How to thrive as a distributed company

Now, more than 18 months into the pandemic, companies are operating with various degrees of remote work. While some have returned to the office, others are following a rotation system of in-office and at-home work. Still others continue teleworking as they have done since the first remote-work requests.

Companies managing this for the first time may encounter lower productivity or difficulties in communication or even find staff are at greater risk of professional isolation or stress. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

As a distributed company with team members working remotely across the globe, TBSJ has been navigating teleworking since our establishment in 2010. That’s why we asked our CEO, Matthew Heaton, to advise on how organizations can thrive when the majority of their team members are working remotely. Here are his tips.


Be mindful about coming across as polite and respectful

While this might seem like an obvious point, a polite tone can easily be lost in an email or text, especially when people are busy and under pressure. This has always been the case, but with less opportunity for in-person contact to build rapport, the potential for small misunderstandings is even greater, and everyone in your team should do their best to keep this in mind. What was simply a hastily written message on your part can potentially come across as curt. Worse still, you may not even realize you have unintentionally annoyed or offended someone.

Getting into the habit of adding a few extra words to convey respect and appreciation helps avoid these potentially corrosive situations. Phrases like “I know you’re really busy, but …” and “Sorry to bother you” convey respect even with urgent requests that could otherwise come across as demanding. As a manager, one of my favorites is “Thanks for asking.” Some people find it hard to pick the right moment to ask their manager questions, and it’s going to be much harder for them to do so when working remotely. I can take that worry away by expressing appreciation for their question.


Know when to email, when to call … and when to do both

We’ve all had the experience of taking much longer than we thought to craft an email, but then feel like the message was misunderstood anyway. Email certainly has its merits as a means of routine communication, but if there are details that could be easily misunderstood, non-standard tasks to tackle, or important context to be conveyed, a call might be a better option. Sometimes email is the wrong medium, and forcing the communication down that channel can end up being very frustrating, even if one side may not realize it.

Knowing when to email or call is an important business skill. And, during these trying times, using your own voice to ask someone how they’re doing could add the bit of human touch we can all appreciate.


Adopt email habits that work for everyone

We all talk about overflowing inboxes and tips on how to manage email, but what about trying team habits that give everyone a win? It’s possible to instill practices within your teams that help others easily manage inboxes without getting confused by patchwork communication or having to read unnecessary emails. Good habits will make work easier for everyone. For example, take the time to find the most recent email on any given subject instead of starting a new thread. This will allow the recipient to pick up on the topic exactly where the conversation left off, which is important when people are emailing on numerous topics in parallel. At TBSJ, we have a policy of having one email thread per project.

We also refrain from sending messages like “Did you look at the file yet?” with multiple people copied, but without a clear recipient. The absence of a name means people need to spend more time working out if the email is actionable for them, which is taxing on someone receiving several hundred emails per day. Also, think about how to let readers both absorb information quickly and easily see what may not be relevant for them. Bullet points can be a great way to convey key information in a few words.


Rely on your IT team for guidance on security

If you are not used to working remotely and are dealing with a sharp increase in email traffic, you may be particularly vulnerable to a cyber-attack. Not only does working remotely require extra attention on best security practices in the new working environment, but threats like  phishing attacks have increased in the wake of the pandemic, calling for heightened vigilance.

The current situation may make you feel like there is less time to ask questions, but you should familiarize yourself with the best security practices for working remotely. This includes network security, anti-malware software, and handling of attached documents. Apart from the obvious security benefit, the entire team can work more effectively and focus on tasks with the peace of mind that comes with good security protocol.

Online security courses that cover working remotely are available, and they don’t necessarily have to be in-depth ones that take all day. In fact, we find that the short 20-minute courses our team members take on a regular basis really help them to maintain constant awareness.


Ultimately, show you care

A prolonged period away from the office can cause staff to miss in-person interactions, perhaps over lunch or around the water cooler, that they once enjoyed with their colleagues. Some team members may have never met their co-workers in-person, leaving them unfamiliar with their personalities or work styles, while others may find teleworking isolating or stressful.

Being cognizant of others’ situations and putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way to keeping working relationships positive, productive, and supportive. We practice this at TBSJ and emphasize it repeatedly when training all our staff, to ensure that we can continue to be a company that cares for its people.

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