Workplace Research Culture First
5 min read

What makes remote work, work?

Megan Wheeler

Megan Wheeler

Leadership Trainer and Coach, LifeLabs

In 2016, 43% of full-time employees worked remotely at least some of the time. That number is still on the rise. Companies that once offered remote work as a perk now use it to attract and retain top talent.

As a leadership trainer at LifeLabs, I get the exciting opportunity to train and study managers at fast-growing companies (like Warby Parker, Squarespace, Reddit, and Lyft). A few years ago, it hit me how many of these companies (LifeLabs included) have dispersed employees and how much better off we’d all be if we learned from each other. Since then, I’ve been researching what makes remote work, work.

I can’t wait to share trends, insights, and practical tips in the Optimizing Remote Work session at Culture First on June 13th, 2018.

In the meantime, here is a quick overview of our findings from our research on remote work. 

The backstory: 

I interviewed heads of HR as well as managers and individual contributors at companies with 150-30,000 employees and conducted a meta-analysis of existing research. Based on my quantitative and qualitative sleuthing, the following three insights stood out.

Insight #1: Turning on that camera matters more than you think.

Almost all participants in our study emphasized the importance of seeing their teammates, whether through the screen or in person. Most companies prioritize having time in person, but short, frequent contact via camera leads to even greater team trust and more effective communication.

The Mere Exposure Effect reveals that the more familiar we are with our coworkers’ faces, the more we like them (Harmon-Jones & Allen, 2001). To understand how this plays out in the realm of remote work, we examined the feedback scores of our virtual workshops and found that participants rated the content as more useful and engaging when their cameras were turned on.

Among our clients with dispersed teams, only 75% had a “cameras on” norm. So, for instant improvement, turn those cameras on! Bonus points for investing in high quality video and audio. We’re testing out and enjoying the directional Owl camera at LifeLabs now.

Insight #2: Autonomy feels like a perk, but only when we set expectations.

A sense of fairness is particularly important to remote employees. Lack of access to onsite perks can feel unfair, unless managers clarify that working remotely comes with unique perks as well.

Of our remote participants, 70% said they have a ritualized work space, and 30% prefer to switch things up by working from coffee shops and co-working spaces. This difference in preference highlights an opportunity for managers to stress the value of an autonomous work setup.

Research shows that autonomy matters to all workers (Weinstein, Przybylski & Ryan, 2012), but remote employees often don’t realize they have extra autonomy. So, point out the unique perks of remote work and don’t immediately assume that the solution to perceived unfairness is giving every employee the same perks. Instead, find ways to create and highlight different opportunities for different groups. For example, free lunches may be great for in-person employees while a home office interior design session would make more sense for employees who work from home.

Insight #3: Remote work is spreading across jobs, but best practices are not.

Many people assume remote work is done by engineers, but we’re seeing a trend of remote work across a wide range of job types. Employees in each job category seem to be creating their own systems for how to work well remotely, but all remote employees can benefit from learning from one another.  

Employees may be caught victim to the Availability Heuristic, an unconscious bias that keeps them from seeing opportunities and options outside of what is familiar to them (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). We’ve found that companies benefit tremendously when they create opportunities for remote employees to connect and learn cross-functionally. One of our favorite tools for easily orchestrating these connections is the Donut Slack app.

Bonus: Remote Work Checklist! 

We took findings from our research and turned them into a handy checklist for optimizing the remote experience. How do you stack up?

Your remote work experience audit:

Organizational level

  • We offer resources to enable remote work (e.g., technology stipend, co-working membership)
  • We have clocks around the office that make it easy to remember other employees’ time zones
  • Our calendar system makes it easy to see availability and request time to meet
  • We provide tech support and training to help managers optimize video-based meetings
  • Our in-person and remote employees have similar access to learning and development opportunities
  • Our leaders and managers have received training in leading remote employees
  • We define/evaluate ‘output’ goals (e.g., deliverables) rather than ‘input’ goals (e.g. counting hours logged)
  • We regularly survey employees to track their level of engagement, clarity, and inclusion
  • We create opportunities for remote employees to be featured at all-hands meetings and skill-shares

Leadership level

  • Influential leaders and decision makers are available to remote employees (e.g., they join team meetings, facilitate skip-level 1-1s, host virtual Ask Me Anything sessions)
  • We communicate the same company information and vision to remote and in-person audiences
  • Our leadership team privately and publically acknowledges remote employees
  • Our leaders state and model the importance of regular 1-1 meetings

Manager level

  • Managers hold consistent, high-quality 1-1 meetings with their remote reports
  • Managers keep remote employees up-to-date about what’s going on in the office
  • Managers ask remote employees how they prefer to work, communicate, and receive feedback
  • Managers celebrate milestones (e.g., birthdays, work anniversaries, small team wins)
  • Managers establish communication norms (e.g., expected email response times, mutually convenient work hours, what to do if there are technical difficulties during a meeting)
  • Managers create time and space for bonding (e.g., small talk, sharing personal information)
  • Managers set expectations for remote employee equity vs. equality

Individual Contributor level

  • Remote employees know how to hold project kick-off conversations that check agreement on deliverables, milestones, project autonomy level, interdependencies, and information flow
  • Remote employees know how to proactively pull for information rather than wait for it to be pushed to them

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in getting involved with our next round of research or want to hear more about LifeLabs CORE manager training programs, drop us a line at hello@lifelabslearning.com and get your ticket for Culture First to join my session on remote work and learn from other great speakers. 


Megan WheelerMegan has her Master's degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She specializes in the remote experience and managing dispersed teams. She has been head of L&D at Huge and managed the leadership development program at Illinois Institute of Technology's Leadership Academy. She's spoken on management at SXSW and published on individual assessments and job selection in the Journal of Applied Psychology.