Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Our top 5 tips for remote working

Technology promises the idea that people can work from anywhere. Ever since the first conference call in 1947, each new communication tool promised greater freedom from the 9-5. From email and mobile phones, to cloud-based software and newer tools like Trello and Slack, it’s easier than ever to work outside of an office. According to a 2015 You Gov poll, 54% of workers are able to work remotely.

A new wave of tech companies are shunning expensive offices in Silicon Valley or East London. Instead, they hope to attract talented people by not restricting their hiring pool to one city and embracing remote teams.

An office worker in a clear blue sea, floating on an inflatable chair, and working on a laptop.
The typical stock photo does not match the reality of most remote workers.
Yet for every article about digital nomads or companies ditching their office, the reality for many workers is they have the option to work from home, but most of their colleagues are in a head office. Enjoying all the meetings, interactions and perks that come as part of an office environment.

Cancer Research UK is a national charity and 65% of our staff aren’t based in the London office. The Technology team is collaborating with more teams across the charity to build digital skills and capabilities. However, some of our ways of working can have a bias towards being in the same room. Which can be a problem when some of your team are sat next to you and some are at home.

I recently worked with a team based across the UK, something you’d expect when running and marketing fundraising events across the country. It became clear that we needed to adapt how we worked in order to make progress. So, we agreed as a team to apply a test and learn approach to how we worked. We made it an outcome of the work, alongside building and iterating a user journey for the new events. By the end, we would have at least found out some better ways of collaborating and communicating as a team.

One of the great things about working in Technology at Cancer Research UK is the collaborative environment. It’s easy to stroll over and ask a colleague for advice and teams demo their work in the open. We cover the walls in post its and roadmaps. There are stand ups twice a week with an open agenda, which is a great way to learn from others.

Working with teams who aren’t based in our main London office made me realise that all these things aren’t accessible to remote workers. While flexible and remote working are common here, we’re still trying to find ways to take our culture beyond the walls of the office.

Installing Skype and giving staff permission to work from home won’t automatically turn you into a high performing remote team. If this was the case, perhaps we’d all have abandoned our offices in favour of a beach in Bali. Instead, it’s a case of trying out new things, and being ok with the fact that your first virtual workshop may fail. Because even if stuff goes wrong you’ll learn a lot!

We’re already experimenting with finding out how to make it easier to collaborate and be more productive. We've been sharing tips in a Slack channel for remote workers, so here are 5 tips to help become more a remote friendly team.

1. Become remote friendly

Think about what contributes to a high performing team and don’t restrict this to within the office walls. Are open product demos, roadmaps on walls, decision making processes, even social occasions, inclusive to remote team members? There are lots of tips out there, like templates to run a remote retrospective and advice for running a remote show and tell demo.

2. If one person is remote, everyone is remote

Rather than have one person dial in from home, we’ve found it works better to have everyone dial in, so we all have the same experience. Communication is a big part of remote working and this is a simple way to make it more inclusive for everyone.

3. Virtual collaboration does work

Working remotely doesn’t have to mean only doing solitary tasks. Whether you’re mapping your assumptions to try and solve a problem, having a team retrospective or even a full design sprint, just give it a go! Try out virtual whiteboard tools such as Mural, Real Time Board or DIY your own using Google Draw. We often say things are easier face to face but Ele Gibson, whose job it is to get fundraising staff to embody agile and lean principles, challenges that assumption, "our virtual retrospective using Mural was genuinely fun and we worked more efficiently than when we're face to face."

4. Find out what works for you

Could working in a coffee shop boost your productivity? Lilli Peters, Senior Executive in the Community Development team, ran her own experiment to find out if changing her environment could improve how she worked. "I’ve definitely found it a welcome change of scenery. I’m not sure I’ll come out to coffee shops too often, but I might pop Spotify on at home more frequently." The reality of being a digital nomad may be less glamourous behind the Instagram filters, but if you try out different set ups, you can find out what helps you work best.

5. Don’t forget the social side of work

If you aren’t seeing each other in the office, it could be easy to feel less connected to your team says Rob Green Senior Manager, Support Insight & Testing. He works with a distributed team who have experimented with creative ways to address this challenge. Katie Cartwright, Business Development Manager, created a ‘Hall of Fame’ Trello board showing who everyone is with some background into who they are, what's important to them and how they can help. This is particularly useful for new starters. Why not ask your team how they want to celebrate birthdays, if the usual cake in the office is off the table.

These are just a few of things we’ve learnt from applying our test and learn mindset to how we work and we're continuing to find ways to improve, such as live streaming internal demos and stand ups. Longer term, as we prepare to move to our new head office building in Stratford in 2019, we're looking into what the future of work looks like. If you have any remote working tips, let us know in the comments.

Next time someone declines a workshop request because they are working from home, why not have a think about how you can include them and give it a try?

Leanne Griffin
Digital Proposition Manager


  1. Great post! At CAST we've found daily stand-ups on Slack work well, but what's been even more interesting/useful is adding a weekly reflection into that on a Monday morning (just a one-liner). That way, everyone can see what each person's key realisation or food for thought was from the week before, which keeps us all in the loop with each others' learnings as well as the practical work and tasks we're doing. Think this really helps an agile/learning organisation maintain a shared understanding of the direction of travel while most of the team are remote.

    1. Love this idea - I'll try it next week.

      Great post, Leanne!

  2. We use Google Hangouts here, it works really well, the majority of our teams have remote workers. The challenge is the toes of tools / documentation you share with teams, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't..