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Exclusive: Google asked 5,600 employees about remote work. This is what they learned

It might be a good idea to eat lunch together over video chat.

Exclusive: Google asked 5,600 employees about remote work. This is what they learned
[Photo: rawpixel.com/Pexels]

Working remotely can be really tough. To get some insight into how to do it better, Google conducted a two-year study involving data from 5,600 employees across the U.S., Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Approximately 30% of the company’s meetings involve staff in more than two time zones, and 39% involve more than two cities. Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, oversaw the study and has written a guide for how to make the most of distributed teams. Today, she is releasing a report of her findings.

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On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says Gilrane. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

Gilrane says there are three key tricks to optimizing a remote workforce.

Find a work-around for different time zones

The first is being flexible about time zones. For her own teams meetings, which has people on the West Coast and East Coast, she makes sure meetings are at different times every week and are equally convenient for workers in each time zone. If workers extend into more varied time zones, like Greenwich mean time or China standard time, she says to make sure that a manager should alternate meeting times so that one time zone isn’t inconvenienced more than another.

Foster real relationships

Next, she suggests making time for team members across the globe to get to know one another. She thinks managers should be really thoughtful about when they use technology for meetings and when its more appropriate to fly out team members to meet in person. Though distributed teams cannot meet in person often, she thinks managers should encourage workers to get to know one another.

Her team meets once a week for 30 minutes with no express agenda over video chat. “We actually eat lunch or breakfast over chat,” she says. “It’s a nice break from the day to day.” She also thinks it’s important to use video chat so workers can see each other when they’re talking. “Being able to see someone’s face—it’s not the same as being in person, but it really does help a lot. You can read their emotions. You can see how they’re doing,” she says.

Figure out the tech, and clearly explain the rules

Third, she thinks managers should make sure that their technological infrastructure can adequately support a distributed team. Additionally, she says managers should be upfront and transparent about where team members can work from. If workers can only work remotely from certain offices or locations, managers need to be explicit about the rules so that it doesn’t seem like certain workers are enjoying certain privileges over others.

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It’s also worth noting that at Google, each employee has their own set of objectives and key results both for the quarter or year—a framework that may help its remote workers stay productive. “I think that sort of organization and structure in place certainly helps people to get work done,” says Gilrane, “because then they’ll have a clear understanding of what is prioritized.”

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of real estate, technology, and the future of work.

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