Unlocking a world worth of potential with remote-first working
During this pandemic, I have been in a somewhat unique position.
I started my remote-first role as Head of Partner Business Solutions for Global Delivery around the start of lockdown when many of my usually office-based colleagues were also moving into the world of “WFH” (work from home). My role was always going to be remote-first as it’s very global in nature, so the fact that it coincided with the lockdown was a coincidence but one that led to some interesting observations and learnings.
I have had the opportunity to pick up on some insightful differences between the challenges and benefits I felt as a remote worker by choice, in relation to those of my colleagues who were forced into this situation by the COVID-19 lockdown.
In this piece, I will talk through some of these differences and use them to illustrate what I believe is needed from both leadership and employees if they want to move to a more effective remote-first model and take advantage of the world of possibilities that comes with being a truly global organization.
1. Being aware of different cultures
Looking at my colleagues who have gone remote recently, for the most part, they’re all local to each other. They live in the same country and are used to the way of life there. They also generally understand each other’s quirks, whether a person’s usually blunt or talkative because there’s a pre-existing, in-person relationship. There’s also a cultural familiarity that comes with living in the same location.
However, due to my role’s global nature, the people I talk with on a regular basis can vary wildly in their geographic location, culture and bandwidth accessibility.
As such, I felt uncertain about my remote colleagues’ styles of communicating. As they’re dotted around the world, I won’t meet 90% of the people I talk with regularly. The increased use of video conferencing software in recent times has gone some way to aid more personal interaction with these colleagues, but due to bandwidth limitations, many of them are unable to put on their cameras.
So, it became incredibly important for me to understand the various nuances in how different cultures communicate, both when you can see their body language and when you can’t.
I’m fortunate to have been exposed to various cultures over my life as I have always had a global element to my previous roles. On top of that, I’m a Brit living in New Zealand with an American husband.
But as I started this role, I realized was going to be exposed to more cultures than ever before. Working, collaborating and communicating with a new culture meant I had to quickly differentiate between what may appear to be a minor cultural quirk from my perspective, from what’s driving conversations, outcomes and speed. To avoid a faux pas (and I am sure I have still made some), I requested cultural training sessions for countries I had no experience with. I would highly recommend this kind of training to people in similar positions.
It has been by far my biggest learning curve as even though I expected it, I didn’t expect it to be as influential as it has been so far.
2. Achieving balance and being disciplined in the new borderless office
Another big difference that separates me from my newly remote colleagues, and even other remote-first workers, is what being truly global means to my working hours.
It becomes a lot more difficult to organize meetings in daylight hours for everyone involved when you’re all living in different time zones. So, having a 2am meetings is not an uncommon occurrence for me.
Sometimes a colleague will question why I’m working so late and my answer is because it’s my choice – that’s the beauty of working in a borderless office. I chose to have this global aspect to my job and was aware that it would mean the occasional late night. And I love it – I get to work with such a wide variety of diverse and interesting people regularly, and as a people-person, it works.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s not hard, and I have had to be a lot stricter with my personal time. That may mean booking dinner time with family into my planner or having a nap during the day because I was up particularly late, or early!
Remote working isn’t for everybody – this lockdown has taught many of us just that. It takes a different kind of management to lead in these situations, and it won’t be instinctive to everyone. To get to the place of trust my boss and I have reached, management need to understand what makes their employees tick and how they like to work. I put in communication channels that work for both as there are no more ‘corridor’ conversations.
That said, flexibility goes both ways. So just as leaders need to trust more, employees need to understand that they will need to take greater responsibility to manage their workload, be disciplined in maintaining a balance, and of course let leaders know when things are too intense.
3. Adapting to a remote and global future
I think the biggest impact of this crisis has been how little remote working has changed everything, at least in comparison to what most firms expected. Because with us, aside from some virtual whiteboard challenges, business has carried on as usual for the most part.
Throughout my extensive career in IT, my roles have always involved a lot of travelling to see clients, teams and partners. Before I started this one, I sat my family down to discuss how much I would be on the road, so they knew what to expect.
However, as I ended up starting the new role just as the pandemic started, none of that travelling has come to fruition. And it has made very little difference in the grand scheme of things.
While I don’t see business travelling disappearing completely as many firms like that in-person contact, I do think a lot of long held preconceptions have been dispelled, in part due to the rise in video conferencing. And with valid concerns around climate change and travel, businesses are incentivized to make remote work.
I also believe this period will lead to a removal of location being a barrier to seeking new team members, or the gig economy being engaged. And firms with global workforces will be able to leverage the many benefits of diversity which will take them to the next level.
But this will only be achieved by completely embracing these individuals’ unique cultures as it has such a big impact on how people work, communicate and engage. A yes can mean different things depending on where you are in the world, so education is key.
Remote working isn’t as easy as many people thought going into this lockdown. However, with the right temperament, leadership and culture change, I can attest it can be great for the individual and the firm, as the possibilities are endless when location is no longer a barrier for your dream job.
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