I’m writing to you from my apartment, drinking a cup of Jing’s finest Ceylon breakfast tea, looking out the window at a sunny yet empty Lisbon. About a week ago, my coworkers and I were advised to take our computers and chargers home with us. Soon followed the official email: our offices would remain closed until further notice to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
As someone who’s always had the perk of working remotely once or twice a week (something my orange fox of a dog deeply enjoys), this didn’t disrupt my work routine that much. Sure, there’s a shaky wifi connection every so often, or an over-excited dog to appease, but it’s been pretty much business as usual. Of course, not everyone can say the same. Overnight, countless startups, multinational corporations and small businesses are facing an unprecedented situation, as they’ve unwillingly signed up for the world’s biggest remote working experience — and most of them were not ready.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve been gathering a few resources and insights that could be useful for companies trying to figure out how to deal with this abrupt work-from-home scenario. I’ve also reached out to remote work consultants and leaders working in partial or fully remote companies to share advice on the tools, strategies and mindset managers need to be successful in this transition. Here’s what they had to say:
Step one: Communication
About a week ago, on LinkedIn, people started sharing documents with tips and tools to help companies who were forced into remote working. Alexandre Mendes, former Executive Director of Startup Braga, was one of them. “It was one of those rare moments when I thought about doing something, and actually did it right away,” he told me. He’s been studying remote working for a few years now, advising companies on how to transition towards remote working.
Consultant, Former Executive Director of Startup Braga
Most people think it’s about the tools, but it’s not. The tools are there, but the secret sauce is how you use them: how you’re using Slack to communicate, how you’re managing the teams, setting expectations, defining goals. Working remotely has a big influence on how we communicate — writing on Slack is not the same as writing an email, for example.
So first things first — let’s start with communication.
Establishing clear communication lines is a big thing at Gitlab’s, the world’s biggest all-remote company, with over 1,200 team members located in more than 65 countries around the world. They recently hosted a webinar with its CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, and Head of Remote, Darren Murph, to share advice on embracing this new remote reality.
Working remotely came naturally to Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab. “It was at the office where I felt out of place,” he says.
Head of Remote at Gitlab
I think it all starts and ends with communication because if communication isn’t in place, nothing else is going to work out, right? I would actually advise getting kind of a go team. Ask around at your company: has anyone ever worked remotely before? Does anybody have expertise in the space?
Get a go team together and start communicating with people through as few channels as possible. You want to avoid silos and fragmentations, especially during the early days of working out the work-from-home kinks, and be open to feedback. So whatever documentation and communication channel you choose, listen to people.
They’re going to have different issues — not all homes are ideal and amenable to work from home right out of the gate. And use that go team to kind of prioritize the feedback that you’re getting and try to find solutions to them as quickly as possible. Putting a plan in place so that people know they’re being listened to, the feedback is being heard and that solutions are being researched, it will help stabilize what could be quite a chaotic environment.
Schedule regular check-ins
As you start shifting towards remote work, maybe arrange a couple of extra check-ins with your team than you’d normally would. Try to understand how they’re adapting to this abrupt situation, what they’ve been up to, how their loved ones are. Managers should give employees who are struggling a bit more direction to help with the transition, supporting them every step of the way.
According to Harvard Business Review, research on emotional intelligence shows that “employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.” So if you’re employee is feeling anxious, try to avoid going down a doomsday spiral with them and reassure them instead. Thanking employees for their effort and communicating with simples sentence like “we’ll get through this”, can boost morale right up.
Step two: Forget business-as-usual
A regular work-from-home situation already presents some challenges, but this is a whole other ball game. It’s not that most people don’t really have home offices set up, which is true (I’ve been told about people rushing to the office to get their monitors, and on the bus home, spotting several people carrying monitors under their arms), but there’s just so much chaos in this scenario. Daycares and schools are closed, people are juggling work and taking care of kids, loved ones, and cats who insist on sitting on the keyboard during important work calls. You should expect a disruption of workflows and normal working hours, especially in the beginning.
“You’ve got to assume people aren’t always checking their messages. I think it’s a bit unrealistic to think that, under these circumstances, people can keep a full-time, 9-to-5 job,” Alexandre said.
Laurel Farrer is a remote work expert who’s been helping companies leverage a virtual workforce for the past ten years. For over a decade, she recounts she’s had to “hide her children from her roles for the sake of ‘professionalism’,” she recently posted on LinkedIn.
Remote work expert and strategist
Whether or not you have kids of your own, try to avoid frustration if any children interrupt a virtual teams meeting or if working hours need to be adjusted. Consolidating school, work, home, church, and childcare all into the same rooms for several weeks is a tough challenge. The world is scared and stressed right now, and the last thing we should be doing is taking it out on our families (or the family of a coworker) by making an innocent child feel like an irritant.
