“We can’t hire a remote employee because of XYZ (insert your concern here).” We’ve heard every objection possible to keep firms from hiring their first remote employee, expanding access to remote work options, or keeping a valued employee who moves away by providing them a remote work role. At the same time, employees crave more control over their schedule and workplace and NextGen clients are beginning to expect more remote or digital interactions. How do firms overcome the perceived barriers and function in this new remote and virtual environment?

At ConvergenceCoaching, we’ve been operating a fully virtual and flexible business for almost 20 years and have developed approaches for operating in an Anytime, Anywhere Work™ environment. We truly believe that remote work is where our economy is headed, and that firms MUST figure out a way to overcome objections and get started. That’s why over the next few months, we’ll be breaking down the myths about remote work one by one. For each myth, we’ll share practical strategies to overcome the concerns and fully embrace this new way of working.

This week’s “debunking the remote myth” blog relates to training. How will we train people who aren’t working in the same office with us? Will we be able to transfer knowledge in this new flexible and virtual environment? Our answer is overwhelmingly YES!

Myth:  We won’t be able to train people if they aren’t onsite. Especially young or inexperienced hires

When bringing on new hires, most firms employ an onboarding checklist outlining the learning each employee will undergo in the first few weeks or months. This same model can be applied in a remote work environment, with the difference being the communication methods used with virtual employees. Instead of in-person meetings, we hold video or phone calls to transfer knowledge. We schedule weekly huddles, or just pick up the phone and reach out for a 5 to 30-minute check-in call, using these conversations to assess progress and plan next steps in their development.

At times a remote staff person will need hands-on help with a task or process and when that happens, we share screens, allowing us to either view their work or show them our screen and the steps we’d undergo. Using technology already available in most firms today, along with shifts in how we’re accustomed to connecting with others, we can mimic being together in person.

Most laptops today include a video camera and if you’re using a desktop or portable computer without a built-in camera, high-quality portable webcams can be purchased for less than $100. In addition to this simple hardware, you’ll need a mechanism to connect via video. Microsoft Teams (the replacement for the soon-to-be-retired Skype for Business) is included with most versions of Microsoft Office and offers a video call option as well as the ability to share screens. Zoom.us is another great tool we use for video calls, conference call lines and screen sharing.

Training is not that different in a remote work environment. And like in a traditional, in-person setting, the more intentional we are about our knowledge-transfer process, the more quickly our trainees will progress.

Myth:  New hires need to be onsite to apply the learning

This particular myth is one of the barriers to allowing younger employees access to remote work benefits. There are other myths that feed into this idea (for instance, how will we ensure they are actually working, a topic we’ll take on in a future blog), but the training myth is central to the story that staff need to be in the office and immersed in the work with others. But again, if we are intentionally assigning projects that will challenge our employees, and checking in on their progress and development, does it really matter where they are completing the work? I would argue that if we aren’t being intentional about our people’s development, they won’t learn fast enough no matter where they sit.

An increasing challenge for firms today is that the trainers - their partners and managers - aren’t in the office regularly due to client meetings, engagements performed away from the office, business development-related meetings, or working offsite themselves. If we’re waiting for the knowledge transfer to happen when these important people developers are available at the office, we won’t progress our new hires at the speed required. Instead, let’s start developing people using technology and virtual methods so that no matter where the trainer or the trainees are working, they can fit in time to transfer the knowledge.

A willingness to use technology to connect is critical. Additionally, we must clarify the expectation that as a leader, I am responsible for spending time with the people working on my engagements and projects to progress their skills. If a staff person has a question on my job, there should be a mechanism for them to reach me, as well as a commitment on my part to get back to them in a timely manner. To facilitate this, we can use simple communication tools present in your business today – email, instant messaging (like Teams), and phone calls. Large process changes and technology investments are not required to make this happen.

Myth: As an on-Premise, non-remote worker, I’ll be left holding the bag for developing staff

This is one of the persistent complaints we hear from those who choose to work in the office. Because they are physically and easily accessed, they end up answering questions from staff members about engagements or issues that don’t necessarily fall in their area of responsibility. We can counter this concern in two ways. First, as described above, Engagement Managers must have an agreed-upon communication protocol with their team members for how to submit questions and when they can expect a response back. Career Managers and their advisees should develop a communication plan as well, with advisees empowered to reach out as needed for assistance from their advisor. In addition, firm leaders must step in to address the gap with both Engagement and Career Managers when they aren’t making themselves available.

Here’s another recommendation – let’s remind staff members early and often that questions should go to the right person, not the closest person or the one easiest to find in a pinch. This is a best practice that benefits all teams, not just those operating in a remote manner.

This concern and the solution also apply to our clients. Remote leaders (and busy leaders who aren’t always at their desks) must educate their clients on how to effectively communicate with them.

Myth: Remote employees won’t be able to meaningfully participate in learning events held onsite

Many firms are investing in conference room technology that allows all parties, both those on-site and remote, to be seen and heard. Examples include reactive video cameras that follow the speaker (so offsite participants can view the individual talking more clearly), microphones placed around the room to pick up individual voices no matter where they are sitting, and larger screens on which offsite participants can be seen by those in the conference room. Conference room technology investments facilitate having remote employees attend training events as well as important firm, departmental and project-related meetings. As an added bonus, this technology creates a more inclusive environment for others who historically would have missed a meeting due to work or personal obligations. Think about the person who is at a client’s office all week but could step out and join the departmental meeting for an hour. Or the employee tending to a sick family member for a few days who could now participate in the monthly partner meeting.

Don’t overlook the benefits of bringing people into the office for certain key events. We can ask remote employees who are geographically close to “flex up” and come into the office for important training events or meetings when needed. For those officing outside the firm’s geography, reimbursement of travel costs is an investment firms often find worthwhile because they value in-person time to connect as a team.

Myth:  We aren’t intending to hire any remote workers, so this topic doesn’t apply to us

The 2019 IWG Global Workspace Survey, a summary on the responses of 15,000 business people worldwide, reports that “…over half of employees globally are working outside of their office headquarters for at least 2.5 days a week,” while over 80% of survey takers stated that when offered two comparable job offers, they would decline the company without flex-work benefits. The market is speaking on this topic of remote work, and firms that don’t listen may be locked out of finding talent in the future.

Here’s another reason to get going on remote work - any multi-office firm needs to learn to serve clients across offices, using the RIGHT talent wherever they can be found in the firm regardless of where they are seated. Once we’re good at collaborating across offices, we’re good at remote. And once we’re skilled at managing virtual employees, we can build a successful cross-office delivery model.

We hope this blog has helped you see that training isn’t hard or impossible in an Anytime, Anywhere Work model. With intentionality, use of simple technology and slight shifts in methodology, we can effectively train people no matter where or when they are working. What changes can your firm put into place in 2019 to more effectively train your employees no matter where they work?

Check out the results of our 2018 Anytime, Anywhere Work Survey here. And stay tuned for future “debunking the myth” blogs covering other topics rumored to be hard or impossible in a remote environment, including:

  • Keeping remote employees productive, focused and on task
  • Building and maintaining client relationships as a remote staff person
  • Creating meaningful relationships with colleagues when you don’t know each other three-dimensionally
  • And more!