Telecommuting 101: How to support and manage a global remote workforce

TechRepublic and ZDNet leaders discuss the challenges associated with managing a team of people working from home.

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with TechRepublic Editor-in-Chief Bill Detwiler, TechRepublic and ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Steve Ranger, and TechRepublic and ZDNet Editorial Director Larry Dignan about the challenges companies face now that much of the workforce is working remotely due to the coronavirus. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: We are adjusting to a new norm now with most everyone around the world truly working from home. There are a lot of challenges involved in this. Companies are trying to work out the kinks, and managers are trying to lead their employees in how to do this, how to adjust. 

Bill Detwiler, Larry Dignan, and Steve Ranger (there in the United Kingdom), all of us are here today to talk about this. You guys have a lot of experience in this, and leading teams of people who are trying to adjust to this. Some of them have been working from home for a long time, so this is nothing new, and for others, this is brand new, and it can be very challenging. Steve, you've passed on some really great tips for people to take a look at in terms of telecommuting, how to make it easier and kind of a 101 overview. What are you finding?

Steve Ranger: I think that the point you just made, which is that maybe people have done a little bit of working from home, maybe they've worked from home like one or two days, but now it's completely different. I think that's a really important point, that this is different from just a couple of days working from home or whatever. This is everyone working from home, for quite a large period of time. And actually, that's got a really different dynamic to it. You have to kind of take a long-term view. This isn't just about maybe sitting on the sofa and knocking out some words on a report or something. This is something that could be going on for many, many weeks. That means it's a very, very different set of criteria to think about in terms of team dynamics, about having the right equipment, and all sorts of things. This isn't simply working from home on the sofa one day of the week. This is really kind of a massive change.

Karen Roby: One of the biggest things that people are running into, we all are, as we're trying to work on Wi-Fi, are the technical challenges that are involved in this. Bill, I know you've talked about this a good bit in trying to help people work through this. What's some of the advice that you can pass on?

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Bill Detwiler: It's tough, especially if you're in an organization that maybe hasn't done this at scale before because that's really what we're talking about. Twenty years ago, we wrote a series on TechRepublic called The Pervasive Workplace. As the internet was allowing more remote work, and telecommuting people were doing work either at home or away, even if they were in the office sometimes, they were still working around the clock, especially in the IT industry. So, we have a little bit of experience with this, but it usually was a small group of people. When you have everyone in the office working from home, that difficulty really comes in.

There's a couple areas that are worth looking at for IT. One is corporate systems, things you can control. That's your VPN, making sure that you have enough capacity, making sure you have enough licenses, making sure everybody's tested it, and making sure everybody can get access to it. And then looking for maybe unforeseen issues like a flood of new IP addresses that are coming in. That can be a problem.

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Cell phones, as we work from home, it's important to stay in communication, and do enough employees have corporate cell phones? Can those cell phones act as hotspots? Are people able to use those cell phones to connect if their Wi-Fi goes down? Web-based tools, communication apps, video conferencing load… if you run big meetings or if you're running video conferencing systems, do you have the capacity to handle large numbers of people, not just two or three, four doing that?

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Then, there are departments you may not think of like printer and scanner-heavy departments. If you have legal, finance, those departments may rely on printing checks, printing documents, much more frequently than say your average knowledge worker, or an engineering department who are largely paperless. How are you going to support those people at home? Are you going to allow them in the office?

Then there are things like take-home hardware. Do you have enough laptops? What about monitors? Are you going to allow people to take monitors home if they need a widescreen? How are you going to monitor that from an inventory perspective? And then there's remote, just providing remote IT support. This is a mainstay for the last 20, 30 years.

Before I was at TechRepublic, I worked remote support. I worked in IT, and so you get very good at diagnosing problems at a distance, but it becomes more acute when you can't have people come to the office and return a hardware failure. What do you do if you have a laptop with a broken screen, a broken keyboard, something doesn't work? That still requires a physical presence to do that. So, there's things like that you have to watch out for.

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There are also things that you can't control. Residential broadband outages, making sure that folks have enough bandwidth to do what we're doing. I personally called my service provider and had them upgrade my internet connection when I started working from home. Things like that, that you can't control, you're going to have to take into consideration.

And then one last point about the pervasive workplace: Working from home and supporting remote people is different when your work is also your hobby, to some degree. You can get burnt out on technology, especially if you're at home, you're supporting people all day, and then maybe you're using technology after that, playing video games. Take a break. It's important to kind of separate yourself, too, from the time I'm going to work, and the time I'm going to try and be off. Hopefully, your department has a rotating and revolving on-call schedule. You need to keep that stuff up too, because otherwise, just like it was 20 years ago, whether it's a natural disaster or a natural part of being in IT, or now because of a coronavirus, you have to avoid just getting burnt out by working all the time.

Karen Roby: I think one of the things we have to keep in mind, Larry, is having a little bit of grace with people because this is so different. Having a dog, maybe, that's going to be barking in the background, or kids that are trying to do their schoolwork inside a home. All of it is making it even more difficult to learn to adjust to do our jobs inside our home.

