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Remember, successful remote collaboration is not just about the tools. It’s also about building a culture of trust, communication, and accountability within the team.
Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we help HR and business leaders embrace joy in the workplace. I’m JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, and with me is my great friend and co-host Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting, an HR consulting practice.
Our topic today is making remote work work. We’ve been talking about remote work a lot now for almost four years. It was not a new concept in March of 2020. It’s just that not that many employees did it. My company, Purple Ink, started with me working out of my home in 2010, and each time I hired a new employee, I told myself, “well, I guess I will get an office now.” I actually had eight employees before we moved into a coworking space, and even then really no one on my team expressed an interest in an office, I just finally did it so that I would have a place to store all of our stuff. Since we just started that way and added people along the way, it never seemed to be a problem or a concern until one of our employees moved about five hours away. The rest of us could and did get together occasionally when we wanted to, but now, with her five hours away, that was no longer an option. We figured it out along the way, but honestly, many of the ideas came from the remote employee as she was requesting things to make her feel more included. So by March of 2020, we were pros at working remotely. So I suggest to you if you’re asking your remote employees what is working and what is not.
You know, I reflect back on you, JoDee, when I first met you back in – I think 2014. And you were working remotely at the time, and I was kind of impressed by that. And you were adding employees, you know, over the years. I think that you just automatically trusted that wherever anybody worked, they’re going to be focused and doing the job.
Honestly, I think that was what was so refreshing and unique about you. And it was until March 2020, where bosses who had historically not appreciated people working from home, they had to grow some trust really fast.
It’s worked out, I think, beautifully for – in a lot of situations. Not in all, not in the companies where they’re asking everybody to be back on the job.
So prior to March of 2020, most employees who worked remotely were in sales, software development, customer support representatives, and journalism. Freelancers and contractors, regardless of their role, also worked remotely for many years. The trend to be a contractor or a freelancer has also risen dramatically in the last four years and that has increased the number of remote workers. It has become a very common social question, “Do you work from home, in the office, or hybrid?” Many organizations who have been remote or hybrid in the past four years are now making the decision to return to work, and so I think it’s smart we look at some of the data.
A whopping 90% of companies plan to implement return to office policies by the end of 2024, according to an August report from Resume Builder, which surveyed 1000 company leaders. Nearly 30% say their company will threaten to fire employees who don’t comply with in-office requirements.
Ugh, breaks my heart.
Yeah, me too. Employees are mainly worried about returning to the office for two simple reasons, time and money. Before the pandemic, the typical commute in the US lasted about 28 minutes, so for the round trip, that’s nearly an hour – an hour that often meant being stuck in traffic or crammed into crowded public transportation. And of course, it’s more money for gas, parking, and clothing.
You know, I definitely agree it’s more expensive to go into an office. I think about most of my years in corporate and I had about a 28 minute commute each way to the office and out of the office if I was working in town, and I honestly – I… I used that time, especially when I was raising kids and had a lot going on, to kind of get my headset changed to the world of work. And on the way home, it was to kind of, like, decompress a little bit. So honestly, then when I moved to consulting and working full-time at home, I don’t get that decompression from when I close the door and then all of a sudden I’m fixing dinner. It’s, you know… I don’t… I don’t get it. So I do see some pros and cons having been a commuter.
Right. I do too. It is very different. Yeah.
Yeah. Well, according to research from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, it turns out that the productivity of remote work really depends on how it’s done. Going all remote shows around 10 to 20% lower productivity than working fully in person. Now, this is likely because of the challenges in providing effective mentorship, building a strong team culture, and staying motivated. The hybrid work model, however, seems to bring about modest improvements in productivity. Hybrid employees gained back roughly two or three hours each week due to reduced commuting, with a portion of this time being allocated to more work hours. They also tend to be more productive during the remote work days, owing to fewer interruptions and quieter home-based working environments, at least according to Forbes.
Yeah, interesting. The hybrid work model seems to offer a balance between productivity and flexibility, but employers need to do their homework to make sure the office time actually serves a meaningful purpose. I’ve personally talked to a number of people who are being required to go back to the office either full-time or a few days a week. They all said that two things were happening. Number one, they spent their in-office days on Zoom or on the phone with people who were not in their office. It was just frustrating for them to think, “Why did I dress up and drive here and I’m still on the phone?” Or number two, they went in to work on days when others were not in the office, so they might as well have worked from home that day also.
