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This turnaround CEO has pushed remote work for a decade. Here are her top 5 tips

The office is an unnecessary, costly luxury and the move to work-from-home was smart policy long before COVID-19, says the former CEO of Optiva.

This turnaround CEO has pushed remote work for a decade. Here are her top 5 tips
[Source images: Jeff Brown/Unsplash; Andrii Fadin/Unsplash; Sebastien Gabriel/Unsplash]

One of the most important tasks for a turnaround CEO is cutting costs quickly. The first place I look to sharpen my shears is all the spend associated with office space. Across 16 companies, I’ve shut down close to 50 offices around the world. Ten years ago, people thought I was crazy; even in 2019, it was still considered unusual—until COVID-19.

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses of all shapes and sizes to rapidly enable remote working for their entire workforce. The negative stigma that once surrounded remote working has been replaced by a pleasant surprise at how successful and better work lives can become, almost instantly. So much so that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of both Twitter and Square, has announced permanent policies for staff to work from home and Shopify has gone fully remote, keeping its offices closed. In the words of Shopify’s CEO, Tobi Lütke, “office centricity is over.” 

I’m a big believer that the workplace of the future isn’t restricted to a physical building; it’s a fully remote, work-from-anywhere organization. The office is an unnecessary, costly luxury and more and more businesses are coming to this realization.

Fully remote organizations collaborate just as effectively and operate just as transparently as those whose employees are working in the same office location. Yes, this requires the introduction of new tools and processes, but thankfully they now exist (10 years ago videoconferencing was completely unusable!). So it’s time to rip the Band-Aid off and embrace the new technology–and this new way of working.

After more than a decade of managing many companies this way, here are a few of my tips for those looking to go remote long-term:

It starts at the top

The culture of any successful business is vital to adopting new norms, and that starts at the top–with the executive team. If leaders live and breathe the policies, the entire organization will follow. 

One leader I worked with wanted to change the culture of the company to be a fully remote organization, but he kept coming to the office every morning. He asked our SVP of HR, “I’ve told everyone to work from home, why do people still come to the office?” To which the SVP of HR replied, “As long as you’re coming into the office, everyone else will, too.” That afternoon the leader went home, and never came back. The culture changed overnight. 

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So, the C-suite needs to walk the talk: they need to not only advocate the benefits of remote working, they must demonstrate them, too.

Eliminate the adult babysitters in your organization

Beautifully decorated (and expensive) buildings were once a measure of prestige and power, and a necessity to track productivity: When did staff arrive? What did they work on? When did they leave? This resulted in a culture of face time, rather than focusing on what really matters: results.

What if you had an organization that could eliminate most layers of management? Start to think about what changes to your business processes you’d have to make so that employees could work with zero management overhead. Do you really need managers whose job is to oversee small teams and do one-to-ones all day?

I have changed cultures, so that employees have clear work assignments, and goals, so most manager positions could be eliminated. Creating an environment where people can work asynchronously, across time zones and work schedules has enabled the organization I headed up to work around the clock. This change wasn’t easy: we had to document precisely what every position was supposed to work on for 40 hours a week (hard!), every week. We had to shift decisions from being done in meetings, verbally, to being written in a Google Doc for collaboration (tedious!). In short, we had to justify every single headcount in our organization and why we needed that many people, which led us to the conclusion: we just don’t need that many managers.

With less babysitting needed to check up on employee behavior, you open the door to a more flexible staff base, where the culture and processes reinforce excellent performance. Ending that cycle may feel disconcerting at first, but I promise you, it is the future of the workplace.

You are wrong about your biggest fear

I’d bet one of your main concerns about remote working is the anticipation of a drop in productivity. If you give your staff the right tool kit, then you will see the real rewards of remote working–improved productivity. Instead of thinking of performance as something that is reviewed once a quarter or once a year, evaluate work by transforming roles into measurable units of tasks completed per week, allowing for a qualitative assessment as well as a quantitative one.

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Understanding exactly how and why some employees outperform others can help you identify top performers and develop new training programs, allow new team members to learn from those at the top, and stamp out bad habits that have become ingrained in team operations over time.

Of course, there needs to be a balance and a clear benefit to the workforce. It may not work for every business, but I’ve seen many that drive success from gamifying the workplace. This could include creating a leaderboard to identify and reward the top performers. It’s a very transparent approach that top performers love and low performers hate–a win-win for you. As a result, the poor performers tend to leave and you’re left with only the best.

Fund a great experience

One of the biggest challenges presented by the move to working remotely is technology. Though collaboration software like Zoom has seen a huge uptick, who hasn’t experienced an annoyingly glitchy video call slowed by a lack of bandwidth?

Overcoming this is vital to empowering staff to successfully work from home–and business leaders shouldn’t be afraid to tackle this head on. Companies may already offer employees a laptop but providing a stipend to install a higher bandwidth connection is required to support a range of cloud-based services that can improve productivity and collaboration. Though it may sound expensive, think of it as the 2020 version of a mobile phone reimbursement plan. My recommendation–kill this and replace it with a high home bandwidth reimbursement program. Then, throw in a great pair of headphones with a mic installed (try this awesome Sennheiser gamer headset I love so much that I give them as gifts!)–making it easier for workers to mute/unmute can eliminate those awkward conversation interruptions we’ve all been forced to tolerate.

Get employees on board

Gallup research shows a high percentage of employees are open to the idea of working remotely but making it mandatory right out of the gate will be counterproductive for those who would prefer to work in an office. Some people will mourn the loss of the physical workplace, but, again, the concept of an office is archaic. So, if you have the luxury of time, organizations should look first to those who are already open to the idea of remote working and use these volunteers to demonstrate the policy in action–and in return they will become your best remote work ambassadors. This will help you to build momentum within the business and propel the case for the change.

I once had a CTO on my team that was living in a 1,500-square-foot flat in London–because of the proximity to the office. When I killed the office, he resisted the change and didn’t know what to do. He asked me, “Could I live in Cornwall (a beachy touristy spot on the coast of England)?” I told him, “Why not? Go for it!” He bought a 5,000-square-foot house and a barn with a horse! And he reports that he has never been happier. That was nine years ago.

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Imagine for a moment what would happen by offering 100% remote work. No longer must you limit recruiting to within a nearby radius to the office, uproot workers from their current homes, or pay for expensive relocation packages. Open up your searches for the best talent to quite literally the entire planet–picture the rock star team you could build now!


Danielle Royston has successfully turned around many software companies, most recently serving as CEO of Optiva, a telco charging and billing company. Now, she is telecom’s leading public cloud evangelist, on a mission to help CSPs move to the public cloud.

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