Tips For Transitioning An Office-Based Company To Remote Work

Many companies are going exactly the opposite direction from Yahoo when it comes to remote work—and have best practices to prove it.

Despite the recent Yahoo ban on working from home, many organizations are eager to reap the benefits of a remote workforce. But just as with any organizational change, getting started isn’t easy, in large part due to the struggle of managing information and creating a collaborative environment across a geographically remote workforce. Specifically, it is hard to create a water cooler environment where spontaneous collaboration occurs when working remotely.

So where better to turn for advice than to AIIM, the industry organization of information managers. AIIM, the Association for Information and Image Management, is a global, non-profit organization that provides independent research, education, and certification programs to information professionals. Founded in 1943, there are now over 85,000 participants in the AIIM community, according to Peggy Winton, VP and CMO of AIIM. I figure if anyone should know about managing information, it would be these guys.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with John Mancini at the recent AIIM 13 Conference in New Orleans, and John shared some of his own experiences in turning AIIM into a remote workplace.

“Washington, D.C. traffic was getting worse and worse, so AIIM decided to allow teleworking,” Mancini told me, explaining AIIM’s motivation for allowing employees to work from home. “We started with teleworking one day a week.” At first, select employees were allowed to work from home, and as they gained experience with the organizational dynamics, additional people were allowed to join the program. Next, people were allowed to work several days a week out of the office. As the program became more successful, the organization started to hire remote workers and allow others to relocate away from D.C. The program has been going on for over a year already.

In fact, the program has become so successful that AIIM now has only one "in-office" work day per week. The office is open the other four days, and employees are free to come in and work, but they are only required to come in on Wednesdays. Today, finance and IT people still come in every day, but the reduced use of office space has allowed AIIM to move to a smaller workspace.

Recently, the AIIM office has been reconfigured to take advantage of the new way of working. Office space was reduced and individual offices were eliminated. The organization now uses a hoteling arrangement where employees come in and grab any open space to work; there are no longer any permanent work spaces or offices. AIIM installed a large conference room and some quiet meeting spaces for people to confer without disturbing others. And laptops and mobile devices replaced desktop PCs so people could work from anywhere.

Working from many locations also required the introduction of new collaboration tools to allow people to connect during the day. Skype was originally used for voice and messaging. Email is still used for more formal communication. A recent move to Microsoft’s cloud offering, Office 365, has simplified email administration, and now allows employees to use Lync to communicate internally. Mancini says he himself now uses Lync four to five times a day, but since it doesn’t always work well for multi-person conversations, AIIM also uses outside services for some conference calls. Citrix’s GoToMeeting is used for remote meetings, especially when those meetings include outside parties. Yammer microblogging allows employees to share "what is going on" and recently there has been some experimentation with Yammer Notes to allow employees to co-edit text without having to share documents.

For organizations that want to embrace teleworking, Mancini shared his "lessons learned." He offers the following 10 pieces of advice:

  1. Plan on having employees come in to the office several days a week. One day is not enough to get in the necessary face time needed for meetings and for creative collaboration. Employees from some departments, like finance and IT, will need to come in more often.
  2. Don’t turn "in office" days into an endless stretch of back-to-back meetings. Let people do their regular work and leave plenty of time for interacting with colleagues.
  3. Bring the entire team together at least once a quarter, including remote employees who do not telecommute. There is no substitute for working shoulder to shoulder with peers, at least periodically.
  4. Adopt agile development methods for operations; schedule 15-minute morning "scrum" meetings daily to provide short updates and have each employee focus on "what do I need to accomplish today." Stick to these meetings religiously. The frequency and regular-ness of the meetings bridges the "gap of virtual-ness." The daily review focuses people on what they need to do and helps keep them from getting stuck.
  5. Schedule these internal meetings at unconventional times. At AIIM, daily product meetings start at 9:14 a.m. and 9:44 a.m.. This way, meetings do not extend for the usual half-hour or hour; rather, they end on the top and bottom of the hour, when outside meetings are typically scheduled.
  6. Consolidate to fewer collaboration tools. Reducing the number of places to check for incoming messages and updates simplifies everyone’s workday and makes it easier to work as a team.
  7. When scheduling meetings with remote employees, use videoconferencing to get visual feedback. (See "Can Next-Generation Video Conferencing Change The Way We Communicate?" for the benefits of videoconferencing.)
  8. Make sure everyone uses the same tools to connect to a meeting. For example, "hybrid" meetings using GoToMeeting and Skype didn’t work well at AIIM, so now all meetings use either one or the other, depending on the list of participants.
  9. Encourage people to get to know each other well and foster a stable work force. On-boarding remote workers into a distributed organizational culture is difficult, so maintaining a stable workforce is important. And encourage lots of conversations among employees to try and minimize "hub and spoke" management of teams and resources.
  10. Be disciplined and work according to simple rules. Clarify those rules and make sure everyone knows them. For example, at AIIM, employees need to be available by Lync during work hours. If they need a quick response to a question, Lync is the tool, not email. More formal reviews are for email, and Yammer is the place to post information for the team and company.
If you have experience working as a remote organization, weigh in with your own suggestions in the comments.

—Author David Lavenda is a product strategy executive at a high-tech company. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Leighton Pritchard]

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3 Comments

  • Terri Griffith

    Great article -- especially in that it shows the importance of thoughtful design across all the human, technical, and organizational dimensions -- and that the design isn't a one time thing. As aspects change it sounds like they've made needed adjustments. Very helpful case study and comments.

  • Ken Fisher

    Great article.  I've been involved with teleworking over the last couple of years.  Initially, it was difficult for the client to comprehend how it could benefit them.  It often seemed to be the case that the client thought: "If I can't see you, there's no way you could be working."  In one case, this idea resulted in the client pulling all of the work back to their local facility.  Months later, they were asking why everything seemed to come to a grinding halt.  The reason? The on-site staff was suffering from "Hey You-itis."  They were basically getting pulled in too many directions (idea of the day) to be consistently effective.  The client ultimately went back to a distributed work force...and back on schedule.  My clients have come to understand that teleworkers can be, and in most cases are, extremely productive.  

  • Julian Stubbs

    Great article. At UP THERE, EVERYWHERE we've been working remotely for 2 years since we set-up. We have over 100 people now all around the world working through our cloud based systems. We invest regularly in getting people together though - for work and socially - because they have to establish trust and really get to know each other. Also when you're working virtually / remotely you have to have far more clear guidelines on tools you work with and how to use them. We don't have any offices but 'creative spaces' where we meet each other when needed, and clients. The biggest issue is 'self-responsibility' in every respect. We expect our people to deliver and they are responsible to their colleagues, clients and themselves for doing just that. 

    Yahoo! should change their identity to Yahoo? Have they totally lost the plot?