The Greatest Challenge of Remote Work with Lisette Sutherland
After the pandemic, many companies and individuals continue searching for better work arrangements. Remote work has had proven benefits for both groups, but two and a half years after Covid, there are still great challenges in implementing remote work.
When people first began working at home, they feared distractions would prevent them from getting any work done. According to SHRM, 70% of professionals who pivoted to remote work because of the pandemic said they worked on the weekends. Meanwhile, 45% said they worked more hours during the week than before the pandemic.
The challenges remote workers face have to do precisely with productivity, work-life balance, and the perks that companies can offer outside a brick-and-mortar office. Whereas companies may struggle to see the benefits that flexible work arrangements can have for them.
That's why we spoke with Lisette Sutherland, director at Collaboration Superpowers, to leverage her insights regarding these challenges and how to overcome them. Lisette has authored the Work Together Anywhere Handbook, hosts a podcast featuring remote-working experts, and facilitates workshops on how to successfully work remotely.
How Important Is Remote Work?
Recently, remote work has been a hotly debated topic. Some people believe it's the future of business, while others think it's just a fad. The truth is that the importance of remote work depends on what your organization needs.
For Lisette Sutherland, each company determines the value it places on remote work. However, some problems require particular collaboration that is only possible through remote work. When asked about the importance of remote work, she said:
"For me, I feel like there are global problems that cannot be solved with the people that are just in one particular place. Like climate change is going to take people from all over the world to solve. So remote work is going to be necessary just because we need certain expertise that you never just have in one room.”
Lisette illustrates that the current landscape regarding flexible arrangements is divided into four categories:
- The companies that want people back to the office.
- The companies doing mandates, like two days a week, three days a week, eight days a quarter, ten days a quarter.
- The companies that will keep the offices, but the teams get to decide.
- The companies that will get rid of offices and go 100% remote.
The multiple types of arrangements prove that organizations are still in the middle of finding something that works for them, whether it is remote or hybrid. But also, individuals are making this happen by looking for those arrangements.
"For me, I don't need to convince any company to adopt the policy," Lisette adds. "I feel like it's the choice of the company, how remote or how hybrid they want to be. It's also individuals' choice. So if they want to be more remote than their company is allowing, many individuals will try to find a job that will allow for that flexibility."
"There are pros and cons and consequences for every decision, but it's really up to the company. It's not up to me to say, 'Oh, remote is the best or hybrid the best for you.' All this I know from personal experience. My husband really hates working from home. He likes being together in one place in an office with people. And he is consciously going out and deliberately going out and finding work where he has that. It's a choice. That's what it comes down to."
How Can Employers Benefit from Remote Work?
Many people seem to believe that remote work only benefits employees. But companies can also reap the benefits of having a distributed workforce.
For Lisette, it's clear that everybody benefits from remote work, but it depends on what's in it for them. In any case, it's essential to adapt the necessary workflows. When asked if she believes remote work is an arrangement employers can also benefit from, she said:
"I think everybody benefits, but it depends on what's in it for them. If we're going to work in a remote and hybrid way, if a company chooses to do that, then the employees have to choose to be proactive about making it work. That will mean changing how we work together, creating new systems and workflows, and making our results more observable to others. For employers, there's going to be a commitment to making it work, which will require offering training to people and making your systems and workflows more transparent."
"There's clearly a benefit for both," she mentions. "It just depends on what the company wants. Some companies, their culture, they're just better in person. Sometimes there's no good reason for it. I saw this during the pandemic. My husband was working in a startup hub here in the Netherlands, where there are a whole bunch of different companies. When the offices were opened again, some companies came back immediately, even though they could work remotely. They just liked it better. There was no real reason for it. It was just that that was the team. It just got me thinking that some teams are better off [remote], and the reason isn't rational. That's why I believe in the freedom of choice."
Freedom to Choose
Lisette emphasizes that companies have the freedom to choose the best work arrangement for their teams. When asked what company she believes needs to be remote, she explains: "To me, it really comes down to freedom. Remote is freedom for the employee, for the person to decide when and where they're most productive. But it's also freedom for the companies that decide what kind of culture they want to have."
