Make Remote Teams Better with Communication and Trust says Remote Professional

Remote Nation ProfiledStarting in October 2004, Hal Gillam, a marketing manager for CDM Smith, commuted approximately 65 miles a day, each way, to the company’s headquarters in Kendall Square, Cambridge, from the North Quabbin region of Massachusetts. After a few months, Hal and his manager decided to experiment with the option of his working from home a day or two a week, to provide Hal with more time for his young family. Late in 2008, in the context of an effort to reduce overhead expenses and improve profitability, and based on his successful experience working from home then two or three days a week, Hal and his new manager decided it was no longer necessary to maintain a dedicated office for his position in Cambridge.

CDM Smith, an employee-owned consulting engineering and construction firm, with 4,800 personnel, provides lasting and integrated solutions in water, environment, transportation, energy and facilities to public and private clients worldwide. Hal supports an enterprise strategy for delivery of development assistance, working with colleagues in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Since joining CDM Smith in 1999, Hal has traveled for work to Hong Kong, Thailand, Germany, Ireland, Lesotho, Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

What has your company done to foster remote work?

Years ago, CDM Smith adopted procedures to support work-life balance through “flexible work options”. Our firm provided detailed guidance to employees and managers, crafting a proposal form that encouraged employees and managers to communicate and work closely together to design approaches to assure all work responsibilities would be fulfilled under any scenario contemplated, whether working from home part-time or full-time or working four 10-hour days or five seven-hour days in the office or shifting work start and end times to mitigate rush-hour stress.

Teamwork is a core value of our firm, and the high degree of collaboration, whether in delivering projects for clients or supporting flexible work options for employees, is a reflection of this core value. This culture of collaboration also manifested in our firm’s move in 2015 from Kendall Square in Cambridge to 75 State Street in Boston, as part of an effort to create a more current and collaborative workspace.

Our headquarters feature workstations in an open plan setting, glass-front offices, “huddle rooms” for two or three people to meet and “focus rooms” for individual work, as well as traditional large and medium-sized conference rooms, a design-build center, automation lab and a multipurpose room for training and all-staff meetings. We also have a few “hotel” office rooms where employees who work remotely or are visiting from other offices can work when in Boston. We use online calendars to reserve rooms as needed.

What are the advantages for you in working from home?

The group that I am part of is responsible for development assistance worldwide, so working from home facilitates collaboration with people across time zones. For example, one evening recently, using Skype for Business for a conference call, with video capabilities, from my laptop, I joined colleagues based in Bangalore, Brisbane, Denver and Jakarta to discuss several opportunities of interest across Asia, from Nepal to Indonesia, Bangladesh to Papua New Guinea. We find a time that works for everyone and, as managers based in the States, that means during business hours for our colleagues in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. So, for me, that can mean working late at night or early in the morning, which is easier to do when working from home. I also find it is easier to get work done. There are fewer distractions. No one is popping into your office unexpectedly. It’s a great environment for being able to focus.

What is the disadvantage?

One of the benefits of working in an office is that you are around people and you have spontaneous conversations that unfold and move in various directions and good ideas can emerge from that. When you work remotely, you have to reach out to realize that kind of opportunity, meaning if an idea occurs to me, or I want to ‘think out loud’ with a colleague, I send an instant message to chat or pick up the phone.

Do you ever feel isolated?

I do get my energy from being with and working with people, but given much of my work involves research, analysis and writing, I also need solitude. One of the benefits of technology is that you’re always connected. If you start to feel isolated, you reach out.

If I feel the need for the buzz of people around me, I can take my laptop and mobile phone and go to the public library or a local coffee shop and work for a couple of hours and then return to my home office.

How do you stay connected?

I have two mobile phones, Skype, email and Instant Messaging plus a dedicated home office phone line. We use all those channels.

We share electronic calendars so team members can see who is available when, which is particularly helpful in scheduling meetings, whether it be with our director in Denver, graphic artist in Atlanta, marketing writer in Fairfax, client service leader in Innsbruck or delivery leader in Pretoria.

It almost goes without saying that communication is vital. A team needs to know the plan and each team member must know his or her role and responsibilities in any given assignment or initiative. You must have all the right people involved in decision making and you must keep the team informed of progress toward goals and objectives and corrective actions as required. The better the communication, the more trust is built; the more trust, the better the teamwork, which generally means better results.

How do you maintain the balance between work and personal life?

Part of the reason I first started working from home was to have more time with my family. I had a long commute and it helped to not have to do that every day. I was able to share avoided commute time with my family and my employer.

I have a separate office in the house. I have it set up the way I need to be most productive. If the door is closed, my family knows I’m working.

I also let my team know when I’m available or taking a break. I have a scheduled lunch, but I usually keep my eye on email.

What is your advice for setting up an effective remote team?

Define who you need to succeed and engage them one-to-one, clearly describing the significance of the work and the importance of their involvement. Develop project team organization charts so roles and responsibilities of all involved are clear. Have clear objectives for every meeting scheduled regardless of the technology being used and make sure that every meeting produces an action plan that will enable the team to advance toward its goals and objectives.

The team must be working from the same playbook. Technology can help. We establish online workspaces for document management for our projects so everyone is working with the most current version of the same information. This is all part of creating the culture that supports remote work, whether someone is working remotely from home or remotely from colleagues who are on the other side of our planet. Yet, underpinning any and all success with ‘remote work’ is the vision of an organization and its ability to inspire its employees. With clear direction and mutual agreements and trust, employers and employees can achieve work results and life balance.

In his home office, Hal Gillam uses a desk with sentimental value. It belonged to both his grandfather and father.