It is no longer a controversial statement to say that the workplace is changing. The increasingly competitive market for talented labor is leading companies to rethink traditional management philosophies in order to remain attractive to the most qualified applicants.
Remote work policies are more common than ever. A 2017 Gallup poll across multiple industries reported that in 2016, 43 percent of all employees work away from their team members at least some of the time. This figure marks a four-year increase of four points, up from 39 percent in 2012. In the same poll, one out of every five workers reports that they work from home exclusively, never setting foot in the office.
We collected feedback from 185 professionals working in language services to better understand their remote working practices.
This study included professionals across the globe in all levels and roles. We included junior translators in Zagreb, CEOs in San Francisco, entry-level buyer-side engineers, middle managers at LSPs, and anybody else working in language services.
It is clear that the global workplace is changing, and we conducted this research because we wanted to understand how that change is manifesting for localization, interpreting, and language technology.
In the below graph, we see that over 30 percent of language services professionals work remotely full-time. If we include those that work remotely one to four days per week, we see that over 68 percent work remotely at least some of the time.
This shows that, on average, language services professionals are 25 points more likely to work remotely than employees of other industries (68 percent compared to 43 percent).
The below graphs compare the data side-by-side with data for other specific industries. Not only is the language services industry more remote-friendly than others on average, it is also more remote than any other specific industry individually.
But of course, there are a lot of different types of work in the language services industry. We should be careful not to paint our conclusions with too broad of a brush. Let’s now break down our analysis to compare buyer-side and vendor-side, job titles, years of experience, and gender.
One of the most distinct and meaningful lines to be drawn between localization professionals is that separating those working for buyer-side companies (Language Services Buyers) and their colleagues working for vendor-side companies (Language Services Providers, or LSPs).
The graph below breaks down data for buyers and providers and also includes an “other” category. This captures employees found in the language services value chain that do not fall neatly into the vendor/client category. Some examples would be consultants, other services indirectly related to language. Freelance or independent contractors, and those that work for technology providers can be factored in too.
Comparing LSPs with their buyer-side colleagues, we see that vendor-side workers are more likely to engage in remote-work activities:
The graph also further breaks out the all-industry data on the left, which is the same data presented in the above pie chart, but further broken down by the frequency of remote work (i.e. one day per week, two days per week, etc.). This allows us to see which areas have the highest deviation from the norm.
When filtered by years of experience, the data does not present any conclusions that are immediately significant. Remote work practices are generally consistent regardless of experience level. The most significant exception can be seen in workers with less than one year experience, who reported being more likely to work remotely.
New employees with less than one year experience are only half as likely to report that they “never work remotely”. This is surprising because “traditional logic” may dictate that employers would be less likely to grant such freedom to junior employees. Indeed, the whole concept of less experienced employees working remotely is counterintuitive. Newer and younger employees are the ones that have the most to benefit from the experience of being close to their peers in an office.
A more likely explanation is that this finding supports the changing expectations about remote work of younger generations. A disproportionate number of these low-experience workers are linguists, which are significantly more likely to report working remotely, as is discussed further in the below section.
The language services industry is, by necessity, a globally dispersed industry. Common sense tells us that the language services industry would have a higher degree of remote work than other industries. In this study, it has been interesting to not only see some of these “common sense” notions about our industry confirmed, but also to gain a few new insights.
Finally, if you work in the language services industry, the chances are very high that either you or somebody you work with are remote. That’s why it is important to understand best practices about working remote. Even if you personally report to the office every single day, you most likely still have to engage with remote team members, managers, and direct reports. In the next sections, we will look at some best practices associated with working remotely.
It would be irresponsible to state that there is a single set of processes that will work for all situations. The reality is that every organization is different. Every individual is unique. There is no magic wand which makes every remote working situation perfect.
However, our research has led us to identify some common best practices reported by remote workers. While these practices are taken from people working in the language services industry, we believe they apply to any organization.
