A Support Framework for Remote Workers
In my previous articles on remote working   I have written about the positive and negative aspects of working from home and the technologies that can support one to do so. This article aims to discuss how we, here at UKOLN, have put this theory into practice by creating a support framework for remote workers. It is a case study of what can be done with enthusiastic staff, support from managers and faith in an iterative process. It is also a reality check. Remote working continues to be an aspiration for so many yet the reality is not always plain sailing. However what remote working does offer, if it can be realised, is choice and flexibility; two increasingly required job characteristics that let the best employees work to the best of their ability.
UKOLN Remote Workers
UKOLN has employed remote workers since 1997. The first remote worker was Rosemary Russell who changed from an on-site worker to a remote worker after two years. Rosemary began her off-campus time working in an office at University of London Computer Centre, and later moved to Charlton House (owned by Greenwich Council). Rosemary's move to being a remote worker was initiated by discussions with Lorcan Dempsey, then Director of UKOLN. In 2002 she began to work from home with the approval of Dr. Liz Lyon, UKOLN's current Director. This arrangement, including a further relocation, continues to date.
Since Rosemary's establishment as a remote worker, UKOLN has developed a flexible working policy and has been prepared to discuss with staff where and how they would like to work. The UKOLN approach has been that it is important to get the right person for the job and at times this means allowing someone to work from a different location to the campus.
Over the years there have been several remote workers, some who came, worked on a project and left, possibly without ever feeling integrated into the UKOLN culture. In 2007 it became increasingly clear that remote workers had some needs which differed from those of their colleagues working on campus. It was recognised that in order for our remote workers to reach their full potential and increase the likelihood of their wishing to remain with UKOLN, they would need further, discrete support.
An Iterative Cycle of Development
Given the diffuse nature of the UKOLN remote workers' schedules and locations, there was a need to establish a process through which remote worker support could be improved. Although the process was not defined at the very outset as such, it has shown itself to be highly iterative. Iterative design is a well-known design methodology based on a cyclical process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a work in progress. Its key benefit is that the solution is designed incrementally and that the major enhancements arise from not only the development of but also the use of the system itself. Such a process makes reasonable sense when creating a support structure for remote workers. The structure will always be a work in progress because times change and as an organisation we continue to learn.
The establishment of a process and the implementation of changes in the support structure was also likely to take time. Remote workers do not form a department in themselves, they have their deliverable priorities like everyone else and so these processes are by their nature slow to evolve and mature.
The Cycle works through the following stages:
- The initiation of the process and discussion (through face-to-face meetings)
- Creation of a development plan informed by above discussions
- Prioritisation and tactics for implementation of solutions
- Communication and discussion of solutions
- Next face-to-face meeting and discussion
The Cycle in Action
Remote Worker Day - November 2007
After recognition that UKOLN was not supporting its remote workers as well as it might, the idea was floated of having a staff development day purely for remote workers. At the end of November 2007 a one-day workshop was organised by Bridget Robinson and the UKOLN Resources and Administration Team and was facilitated by Sylvia Vacher of Objectives Training and Development . The workshop focused on developing strategies for improving personal and collaborative working practices in a distributed environment. It threw up a lot of questions (why do we have to miss out on important communication that goes on? What could we do about staff development sessions?) and also initiated a lot of ideas (what about Skype-based and other virtual meetings, a representative for remote workers?) The day was deemed to be a success and so began the creation of a support framework.
A Plan of Action
The feedback from the remote worker staff development day was passed back to UKOLN's Senior Management Team and resulted in an informal development plan. In early 2008 the role of a Remote Worker Champion was envisaged. This 'champion' would operate as a catalyst in the approach to remote worker support and as the initiator of support activities.
Remote working was also added as a regular agenda item to the UKOLN Operations Group (OG), a group where all UKOLN teams are represented by at least one colleague with the remit of discussing the implementation of UKOLN policy and strategy. The OG is an internal task group which seeks to provide an opportunity for staff participation in agenda-setting and decision-making. Its aim is to move, where appropriate, some operational decision-making away from the Senior Management Team to those colleagues most involved or affected. Its main focus is on capacity- building activities that will enable the organisation and its staff to adapt to the changing needs of the environment within which it operates and to be ready to engage effectively with future challenges. The remote worker champion was co-opted as an Operations Group member.
The Operations Group provided a good structure in which to get constructive feedback on possible solutions to remote workers' problems. This forum, alongside general discussion among the UKOLN remote workers, allowed a number of approaches to solutions to surface. A number of those solutions have been recently implemented, as described next.
Videoing Staff Seminars
UKOLN is fortunate to have a good number of excellent speakers who come to visit the University every year and give presentations on their work. In the past staff had physically to attend a session to hear the talk, and for most remote workers this would mean a long trip for an hour-long seminar. Recently the UKOLN Software and Systems Team invested in a High Definition HDD camcorder which allows it to video and share the talks after the event, subject, of course, to the presenters' consent. The camcorder is a Canon HG20, chosen by the Systems Team, but a great deal can be achieved without such a high-specification camera. During the initial trial, footage was recorded at very high quality, which could not easily be converted to Web quality for sharing. This issue has now been resolved but there will be other technical issues to be addressed, but once set up, it just requires turning on. Usually someone is available to manipulate and move the camera during the seminar, but even where this is not the case, a reasonable quality of recording can be achieved by just leaving it to run.