"Recently in the news, Elon Musk is saying he wants everybody back at the office. That is the culture that he wants to have, right or wrong. It's his company. I believe in that choice. For some companies, your culture and output depend on being in person. If that is your company, then be in person. I just think it's all about choice. But hopefully, people are choosing the jobs that work best for them."
Employees Don't Want to Go Back to the Office
When we asked Lisette if resistance from employees going back to the office was something she anticipated, she told us:
"After years of doing this (working from home), forcing people back to the way they were, I think we're going back to systems that just don't fit anymore. Certain commutes just don't make sense anymore, especially if the job can be done from a distance. So it's really up to companies to adjust –if they choose– or for the employee to find something else."
"The thing now is that remote work is available everywhere. In the past, we started with Elance and Upwork from way back, and a lot of people started out with low-paying jobs, but remote work is a well-respected phenomenon now, and there are lots of jobs out there. We've heard of the great resignation, and we've seen many layoffs recently also. We're still in a balancing act."
The Challenges that Remote Employees Are Facing
Remote work is a great way to gain freedom and flexibility, but it also comes with unique challenges. Managers may be concerned about employees' productivity when working at home, but workers might fear losing employer-provided perks. Not to mention, workers can struggle to manage their time and separate work from personal life.
Can Remote Workers Stay Productive?
When asked how employers can be sure of productivity when employees are remote, Lisette shared: "I believe that people are experts of their own productivity. We know what we need in order to get the work done. I believe that the role of leadership is to set the goal and then give the parameters in which that goal needs to be achieved, what the boundaries are, and then get out of the way and let our people take us there. The focus for the leadership after that is to get rid of the roadblocks that may exist along the way."
A concerned manager can ensure employee output by outlining transparent workflows and maintaining effective communication. "In terms of employee output, if we're going to go remote, one of the commitments is that you go from being time oriented to results-oriented," she details.
"One of the things that are required of leadership is to make our systems and our results transparent. What does success look like? How does my role contribute to that success? If the system is more transparent, and we're going from time-oriented to results-oriented —which is difficult to do, I highly recommend coaching in that situation— then it is possible. Again, it takes proactive commitment from both sides."
How Can Employees Achieve Work-Life Balance?
When it comes to balancing and not letting work seep into employees' personal lives, Lisette recommends a more individualized approach. She tells us: "You are in charge of your boundaries and your self-care. Your boss is not going to do that for you. Recognize that.”
"One of the easiest and best advice that I know comes from Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, where he says we want to be both on and off. However that works for you. Maybe you have time boxes when you're working. And then when you're not in those times, they're off. Maybe you have a place, so only when you're in your office, you're working, and anywhere else you're not. That's off time. Whatever the boundary looks like for you, maybe it's physical, maybe something else, maybe a commute is your boundary, whatever that is, you want to be both on and off."
She adds that most of us are knowledge workers, and we need time for thinking and concentration and time to rest our brains and experiment with what works. But something important to remember is that things change over time. "My productivity systems have changed and evolved over time. You have to be regularly proactive about that if you're going to work from home", she says.
What Perks Should Companies Provide Employees?
Although some might see remote work as a perk in itself, companies have to make sure to accommodate every employee's needs. The bonuses may look different from team to team, whether in training, a stipend to buy equipment, or just recognition of workers. However, Lisette highlights that companies need to ask what people want. When asked about the perks companies should offer employees, she notes:
"For me, the first thing that comes to mind is training. Remote and hybrid are new mediums of work. I always say it's like the difference between radio and television. They're both broadcasting mediums. So you would design content for each of those mediums very differently. Being remote and working in person, they're the same working. We're all working, but the medium is totally different, so you want to train people in this new medium."
"Part of this new medium is being more conscientious and deliberate about how we use our time. Right now, a lot of people are talking about meeting overload. That's an easy place to start. Everybody's just having too many meetings, and there are lots of things that we can do to reduce them, but it does take a redesign of our workflows."
"In order to redesign our workflows, we have to learn what that means and how to redesign it. I really think training is a big thing, along with coaching. I believe that teams also need people who set and change the metrics and help the teams decide. Are they meeting their goals? A sort of coach along the way to ensure that we're focused and not getting off track."
The other thing that she thinks companies should provide remote employees is more opportunities and more showing of appreciation when goals are met or when somebody goes above and beyond.
