Why Remote Work has Not Exploded yet

All the requirements are given since several years. The hardware with phone, internet, video chat and collaboration software is ready since years and the work, which is possible to accomplish remotely is there since decades.

So, why is remote work still niche instead of normal?

1. Fear of managers

Liz Ryan wrote a great article for Forbes this March: The Real Reason You’re Not Allowed To Work From Home.

The best statement of the post is: “The real reason you’re not allowed to work from home is that managers at all levels are fearful of change and especially fearful of change that requires them to step out of their comfort zone.”

She explains further, that fearful management is the key problem in organisations. To not allow staff to work from home is one action that exposes this fear. The managers are often talking of trusting people, but who’s actions are reflecting that? I know middle manager which even fuel the rumors that the remote working collegues are not really working at home.

2. Missing leadership skills

So, the first major blocking point is the managers fear and their trustless behaviour. The second point is the need to rate team members with looking at the work results instead of counting hours at work which is indeed much easier. This type of measurement needs more time and knowledge, what the managers do not want or even are not able to spend.

Commonly that worker, who made technically a good job and was nice to his boss, will be promoted as team leader in the companies I attended so far. That lack of leadership skills is a big problem, but it is logical if the ability to lead is no part of managers selection process.

Key solution: Select managers with good leadership skills and train them on managing remote teams!

3. Companies struggle with organizational changes

All companies I know, are struggling hard with organizational changes. And it is no surprise that it is even harder if the company is big. But also companies with a few dozens employees and a few years in the market have lots of written rules and processes and many unwritten ones in addition.

It is easy for workers to follow these rules and it gives them security even if the rule is stupid. After realising that, the company will start an organizational project to fix that glitch – enabling remote work is only one example of many. The main problem of such projects (next to the workers fear of change) is, that always the operational / customer projects are winning over the strategic ones in the everyday competition about resources.

We have many organizational projects in our 780-people-middle-sized company right now, because lots of processes should be adjusted, after the company tripled in the last 10 years. As the head of project management I’m involved into a lot of them and believe me – you need month or years to change even smallest things in a middle-sized company.

Is the change coming nonetheless?

My hope is, that the situation will change when more millennials are reaching C-level positions. The remote work possibilities seams to be much better at startups – probably because of the younger executives. The risk with millennials climbing the corporate ladder at bigger companies is, that they have learned the ‘benefits’ of onsite working and collecting teams in cubicals from their mentors.

But the circumstances for the big companies are changing recently, too. Years before, there were only the remote work benefits of saved money on offices and more productive employees. Now they have to deal with exploding housing prices in every metropolitan area worldwide.

What I am experiencing in southern Germany, where we have a very low unemployment rate, is, that so many vacant jobs cannot be staffed over month. This huge financial loss due to open positions and the cost of recruiting would justify every effort into remote working. Even with this highly different employment situations in Europe, the workforce is not so flexible to bring enough workers to my region.

Short example: the district office hold a small job fair in my next town Lindau 4 days ago. Attendees were representatives of 13 local companies and only 30 (!) students of two German universities.

Exploding cost of living in cities and skill shortage will drive the movement to remote work drastically. A major factor of success of companies is already the adaptability to the future of work!

What do you think? Are there other reasons? Let us know in the comment section below!

Is remote work just possible for software and marketing companies?

Let’s resume at first the difference between partly and fully remote companies (read also that blog post: What is remote work, a digital nomad or even a remote-first company?). The partly remote company has offices with co-located workers on one hand and remote workers on the other hand. The fully remote company consists only of remote workers, also if some are co-working. The term ‘remote worker’ includes permanent employees, freelancers or contractors and is independent of their location (remote office, home, co-working or travelling).

Partly remote company

You can imagine every traditional company here, because a lot of them are enabling their workers to work from home partially. Needless to say, that this is not possible for people who are using tools or other equipment which is located at the companies property. So remote work is possible for everyone who needs only internet, laptop and phone for work. There are also positions where you need equipment only at some days. Imagine a tester, who is setting up a test jig at some days and programming test sequences and running tests with online access to its already functioning test rack on other days.

