man working at home on his couch, barefoot
PHOTO: Andrew Neel

Just in the past decade, corporate perspectives on remote working have gone full circle:

  • Brave Frontier — “It might be OK for some of those Silicon Valley companies, but it’s not for us.”
  • Grudging Acceptance — “OK, but we need a detailed policy outlining how this will work and agreement on what we will pay for in terms of internet connectivity and home office technology support. And availability for this perk will be limited to a select few.”
  • Mainstream — “OK, but we need a policy controlling which software you use, because we’re losing control of our information. And by the way, we’re not paying for any expenses beyond your laptop.”
  • Skepticism — “I told you this was a bad idea, even Marissa Meyer at Yahoo is pulling people back into the office.”
  • Panacea — “The coronavirus will change things forever in terms of remote working.”

When I ran AIIM, we moved rapidly from a central office approach to being fully virtual. Truth be told, some of this was intentional strategy and some of it just happened. But as the coronavirus moves remote working into the spotlight once again, here are nine lessons I learned along the way to becoming a virtual organization:

1. Standardize on a Collaboration Platform

This means email, document management, document sharing, social sharing/news feed, video and audio. The good news is there are many platforms and they are cheap and easy to use. The bad news is there are many platforms and they are cheap and easy to use. Just choose, and stick to it.

2. Choosing a Collaboration Platform Is a Business Decision

IT should have a voice in this decision — and a significant one — but it shouldn't be the only voice. The norms and practices related to how you want to work together as an organization are business decisions, augmented by technology, not determined by it.

3. When Conferencing in Real-Time, Turn the Video on

The first reality of virtual work is a lot of work will be done on conference calls. The second reality is, whether you want to admit it or not, a LOT of multi-tasking will be going on during those conference calls. One way to force people to pay attention and focus is to make it known that the default for conference calls will be video on.

4. Not Everyone Will Love the Idea of 'Working at Home'

If you are someone of a “mature” age, you likely live in a suburb and commute long distances to an office. You will probably love the idea of getting rid of those wasted hours commuting and being able to hit the kids’ soccer practice on time. Others — particularly younger workers closer to their college years and living in cities closer to the office — often like the idea of a hub office, but dislike the rigidity associated with traditional offices and office hours. What they want is flexibility. There is a difference between working at home and flexibility.

5. Virtualness Makes Onboarding More Challenging

When we moved AIIM to be a virtual organization, it was with people who already knew each other really well in a traditional office environment. But once we were fully virtual, those connections couldn't be taken for granted.

Onboarding new staff needs to be more intentional and well-structured in a virtual environment than it is in a traditional environment, otherwise new employees will be lost and wonder what on earth they have stumbled into. Similarly, you need to deliberately create cross-functional opportunities for engagement among employees who don’t normally connect in the normal course of day-to-day processes.

6. Get Over Yourself re the Dog Barking in the Background

Nothing is more annoying than the boss calling out remote workers for very minor distractions that likely wouldn’t occur in a traditional office. Stuff happens.

7. At the Same Time ... Don’t Let Yourself so Easily off the Hook

Lesson #6 notwithstanding, understand you are responsible for your own behavior on calls and the environment in which those calls are conducted. Set a high standard for yourself. Plan your day around the times when you will need to connect and choose your environment accordingly. And remember that greater remote flexibility carries corresponding obligations as well. As we had to point out in the early days of virtual work, if you work from home and the federal government closes because of snow, you don’t get the day off.

8. Even With Virtual Workplaces, the Workday Should Have Limits

Another good news/bad news scenario — remote and virtual work means you can work anywhere, anytime, anyplace. But that doesn’t mean you should, nor does it mean you should expect it of the people you work with, and especially of those who work for you.

9. Coronavirus Won’t Ultimately Change Opinions That Much re Remote Work

Yes, there is a very real drive toward more virtual and flexible workplaces, with very real benefits in terms of employee engagement and retention. And yes, the coronavirus will provide a significant short-term push in that direction. But if your company wasn’t committed to this path before the coronavirus, odds are it will want to revert to the old way of working after the crisis passes. And that will be interesting, because once you've opened the door to virtual and flexible work environments, however briefly, it's hard to then take that perceived right away.