Making Remote Work Work: Nine Ways to Succeed and Five Myths Dismissed

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If you’ve been paying attention to the news out of Silicon Valley recently, it would be hard to miss the uproar about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decree that Yahoo! would no longer allow its people to work from home.

I spent several years leading marketing and internal communications for the remote work program at Cisco Systems.  During that time, our policies evolved and grew into a sophisticated program designed to create competitive advantage for Cisco in both its access to skilled workforce and in serving its customers.

I don’t want to jump into the debate about Yahoo!, nor do I want to discuss how organizations and employees benefit from remote work.  My colleague Faith LeGendre has covered that very well.

I want to take a closer look at how to make remote work (which includes working from home, working in a remote location, or even just having a geographically diverse team) actually work well and benefit both the company and the employee.

First, let me dismiss a few myths:

  • Working from home is not just for mothers with young children.
  • Working remotely is not just about wanting schedule flexibility for personal needs.
  • Working remotely to achieve a flexible schedule does not reduce productivity.
  • When remote work programs fail, it’s generally because of poor technology planning or a lack of good management practices.
  • Collaboration and informal interaction do not require being in the same location.

Making a remote work program work for the benefit of everyone requires hard work and a shift in thinking on the part of both the employee and the company.  The goal of a remote work program should be to make employees just productive from anywhere as they would be in an office.

For the company and the remote worker’s manager, these practices will help make you and your people successful and productive no matter where they are:

Shift your thinking from presence focused to results focused.

One of managers’ most common complaints about people who work remotely is that they can’t see whether they are working. I suggest that your inoffice workers are probably also pretty adept at making you think they are working even when they are not.  But it just doesn’t matter.

Whether your people are in your office or somewhere else, remember that you hired them to produce results.  It may require a bit more rigor on your part, but make sure both you and they understand what those results are and how you expect them to be achieved.

Be honest:  if your people are producing great results, does it matter whether they did all the work between 9 and 5?  Or is it OK with you if they did some of the work at 3 AM?

This also means you need to set expectations and have an explicit agreement on when the remote worker will be reachable for emergencies and other time critical matters.  Make sure you know what you actually need and what is reasonable to expect.

Be reasonable and allow yourself a learning curve.

Managing remote workers is not easy. You will find that shifting your thinking, measuring results in a different way, and trusting your workers more completely than you likely have before is challenging and requires a learning curve.

Don’t expect more from your remote workers than from your inoffice workers (though you will probably get more) and watch yourself for inequities in your treatment of the two. This will get easier with time, and it will be much easier if your company’s HR team provides support and training.

Create formal agreements and stick to them.

Your remote workers should know what you expect from them, and you should know how they are meeting those expectations.

When you either hire a remote worker or change an inoffice worker into a remote worker, create a formal written agreement.  Outline everything from objectives, expected results, response times, and availability to reporting and collaborating with colleagues across the company.

Get the technology right.

Don’t skimp.  The technology available in today’s market for making remote workers effective is both very good and very affordable.  Make sure you have the technology that allows your remote workers to get the job done as efficiently as your inoffice workers.

For the remote worker make sure you work effectively and follow these ideas to help your management realize as much benefit as you do from your working remotely:

It’s not about your convenience; it’s about producing results.

As with so many communications you have with your management, explaining why you need this “privilege” just doesn’t cut it.  Explain how it will benefit your manager and the company.  Show how you will make it work.  Sell your manager on trusting you to make it work.

Take it slowly.

Don’t walk into your manager’s office and announce your plan to work remotely full-time starting Monday.  Start with one or two days per week.  Create milestones that show your part-time remote work plan works.  Then go to three days per week.  Then four.

When you are choosing which days to start with, intentionally choose days that will show that you can work effectively.  For example, choose a day when a weekly team meeting occurs, then demonstrate your outstanding participation in that meeting while sitting in your living room.

Demonstrate results.

If there is one single key to success in remote work, this is it:  create external objective evidence of your work.  Your management will not see every bit of work you do remotely. But they can always see the outcome of your work.

For example, let’s say your job is to run email marketing campaigns.  You and they both know lots of planning and collaboration go into creating those campaigns.  But they may or may not see that.  What they will see is that the campaign launched and produced results.

Learn to collaborate online.

Both structured and impromptu collaboration can easily happen from anywhere.  But for most of us, it’s not natural to strike up informal conversations electronically.

I can’t put too fine a point on this:  learn how.  Getting good at making connections and developing relationships with people you can’t (and may never) see is critical to your success.

Overcoming resistance is about proving success.

This is generic but critical to making it work.  Some managers will resist the idea of having someone work remotely.  You can’t change the culture overnight, but you can create opportunities to prove success.  Create trial remote work times.  Develop result focused plans for making it succeed.

When the trial period ends, make sure you have lots of evidence of success to show your manager the benefits and start planning for a larger trial.  Make your success available to others also:  the more people who show and prove success, the faster the culture of resistance will change.

The list of benefits of remote work for both employees and employers is seemingly endless, so there’s no reason not to get started.  Remember, if your people can’t work remotely for you, they might just work remotely for your competition.


Join me at @westcoastgreen ( #wcg10 ); Discounted/Free passes available (updated with links)

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I have the privilege of having been invited to speak at West Coast Green this year, the premier conference on green innovation. West Coast Green focused on the built environment, but also discussed the latest innovations in sustainability and the businesses growing up around the clean economy.

I’ll be leading a panel discussion on the afternoon of September 30 which will focus on some of the more challenging issues facing clean-tech and other sustainability-related start-ups and growing companies face. Building on what we’ve learned from clients who adopt solutions from these young companies, I’ll be leading an audience of entrepreneurs in challenging a panel of experts on critical business topics to come up with solutions that will help their companies cross the dreaded “valley of death” and move from start-up to market success.