The video footage is released as soon as possible after the seminar along with the slides and any other multimedia employed. All seminars are available indefinitely for staff use and stored on the UKOLN Staff Intranet. They are not currently available externally but this is something that may happen in the future. Making seminars available in this way is of considerable benefit to all UKOLN staff, not just remote workers, as colleagues are often absent on UKOLN business or otherwise unable to attend.
Support for Phoning in to Meetings
UKOLN has also recently purchased a new conference phone, a Polycom SoundStation VTX1000, which provides a much clearer audio transmission than our previous model. The extra microphones remove the necessity of constant 'phone shifting' that used to take place during staff meetings; it also means that people who are phoning in can hear questions and comments more clearly.
All UKOLN remote workers have Skype accounts and an appointed person usually connects to staff phoning in to the meeting to monitor any problems with the sound, questions etc. There is also guidance available for the chair of meetings. It covers:
- Collation of Resources - ensuring that prior to the meeting all resources that will be required are deposited in a specified intranet location of which UKOLN remote workers are notified in advance of the meeting.
- Online Contact - ensuring that an allocated person is in touch with remote workers using Skype (or other application) so that any comments they make can be fed in and any problems they have (e.g. loss of sound) can be dealt with.
- Introductions – ensuring, if there is time, to allow staff to introduce themselves at the start of the meeting. Encouraging staff to use the microphone and offer their name before they ask questions or offer comment.
- Interjection – ensuring remote workers are given opportunities to ask questions and interject. This could be managed by the online contact.
- Meeting length – ensuring, where possible, that meetings do not exceed 1 hour 30 minutes (preferably less) as maintaining attention without any visual stimulus grows increasingly difficult.
Anyone presenting at a meeting makes every effort to ensure their presentation slides are available in good time so remote workers can access them. One proposal for possible implementation in a future cycle is the creation of a remote worker deposit area that acts as an online storage facility for each meeting.
Remote Workers' Email List
Last year an internal remote workers email list was established. This allows other UKOLN staff to address all the remote workers directly as a group (for example for administration tasks, for example with respect to travel to UKOLN) and also for the remote workers to share ideas, discuss issues, etc. This list is being regularly used, the remote workers all have a common issue (dealing with working out of the office) so have much to discuss and the list has been useful without being overwhelming.
Quite a few of the remote workers also now have Twitter accounts, which has been another useful way to stay in touch.
Remote Worker Policies
UKOLN's remote worker policy has recently been updated and now covers:
- Existing staff moving to Remote Working
- Integration of Remote Workers into the workplace
- Homeworking environment, office furniture and ICT equipment
- Internet connections and phone lines
- Travel expenses
- Links to related documents (such as the University of Bath policies and documentation on secure data)
It is also linked to a number of useful checklists. It is anticipated that more resources aimed specifically at remote workers will be available in the future.
As mentioned above, the Operations Group has proven to be a good forum for discussion of possible support techniques. Many of the ideas mentioned above have only recently been implemented (such as videoing staff seminars) and are still being refined (where should the presenter be filmed from? Can we reduce the time it takes to get it online?). Constructive feedback from all UKOLN staff is vital in making the techniques work as effectively as possible.
The main success so far is the improvement in the (virtual) working environment of remote workers and the recognition that their support is being taken seriously.
Remote Worker Day - March 2009
In March 2009 the discussion and review continued at the second UKOLN remote worker workshop. This was an all-day workshop run by the same external trainer who ran the first staff development day, Sylvia Vacher from Objectives Training. Again the day was for UKOLN internal remote workers only.
The day went really well and was a good opportunity for introspection and contemplation about what being a remote worker requires. Sylvia offers a solutions-based approach, so all UKOLN participants left with very practical, personal advice to take away and apply.
It was suggested that prior to the session Sylvia be fully briefed on UKOLN's areas of work so she had an effective understanding of the challenges and demands the organisation faces, some of which are particular to UKOLN. For example, UKOLN staff work on a wide range of projects with very diverse remits; to a degree it is not uncommon for some colleagues, some of the time, either to be unaware or fail to understand completely what some colleagues are currently doing. Moreover, working within Higher Education research, some staff have relatively broad job descriptions and have to initiate a lot of their own work and/or respond to emerging trends that are not explicitly outlined by their remit, etc. As this was Sylvia's second session with the UKOLN staff, she demonstrated a really clear understanding of the UKOLN culture.
The main themes for the day were time management and motivation. These were the two problem areas the UKOLN remote workers had identified as being the most significant to them. Creativity was also covered because much of the work at UKOLN involves innovation and ideas.
The specification outline included:
- How can we use our time more effectively?
- How can we change ingrained patterns of behaviour?
- How can we stop ourselves procrastinating?
- What can be done to avoid distractions - both online and off-line?
- How can we improve our concentration?
- Can different systems of time management apply to different personalities?
- What motivates us as individuals?
