Creating trust in remote work

The current debate about COVID-19-driven home office work in Germany mirrors the biggest concerns that companies and traditionalists have about it, namely a lack of productivity and non-accomplished working hours due to personal distractions. According to my own experience as a self-employed, organized communication and priority setting are the most important success factors for trust in home office and off-site working arrangements.

Even if I am a real advocate of personal meetings and on-site work for fast communication and better mutual understanding, I am also convinced of remote work’s value and power. Since I started working self-employed, I have been blessed to work mostly for flexible and technologically-savvy customers which I would call agile without meaning agile project management itself. Remote work is no stranger to these companies. Against this backdrop, I experienced two crucial success factors for creating trust in anything that would fall into the category “home office” or “remote work”.

The first point seems to be so self-evident that you may regard it as redundant at first sight: Clear communication with all involved parties is substantial. When it comes to remote work, I would call the relevant success factor “well-organized communication”. Working remotely makes it impossible to drop randomly into someone’s office for whatever reason. No matter if in crisis mode or not, the main issue to address is a lack of organization.

Scheduled communication with all involved parties will reduce chaos and insecurity. Even more importantly, it helps to create trust and commitment. It is in fact very simple to answer questions like “When do we see each other in virtual meetings for a follow-up?” or “How often do project members report on status quo to each other?” However, it tends to be neglected because people are there anyway.

On top of this, an e-mail from remote worker to customer at the end of the day, summarizing what was done, makes progress transparent and creates trust that working hours are not abused for lying in the sun. Personally, I would say that this point is not about control but about trust. Ultimately, it is not decisive if this kind of communication happens personally or virtually.

The second aspect I have experienced to be crucial for successful remote work and project management is another classic: defining priorities for deliverables, especially when it comes to projects with evolving dynamics. Tasks and to do’s often seem endless, and new jobs quickly come up after milestone presentations or meetings. No matter how tight timings are, I have learned not to cut these ten or 15 minutes to clearly define what must be done first and what can or has to be postponed. Finally, the project leader and/or manager act like a protective shield for their people to get things done, even if new tasks come up. If those are not substantial to business, there is no other choice but to postpone them and re-define priorities in the next meeting – or on the next higher level. If priorities must be changed spontaneously, success factor no. 1 comes into play: communicate fast, because remote workers can’t know about it.

Ultimately, I would want to highlight that it is also on those who work remotely to re-assure their co-workers and customers that they apply proper home/remote office etiquette and that they are reliable. I remember how much I appreciated that I could work remotely from Spain for a German customer because I had another part-time project running in Europe’s south. I took our agreements regarding availability and working hours very seriously, and believe me, this was mostly more stressful than office work. However, I was perfectly aware that 15 minutes of delay could create a funny feeling on my customer’s side, and I would have understood these concerns.

Any kind of remote working agreement, crisis or non-crisis induced, shall be a win-win situation for both parties. So, let’s all be available in proper working environments, stick to timings and agreements, and communicate proactively so that the green symbol beside our chat is credible and trustworthy.

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