It’s nothing new, remote workers are taking the world by storm. Or maybe I’m just much more aware of freelancers in all their forms. We now – or many of us, anyhow – work from home, or we might be seen lurking in co-working spaces or combining travel and work (oh, to be a digital nomad), rather than having a dedicated space temporarily at the office of whomever we’re working with.
So, we’re business owners. A business of one. Ready to slot into whatever team takes us on for small projects, big projects or forever(ish) ongoing projects. I’m not going to dress it up, but this ‘slotting into the team’ thing can be slowed up by the distance. In the office, you can get the “Hi, how are you, did you know…?” and “I’ll show you where…” chats flowing freely and new team members can quickly settle in. But what about when the new team member is remote and the existing team also remote? They might also work part-time; you could be looking at weeks until they’re fully up to speed.
No fixed address, a completely virtual team and add to the mix all the other work and time commitments that many of us have now we’re flexing work in and shoehorning it around other projects, family, creative pursuits, maybe a second job and who knows what else.
Having worked like this for, ahem, seven years, I feel I have tonnes of examples of the types of challenges you encounter every day, ideas of how these can be overcome and why they shouldn’t be viewed as drawbacks at all.
Say you’re a Kent-based virtual assistant (sound familiar) and your colleague is in Yorkshire, you’re hardly going to have a morning briefing over a cup of coffee. This general communication is still a relevant thing when you’re working remotely. Not just so you all know what each other is doing, but so each team member feels involved and part of the team. So how can the daily briefing be replaced?
- Over communicate: Be clear, spell it out, leave nothing to chance, document everything and never assume people know something.
- Think outside the inbox (sorry I couldn’t help it): Why not try a messaging tool like Slack for internal comms and quick messages to take the pressure off everyone’s email.
- Face-to-face from time to time: Schedule in a conference call – I love Zoom for this, a phone call or an actual real-life meeting if distance allows from time to time. Although it can feel that meetings are a bit of a time drain, talking generates ideas and I’m always surprised by the problem solving that can come out of a chat. Plus, it goes some way towards replacing the lost workplace camaraderie.
Time and distance
The lack of close proximity can feel like it slows progress and decision making. A simple task like signing off a newsletter can feel like it goes around and around, edit after edit. People’s conflicting schedules and juggling priorities mean that one person’s idea of a timely reply is not the same as the next person’s.
- Expectations: Be clear about turnaround times for work and response times, keep track of tasks and projects on a shared system so that everyone can see at a glance what’s expected.
- Availability: Make each other aware of your availability and other commitments. Anyone who’s dealing with external enquiries can act as a gatekeeper to help manage expectations and hold the space for responses to come together.
- Over communicate: See ‘Communication’ above. This comes with the caveat of relevance. Is it relevant and if you’re being sent stuff unnecessarily, then it should be up to the individual to speak up?
Centralising the office
If you’re still in the mindset of ‘the office’, think desks, networked computers, project boards, etc…how can this be recreated without the physical space or a location? A similar on-boarding process is still needed for new team members, albeit a more virtual walkthrough.
- Resources: Does everyone have what they need to do their part of the job? This could be information or equipment or training, even.
- Information share: Set up shared folders on DropBox or GoogleDrive so everyone can access resources and collaborate on projects.
- Online tools: Work out which online tools will be of the most benefit. Are any already in use? What’s working, what’s not? Your memo board becomes Trello, your timesheets become Toggl, your coffee machine catch-up becomes a Slack #chitchat.
As I am writing this, it’s clear that most of the challenges and therefore their solutions are centred around communication and how we can adapt that. This was my first point, but you’ll see it’s actually in every point. With the flexibility that’s given to freelancers or remote workers, there comes a responsibility. A responsibility to reassess how we’re working, be accountable and transparent, review processes, learn as we go, fill in knowledge gaps when we notice them, challenge the ‘we do it like this’ and speak up if something isn’t working. Of course, it might also mean we just have to suck it up and get on with it if it works for everyone else.