Transitioning to remote working as a company
I’d like to echo Joel Gasgoine’s sentiments: This is not normal remote working!
Like Buffer, we’ve been a remote-first company for almost 10 years and we’re also adjusting to the new normal as a result of COVID-19.
We’ve never had to transition to remote working overnight, as many people reading this have had to. Nevertheless, we’ve been helping others figure this out over the last few weeks and I’d like to share some of our learnings that might help make this transition a little easier.
1: Communicating remotely
Remote teams tend to favor asynchronous written communication. That is to say, we send text messages and don’t expect an immediate response. This allows longer blocks of uninterrupted working time, it allows “batching” of replies and works better when people have different working hours. Amir Salihefendic makes the case for Asynchronous Communication in his excellent blog post The Art of Async: The Remote Guide to Team Communication. This is one of the reasons why so many remote workers feel more productive.
On the other hand, synchronous communication is more effective when a topic requires a lot of back-and-forths, or if there is time pressure. Don’t be afraid to “jump on a call” to quickly sort things out. Meetings are better for brainstorming or to achieve a consensus, however, this can be more difficult remotely, especially if participants are not used to it.
I believe that there is a tradeoff and it’s best to pick the right communication medium for the message. It helps if guidelines are established around this to make it easier to understand and for everyone to agree upon. It’ll also be easier for everyone if you minimize the number of tools, and don’t make too many changes at once.
2: Informal interactions — You’ll miss these. The “watercooler moments”
We have experimented with different initiatives to improve informal interactions and make remote working more fun!
The most successful initiatives are often run by diverse teams made up of people from across the company. Even if you have to get something started yourself, it’s a good idea to empower others to run with it.
Here are some of our current initiatives:
- Donut: People can be randomly matched with somebody else in the company and encouraged to meet for a quick video chat.
- Watercooler: A weekly video call for everyone who wants to discuss or just chat with others.
- Themed virtual events: It can be refreshing to do something together to improve ourselves. For example, we have some special month-long events to improve a specific area of our lives, like mental health, or general fitness.
- Coffee with the Chief: I host a regular ‘virtual coffee break’ that’s open for anyone to join. I do this at different times of the day to suit different working hours and timezones.
- All Hands: Quarterly Zoom call for the whole company - we use this for updates, celebrations, welcome to new hires, etc. It’s the same as an all-hands in an office but we just do it via Zoom. People ask questions in chat during the call and we usually have great engagement.
- ShubTalks: We call ourselves Zytans at Zyte (formerly Scrapinghub) and these are our monthly online talks. They’re a bit like Ted talks, but less polished! Speakers get to nominate others to give a talk.
- Appreciation-station: Slack channel where we can call out other people who have helped us or gone above and beyond in their jobs.
- Various Slack Channels for people to gather around common interests - Photography, Book Club, Wellness, Working out, etc.
- Wellness Circle: A bi-weekly safe space over zoom for people to open up and talk to promote inclusion and diversity of perspectives, fight loneliness, help with anxiety and depression, and uttermost, share the joy of love and life (Yes, it's possible at work).
Keep in mind that these will change over time. People will have new ideas about what they would like to do and some won’t work as well after a while. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but at the same time don’t introduce too much at once.
3: Helping employees cope with working at home
Adjusting to remote working will take time. We find good onboarding for new hires helps enormously, perhaps you could consider an onboarding session for all employees? Here are some of our tips for new starters.
Technical set up:
- Computers: your employees need computers to work on. The issue comes when you realize some people don’t even have a laptop as they can do everything through their phones and tablets - except work!
- Access to software: if the software your company uses is all cloud-based, the switch is easier. Otherwise, you need to set up a VPN. Make sure everyone knows how to use it.
- Internet: proper internet access is essential for remote working. For most jobs, you don’t need faster than average internet speed, but it needs to be stable. Also, due to COVID-19, the Internet might be slower. Some companies even reduced the bandwidth for their services. Thankfully many Internet Service Providers do not expect to experience issues and are not seeing above normal weekend usage. Where possible, connect directly to your router. If you wish to use WiFi make sure you have a strong connection, while not ideal, meshed WiFi technology can help fill in some of your blackspots.
