Making Remote Work, Work

Should it be called “remote,” “distributed,” “virtual,” or something else? Everyone gives it a different name, but we all share the same question: what does it take to work successfully when you’re not in the same place (or even the same time zone)? At LifeLabs, we’ve set out to find the secret formula for making remote work, work.
Method: We conducted a meta-analysis of research on the remote experience, spoke with heads of L&D and People Operations, and interviewed 38 employees from 13 tech companies, ranging in size from 150 – 30,000 employees. Participants either worked remotely, managed a remote employee, or had a remote manager.
In this ‘lite paper’ we will share 3 insights we’ve gathered so far and a Remote Experience Audit you can use to evaluate and improve the remote experience at your company.
Insight #1: Turning the camera on matters more than you think.
Almost all participants in our study emphasized the importance of seeing their teammates, whether through the screen or in person. Most companies prioritize having time in person, but short, frequent contact via camera leads to greater team trust and better communication. The Mere Exposure Effect reveals that the more familiar we are with our coworkers’ faces, the more we like them (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 2001). A related pro-tip we heard from seasoned remote workers is to position the video screen in a way that makes everyone feel that they are making eye contact. Eye contact builds trust and liking (Montague, 2013; Koike, et al, 2016). 
Insight #2: Autonomy feels like a perk, but only when we set expectations.
A sense of equity is very important to remote employees. Lack of access to onsite perks can feel unfair unless managers clarify that working remotely comes with unique perks – particularly in terms of how much autonomy remote employees get to enjoy. Autonomy matters to all workers (Weinstein, Przybylski & Ryan, 2012), so highlighting that remote employees have a choice in work location, set up, and time can spark greater motivation.
Insight #3: Remote work is spreading across jobs but best practices are not.
Many people assume remote work is done by engineers, but we’re seeing an increasing trend of remote work being done across a wide range of job types. Employees in each job category seem to be creating their own systems for how to work well remotely, but all remote job types can benefit from learning best practices from one another. Companies that extract and share tips and tools create more efficient and effective communication across the org.
Want to see how well your company creates a great remote experience for employees? See how you stack up by completing our Remote Experience Audit:
Organizational level
_ We offer resources to enable remote work (e.g., technology stipend, co-working membership)
_ We have clocks around the office that make it easy to remember other employees’ time zones
_ Our calendar system makes it easy to see availability and request time to meet
_ We provide tech support and training to help managers optimize video-based meetings
_ Our in-person and remote employees have similar access to learning and development opportunities
_ Our leaders and managers have received training in leading remote employees
_ We define output goals (e.g., deliverables) rather than input goals (e.g., counting hours logged)
_ We regularly survey employees to track their level of engagement, clarity, and inclusion
_ We create opportunities for remote employees to be featured at all-hands meetings and skill-shares
Leadership level
_ Influential leaders and decision makers are available to remote employees (e.g., they join team meetings, facilitate skip-level 1-1s, host virtual Ask Me Anything sessions)
_ We communicate the same company information and vision to remote and in-person audiences
_ Our leadership team privately and publicly acknowledges remote employees
_ Our leaders state and model the importance of regular 1-1 meetings
Manager level
_ Managers hold consistent, high-quality 1-1 meetings with their remote reports
_ Managers keep remote employees up-to-date about what’s going on in the office
_ Managers ask remote employees how they prefer to work, communicate, and receive feedback
_ Managers celebrate milestones (e.g., birthdays, work anniversaries, small team wins)
_ Managers establish communication norms (e.g., expected email response times, mutually convenient work hours, what to do if there are technical difficulties during a meeting)
_ Managers create time and space for bonding (e.g., small talk, sharing personal information)
_ Managers set expectations for remote employee equity vs. equality
Individual contributor level
_ Remote employees know how to hold project kick-off conversations that check agreement on deliverables, milestones, project autonomy level, interdependencies, and information flow
_ Remote employees know how to pull for information rather than wait for it to be pushed to them
What’s next: This year, we will continue to collect and develop interventions for improving the remote experience by interviewing participants in our virtually-led workshops. To learn more, contact [email protected]
About the author: Megan Wheeler is a leadership trainer at LifeLabs Learning, the go-to learning and development resource for innovative companies (like Etsy, Squarespace, Tumblr, and Warby Parker). She oversees the LifeLabs Open Enrollment program, which offers virtual workshops for individual sign up. She has her Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and specializes in remote work and managing dispersed teams