Despite mass exposure to the remote work model during COVID-19 lockdown, it's often still treated as an “experimental” way of working, with the office model still reigning king. While the pandemic hasn't provided the ideal introduction to remote work, it has shown many people the superior productive output and psychological benefits that often accompany the work model. Companies now looking to reopen their physical offices would do well to learn from their remote work experience, harnessing their quickly-honed remote work skills to enable more effective and meaningful collaboration.
Virtual work inside the office
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many office workers were unwittingly already engaging in some form of virtual work. Instant messengers, emails, video calls and cloud-based organization – these staple remote technologies were already widely in use among office-bound teams, facilitating more flexible approaches to daily communications and collaboration.
More of us are building these digital “virtual working” tools into our workflows to improve the efficiency, speed and traceability of our communication. And it’s clearly paying off – a recent review of 30 years of virtual work research revealed that the most effective workers use strategies and behaviours understood as “virtual intelligence”.
So it’s in our interests to develop them further – and the best place to start is by analyzing the unique skillset developed by full-time remote workers.
The remote work skillset
A fully-remote working life requires us to completely reimagine traditional communication and interaction. Among the many remote skills millions of employees have had to develop while working from home in lockdown, the most important include:
Successful remote work depends on ongoing proactive communication that clearly lays out actions, expectations and requirements for everyone in the conversation. It can seem a little transactional, but breaking down your skills, needs and objectives gives essential direction to remote collaboration. It also enables full visibility over what you’re doing, which helps build trust and reliability. You need to be able to advertise your skills and explain your background knowledge to show how you can add value to different parts of a project. Quick responses, regular updates on your progress and directional interactions which help move you forward are key to effective remote problem solving.
Unlike in-person communication, where working methods develop “naturally” across new projects, remote work requires an explicit conversation on how to work together. You establish important rules of engagement: the best contact hours, channels for different types of communication and work urgency, tools for document collaboration, methods for review and interaction, and checks to ensure shared expectations and a clear division of responsibility. These protocols put everyone on the same page, minimizing any wasted effort. But they also communicate a strong respect for everyone’s time and self-organization, helping everyone reach an optimal way of working together from the outset.
To build and maintain strong, productive working relationships as a remote worker, you need to convey your personality digitally. Building rapport, mutual trust and social relatability is much harder than through in-person communication. You need to be able to use different forms of communication intelligently to give a well-rounded idea of your personality, interests and motivations without seeming overwhelming. It does require a lot of proactive, self-volunteered insights, which can seem pretty unnatural – especially when encoded into black and white text. Keep interactions simple but meaningful, without sharing too much or being too intense. It will definitely take longer, but over time your colleagues will develop a clear sense of your identity and individual voice.
In the absence of an office work day routine – or even physical separation between your work and living space – you need to create your own structure. Remote workers need to set the boundaries of their work, ensuring it doesn’t overlap personal time and that they aren't working beyond their weekly capacity. They also need to actively manage their environment to ensure it meets changing needs. That means designing a productive workspace, changing scene when you start getting cabin fever, and structuring your time effectively. It also requires a huge effort to monitor and manage your own feeling of social disconnect. Working digitally will take its toll, so you need to make sure you’re able to fill that social void and stay included at work.
While remote work seems to operate on clear, negotiated structure, it also requires great adaptability. You have to be flexible in your work structure to compensate for breaks in communication flow, blockers, time zones, changes in plan and disconnection. The breakdown of “mutual knowledge” can seriously limit remote collaboration – that’s a lack of contextual information, fair distribution, comprehension, access to information and regular contact. You need tenacious initiative to overcome the visibility issues that come with distance, and problem solve alone or engage in other useful work in the absence of certain pieces of information. It’s all about navigating the limitations of each situation to stay involved and continue working to priorities.
Strong work conscience
While every office worker hopefully has a strong work conscience, with remote work you need to become the absolute boss of it. No one is around to give you a boost when you’re flagging – you need to regulate your own performance to stay on-track, focused and productive. It takes a strong self-discipline and heightened awareness of your own self-distracting behaviours to ensure you keep a healthy level of motivation and drive.