A lot of responsibility is placed on team members that are trusted to work remotely. They are expected to perform at the same level as their colleagues in the office. They also have the additional burden of having to stay “in the loop” and manage the expectations of their team members and supervisors. Based on our interviews with remote workers in the language services industries, we have identified the following three best practices:
Some call it “transparency” – making sure that other team members are aware of what you are working on and maintaining open lines of communication. Transparency helps to avoid duplication of work and allows team members to identify and correct small issues before they become big issues. In an office, you are much more likely to know what your fellow team members are working on because you are constantly over-hearing the cross-cubicle conversations. When working remote, though, you need to go out of your way to make sure to stay in the loop.
When trying to decide between over- and under-communicating, it is wise to always err on the side of over-communication. However, this can be a balancing act. Too much information can be just as useless as not enough. If you send a weekly report to your team (or your client) with a high-level view of what you are working on, they will surely come to appreciate it. However, if you send five emails a day outlining every small detail, they will stop opening your emails.
You need to define communication channels where you can outline all of these necessary details without being obtrusive. The goal is not to make sure everybody sees all of the details when you report them, but to make sure that the details are there and can be found if and when they are needed. This can be facilitated with technology, using project management and team communication solutions such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoho Projects, Smartsheet, Asana, or others. In fact, there are too many to list. Even Facebook has a team collaboration solution available.
The above list is by no means comprehensive and includes tools with different feature sets. There are many possibilities and no one “best” solution. It is important to find a solution that works for you.
In the language services industry, many of the tools we use every day have built-in collaboration features. To see which translation management systems include team collaboration, you can check out the Nimdzi TMS Compare Tool and TMS Overview.
Something that remote workers should realize is that even the most trusting of managers will have bad days. When they have those bad days, they may start asking themselves questions such as “what is this guy even doing all day, anyways?” Is this a constructive question for a remote manager to ask? Sometimes, but often not. But it will be asked.
Your job, as a remote employee, is to help your manager to always have an answer to that question. This doesn’t mean doing “busy work” or sending dozens of emails to make it look like you are super busy. Managers can see right through that. What it does mean is that your work is tracked, your hours are logged, your files are on the server where they are supposed to be.
Mostly, though, it means that you are delivering as expected. This should go without saying, but the best way to keep your (remote) manager’s confidence is to make sure you are following through on all your commitments. Basically – do your job!
One of the most common pieces of advice we received from remote workers we interviewed was about the importance of creating a well-defined working environment. If working from home, this could mean having a clearly defined office in the spare bedroom, or even just a corner of the kitchen table. Sometimes, this could be your favorite coffee shop. If your company has a budget for it, coworking spaces can provide a professional and structured environment. The below graphic shows some international coworking spaces that you may want to check out, though there are plenty of smaller companies to check out as well.
Having a separate working environment from your home is important not just to have a place to go, though. It also provides a much needed mental separation between home and work. Without an office to go to, remote workers will inevitably start to blur the lines between their work and personal life. Sometimes, this can be a benefit (taking your kids to the park during working hours, putting in a load of laundry between meetings, etc.). Other times, it can start to erode important work-life boundaries (checking email before going to bed, feeling guilty for not having your laptop open, etc.).
At the end of each day, office workers get to leave the building and literally shut the door on their work behind them. Remote employees often struggle with this. The lack of physical work-life separation can easily lead to a lack of mental work-life separation. For this reason, remote workers need to be extra vigilant to remain balanced.
To this end, we have compiled some of the most frequently given tips for maintaining a healthy balance that we have collected from remote workers in the language services industry, some of which may work for you:
Isolation is one of the toughest long-term challenges a remote worker will face. It is important to feel part of a community at work. This is entirely possible for remote workers, but it takes a conscious effort.
If your organization has a headquarters, you should be visiting regularly. Perhaps not every week, but monthly or quarterly visits to meet with the rest of the team in person will go a long way towards building your work community. It is amazing how many challenges can be overcome (or avoided altogether) with simple face-to-face meetings.
If visiting in person is not an option, have regular meetings with your teams. Hearing each other’s voices builds much more trust than reading each other’s emails. Seeing each other’s faces builds even more trust. Video chat is an extremely powerful tool that is tragically underutilized. We’ve all been in a situation where we just didn’t want to turn on the webcam. Our hair was a mess, or we were in a busy coffee shop, perhaps. But there are a number of reasons to turn on that camera:
It may not happen overnight, but with regular video chat meetings, you will find that you have a much stronger relationship with your team members. If you ever do get the chance to meet in person, you will be amazed that even though you are meeting for the first time, you have a strong sense that you have met before.
