When Working Remote Doesn’t Work, and What It Takes to Fix It

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There is one critical factor if you are hiring a remote worker or becoming one

This could be said to be a cautionary tale, one based on experience; that is, a failure that I learned from and that my client also learned from- a costly experience. With the rapid movement towards remote work being an accepted and encouraged option, there are issues I do not see addressed clearly enough in job postings and offers. If you are considering a remote position or hiring for one, there is a critical component of this process that both parties need to be aware of, and that must be addressed before a hire: onboarding.

For the employer, you’ve only got a month or so to get this right and it has to start at the interview stage

The number one hurdle to cross in remote working is communication. It’s hard to overestimate the amount a new employee who is onsite learns from being in the company’s physical environment. They get a feel for the social climate, the type of people that manage the company, hands-on experience with systems, both technical and internal processes, they have ready resources for quick answers and they get a feel for the business. All of this can be difficult to reproduce in a remote relationship. The key is a comprehensive onboarding plan that maps out daily activity from day one and, ideally, is started at the interview stage.

Read how Aha!, a marketing software company, onboards their new remote and on-site employees.

Standardize your onboarding procedure before your first remote hire- and constantly refine it

Onboarding, especially in smaller companies experiencing rapid growth, is often an ad hoc process. New employees are walked around and introduced, technical needs are set up, including various equipment and accesses, and company policies are clearly explained, often with a required sign-off by the employee. All of these processes are necessary for a remote onboarding plan, but the ways they are handled is quite different. Onboarding goes beyond these first day processes and is designed to get the employee up to speed and productive as soon as possible, while helping them integrate into the team

Here are some basic steps for developing an onboarding plan for remote employees and contractors:

  • Communication. It is critical that the new hire have immediate access to the same kind of communication abilities they would have in an office. Managing this by email, conference calls, and phone conversations is not going to replicate the communication you get in-person. People get too busy or respond slowly, context can be lost and the new employee can be left hanging. Fortunately we have a solution in recent years that greatly improves this. It is the widespread use of chat and collaboration applications like Slack or Skype. With an app like Slack, there tend to be instant responses, the employee can be subscribed to subject matter groups, and they can have an ear into the small talk and watercooler-type discussions that often represent the actual social lubricants that keep a company moving.
  • On-site experiences. I personally feel that an on-site experience in the first month is critical. Ideally, there is one during the interview process, and a longer one about two weeks after the hire has started. The two weeks allows the employee to get through set-ups, basic training, background learning, and understanding roles. After this, if you bring them in, they’ll already have some familiarity with the culture and business model, and now get to put a face to the names.
  • Have a pipeline of early tasks. Once an employee, remote or on-site, is set up, they typically spend their first few days basically not doing anything productive, because they haven’t developed workflow assignments and habits. This is a critical stage for onboarding a remote employee because you have a chance to get them involved from day one doing something interesting. Give them some assignments that will walk them through frequent job tasks and get them started on understanding workflows. These assignments don’t have to be unique- they can be standardized things that you reuse with other new hires. Their response to this can be compared with how others handled it. Remember, the actual output is likely not ready for primetime- it’s an exercise.
  • Have them ‘shadow’ other employees. In an office setting this is easy- they spend a day with a peer, watching and learning. Ideally this takes place with multiple people and helps build bonds and a sense of being a part of the team. With remote hires this is trickier, but it can really make a difference. The shadow may mean an on-going Slack or Skype conversation. When there are meetings to attend, the meeting group should be set up on Slack (for example) and participants should use it for discussion in addition to conference calls. This requires a well-orchestrated onboarding plan that was created before the remote hiring process was initiated. Current employees should understand their role when they are being shadowed, with guidance from management and HR.

For the employee, you have to dive into all of this, from day one

Actually, well before your start date. As I mentioned earlier, the time to learn about how the company onboards remote employees is during the interview phase. Interviews are just that- two-sided conversations with your prospective employer asking you questions, and you in turn having questions for them. Often, the quality of the questions you ask materially affects your prospects. And if you’re discussing a primarily remote job it is critical that the employer have a plan, preferably down to the calendar-level timeline, of how they will help you integrate and get up to speed.

If you don’t get a clear answer on this process, before being hired, you have a major red flag waving in front of you. Beginning a remote job is challenging enough- you not only have to learn the ropes and get to know the business, but you have to deal with it while potentially being in a vacuum. Without a clear onboarding process to get you through the first month, it is easy to feel lost and frustrated. And that is not the way a successful remote experience should feel.

Slack: driving the potential of remote work

Deceptively simple applications like Slack have been a principal driver behind wider acceptance of off-site/remote working arrangements. These apps have evolved to serve many purposes, from simple person-to-person real time conversation, to group discussions and problem-solving. They also include file sharing and integrate with third party apps that add more specialized capabilities. I focus on Slack for this article for two reasons: The user interface and experience is very intuitive, which encourages adoption, and I have used it extensively with clients. It really gives me the feeling of being in tune with my clients and a part of the team, regardless of where I or they are found at any given time.

Disclosure: I have no financial relationship with Slack.

A final note for both sides

I have seen this process unfold with both the negative no-plan scenario and the well-planned scenario. The well-planned scenario relies on a very transparent process for both parties and that daily communication mechanism, i.e. a strong Slack implementation that the company views as its primary tool for employee communication. When you work remotely in such a situation it feels very much like you are a part of something, and that is the way to make remote work well for both parties.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Written by

Novelist, Tech Marketing Writer, Growth Consultant. I have been a professional writer for over 20 years- 8 non-fiction books and 1 novel, many articles, etc.

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