Larry Dignan: Culturally, the biggest difference here is, OK, everyone's working from home. It is the micromanager's worst nightmare. How often is a micromanager sitting home going, "Oh my God, what are they doing now? What are they doing now? Can you just keep your video up so I know you're doing something? What are you doing?" Working at home is almost harder because you're almost tethered to your screen more than you would be if you just went to the watercooler and talked to somebody for 20 minutes. There's a cultural hurdle, right? And that's where I think right now, we're at this stage where before, you had remote teams, you had teams in the office, and it was kind of this hybrid thing. Right now it's remote work at scale, and that creates a lot of cultural issues.

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I mean, just speaking for us probably, we've probably all seen it. We've worked remote a lot, and our team's largely distributed, but now we're working with other teams we work with, where this has been a total sea change for them. You're dealing with all these newbie issues like, "Hey, let's be on Zoom all the time. Let's talk. Oh, isn't this great? Blah, blah, blah." And it just gets annoying. It's like, "Do your work people." It's hard. Now, my guess is, they'll get over it, and the novelty will wear off, and then we'll all get back to business remotely, with a different model a little bit. But culturally, it's a challenge.

I do think there are a lot of other cultural things. I think the micromanagement thing, you sort of got to let go a little bit. And with remote work and just scaling it up, you've got to have some empathy. The dog and the kids and all that stuff, that is the least of our worries. You've got to assume half your people are going to get sick--it's pretty much a given. I mean, you just look how this is unfolding, and not only that, we're stuck in place.

A lot of cities like New York, San Francisco... I mean, we're kind of in lockdown. So that alone has its own challenges where I think we'll find this thing where, my neighborhood, for instance, there are a lot of people who have small businesses and work in the field, and suddenly they have 10 hours of time on their hands. Where we're still working, we still have structure around our day, thank God. But it's a different thing, right? Even if you're dealing with people who don't have a structure, and you're worried about economics, you're worried about job security. There's so many other things that are a distraction.

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The one distraction I've seen is just watching the news. We're in the news business, so it's kind of weird to say, "Don't watch the news." But just go to the CDC site, or if you're in the UK, the NHS site, or whatever. We kind of know what's going on, so I don't know if we need to watch headlines nonstop. Because psychologically, I don't think it's good. I don't think it's good for productivity, and there's not even sports. That's the other thing, there's not even a good distraction to be had. I think that's probably the biggest tip so far is just, you've got to relax, you've got to have some empathy because you're dealing with stuff, so are your employees.

Steve Ranger: I absolutely agree with what you're saying about the micromanagement thing, and because we all work remotely quite a lot, we're very used to kind of a light touch, getting on with what we do. But actually for a lot of these teams, like you say, that maybe have never worked from home before and maybe worked [remotely] one day a week or something. But then I think it's actually quite useful to have a little bit more touch from time to time. I think things like video conferencing are really, really good just to kind of remind people the rest of the team is still there, because a lot of people work maybe just with one other person, or work in teams where actually day-to-day, they don't have much communication with the rest of their team, beyond seeing them for a coffee or saying hi in the morning.

Actually, when you take that away, some of these jobs can get quite isolating. I think certainly maybe the first week or two of when people work from home, especially if it's a new experience, that little bit of extra touch is good I think, going up the chain, rather than sending an email, maybe making that phone call. Or instead of a phone call, maybe making it a video thing, just to kind of remind people that the rest of the community is still there, that the rest of the team is still there, that you still have that kind of forward motion, that unifying communication. I think it's really helpful. Absolutely, you don't want people on video all the time, or having micromanagers checking in every five minutes, but I think it's dangerous if you go the other way as well.

I think getting that balance right is incredibly hard, and I think it's going to take weeks rather than days to get that right. I think different people respond in different ways and actually, from a management point of view, the management overhead might go up quite a lot, in the short term, before it comes down again. Because a lot of what you're doing in work is around habit. You know where you're going, you drive to the same place every day, you get coffee in the same place, you do the same work. A lot of that stuff's changing right now. That commute to work might be just going downstairs to a desk, or going to the kitchen or whatever.

SEE: How to keep engineering teams connected when telecommuting (TechRepublic)

People need to get those habits back in place. It takes quite a long time for those habits to be reestablished. And then before you do that, that's where all this kind of distraction can creep in, because once you break up that routine, then people are going to struggle a little bit. So, I think giving them that framework and checking in is actually really important, just as important as making sure they've got the right technology or the right seat to sit in, or the right screens, whatever,  just giving them that framework again.

Larry Dignan: I think what we're finding in the early going with remote work and scale, I guess I would say, is that there's a ton of gray area. Like Steve said, it's going to take weeks to figure out the balance. The good and bad news of this is, it sounds like we're going to be doing this for a few weeks, maybe months. I would expect if we have this discussion a month from now, we'll probably have more kinks smoothed out and things like that. But yeah, what Steve said, I mean the concept of office hours, where you just kind of leave your Zoom open. I'm an adjunct professor, and all the deans are doing that. You can pop in, and I've never popped in. I probably won't. But it's nice to know you can, and I'll probably start doing something like that. I don't know if Steve's doing that in the UK or not. But it's a strategy that I think makes some sense. It's kind of like that replicates the open-door office sort of thing.

