Back to the future with remote working

In 2009, I led a very talented group across Asia Pacific in the launch of CNNGo – a travel and lifestyle digital-only product based in and focused on cities in the region.


Key to our product was providing local expertise from the cities or region and we were right in believing that this is not possible unless you have individuals or teams based in the locations they are specializing on.


To do this, as Editor in Chief, I hired editors in these cities and so we kicked off as a remote working team, with locally-based editors and a headquarters in the Hong Kong Turner/CNN office (though we were graciously parked on another floor, akin to hiding your weird visiting relatives in the basement next to old boxes of useless shit like video tapes and 10MB memory sticks. Naturally, I bought the team essential basement furnishings: a table tennis table, beanbags and a playstation console, and my beloved and well-worn espresso machine).


As I review this today, this was somewhat revolutionary – not the basement attractions or annoying everyone with a noisy brew of a flat white, rather remote working and keeping that remote working team together.


Even for a CNN, that has crews on the road chasing stories or following breaking news. Back then most TV and all digital staff were chained to a desktop PC and access to servers was far more complicated than it is today.


We’d manage the very occasional physical get together, a bit more frequent around launch but in the time that followed, once or twice a year at best from memory.


There were three major challenges and lessons for management. Remote working has been a big part of my work force ever since and these lessons still hold true.


Kit – kit out folks with what they need to do their job. It may be comfy chair, a third monitor or a printer. Kitchen chairs aren’t meant for sitting on for the best part of 10 hours a day. A printer may sound redundant in this day and age but working off printed paper may be someone’s most effective method. And if someone needs to scan something properly do you want to lose a staff member for an hour or so as they seek some sort of solution outside their home? It is doubtful it is one size fits all so have policies with some sort of leeway. You may need to force through some policy changes. Few staff, if any in my experience, take the piss and ask for stuff they don’t need. It’s likely the opposite – they will soldier on and be hesitant to ask for what they need. Add broadband bills support to this kit list as well.


Technology and comms – a big one. I am consistently annoyed by the default of ‘let’s make an appointment to meet’ for any question-answer process. Pick up the phone, wander over to Jill or Jim, shout across the room, whatever – sort it quickly and as efficiently as possible. In that vein, making sure the right tools are used for the right things is key. Review how this is all going. Just because your company is now full zoom ahead, that doesn’t mean every single staff interaction needs to be a zoom video. Conversely, a million different applications for a million different functions isn’t a good thing either. Jumping back 10 or so years, the CNNGo clan relied on Skype. It was a big thing back then, you might have heard about it. In 2009, Skype was our communication arterial system – voice calls, 1:1, 1:many or the entire groups and Skype chats with a similar set up. It was hugely successful – fun, social, practical, serious. And pretty much free, which makes managers happy.


It got to a point quickly when you could detect someone’s mood or state of mind by this text chat – a feat that is both disturbing and impressive but to me shows the closeness of the group and the bonds we had. That helped forged relationships that remain very strong today among many of the former staff. Which leads me to the next point.


The personal touch – right, so kit is sorted and the tech is working. Be human. Just because someone can’t wander into your office to raise some issue or explain some personal matters that are impacting their job or get something off their chest doesn’t mean everything’s hunky dory. Up the check ins – more frequent than you think is necessary, even if there is seemingly nothing on the agenda. A bit of care and interest from the manager goes a long way, builds trust and let’s your employee know you are there for them and they’ve all the support they need. Get feedback from them as well, what’s working, what’s not. What TV series to watch. The best ideas are rarely your own. And too many Netflix recommendations are never enough.

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