Many companies are deciding to give employees more permanent remote work options even after the pandemic ends, which requires having a consistent culture whether employees are in an office or distributed.
Michael Pryor, the cofounder and head of Trello, which Atlassian acquired in 2017, has been managing a team that's 80% remote for the last nine years, and offers advice for how to make it work.
He says executives need focus on three things: Being deliberate about the tools their employees use, setting clear guidelines for how those tools should be used, and making sure those rules establish a culture of trust within the company.
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As the coronavirus pandemic has shown that companies can be successful even when all employees are remote, many businesses are rethinking the future of work. Tech companies like Slack, Box, Facebook, and Twitter are among those planning to offer more permanent remote work options for employees even after the crisis ends.
Many executives are envisioning a future with both office workers and remote workers, which gives employees more flexibility. However, that system may also require a culture shift within the company to make sure that all employees have a level playing field.
Michael Pryor, the cofounder and head of Trello, which Atlassian acquired in 2017, has been managing a team that's 80% remote for the last nine years. He says executives need to do three things when managing a distributed team: Be deliberate about the tools their employees use, set guidelines for how those tools should be used, and make sure those rules establish a culture of trust within the company.
"The future is now — it was like the pandemic just said, 'Everyone just got pushed into this new reality,'" Pryor told Business Insider. "I think that what people are realizing is that the tools have gotten so good and that there's a lot of benefits from people being flexible about how they're engaged."
Choosing tools that enable "asynchronous" work and setting guidelines for using them
Choosing tools that allow people to collaborate while not needing to be in the same time zone or in the same office is key, Pryor said. That includes communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, cloud based file sharing like Dropbox, and project management tools like his own Trello.
However, just having the tools isn't enough. Managers have to set guidelines for expected employee behavior and how each tool should be used. For example, setting best-practices for when people can expect to reach others on Slack, so people can maintain a work-life balance, or establishing rules for what types of communication is meant for email versus chat apps versus video chat.
"Those rituals that we used to have that happened in place in physical offices, you need to create similar things that accomplish the same goals, but now using digital tools," Pryor said.
For example, Pryor's team uses both Slack and Trello for communicating and keeping track of work. If a question needs an answer ASAP, employees are supposed to use Slack, while using public channels rather than direct messages as much as possible. That keeps the discussion available for people in different time zones. However, if a message isn't urgent, employees are supposed to use Trello, to avoid overcrowding in Slack while ensuring the message is publicly logged.
He also suggests using a video chat tool that can record and transcribe a meeting, so it can be shared with those who couldn't join. Features like that help keep everyone informed and isn't a heavy-lift for those planning the meetings.
Replicating in-person practices with online tools to establish trust
Equally as important is making sure to establish trust between employees.
"[The] number one indicator of how a team can be effective is trust," Pryor said. In an office setting, trust is established via in-person communication, so companies moving to a distributed work model have to replicate that using digital tools, he said.
One step Trello takes is using non-verbal signals to indicate when you're available or busy. For example, if you walk past someone's office and the door is closed, you know they're busy. To get the same effect in a distributed environment, Pryor's employees set 'do not disturb' statuses in Slack to indicate when they're not available.
Additionally, employees should all feel like they have the same access and space within a company. So, if one person dials in on a video call, everyone else should dial in that way too, regardless of if they're in an office or not.
Another example is using tools to track progress for recurring one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports. Trello uses its own tool for this, but others also work. The goal is to have an agenda and set specific goals and deadlines, and document those so it can be a record for when performance reviews come up.
It also makes sure managers are evaluating office employees and remote employees on the same criteria. "As a manager, it's not my space, it's a shared space between me and my employee," Pryor said. "And so we're putting things in there together. It's a collaborative meeting in order to grow people's careers"
A big trust building factor that gets lost in a distributed environment is the casual conversation with coworkers. To make up for that, after virtual all hands meetings using Zoom, Trello employees get placed in breakout rooms to chat with coworkers they may or may not know.
"In this digital environment," Pryor said, "We had to figure out a way for people across the company to meet each other."
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