The problem is we have continuous deadlines, so it's sort of like trying to figure out when to do that. So maybe it is a Friday afternoon thing, maybe it's a Monday afternoon thing. I don't know when to do it, exactly. But that's a concept that might work, too.

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To Steve's point, there's so much gray area right now. I think the main thing is just don't do the pendulum thing. You can't be psycho-micromanager, but you can't be psycho hands-off either. I don't know what that balance is. And every organization is going to be different, but you're going to have to find that gray area, a balancing act for sure. I don't think either extreme is going to work, so that's probably going to change at scale, too.

Steve Ranger: I think you might actually find out that the ways that you communicate as a team aren't necessarily the ways you thought you communicated as a team, so that while everyone might have a 10 a.m. meeting or whatever, that might not be the time when most of the information that you need is actually transmitted across your team. You might find that actually, it was 3 p.m. when everyone goes and gets a coffee at the same time. That was the time when actually, all the really useful information got shared around. Just because you put in place one meeting that replicates what you used to do in the office, that might not be enough. You might need to think of other things.

Like Larry was saying, I think that idea of office hours, where you just have a time when people can talk to you about anything, that kind of thing is really useful because you can't assume that just because you put meetings in place, that's when all the useful conversations are going to happen. They may wrap all-around that meeting and not actually in that meeting. It's like you say, there's gray areas and working out how you kind of replicate that stuff in a working-from-home environment is really hard, but really important.

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Larry Dignan: I think one more thing just to throw out there that I'm discovering pretty quick: I miss the old fashioned conference call. We've all gone video happy, which all that's done is kind of chain us to our desk. I think another balancing act would be, "Hey, here's the conference call. I expect all of you to be walking while we're doing it." Now, you're going to get wind noise. It might be a s*** show, but it'll at least get people up doing something, even if they're just pacing around the house. Anything. I wouldn't suggest doing burpees while you're on a conference call, but I do find the video was almost ... it's more engaging, but it also chains you to the desk more, which if you're working remotely, people need to get up and move around. The good old-fashioned conference call could also be weaved in there, too.

Karen Roby: I like that idea. Definitely not burpees, but I think just going for a walk or pacing around your own house is something we have to keep in mind. And I know Bill, our team specifically--and this has just been our first week we're in of course--but we've had two group meetings or kind of everyone touching base on video, it's comforting to see everybody all at one time. For our psyche, I think that is good to touch base that way, too.

Bill Detwiler: Larry and Steve were touching on this. I think there's a balance, but actually seeing other people's faces. I think we started doing this years ago. We had one member of the TechRepublic team 10 years ago that worked remotely, and they would call in for conference calls, and we never got to see them. When we finally got a camera hooked up, and we could see them, it actually increased our connection to that person, and I think their connection to us. And so, everything in moderation, you don't want to overdo it.

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I also think, during our meetings, that is something we did encourage folks to do, is look, it doesn't matter what your background is. It doesn't matter how clean your room is. It doesn't matter if you're in your bedroom, your living room, your office, outside on your porch, that's fine. That's the new normal. Don't worry about the cat, the dog, the family members. But, log on, let's do video for this one time, let's everyone see each other. It helps with communication because you get that face-to-face connection, you get facial expressions. Something that may sound angry on an email, or in a text, or even on a phone conversation, comes across differently in face-to-face. So, it is comforting.

But like Larry said and Steve said, everything in moderation, not everything has to be a video call. Not everything has to be a conference call. You've got other instant message communications. You've got email. We've got all kinds of different means to reach out. It's just that reaching out and, I think, reaching a rhythm and a pattern, like Larry was talking about. And Steve talking about, you go to get coffee, you get into a pattern.

Resetting team expectations is also really good, saying, like, "If your office hours are from this to this, we kind of expect you to be available. If you're not going to be available, just put it on the calendar, just like you normally would. If you're going out to lunch, if you're going to step away for 30 minutes, an hour." And in our business, its daily deadlines, "Oh, this story broke, this press release came out, this event happened. We need you to cover this." It's important for us to do that. Other businesses, it may not be so important, but put that on the calendar. Let your supervisor know. Let your other teammates know.

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Maybe not everybody, but if you talk to someone on a regular basis, it's like, "Hey, I'm going to step away for a few minutes. I'm going out on a run. I'm going out to run to the grocery store to try to get something. I've got an appointment that I have to go to," just stay in communication, regular, frequent often. I guess it's against what you just said, but in moderation. You also don't want to overdo it and burn everybody out. So, it is finding that balance over the next few weeks.

Karen Roby: It's the one thing that everyone's going to struggle with a bit, and we just have to work through. So a good combination of conference calls, video conferencing, emails, just like we're used to. I think all of that together, eventually, we'll find our new normal, whatever that may mean. But I do think what you said, Larry, though, a little bit of empathy will go a long way to help everybody get through this.

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