As a forty-something Gen X guy, I stand in the middle of the more traditional mindset about what a working environment should be and the up-and-coming generation who have a very non-traditional view of how, when, and where to work. Our team has been operating in a remote capacity full-time now for four years. It took us a bit of time to become fully convinced that we could be productive as a remote team. We now fully embrace the remote structure, because the results have proven effective and we are not looking back.
This is different and a bit scary...
In this article, I hope to provide the reader with some concrete tools that have been used by our organization to effectively manage our productivity and unity as a remote team. One can Google this topic and find a ridiculous amount of articles espousing or denigrating remote work. The aim here is to simply give you a perspective from four years of managing a stellar group of employees in a remote work setup.
So you are saying geography doesn't matter much...
At this point, we have been able to facilitate one of our team members living in Argentina for a year, one spends extended periods of time in Maine, and the rest live and work remotely in San Diego. Five years ago, I could not have dreamed of being able to facilitate this type of flexibility for our team. Now each of them is able to work and live the way they want and need to live.
For context, our team manages the placement and service of policies for a group of over one hundred member agencies that are partnered with Tague Alliance. These Agency Specialists act in an underwriter capacity which means they have requests sent to them by our members. There are certain jobs in our industry on the agency side of the world that do not lend themselves as well to remote work. However, the way agent/client interactions have evolved in recent years is enabling remote work for every job type. Whether you embrace this concept or not, as a Baby Boomer or Gen X leader, you must give it serious consideration as you compete for great talent. If you have the right people combined with the right tools, you will be able to give your employees a work/life balance that all of us desire.
No fluff, this is how we do it...
There are many low cost tools that have proved effective for keeping our team productive and collaborative. The specific tools referenced are what we use at this point in time and are not an endorsement for the vendors.
1. Without a concrete process, chaos will ensue.
- Simply put, you must have an agreed-upon workflow process that everyone follows. This is critical because it allows the manager to have faith in the reporting that is used to monitor the team’s results.
2. If you have a cloud based management system, your life is probably easier than our life. We are still on a server based version of Applied Systems, which works great, but means that our team needs to log in remotely to our systems. We have been using GoToMyPC for years, and it is an extremely reliable service.
3. We use a VoIP (internet based) phone system which allows great flexibility in managing voicemail to email, call forwarding, etc. With an internet based phone system, our team members can take their desk phones with them anywhere they will be for an extended time period, such as Argentina. Bluecloud is our vendor, but there are many options. Just make sure the service and support you get from the provider is solid.
4. Exchange email is another critical tool. We use a provider called Appriver, and they have been stellar for us. Not only does Appriver provide great support, their service has a potent spam blocking service which has drastically reduced the amount of junk mail that hits our inboxes. The service allows our team to access email via Outlook desktop, online, and all mobile devices. Given we all use email relentlessly the ability to access email anywhere, anytime is mission critical for our operation.
5. To keep all of us connected to each other we use Google Hangouts which allows us to setup one-on-one dialogue and various group chats. We have a team chat group, Personal Lines group, Commercial Lines group, etc.
We are consistently looking for improvements in how we operate as a team, but once we have a reliable and solid process, we let it ride. If it becomes apparent that something we are doing is not working, we dig in as a team and try to course correct quickly. A remote work environment is no different from any process that needs to be monitored and improved. If you have a good setup that allows your team to work effectively and productively, it does not have to be perfect to be worthwhile. Employees who feel taken care of will be motivated to do great work and take care of the people who rely on them.
Richard Branson from Virgin was quoted, “If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile,” Branson says. By not treating employees well, companies risk losing customers over bad service. To this end, Branson says he has made sure that Virgin prioritizes employees first, customers second, and shareholders third. Effectively, in the end shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.”
In closing, consider opening up your options for attracting and retaining great talent by embracing a flexible remote work environment for your team. Nothing is a perfect solution, but with the right tools, you can craft a structure that allows your employees to find a great work/life balance without sacrificing the growth and profit of your organization.