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Remote work

Presence is not productivity (when working remote)

A friend of mine runs a fully-distributed company with 21 employees.

They hired a junior developer a few months ago, Joe.

What Joe lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm.

He never missed a daily standup. He was always around for a late night Slack conversation. He posted interesting articles to #random. He chimed in with feedback on new product evolution.

The only issue? Joe wrote 0 lines of code in 3 months.

Literally 0. He had enough knowledge to make it through the interview process, but neither the skills nor desire to do any real work.

Granted, it was a failure in the hiring process. A failure in onboarding. A failure in management.

But it’s more common than you’d think.

It’s rare to have a case this extreme, but the rewarding of presence over productivity is a common issue for newly remote teams.

The problem is getting worse as teams quickly adopt to remote without being intentional about creating a productive remote culture.

With Slack as our new office, it’s easy to conflate presence with productivity.

We reward the fast responders. The last night messengers. The GIF posters.

The ones who chime in on every channel and thread.

In a physical office this behavior is common, but easier to spot. In a digital world there’s something comforting about always seeing someone is present and engaged.

As a manager, I admit to making some negative assumptions about team members if I see them offline for too long during a day. The problem is that sometimes these assumptions have been right — the person that told me they shut Slack down to get work done was in fact… not working.

However, response time is obviously not the best metric for evaluating employees. Your least responsive staff might be getting the most work done.

Like how remote workers are often penalized compared to in-office workers, the remote workers who are always available are rewarded.

We’re optimizing for the wrong things at work, and it’s making us miserable.

How do we solve it?

Remote is an opportunity to build a stronger company. It is an opportunity to rewrite the rules of the traditional office and help every team member have a better day at work. This leads to happier, more productive employees with better retention — if done right.

Start by being thoughtful about how remote will impact your individual team members. Talk to each of them about their experience with remote and how it can be improved.

The most common challenges of remote are collaboration & communication, loneliness, and work-life balance. Talk to your team about these issues and create a plan to mitigate them.

It starts from the top down.

First, set a vision for how your remote team operates.

What does an ideal day look like for every team member? How much focus time, collaboration time, social time? How many meetings? Scheduled time for self-care?

Once you have that vision, start setting standards and building processes to accomplish it.

Some examples include:

  • Write a Slack etiquette guide that sets expectations on how your team operates.
  • Set office hours and let your team know it’s ok not to respond after working hours are over
  • Use tools like Donut or Holopod to build remote team culture
  • Sync your calendar with Slack to minimize distractions
  • Encourage your team to use Slack statuses to set focus time, collaboration time, and availability
  • Consciously create connections with virtual coffees and happy hours.

The advantages of remote are there if you lean on them. Instead of trying to replicate the office, think about how you can create an inclusive culture that makes everyone's work day better. Remote is an opportunity to make work better than the office ever was. Now get started.