I’ve heard that as well. Or they go in and they feel like it’s just a ghost town…
…and wonder why in the world are they doing it?
Yeah. I keep reading that many companies want their employees to return to the office to increase collaboration. That is assuming that they are not collaborating remotely. Although I’m a fan of remote work, I do believe we can learn a lot by observing, watching, and overhearing others’ conversations. But before requiring, and maybe losing or not attracting top performers, make sure this is really happening. I think a lot of people have learned to figure that out in different ways by not going in. Of the group I’ve talked to about this issue, when I asked them why they were being required to return to the office, about half of them used the term “old-school leadership,” saying that if they can’t see you, they assume you are not working. That can create a negative image, especially for younger generations, for the workplace culture. Once again, I would encourage you, if requiring employees to return to the office and/or shifting from a hybrid model to full in-person, to have a clear message of why you think this is a must. Also, I highly encourage a flexible work day, whether remote or in the office, that might have some core office hours – for example, maybe 10 to 3 – but to allow flexibility on what time they arrive or leave. I actually, Susan, just talked to someone yesterday whose company worked four days a week, which was awesome. And then within those four days, they had all the flexibility they wanted in terms of coming in and going home, and I thought that was a good model, too, and she felt it was really effective for their employees.
Oh, yeah, I love to hear that. And I’m sure they felt very trusted and empowered and… People, we know from every study you read, that employees want to have flexibility. That’s, like, the number one thing that they want.
And so when you can provide it in that kind of creative way, I think your chances of attracting and retaining talent are very, very good.
I agree. Since collaboration seems to be one of the primary concerns, let’s talk about some strategies and tools to be better. Again, many of these will work whether in person or remote. The first one is communication tools. Many, many of us are very familiar with these. Now with platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, they allow for face-to-face communication and still foster a sense of connection. Also, instant messaging tools like Slack or Teams enable real-time communication, making it easy to ask quick questions and have informal discussions.
Secondly, there’s a whole host of project management tools out there – Trello, Asana, Jira, or Clickup. Using these tools to manage tasks, assign responsibilities, and track progress can really keep projects on time and meeting deliverables. They provide visibility into project timelines and keep everyone on the same page. I just heard about another tool that – it’s kind of an offshoot of project management, but someone was telling me about ScribeHow. I don’t know if anybody – any of our listeners have heard this or not. But if you’re somebody that you are responsible for doing new employee orientation, or you’re responsible for training people on how to do things, ScribeHow is a wonderful application that involves artificial intelligence that enables you, prompts you to think about, okay, if this is how you do something, you can keep it iterative, you can keep updating it over time. And I’ve recommended it already to a couple other people who have gotten into it and just love it. So, just throw that shout out for them, if anyone’s interested in that.
Number three is document collaboration. I think many people are familiar with this one as well, using Google Workspace, Microsoft 365 – which includes SharePoint, which is what our team uses. These suites offer real-time collaboration on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Multiple people can work on the same file simultaneously.
That is such – it’s been such a game changer, hasn’t it? Remember how we’d have to save the document, make sure you’re working on the right version? Just drive you nuts.
Emailing back and forth and…. yes.
What a wonderful, wonderful innovation. Fourth one we’ll talk about is file sharing and storage. Obviously, there’s Google Drive, there’s Dropbox or OneDrive, there’s others out there as well. These services allow teams to share and collaborate on documents, images, and other files and to maintain them so they can make sure that they’re organized in a way that the team understands where to find it for easy access and to store things. I don’t know – I use Dropbox, personally. I honestly don’t think I could have run my business without Dropbox.
100% me too.
I would be buried in paper right now if I did not have Dropbox.
Right. Agree. Number five is virtual whiteboards. We don’t own one of these at Purple Ink, but I have been on calls with other people where they pulled up these whiteboards, maybe Miro or Mural are a couple of the brand names. And these tools provide virtual whiteboards for brainstorming and collaborative planning. Team members can contribute in real time, even if they’re in different locations. And it’s really cool.