- Ergonomics: It’s worth making your home working area as comfortable as possible. I love my height-adjustable desk, vertical mouse, split keyboard, external monitor, and ergonomic chair. But it may not be worth the investment if this is temporary or you just don’t have space. At a minimum consider using a laptop stand with an external mouse and keyboard.
Staff engagement and well-being:
- Over-communicate. It’s easy to get confused about what's going on. Always provide context and be kind.
- Use your commute time for something else. I’d usually recommend exercise, as you have less activity working from home. However, you can meditate, read a book or just get in extra relaxation time to unwind so you are more productive when you’re working.
- Have a working routine. It works best for most people to have a clear time to start and finish work. I usually say goodbye to my family in the morning when I go to work, it just happens to be upstairs instead of outside. During the day, it's important to take breaks, to stretch, look away from the screen, move your body a little, etc. - some people like the Pomodoro technique to force breaks, others work for a longer time and then take a longer break.
- Loneliness - it is a real thing, don’t ignore it. Not physically meeting anybody all day can take its toll. Make sure nobody is isolated and everyone is engaging with others.
- Establish Norms. Make expectations clear. Being vague here will cause frustration for managers and employees. If you need people online for defined times make that clear upfront.
- Flexibility is key - we measure output not time at Zyte (formerly Scrapinghub) and being flexible is even more important right now. For example, some parents need to work in shifts to share the childminding and homeschooling on top of doing their jobs.
Remote companies work best when there are guides and documentation available for most things people need. These need to be well-organized and kept up to date. It prevents people from having to ask questions all the time, which can be frustrating, especially in a remote setting.
Gitlab is a great example of a company that does this well. They have shared their company handbook publicly. It’s one of the key things they use to run the largest all-remote company and a fantastic resource for the rest of us. Their remote work emergency plan and Remote work starter guide for employees will be particularly helpful to many people right now.
4: Constant employee feedback
Employee feedback is always important, but it needs to be very deliberate when working remotely. It’s essential to keep your finger on the pulse of your team when trying to navigate an evolving situation like the current COVID-19 infection.
Here are some of the things we do:
- Employee surveys - can you incorporate COVID-19 and remote working related questions into your existing survey?
- Pulse surveys - we use Officevibe - which reaches out to employees regularly over slack to ask questions. It generates analytics across the entire workforce that we can track over time. It helps us spot trends, highlight problems, and measure how effective various initiatives are.
- Anonymous feedback has really helped us. We have the ability to reply to and discuss the feedback without the person needing to share their identity. We get a lot of great suggestions and it has allowed us to discover and fix things that we otherwise would not have.
- Sometimes people are more comfortable discussing things with their peers. We have a cross-department group called Shubbervoice for this purpose and they contribute great suggestions for improvements and run many of our initiatives that make remote working more enjoyable.
- Have regular 1:1s, team meetings, standups, etc. You probably do this anyway, but they tend to be more structured when done remotely - don’t forget these if you’re no longer in an office. Remember to turn on your webcams and set some time aside to check in on people and their lives. These virtual meetings will replace the casual chat by the coffee machine.
- Conduct skip-level meetings to get direct feedback from front line staff - you could be surprised by what you hear without the manager filter! It’s also another way to get to know people.
Many managers are checking in on their team on a personal level more regularly during this time to see how they are doing. Just being there, and lending an ear to listen, can go a long way.
5: Culture — Trust and openness
Most remote working companies have a high-trust culture and value openness and transparency. Trust is a key element to make remote working work.
If you have the urge to always check on your employees - what they’re doing, if they’re working - you will find remote work difficult. Managers like this need to shift their mentality to enable their employees to do quality work. It’s important to be clear with your team what your expectations are and what needs to be done. Then give them the resources and support they’ll need to be successful. This is the only way remote working can work. You can set a high bar on quality and productivity by managing goals and outcomes, not tasks and time. Be very clear in making requests - communicate clearly what you want, by when, and why you want it. More clarity in defining and delegating, and getting on a call whenever needed can be an effective substitute for the experience of office working.
On March 30th, 2020 I hosted a webinar around this topic. We discussed the above topics and answered many questions. This webinar is for all managers, leadership teams, or anyone who is currently transitioning to remote working and wants to ensure they remain productive in this new environment.