The companies are sending all their workers home these days, may it be engineers, accountants, lawyers, purchasers, managers, marketers and authors for sure. But is it even possible to have a fully remote company beyond software, marketing and journalism? My optinion is clearly yes!

Fully remote company

We said before, that everyone who just needs internet, laptop and phone can work remotely. So every company which employs more than 80% of those workers can go fully remote. Why are still so many people co-located at offices? The biggest point is, that the manager (middle and top management) are not used to it and are afraid of losing power over their staff.

But it is possible nowadays – the famous examples are showing it: Basecamp, 99 designs, Buffer, Trello and others. That are all software companies? Is the headline right in the end? No! My theory goes like this: it is much easier to build a fully remote company from scratch than transform an existing one. And with that knowledge ask yourself, which industry is fast growing and creates lots of new firms?

Thought Experiment

We will soon see fully remote companies in every industry. Lets make a thought experiment with a company which develops and produces components for construction machines.

A sales person will maintain contacts to customers remotely and personally like in the past. He or she will make an offer after consulting engineering and production people. After getting the order, a remote project manager will clarify all the open points with engineering, production and the customer and will start the developing. Mechanical engineers have a 3D-printer for fast samples or will get printed parts overnight.

Electronical engineers are soldering easy parts by their own or get SMT assembled modules in a few days (to wherever they work). Software engineers are developing inside simulations and can get hardware in a few days, as well. The industrial engineer, who manages sourcing, the kinds of manufacturing steps and the grade of automation can also work remotely. The only one who is linked to a location is the assembly guy. He is the one who manages prototype assembly and organizes everything for series assembly, may it be manually or partly or fully automated.

If you make something completely new, it will help if you arrange face-to-face integration weeks, where mechanical parts, electronical modules and software will be integrated by the developers. It also helps to work closely with the test laboratory which conducts mechanical and electrical environmental tests to avoid extra loops.

And of course it is great to meet the customer with the key people of the team. All the rest of the work – and I am pretty sure here – is possible remotely.

Please question yourself: how many of your tasks can you do from home?

For sure everything I write needs proper remote project management and very good collaboration and has trade-offs on top – but the benefits are clear (Why your company has to go remote). You have simply not the best talents for your jobs next to your office. If you are an employer, deal with that and start the transition of your company (How to start the transition to a remote company) or start your own fully remote company now. If you like to be employed, look around for remote work opportunities.

Please use the comment section for any suggestions or objections. And if you need a remote project manager for the scenario above, please let me know.

 

The benefits of remote working for startups and small companies

There are so many general benefits of remote work, that it is hard to address them all. You can also have a look at this post: ‘Why your company has to go remote‘. This post here is about the special situation at a startup or a small company.

What characterices startups and small companies? You have a small number of permanent employees, you will have limited financial resources and a very dynamic environment relating to the market and the potentially growth of the company.

Employees

It is clear, that the best talent is spread over the entire planet. If you try to attract them as onsite employees to your small company you will fail, because they simply will not move into insecurity. That is the reason, why potential founders moved to Silicon Valley or other startup hubs before. With letting your staff work remotely, only your work and your team counts while hiring and not the location!

If you have spread your employees over different markets, you have the valuable possibility to get important information for your product management, i.e. if your product is likely to work in that market or not.

Budget

We said before, that small companies and startups have tiny budgets. How to save that liquidity – which is essential for your small company – with remote work:

We all know that the worldwide average salaries for your employees are not as high as in the few big startup hubs around the globe. Sound like ‘wage dumping’, but that is not a must. You can pay your employees according to their work and enable them a high living standard wherever they are located and be under the San Francisco wage anyway.

The other cost impact is the saving of offices, furniture, IT infrastructure, energy, janitor service and cleaning personnel. To rent conference rooms for your bi-annual project meetings is definetly the cheaper alternative. It comes with the great idea to change location with every meeting to ‘visit’ your employees at their locations with the entire team.

