Remote work will transform us

An interview with Megan Wheeler full of tips and research on remote work.

7-minute read

Remote work is the wave of the future. According to Gallup, in 2016, 43% of Americans were working remotely at least some of the time (up from 39% in 2012). Greater work-life balance and flexibility continuously rank as “very important” to the modern workforce. Employees are pushing organizations to shift how they structure and see work. 

When done well, remote employees are more productive and happy. The flexibility has even helped shrink the gender gap in pay and tenure. But change does not come easily. Managers and employees struggle with how best to approach an ever-growing remote workforce. A business-as-usual approach will not do. 

To bring greater clarity to the issue, at LifeLabs, we conducted a meta-analysis of research on the remote experience. We also spoke with heads of L&D and People Operations, and interviewed employees from 13 companies, ranging in size from 150 – 30,000 employees. (And we get to use ourselves as a case study. See a typical LifeLabs team meeting below!)

To extract the key lessons from our study, I sat down (virtually, of course) with Megan Wheeler, the lead author and researcher of our study, Here is what she had to say:

Roi: How do you define remote teams?  

Megan: We work with some organizations that are completely distributed, meaning there is no office. Then there are teams that have remote employees, working from home or other spaces outside of the office. Finally, remote teams can be made up of employees from different offices.  

Roi: Back in 2017, you published a white paper on challenges that remote teams experience. What are those challenges and how do those of us engaged in remote work best respond?

Megan: The first one is communication. It could mean difficulty communicating in different time zones, things get lost in translation, or different communication norms across different cultures. 

In studying people who handle this challenge really well, the fix was having some kind of playbook or social contract where explicit communication norms live. For example: “Here is how we use email, here is how we use Slack, here is when we should call one another, etc.” 

One of my favorite rules we picked up from a team we studied is if you are going back and forth over Slack more than three times, then hop on video. They do this to minimize misinterpretations and the amount of time needed to make a decision. 

Roi: Whose responsibility is it to address these communication challenges? 

Megan: Solutions should be co-created. The leader of the team can begin the dialogue, but unless it's co-created and agreed on, it’s hard to commit to the rules.  

Roi: Basically, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make this work, yes?

Megan: Yes. In general, the more people contribute to ideas, the more they will agree to them.

Roi: Okay, so communication is our first challenge. What is our second challenge and potential responses?       

Megan: Social inclusion, or the sense of belonging, is a big one. We are wired to track in-group and out-group dynamics. When you add distance, it often triggers feelings of separation and isolation. 

One of the things that can be helpful here is turning cameras on, so you are able to connect. Don’t forget how important face-to-face communication is for people. In psychology, there is a concept called the mere exposure effect: exposure to someone’s face will increase liking, which impacts willingness to collaborate and trust.

Another thing you could do here is create some kind of team ritual or artifact. This is where you see the importance of seemingly little things like swag. One manager took a group photograph from a retreat and sent it in the mail to everyone from the team. So they had an actual physical photograph to remember the team. Another company we work with created superhero figures for everyone on the team. 

For remote inclusion, using tools like Slack is huge. Creating groups or channels specifically for social connection is key. A study from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab shows that one of the leading indicators of team success is how well they communicate informally. Having a channel where people can connect over cats, food, fitness, or whatever is really important.  

Roi: Finding opportunities to create cross-cutting ties and a shared superordinate identity within the group.

Megan: Yes. 

Roi: What about the third challenge that remote teams face?  

Megan: Fairness. We are wired to monitor fairness. We care that both process and outcome are fair. 

Organizations should have explicit conversations around why decisions are made and what their impact might be. One company we studied has a checklist they use for themselves. They created a rule that every time someone in leadership communicates a decision it is (a) shared to co-located and remote employees all at once, and (b) always has a "why." 

When you get to work remotely there are a ton of benefits and trade-offs: one of which may be that you will not get the spontaneous parties or snacks that the office gets, but you save a lot of time. Setting expectations and talking about potential unintentional consequence is really important around this issue.  

Roi: Okay, up until now we have touched on the importance of paying attention to communication, social inclusion, and fairness. What else should remote teams pay attention to?

Megan: Trust. This is where you can get into proximity bias and remote attribution errors. Basically, if you are not seeing what I’m doing you may not trust that I’m actually working. If it takes me longer to respond to an email, it may turn into “this person is ignoring me,” or “this person is slacking off.”  

Work, dating back to the Industrial Revolution, was location vs output centric. With remote work, your output can be tremendously high, but no one sees you working, so it’s harder to build trust. 

So, the impact is that managers will either micromanage and check-in way more often than they need, or they go completely absentee. The fix is to shift to a results-oriented definition of success. Set clear check-points and deadlines along the way. It’s also really important to make space for connection, as trust is not only about credibility and reliability. Get to know people as people.

Roi: Yes, there is some interesting cross-cultural research on trust. For certain cultures trust is more about getting quality work done on time, while for others it’s about knowing and identifying with the person first. Interesting stuff. So what is the final remote challenge that your research unearthed? 

Megan: Growth. The feeling of professional and personal development. When you work remotely you often feel out-of-sight and out-of-mind.  

To address this challenge, great managers make it a habit to demarcate and extract learning on projects and progress. With questions like, “What skills are you acquiring?” the habit becomes internalized. For example, Rachel Abrahams, a facilitator on our team at LifeLabs created her very own performance journal, which includes books and articles she’s read, her individual development plan, feedback she’s received, and her accomplishments.

Effective remote employees also increase the visibility of their work. That could be demoing a project, doing a lunch-and-learn, or sharing in an all-hands meeting. Also, as teams, get in the habit of acknowledging the work other people have been doing to increase people’s visibility internally and demarcate progress.  

Roi: Excellent. So the challenges facing remote teams center around communication, social inclusion, fairness, trust, and growth. As a final question, what do you see as the future of remote work?

Megan: I think the future of remote work looks like communities supporting one another. Jobs will be more accessible in urban, suburban, and rural parts of the world. I think it will increase employability and employment rates. I think remote work will positively impact inclusion, hearing more voices in meetings. And I believe remote work will create more flexibility for working parents.  

The impact of remote work is much more powerful than just making companies more money by lowering costs. It will transform how humans treat one another.

To learn more about Megan's findings and recommendations, check out this Culture Amp article.