Lots of tech professionals transitioned to all-remote workforces for the first time just a few weeks ago — without much warning or preparation.
In such circumstances, how do you lead the transition well?
You start by listening to someone who’s spent their whole career doing it.
Darren Murph’s the guy for that. He’s worked and led teams remotely — as an editor, consultant, strategist and communications director — for several years, most recently with the all-remote team at GitLab, as the company’s first-ever head of remote. There, Murph literally wrote the playbook on how GitLab’s thousand-plus employees can work smoothly in lockstep — without ever having to share a physical office space.
Recently, on the 21st Century HR podcast, Murph shared advice on how leaders can think best about transitioning their teams to remote (and what it’ll look like to transition them back).
Here are four key takeaways from the discussion.
REMOTE WILL CHANGE HOW YOUR PEOPLE THINK ABOUT WORK
After several months of working remotely, what existed before solely as a hunch for many professionals will be made clear: When work’s not bound by geography, a lot of opportunities open up. The new arrangement creates new possibilities — about where to live, where to send children to school, what fulfilling hobbies can be pursued now that free time isn’t gobbled up by the commute.
For a lot of people, “their identity has been very tightly tied to the office,” Murph told Amplify founder Lars Schmidt, “but now that that’s been broken down, where there is no physical office happening in their life every day, it gives them that freedom to ask those questions.”
Professionals have glimpsed the possibilities afforded to them by remote work. Their curiosities have been piqued.
Simply sending workers back to the office (once it’s safe to do so) as if the status quo hadn’t been disrupted could lead to whiplash. Because for some of them, the genie’s not going back in the bottle.
REMOTE work COULD HELP DE-RISK THE BUSINESS
By tying their businesses to a specific, physical location, some organizations unnecessarily face heightened risk — to no fault of their actual business.
Talking to Schmidt, Murph cited Milan as a location where companies have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The location is what made the impact more severe, and that had nothing to do with the company’s business model. Murph also noted that some firms in London received a sudden shock in the wake of Brexit a few years ago. Again, the impact had nothing to do with the soundness of the business; it was due to the geographic location — in which case, there’s little an organization can do to prepare.
“Remote is a great way to decouple where the work happens — the results — with geography,” Murph said.
It may sound overly cautious to some, but by going remote, organizations can lessen the impact of a location-bound crisis, such as a natural disaster, pandemic or regional instability.
REMOTE FORCES YOU TO GET DISCIPLINED ABOUT DOCUMENTATION
In the past, Murph has advised executives to take months out of the office and give remote work a try. That way, they would be forced to document things they previously only verbalized.
“You’ll start to see communication gaps,” he told Schmidt, noting that ad hoc, in-person meetings are how many organizations bridge those gaps. But it’s not an efficient allocation of time and resources. “When you’re not in the office, there’s no Band-Aid solution. You have to be intentional about making sure that your communication is rock solid and seamless all the way up and all the way back down.”
GitLab, Murph said, adjusted the settings on its Slack app so that messages would expire after 90 days. That way, employees were forced not to do work in Slack; they would have to document it, which would benefit the entire company.
“It could be uncomfortable for new people coming in, but sometimes the forcing function is exactly the discipline you need.”
REMOTE Work REQUIRES YOU TO THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT PERFORMANCE EVALUATION
“I’ve often been asked, ‘How do you know if employees are working remotely?’” Murph said in the 21st Century HR interview. “And my immediate response is, ‘How did you know they were working in the office?’”
Performance management, according to Murph, has been far too subjective in an office environment. Likability, for example, can take an employee a long way in a physical office setting where employees rub shoulders and chat by the water cooler.
However, “In a remote setting, likability is not the top aspect,” Murph said. “It’s results.”
Results are location-agnostic. In the absence of a shared, physical workspace, real, tangible work results are the only things an employee can prove.
Murph believes it’s up to an organization’s leaders to clearly define the results that are expected of each department and employee — regardless of where the results are accomplished. Employees shouldn’t be burdened to prove to managers that they’re working.
“Shockingly, this has not been something with great hygiene for a lot of companies,” Murph told Schmidt. He noted that many are grappling with what it looks like to define performance benchmarks for the first time, rather than rely on subjective analysis.
In addition, Murph said, managers should ask candidly what their direct reports need to meet the clearly articulated expectations while they’re working remotely.
“This,” Murph said, “is a great awakening for performance management.”