some employees worked before the pandemic. Now we are all working remotely, we can afford to build our lives the way we want to and fit our work around things like exercise and spending time with the family without wasting time and money on commuting. This can be a huge psychological benefit and instil a great sense of loyalty among staff.

Disadvantages

As with any organisational format, remote working has its drawbacks. The most common and "universal" disadvantages for many companies are perhaps the following:

1. Mental health. Remote working is not for everyone. Some people find it psychologically difficult to concentrate on work at home. Some employees cannot afford to equip a fully-fledged workspace at home. Some have small children who find it difficult to understand why they should not shout when mum has an important meeting on Skype.

People are social beings, and going to work and meeting with colleagues means as much to many as a salary. Work gives you the chance to communicate with interesting people, and for many, being at work brings inspiration and positive emotions.

2. Communication difficulties. You need to spend extra energy and resources on your remote site to make sure that no one is excluded from the communication process and everyone understands what is happening. In the office these processes develop in a natural way. Working remotely, you need to monitor this carefully.

3. Employee development. In many modern office spaces, there are people from different backgrounds with a wide range of experience and knowledge in neighbouring offices. This can help keep people grounded and provide inspiration to grow.

It is important to invest in our employees' development and professional growth. When a new employee arrives, they need to be effectively included and interact with the team. This adaptation takes time. In an office setting, new staff members can quickly get acquainted with colleagues and, as a result, get used to a new workplace faster than an employee who goes to work and just sees a computer screen in front of them.

For many employees, staying home too long can be stressful with some psychologists predicting a spike in divorces. Meg Zukin, social media editor of Variety, asked Twitter followers to share the problems that arose in family life due to the quarantine. Her results showed that many people were not ready for hours of isolation from their families, and it looks like the pandemic will test the strength of many relationships

Other companies' experience of remote work

Remote work has been gaining popularity in recent years, and there are already enough companies in the world that have chosen this format for themselves. Below is a selection of teams who have shared their experience, and some practices that have helped us in setting up our own workflows.

Automattic, the creators of WordPress, a CMS that now runs every third site on the internet, is developed and maintained by a team of almost 900 people, all of whom work remotely.

GitHub is a platform for developers, and the largest web service for hosting (storing and hosting) IT development projects. A year ago, the company was bought by Microsoft for $7.5 billion. GitHub currently employs about 900 people, two thirds of whom work remotely.

Basecamp (previously 37signals), developers of the project management tool of the same name and various other workflow management systems, is a small company of just fifty people.They have so much experience working remotely that they even wrote a book about it, "Remote: Office Not Required". It's a self-help guide for distributed teams listing many practices, methodologies and ways of organising processes remotely. Problems and solutions are described in detail and everything is illustrated with live examples from their direct experience.

SkyEng make a service and platform for learning foreign languages online and chose a remote business model for their company. SkyEng has about 800 employees, mostly teachers, but the team that directly creates the product also works entirely remotely.

Research on working from home

Even before the start of the pandemic, experts from Stanford and Ctrip, China's largest travel agency with about 16 thousand employees, conducted a two-year study from 2014-2016. They studied a large group of employees and all those whose birthday fell on an even date were sent to work from home, and those who were born on odd days were left in the office.

The results showed that employees who worked from home showed a significant increase in efficiency (about 13%); they stopped being late for the start of the working day and left earlier, took fewer days off and sick days, and were 50% less likely to quit. They valued estimated savings on office space plus efficiency gains at $2,000 per employee per month.

Communication in a distributed team

The key to successful remote working is constant communication. At Heliotrope Digital we use various tools to help with this, including Slack as an internal messenger, Jira and Asana for workflow & project collaboration. We also use Hubspot for client relationship management (CRM) which means staff across the organisation can see a history for individual customers and allows us to automate sales and follow ups.

Most teams hold daily meetings in which they discuss what has been done during the day as well as make a plan for the next few days. This helps you stay up to date and track your progress. It helps to set a time limit to go through the tasks, for example 20 minutes just to understand what you need to pay attention to, and then record updates and changes in the task tracker. By and large, these are traditional meetings, they just take place online, and like traditional meetings, they can easily overrun or be generally futile unless tightly controlled with specific objectives. An important principle here: all calls, conferences, and discussions should always take place with video, when possible.

In spite of all the convenience of online communication, live human communication is difficult to replace. Therefore, several times a year we meet up with our teams in Moscow, Frankfurt and Kiev. Plus, individual teams come to our office in London to work together on a project.

Tips for beginners

There are several tricks to remote working that our team has come up with experimentally which I'd like to share.

During video meetings, disable your own camera display. It seems like a small thing, but your own face on the screen is unexpectedly distracting, and turning it off helps you better focus directly on the conversation.

It is very important to have some kind of daily morning routine which helps you to switch from "home mode" to "work mode". Usually a trip to the office provides such a switch but, given this is often not possible working at a remote location, you need to come up with some kind of mandatory daily activity that will help you switch to your working, resourceful state. This could be changing into particular work clothes, or even having two pairs of slippers — work and home. :)

Changing clothes just before starting work also helps to switch and adjust your mood. When you work from home, the boundaries between work and non-work are very blurred. This often leads to my colleagues and me working too much, much more than we might have done in the office. So switching back to "home mode" is equally important.

Remote work as your company's competitive advantage

The most important advantage of remote work is a flexible approach to organising your life. And for many candidates, it can be a deciding factor in why they choose your company, and not a larger or more well-known organisation. This mode of work is not for everyone, but now more and more candidates are looking for opportunities to set up their work-life balance in an optimal way, and remote work can be an excellent way of doing this. For companies that provide this possibility to their employees, it can become a definitive competitive advantage.