Efficiency

With a small number of people, you will experience that their level of efficiency will be directly visible at the companies results. You will boost the efficiency by letting your employees work remote, because ‘work doesn’t happen at work’ like lots of authors are explaining (i.e. Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson). The key points are less useless meetings, less distraction of crowded offices and collegues who work like ‘ask a collegue is better than think for myself’. Probably you know what I am talking of.

You should let your workforce not only work where they want, but also when they want, because only they know where and when they are most productive. For sure there is some overlap time needed for video calls, but the rest of the time should remain flexible.

Time Zones

Having workers in different time zones is first of all an obstacle. But imagine around the clock coding-testing-coding or overnight bug fixing for happy clients or even a 24/7 help desk with just a handful employees. That is a really big boost for the customer service.

If you work remotely just from the beginning, you are avoiding problems with turning your existing company to a remote one. That includes normally discussions about processes, tools, collaboration with and behaviour of single remote workers. See more in the post ‘How to start the transition to a remote company’.

Remote work has lots of advantages, especially for startups and small companies. What are your experiences? Let us know in the comment section.

What a good remote project manager needs to know

What is a remote project manager? That’s easy, its a project manager of a remote team. So what is different between managing an onsite or a remote team?

Most articles about this topic are not highlighting, that most methods and approaches are the same. Time, resource and budget planning, controlling or stakeholder management are nearly the same with onsite and remote projects. But if you take the PMI methodology for example, it says that you have to adjust all methods to the specific circumstances of the project anyway. The location and composition of the team is, of course, an important characteristic.

What are the major different topics, the remote project manager has to deal with? They are:

  • Communications
  • Tools
  • Team Management
Communications

The known principle is ‘everyone has to know everything what is important to his / her work at any given time’ – not more and not less.

The diffuculties with remote teams are, that you don’t have talks from desk to desk and you don’t have the informal meetings at the water cooler or coffee maschine. According to the famous book Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, are the employers of Basecamp encouraged to use their chat software Campfire as a ‘virtual water cooler’.

Instead of that you have to assure that all inforamtion will be exchanged in written (i.e. design specifications) or via chat, phone or video conference. The advantage here is, that agreements are more binding, but on the other hand, it is hard to get the mood of the participants and the reading between the lines.

Use the communication tools according to the urgency of the information:

  • urgent: make a call (but think about the time zone)
  • less urgent: reach them via messenger
  • not urgent at all: use email

Be very cautious if there is a little misunderstanding or you sense a bad mood at any form of communication. Normally that is only the tip of the iceberg. Get over this with temporarly even more communication, be it written, via phone or video or even face-to-face if needed.

Tools

We can’t do remote work without a number of tools. Remember that only the tools enabled us to work with distributed teams around the world.

The variety of tools in unbelievable. Its very hard to get a good overview or to make suggestions. Its also continuously envoling as we know the matter with software. Let’s focus on the tasks we have to address with the tools:

  • project management (schedule, resources, timetracking)
  • communication (VoIP, video, chat)
  • document management
  • source code management with version control, if you create software

Commonly you will use the tools which are in place at your company or at the client. If you have the choice, check out tool comparisons and have a close look on what will help the team while avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy.

Team management

Together with communications, managing the team is the most important topic for the remote project manager.

The great advantage of remote work, that you can hire the best talents (for the best price) worldwide, comes with the challenge that you will maybe not work in the same time zone. And even if – you should maintain a plan with the actual (remember travelling digital nomads) time zones and preferred working hours of all team members.

Get a very good overview about everyones experiences, skills, characteristics, position in the company, etc. At best you make longer one-on-ones at the beginning of the project. It is very good, if you have a face-to-face kickoff or get-togethers once or twice a year.

To enhance the collaboration, allow some time for personal conversation. So start every phone conference with some small talk and encourage the team members to exchange some information about hobbies, family situation or about the home or current city or country at other situations.

The project manager is the critical role in a distributed team. He enables all the remote work benefits, if he / she makes a good job and can destroy the project and the reputation of remote work if he / she skews it up.

Contact me if you need a remote project manager or even a coach for your project manager!