3 Lessons Companies Are Learning (So Far) with Remote Work

Business executives Jason Fried and Laszlo Bock offer advice on managing a remote workforce and fostering strong employee engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic in a recent CNBC@Work livestream.

Once considered an office perk, remote work became a necessity seemingly overnight. Many companies across the globe have had to shift most, if not all, of their employees to work from home as the spread of COVID-19 impacted business operations. 

As companies continue to grapple with the technological, managerial, and human challenges of telecommuting, they’re also shaping the future of work, as highlighted during a session at a recent CNBC@Work livestream event, “Managing a (Suddenly Remote) Workforce,” sponsored by Workday. 

The session featured interviews with Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp and author of several books including “Remote: Office Not Required”; and Laszlo Bock, co-founder and CEO of Humu, former senior vice president, people operations at Google, and author of the book “Work Rules” (photo above).

Here are some of their insights about how to foster a culture that supports remote work at scale, particularly during this challenging time. 

Simplify and Unify

When transitioning to remote work, don’t attempt to simulate the physical office environment at home, Fried advised. Instead, designate a central place online for employees to get what they need and collaborate with others.

“I find that the more tools you have and the more separate places, the more chaos you're actually creating,” Fried said. “So I encourage everyone just to simplify right now and not go too broad with too many tools.”

Fried said this approach should continue even when conditions allow work in office buildings, as he predicts some companies will decide to make remote work a formal aspect of their culture. And most likely, their employees will adopt a hybrid work schedule where they work from home a few days a week, Fried said.

“You don't want to have some work happening locally and then only the remote people use a separate tool. You want to make sure everyone's using the same thing and communicating the same way.”

How information is disseminated helps shape a company’s culture, he said. For example, most employees at Basecamp work remotely, and the company doesn’t have in-person meetings “because in-person meetings favor the people who are there,” he said. “So we write things up instead. We distribute information to everybody the same way regardless of where they are.” 

Build Trust and Connection

Bock said psychologists talk about three kinds of distance: physical distance, operational distance (which can be bridged by technologies such as video conferencing), and the most challenging, affinity distance.

“Affinity is a sense of trust and compassion, and connection and accessibility to information,” said Bock. Affinity is “the most powerful driver of performance, of innovation, of retention, of all kinds of goodness, and the thing that's most missing today. So the technology can fill the gap on the operational side, but the affinity needs to come from human beings actually finding new ways to interact.”

For example, Bock said his company uses “nudges”—helpful reminders in the form of text messages and emails, for example—that encourage wellbeing and collaboration. 

“One of the most powerful nudges we found, that has the biggest reaction, is we've reminded people to set up what we call virtual water coolers,” Bock said. “These virtual water coolers make it comfortable for anyone to pop in when they need support.”

Bock added: “That reinforces affinity and kind of replicates that randomness and serendipity you have when people bump into one another.”

Exercise Empathy

Organizations are having to be quick studies on more than the technical aspects of remote work. They’re adapting new behaviors, among them the feeling that “everyone is looking out for each other right now,” Fried said. “And I think hopefully that is one of the legacies that comes out of this—people's concern for one another.”

Bock cited empathy as the soft skill that’s most needed right now. “It's basically releasing your agenda, and at the start of every interaction, you just listen,” he said. “People who are freaked out and scared are not going to be productive, they're not going to be effective, they're not going to move in any cohesive direction. And the human thing, the kind, caring thing is to start with, ‘How are you doing? Let me just check in on you.’ So empathy is the number one thing people should be focused on right now; everything else will follow from that.”

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