- How can we encourage motivation when, at times, we are not getting this from the work we are carrying out?
- How can we set our own goals where it is not always easy to specify work requirements?
- How can we stimulate creative thinking when alone?
- How can we increase interaction with colleagues (be they UKOLN or external)?
- How can we maintain momentum in this communication?
Some of the key concepts participants took away from the day included:
- The need for a positive mental attitude and the importance of feedback
- The isolation of remote working means that, theoretically, off-site workers need feedback much more than an on-site worker.
- If they aren't getting this feedback they will need to ask for it.
- This feedback could take the form of peer support, a coach, mentor, etc.
There were also lots of ideas that could potentially become part of the support framework. Some remote workers who live close to each other in north-west England intend to have scheduled meet-ups in Manchester where they can both exchange ideas as well as just work on their own projects but in a more collectively supportive way. This might even take the form of mentoring. A shared list of wifi hot spots could assist with these type of meetings.
Again, probably the most positive aspect of the day was that the UKOLN remote workers demonstrated that they are really 'gelling' as a group. Although they work on different areas, there do share a lot of common ground.
Remote Worker Champion
In July 2008 I was offered the role of remote worker champion. This role is not my main job, but rather an extra responsibility I have taken on but which I have found has become an increasingly interesting part of my work.
When I agreed to take on the remote worker champion role, I could see that for it to have any purpose I would need to take a proactive approach. At the time I was relatively new to remote working so every discovery was useful and exciting and it made sense to share these with my remote working colleagues. I personally feel that it is an exciting time to be a remote worker as technological developments as well as economic and environmental concerns are leading us further down this route. Changes to the law, such as the government's extension of the right to request flexible working, have also given arise to more opportunities for people to work remotely. It seems inevitable that remote working will become increasingly accepted and remote workers will find that they have more 'clout' within their organisation.
As the remote worker champion, my main task is to represent UKOLN remote workers whenever they require collective representation: at meetings, when working with colleagues implementing policy, when dealing with systems support. I also support them through dissemination of information (I send out an email newsletter with a round-up of current activities), initiation of support techniques and other developments.
The main dissemination mechanism for my thoughts as the remote worker champion is currently my blog: Ramblings of a Remote Worker . I've found that writing my blog has helped to inform me about remote working issues and technologies because I now have a reason to find out about them. It is something of a 'chicken-and-egg' situation. I find out about activities and technologies and include them on the blog, readers send in comments, as a consequence I learn more about these activities and technologies so I end up writing more about them. The blog serves a much wider community than the UKOLN remote workers. I've had emails from people about remote working (for example I received one on VPNs and management from a reader in Canada ).
Writing the blog has allowed me to network with other remote workers and I have published two guest blog posts so far. One was by Monica Duke  who also works at UKOLN while the other was by Paul Boag , who works for a commercial company. I have more people lined up for guest blog posts in the future.
Writing the blog has also allowed me to get a name for myself as a remote worker 'expert'. I've participated in two Webinars (for RSC Eastern) and have another lined up for RSC South West in June 2009. I will also be talking at a number of events this summer on remote working including the Flexible Working event, 23 June 2009, Birmingham and the UCISA Symposium, 7-8 July 2009, Aston Business School .
The UKOLN support framework for remote workers is not set in stone. It continues to be a work in progress and not all the activities initiated are successful. There is still much work to done and a recent blog post looking at middle management attitudes to remote working reflects this . The post discusses an idea from another blog post  of an organisation's work place as being very like a pond in which communication takes the form of ripples. These ripples sometimes fail to reach those on the outside: remote workers. As one of the comments, from a UKOLN remote worker states: "I certainly feel myself the danger of missing out on the "unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond and doesn't leave the Pond", and I do feel it happens not infrequently."
As my previous Ariadne articles   have concluded, successful remote working is not something that can be achieved solely through the use of good tools or technical support. It is about communication, engagement and support. Here at UKOLN we feel that our support framework is very much a step in the right direction.
- Marieke Guy, "A Desk Too Far?: The Case for Remote Working", July 2008, Ariadne Issue 56 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue56/guy/
- Marieke Guy, "Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers", October 2008, Ariadne, Issue 57 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue57/guy/
- "UKOLN Workshop for Remote Workers", Focus on UKOLN, UKOLN Newsletter 19 - December 2007 http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/focus/issue19/#19.26.5
- UKOLN Staff http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/ukoln/staff/
- Ramblings of a Remote Worker http://remoteworker.wordpress.com
- Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs), Management and Emails from Canada http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/vpns-management-and-emails-from-canada/
- Brie and Bakeries: A postcard from the North http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/2009/02/04/brie-and-bakeries-a-postcard-from-the-north/
- The Reality of Home Working http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/the-reality-of-home-working/
- Advisory and Support Staff Symposium 2009, 7 July 2009 - 8 July 2009, Aston Business School Conference Centre, Birmingham. Programme: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/groups/ssg/sdg/Events/2009/SDG2009/Programme.aspx
- Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers http://remoteworker.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/life-in-the-pond-moaning-middle-managers/
- Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers – Reference to another post http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2009/04/15/the_pond.html