Remote work effectiveness requires adjusting expectations

Author James Stanier discusses the lessons from 'Effective Remote Work' in adapting to asynchronous communication and preparing for the hybrid workplace.

Remote work in some form is here to stay, whether employees continue to work from home full time or split their time between home and the office. But, for remote work to succeed long term, employees must adjust their processes and communications.

In the book Effective Remote Work, author James Stanier provides an in-depth exploration of remote work effectiveness for individuals and teams, such as setting up home offices, onboarding and orienting new employees remotely, and adjusting communication expectations. The book also offers short exercises to help readers evaluate their own remote work habits and company culture.

In this interview, Stanier discussed how the way people work and communicate is changing, the challenges of managing remote employees and how to take lessons from the book into a hybrid workplace.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How can employees adjust to more asynchronous communication with remote work and learn when to use which tools?

James Stanier: The tools definitely are there now, which is great, but using them well is another thing. They take practice. People are not used to writing frequently -- they're synchronous and in person with lots of meetings. It's a very different skill to do via writing or recording videos.

James StanierJames Stanier

If you're not comfortable with these things, you have to start trying. Do it within your team or people you're comfortable with at work, and experiment with different ways of communicating. The more you write as the primary means of communication or the more you record videos, the more comfortable it becomes.

In the office world -- the meeting world -- in person was just as easy as a conversation because it was practiced. So, how do you get that same level of comfort? It's just through practice day to day to get better at these things.

For example, at Shopify, we have an internal company wiki where all important information is stored. Part of the process of doing the job is to keep the wiki up day to day with projects we have going on, the status of projects or news on the homepage.

When synchronous things happen, like town halls and company meetings, we make sure they get recorded and have them properly livestreamed in different time zones so different cohorts can meet on Slack to chat or watch in real time.

But it has to come from the top down. If you're in a very synchronous, physical company, you could make things more remote-friendly within teams. But you can't go the whole way if there isn't buy-in from leaders in the company. At Shopify, everyone's bought in.

How should employees talk to their managers or IT about tools they want to support remote work?

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Effective Remote Work.

Stanier: A challenge may be where a team diverges from given tools and expresses their own preferences. For tools, if it comes down to personal preference -- if you like Slack's emojis more, for example -- you understand the company is not going to buy another subscription. You have to be willing to accept some tool consolidation for cost, access and security.

But, if you're able to, tons of free tools allow you to supplement what you're given, like workflow ticket tracking. If you don't like what comes with the company and it's not critical to keep everything in there, you can use a free version of Trello or collaborative drawing software. You can always build a case and say, "Our team is using this; here's how we use it." Get some buy-in from colleagues on other teams.

There have been a few headlines lately about managers struggling with remote work and pushing for a return to the office. What are the challenges they're facing in managing remote employees?

Stanier: It's a really nuanced and tricky issue. You have managers who want everyone back in office, and why is that? Is it something to do with culture, where the company hasn't adapted to remote work? Do they not have the right tools or skills? Or could it be more nefarious things, like managers want to observe employees?

Companies have also invested in office complexes -- they can't sell those or end the lease easily. They want people back to actually use those spaces.

Fundamentally, remote work has to work with a high degree of trust. I'm fortunate to work for a company where people trust each other. Some people can be quiet the whole day, and we trust they're doing the work -- and they are. If people are desperate to get teams in the office, it's fundamentally an issue of trust, visibility and not being able to adapt skills to a new world.

The main takeaway from the book is to treat everyone like they're remote. How do you make that work in a hybrid work context?

Stanier: Some things you can't solve with hybrid, but there are things you can do better. Little things make a massive difference -- like having the same access to meetings. Everyone should have their own mic and camera and try not use the physical office layout to give the advantage to those there.

The trickier thing requires more mindfulness by people in the office. Remember that, with every communication in the office or to someone remote in the team, you have some duty to broadcast that back out. If some people were to get lunch and have an idea, they should write that idea up in a team chat channel when they get back to the office to bring everyone in so they all have the same access to information.

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