Zoom has a very simple version of this. They’ve added whiteboards to the Zoom rooms, and I just started using it. And the reason that I like it, I think it makes people… it kind of breaks up the… the talking a little bit or even, you know, doing polling questions, getting people to write things out, and then we can all react to what we’re seeing. So I love whiteboards.
I need to look that up in Zoom. I haven’t used that.
Very, very simple. If I can figure it out, anybody can. The sixth tool we’re gonna talk about is task automation. Now, I’ve not had a chance to use these, but a couple are Zapier or Integromat. They’re automating repetitive tasks between different apps, saving time and reducing manual errors. They say that this can help streamline workflows. So it’s new for me, but maybe some of our listeners have been using those.
Yeah. Number seven is regular video meetings. Schedule regular video meetings to check in with team members. These meetings help build a sense of community and allow for more personal interactions. I encourage you to do this if some people are in the office and some are remote. It puts everyone on an equal playing field where each person can hear equally. I tell you, we – when I mentioned that we had an employee who moved away, this was her first request. And so we were very early Zoom users. By… by 2020, when everyone started using Zoom, we’d used it for almost six years at that point. But she said it made such a difference to her. And originally, we were trying, like, maybe all of us here would get together and then Zoom with her. But then what we realized works significantly better was just for each person to be on Zoom individually. And then that’s where we had that level playing field.
I think that was… that was a great insight. I know now, when I someone wants to schedule a meeting with me, and they’ll say, “Well, I’ll just give you a call,” it’s like, oh, can we do it by video?
I just, I love looking at somebody. And obviously, I don’t dress up, but – for our listeners, you can’t tell right now, I have on a sweatshirt. But I just like being with people and seeing their faces, so.
I’ve become just really hooked on video meetings as well. The eighth tool – or idea, really – is really getting good at documenting your processes. When you’re not all together, you can’t just tap somebody on the shoulder and say, “Hey, can you show me how to do that again?” You really need to be disciplined about using tools like Confluence or Notion to document processes, guidelines, best practices. This will ensure that information is readily available to all team members..
The next one is one we have really enjoyed – actually, we’ve done a couple of different kinds, but – is to organize virtual team building activities to strengthen bonds among team members. This could include a virtual happy hour, which we have done. It could be online games or team challenges. We now use a platform called Barometer XP, so reach out if you want to learn more, but it’s really fun and really simple and is just a different way to do some team bonding or team fun.
I’ve been part of a couple of those, JoDee, and I found them very fun. Yeah, I love that. The 10th thing that we think is important for all those remote employees is make sure you’re setting clear expectations. Clearly communicate expectations around the hours you expect them to be on if you have certain hours that you’re expected to be on. If you don’t, make sure they understand that. The deadlines – be really clear about when you’re expecting a deliverable. And ask about and make sure that both of you agree to when they’re going to be available, maybe, outside of working hours if there’s a need, an emergency, what is going to be the parameters around that? This will help prevent misunderstandings and ensure everyone’s on the same page before there is a miscommunication.
You’ve had a journey on that as well.
You know, that one has always been so important for us working on teams. It just, I think, has increased even more when we’re not together. It’s not so obvious when you’re gathering up your things and walking out the door or getting in to the office late because of an appointment or something, so setting those expectations is key. Number 11 is security measures. Ensure that your remote collaboration tools comply with security standards, use secure connections, employ multifactor authentication, and educate team members about cybersecurity best practices.
I don’t know if you’d want to share with listeners, because I think that’s just a good testimonial about being careful and then things that you do differently.
Yeah, well, like so many others, you know, we’ll get emails that appear to be from – well, especially my team has gotten many emails over the years that look like they are from me but are not and might be requesting them – or the old gift card request thing. I mean, those are still ongoing. So, someone has gotten into my email and created another one, and it’s so frustrating.
It is horrible. Horrible that it happens and horrible that it continues. So it must be working for somebody because they keep doing it.