I’m privileged to have on this panel these leading experts in their fields:

  • Cindy Jennings, VP, Cohn Marketing. With perspective from a wide range of industries, Cindy is a sustainability marketing and communications expert
  • Will Sarni, CEO, Domani. For 30 years, Will has consulted on sustainability issues and is now an advisor to clean-tech start-ups
  • Anneke Seley, CEO, PhoneWorks. In addition to building sales and marketing process for growing companies, Anneke is pushing the envelope as the leader of the Sales 2.0 movement.

DS3 has secured discounts on attendance for our community. If you’re interested in joining us for this exciting session and seeing what else this three-day event has to offer, please register for a full-conference pass (30% discount) or a trade-show-floor-only pass (free).

Please add your voice to the comments if you have thoughts about the top challenges facing start-ups as they work to achieve market success and a growing revenue stream.

I hope I’ll see you there!


Just Ask

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At this morning’s Social Media Breakfast (great discussion with Anneke Seley, author of Sales 2.0 on using social media in sales), I was talking with Sue of KITList and Clare about how to improve the conversation and engagement of the thousands and thousands of KITList members. The three of us wrestled with updating the blog, creating an e-mail discussion list, maybe a social media service presence (Facebook, Twitter?), but we weren’t really sure what would engage the large and very diverse group that is the KITList membership. Then came the “a-ha” moment:

Clare said “Why don’t you ask your members?”

Which is, of course, applying the basic social media principle to figuring out social media.

Marketers are always working hard to understand customers, prospects and future prospects better. We think we’re pretty good at asking people in our market what they think, want and need. We also think we’re pretty good at translating often disparate answers into a coherent theme that then, we hope, guides our strategy.

Where this morning’s conversation started was in the “market research” mode of asking a few people. Sue asked me and Clare, and told us she had asked a few others, but still had no good answers. So a few hours later, she wrote a blog post (and sent an e-mail) to the members and asked everyone.

A few hours later, I saw the news that Facebook, after the recent debacle, has now decided that changes to their terms of service will be open to discussion by all members and subject to vote of the membership (Can’t you hear the lawyers cringing?). A social media icon now adopts real social media practices in a way that much of the technology industry is proverbially famous for not doing for so many years. This means no more misunderstandings (we hope) and terms of service that the community of Facebook members actually wants to abide by (I’ll refrain from a rant on the use of self-interest as a motivator being better than the threat of lawsuit). Facebook is actually asking everyone, and the result is almost certain to be a service that’s more appealing to its members.

Not everyone will answer. But I can’t think of a better example of how to learn what your whole market thinks, and not just the select few you’ve chosen for research. This is not quite crowdsourcing, but it’s close, and it uses some of the same ideas about collecting opinions from many, many individuals.

So when you want to know what your customers, prospects and market really want and need (and I hope you always want to know), do you let a select few speak for everyone? or do you really ask – everyone?


A Very Very Long Run

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Disruptive Marketing is not just about creating disruption and displacing established market participants. It’s also about how established participants respond to and ultimately capitalize on (and sometimes eliminate) disruptive threats.

This story from Business Week is the story of just such a company. It started with

The world’s oldest continuously operating family business ended its impressive run last year

1,428 years. That’s a very very long time to be in business. In the technology industry where I live, many businesses are lucky to be around for more than five years.

Ultimately, according to this article, the business wasn’t displaced or made irrelevant (through a market disruption), but faded away in a series of mis-directed financial decisions.

But what struck me as interesting was the way that this company made decisions over its incredible millenium-and-a-half run. They refused to comply with established protocols and societal norms. They focused (until near the end) relentlessly on doing the one thing they knew better than anyone else, and they found ways that worked for them to overcome change on a scope that most businesses can barely conceive.

The result was a business that sustained financial, economic, political and military storms of nearly every conceivable variety. It is what they chose to do differently – making business and management decisions that defied the norms – that kept them stable over a very very long run.

It also points out that sometimes the best way to capitalize on disruption is not to respond at all – just let it wash over you and keep going.

One of the most common debates I see in businesses today is about the meaning of, and response to, competitors (and others) actions. There tends to be a common pattern to these discussions: panic, some analysis, then an increasing sense of urgency to act.

I can’t say what the decisions of Kongo Gumi’s management were a millenium ago, but from the history it seems to me that there must have been lots of decisions not to act in these situation.

An idea that might help many companies today is to include in the set of possible decisions “do nothing differently” and rely on the plans in place to succeed. Then play out that scenario next to ones that include the panic-driven actions. I have seen this work effectively far more often than you might expect.

My question is: Do you have the courage to trust your direction and not respond with panic?


Staying Creative

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In order to be disruptive, you have to stay creative – constantly creating new ideas – disruptive ideas. What inspires you is very personal, but for me, there is nothing that inspires that creativity in my work quite like a Tom Peters book (or article or whatever).

So my advice (FWIW): (re-)Read something by Tom Peters (post-McKinsey!!) or something Tom-Peters-like (apologies to both Tom and my mother) every 3-6 months. It will keep you from becoming complacent.

Then go create something disruptive.

[My position: I disrupt. I create extraordinary opportunity. (6 words)]

BTW: my BHAG: I want Tom Peters to be my mentor.

Items of Interest


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Thank you for visiting.

This blog will become, I hope, a contribution to the conversation about how marketing is changing to meet the challenges of a rapidly-changing business world.

Please participate – comment, agree, disagree, whatever makes sense to you (I only ask that you contribute to the conversation, and not just criticize it!).

If you’ve been following my other blog, Nuggets (thank you for reading it!), you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted in a while, and from now on I’ll probably will focus most of my efforts here. I’ll cross-post for a while also.

Thanks for reading!