"When we are at the office, it was easy to congregate in the conference room around cake. Online, it's totally different that we have to show appreciation in different ways that are not extra meetings; everybody's zoomed out. There are some creative ways, but we have to know how to do that."
"In terms of perks, we should really be asking people what they want," she stresses. "Some people maybe want a comfortable chair, and if they just had that, they'd be happy forever. Other people want to have events online and be part of quiz nights and pizza parties; for others, that sounds like a nightmare. It's all about asking people what they want. What do they need to feel connected to the team? What do they need for team building? It's very different things. You'd be very surprised."
"One of my colleagues wanted more accountability. She was getting this endless list of tasks from people, but nobody was checking up to make sure she had done it or how well she had done it because she was always doing a really good job. But she wanted more check-in with people and that the people had seen what she had done. That's what she needed to feel more connected to a team. She didn't need another pizza party. In terms of perks, ask people what they need to feel connected and appreciated."
How to Overcome the Challenges of Remote Work
As the director at Collaboration Superpowers and with over ten years of web-based collaboration tools and online community management experience, she dedicates her time to helping people work together regardless of location. She does this through the Work Together Anywhere Workshop, an interactive workshop that came about after years of interviewing remote enablers. Nowadays, she offers the expertise she has gathered over the years through different mediums like presentations, podcasts, a book, and a website.
The Work Together Anywhere workshop helps companies and their employees looking to go remote by offering everybody different ideas. "In the end, as part of the workshop, you get a remote action Super Action Plan. As we go through the workshop, you write down all the different things you want to try with your team," she explains.
"At the end of the workshop, you have a Super Action Plan of between four and 16 things that you want to try because, it's a matter of experimenting and figuring out what's going to work for you. Sometimes the rational solution isn't the best. That's why experimenting is so important."
"The other thing that the Work Together Anywhere workshop provides is that it's experiential. Not only are you getting content, but you're experiencing what it's like to be on a team, and you're experiencing the various icebreakers with the virtual office we meet in, the breakout rooms, and deliberating structured facilitation techniques. You're not just getting content; we did it deliberately so that you're experiencing the content so that you can apply the principles into your context."
The Future of Work
For Lisette, in the next five years, remote work will be enhanced by new technology that will impact how we communicate and collaborate. "I can see that virtual reality, holograms, augmented reality, these kinds of things are going to help create presence on the team," she tells us.
"Especially with climate change, we're not going to be able to sit around the world on planes all the time; that's going to be a kind of luxury moving forward. What if we could sit around the table as holograms, have conversations, and then brainstorm? When that technology gets good enough and low cost enough for it to be used in the everyday workforce, I think there's some real opportunity."
Leadership in the Virtual Workplace
In a traditional setting, you can see managers walking around talking with employees about their concerns or recommending career paths for them if they are unhappy with their current position. In a remote environment, none of these things happen. Leaders may feel like they don't have a way to lead in the virtual area.
"I have noticed that the biggest gap in the market is in virtual leadership and that leaders don't feel comfortable leading in this virtual space," Lisette details. "There are some clear differences between how we would do it in person and how we do it online or in the hybrid setting."
"I've recently been working on content around virtual leadership and how to lead in this hybrid workspace. Right now, it's a live and interactive workshop that we're also thinking about turning into an e-course. I prefer interactivity, but I need to scale, and an e-course is a good way to do that. Maybe there'll be a book-like product that comes along with that."
"I think remote work demands more transparency in the system and different ways of creating personal connections. There's a lot to sink into there in terms of leadership."
If you want to understand what Collaboration Superpowers can do for your organization's collaboration, download the Remote Working Success Kit. It contains templates for having great online meetings, working with different time zones, and how to create team agreements with each other. You can also find virtual meeting cards that ease nonverbal communication within meetings in your team.
Remote work can be a great way to attract talent, but as with anything worth trying, it may come with challenges. The key is finding ways to make it work for your organization while maintaining the right culture and productivity.
It's safe to say that remote working isn't going out of style anytime soon. So if you want your business to grow and thrive in today's digital age, you need to learn how to make remote working work. That includes having the systems to procure and manage your team's tools for their daily tasks.
GroWrk helps companies extend their workforce to the best talent globally by providing smart IT asset management and support. You can easily set up, support, and scale your distributed workforce through our platform. Request a demo today.