It is important to trust your employees, regardless of where or when they work. One of the most unconstructive questions a manager can ask is, “What the heck are my employees doing all day?” This line of thinking leads down a dark path that is not helpful for either the employee or the manager. But how does a manager satisfy their need to know what is going on without falling into the micro-management trap?
Every team member deserves the trust of their manager, and this should be the starting point. The old adage that trust is earned does not apply here. The fact is that trust is given, and mistrust is earned. In practice, what this looks like is a manager being able to assume that an employee is performing satisfactorily, up until the point where that employee proves otherwise.
Managers should set regular checks to verify the work of their remote employees. These can be in the form of peer review cycles, spot-checking the work they are delivering, or having regular syncs with that employee. The goal is to not be intrusive but to verify that the work is getting done.
If the employee starts missing deadlines, becomes uncommunicative, or misses revenue targets, then this could mean more attention is required. The goal, though, is to always be working towards independence. If increasing levels of micromanagement are required for any employee, then that employee may not be worth the effort. Remember, any team member worth micromanaging is a team member worth letting go of.
Remember that remote employees are employees too. This may seem obvious in theory, but it is shocking how often it is forgotten in practice. It is entirely understandable that stronger bonds are going to form between employees working in the same space than between employees who rarely see each other. Managers need to actively manage the relationships with their remote teams.
As much as possible, remote workers should be included in team activities, initiatives, and culture. Remember that all teams have a culture, and it is up to managers to maintain and facilitate it . If leaders fail to define and maintain a proactive and positive team culture, they risk having it defined for them, usually by their most toxic team members.
Managers hiring new remote team members need to remember to set aside a budget for travel. New employees should be flown in to meet the team, not just once, but on a regular basis. We find that the most effective times to invest in this travel are when the employee first starts, and then again after three months. The first trip is to set expectations, make introductions, and bring them into the fold. The second trip (after three months) is to start diving deeper into the role and skills that are needed to carry out the work. The three month gap in visits seems to work well because in the beginning, everything is so new that the new team member may not even know what questions to ask. After three months, they will have a solid foundation, which will make their onsite visit more productive.
It should go without saying, but all best practices that apply to normal employees also apply to remote employees. The best way to be inclusive is to make sure that all team members are held to the same standards. Also, it is important to make sure they all receive the same level of support. Make sure to manage the expectations of your in-office team members, as well. Don’t play favorites. There is no faster path to resentment than to treat remote colleagues as second class citizens.
Isolation is a strong negative force for all remote team members. As a manager, there are some things that you can do to encourage camaraderie and team cohesion.
We’ve already written at length above about the benefits of video chat. As a manager, your job is to encourage all your team members to use this valuable tool. The best way to do this is to lead by example. When in meetings, consistently turn on your video chat. Most of your employees will naturally follow your lead and do the same.
While it is important for managers to check in regularly with their remote team, it is equally (if not more) important to encourage that they check in with each other. You should not be the only point of contact (or even the most frequent point of contact) that your remote team members have to the company. They should be regularly collaborating with other team members, as well. The more touch points they have, the more cohesion they will feel with the rest of the team.
If you are using technology, as we have discussed above, then most tools will allow you to create a virtual “watercooler” channel to encourage chit-chat and office small talk. While this may seem mundane (or even a waste of time and resources), it can be a powerful tool to make everybody feel like they are part of a real team, regardless of where they are working.
The language services industry is the most remote-worker-friendly industry in the world. This is a strength. It allows us to build diverse teams and recruit the best talent from a global workforce, rather than being confined to a local labor pool. It also brings challenges of how best to manage remote working relationships.
The above insights may guide you as you seek to improve collaboration among global teams. If you are not currently working with remote team members, then perhaps the information presented here will encourage you to consider it. Still, it needs to be mentioned that we work in a very diverse industry, and that no two organizations are the same. Understanding best practices adopted by other companies may help to inform our own policies and procedures. However, ultimately we each need to define a solution that meets our unique needs.
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