And then the final tool or suggestion we’ve got is really think about the training and support that you provide. Providing training on remote collaboration tools and offering ongoing support really helps team members feel more comfortable using the technology and tapping into all the resources that you’re providing, and it’s ultimately going to reduce frustration.
Yeah. But remember, successful remote collaboration is not just about the tools. It’s also about building a culture of trust, communication, and accountability within the team. Regularly reassess your remote work strategy to adapt to the evolving needs of your team and the organization.
JoDee, we have a listener question. The following question came from a listener from our September 2023 podcast. We welcome questions from any of our listeners anytime. “How can I leverage my many years of experience in an HR-adjacent job to find a real HR role that is not entry-level now that I have a SHRM certification? Hey, I don’t want to start at the bottom if possible.”
Yeah, well, I can tell you what I did. And one of the first things I did – so, for long term listeners, you may remember I was in public accounting, and moved into an HR slash operations role at a public accounting firm. And it was recommended to me by our HR director to get my SHRM certification very early on. But I transitioned to it in a way where it didn’t impact my salary, but I was doing about half HR and about half operations, and that enabled me then to get my foot in the door for HR, and eventually, then I was full-time HR without starting at the bottom to do that. Now, I realize that isn’t possible for everyone, but I think if you do have – you mentioned, our listener mentioned, that you have an HR-adjacent work role, that maybe you could start to ask, “Can I take on this?” or “Hey, I’d like to be involved.” Even before I officially moved into HR, I was raising my hand to say, “Hey, I’d like to be on our recruiting team,” “Hey, I know we’re going to do some an office training on this. I’ll volunteer to be a trainer.” Right? So I just kept volunteering to do several things until there was a time for me to move in that as well. Do you have any other thoughts, Susan?
Well, I love your advice. I would – when people ask me this question, I normally say that the highest or the largest population of HR people in most organizations do some type of recruiting.
It is the one where we – it takes the most human resources. Usually it’s something related to recruiting. And so if I were trying to make that move into HR today, I would ask to be part of interviewing teams. Or if you happen to do any type of campus recruiting, as JoDee has done, I’d raise my hand and say, “I’d love to go. I’d love to represent the company.” Job fairs, it’s really – HR people, if you are heavy job fair goers, they get kind of tired of doing them and they would love to have fresh meat there. They’d love to have somebody who works in operations or another area come and do it with them. You can absolutely stick your toe in the water with… through the volunteering, and then let them know that you would love to help recruit. Maybe you be take a lead on social media for your company at getting postings out. Maybe ask if you could be part of on-site visits, realistic job previews, when candidates come in. Just – I would focus really hard on figuring out how to become an integral part of the recruiting process. From there, there’s so many other things you can do in HR, but it tends to be the area that most HR people have some background in, and where the need from companies tend to be
Great advice there. Next is our in the news. In a SHRM article back in May of ’23, SHRM conducted research on employee mental health and found that only one in three US workers say their job has a positive impact on their mental health.
That blows my mind, when we spend eight hours of every day doing something. One in three US workers say their job has had a negative impact on their mental health in the past six months.
Yeah, that’s crazy.
And among US workers, 77% believe employers have a responsibility to reduce mental health disparities at work.
Access to better mental health resources could improve the mental health of 63% of our workers.
So think about – our advice is to think about what are you doing to improve the mental health of your workers. Whether it’s gaining a better understanding of what to do if an employee shows signs of mental health challenges, or accessing tools and resources to then pass on to your workforce, or offering benefits around mental health, there are lots of resources available to assist you.
I really think it’s important that every company think about having an EAP – Employee Assistance Program. And not every company can support their own, but there’s so many vendors who… they take on small businesses, and they… they support large networks of small businesses. So honestly, if you don’t have one yet today, I would spend some time researching your local community what they have to offer.
And I think you have to keep reminding employees that that is available. Sometimes I see it in companies where when they roll out an EAP, they promote it and give the phone numbers and tell about it, and then they don’t mention it again, so employees forget that that’s available to them.
You’re so right. Many of them will offer – do lunch and learns, virtual or in person, throughout the year on different topics, which might just answer a need that you don’t know if somebody has out there. So, important topic. Thanks for bringing it up, JoDee.
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