Business leaders should be extra flexible, supporting their employees and team members with these challenges. Let people change their work hours when they need to. Be understanding if someone has to leave in the middle of a meeting. That’s just what Mixpanel, an analytics startup, did. A couple of days ago, Anca Croitoru, one of the company’s Senior Customer Success Managers, woke up to a company-wide COVID-19 update.
“If your children or loved ones make noise during calls or walk into online meetings, feel free to introduce them to your coworkers,” one of the points read. The email acknowledged that having children or dependants full-time at home would impact their employees’ productivity, and it reassured them that it was ok, and that deadlines and expectations would be set accordingly.
Step three: Set up your tool stack
Before diving into the tools that can help you make the most out of this, a word of advice. Unless the tool you’re using is really not up to the challenge, stick to the tools your team already knows. It’s chaotic enough without introducing more unknown elements to the process. Keep consistency as much as possible.
Despite all the articles claiming Slack is disrupting our work, it’s still the tool on everyone’s minds. It’s super intuitive to use, and most importantly, most companies already have it (I even created some workspaces for just a few friends).
P.S. For the sake of accountability and record tracking, keep all major communication in public channels instead of private ones.
From simple task lists to major cross-functional projects, these tools help teams stay on top of project deliverables and status, so it’s clear for everyone who’s doing what, when, and why.
Set up calls with your team, record them for future use, and even keep rooms open for anyone to join.
Real-time collaboration: GSuite
Docs, Sheets, and Slides are editable by anyone at your company (or even by external guests) in real-time, allowing your teams to work at one document together, and keeping a record of which alterations have been made, and by whom.
Perhaps more importantly, communicate very clearly how each tool is to be used — Email could be used for more formal announcements, Slack for project discussions, and Asana for requests, for example.
Of course, these are just a few of the most commonly mentioned ones. If you’re curious about what else is out there, you can check out Alexandre’s doc.
Step four: Think in outputs, not hours
I met John Riordan, Director of Support, Ireland at Shopify, for a brief virtual chat on Monday morning. He’s been working remotely since 2002, most of it managing teams, and while he believes the tools are easy enough to get around, the mindset isn’t. “So the biggest problem with this change is that it’s been forced upon people, and the mindset hasn’t changed. I worry about the mindset of people in the very senior leadership roles when the only thing they’ve ever known is office based. There’s a nervousness and a fear factor amongst the leadership. And that is the fear of the unknown.”
When everyone is working remotely, there’s one thing that needs to change immediately — the focus needs to move from time spent to output. Managing remote teams means that instead of worrying about where your employees are at all times during the day, constantly checking whether they’re online and get back to you within a couple of seconds, you should instead focus on assigning clear deliverables and outputs.
While office work gets dictated a lot by schedules, calendars and synchronous communication (either in meetings, slack channels or in person), remote working, especially in these circumstances, will inevitably drive asynchronous communication and workflows. That is, communicating and moving projects along without needing your peers to be available online.
In Gitlab’s Guide to All-Remote, they mention that the easiest way to enter into an asynchronous mindset is to ask this question: “How would I deliver this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team (or in my company) were awake?”
According to them, asking this question removes the temptation to take shortcuts, “or to call a meeting to simply gather input” — alas, the dreaded meeting that could have been an email.
In order for asynchronous communication to work, you need a tool in place that allows you to gather all documentation, or context, available. A source of truth. It doesn’t matter if you pick Gitlab, Asana, Trello, or even a Slack channel, everyone just needs to agree on what the tool is to avoid splintered communication across multiple channels. When you’re quickly shifting all your operations towards a remote setting, a gentle tap on the shoulder asking for a bug to be fixed no longer works. Every change, every request needs to be documented and visible across the entire organization.
Ideally, you’ve hired hard-working, talented people who thrive on autonomy and empowerment, so they don’t need to be managed as much as being in the loop — again, communication is key here. Be very clear about what’s expected of your employees, keep communication lines open, and make sure they have all the information they need to do their jobs.
Step five: Keeping up with the culture
For a whole lot of us, the office inevitably becomes a sort of second home. We make friends, have lunch together, share harmless gossip during happy hours. Even those silly collective moments that rise out of nowhere and vanish as mysteriously as they appeared. How can you replicate this? How can teams still feel connected when they’re not sharing the same physical space?
To John Riordan, it’s all about starting the day together:
We have the teams broken out into 10 or 11 people who are working on the same period of time together in a day, and they all start together. They have what’s called a jumpstart meeting, so that’s a touch point every morning. And there’s a touch point at the end of the day. We’ve been doing this forever and one of the reasons for that is that it’s actually like being welcomed into the office and it’s like being told, okay, we’re done now. And the important thing is that these syncs don’t have to be work-focused.
At Unbabel, we’ve been doing something similar. Every day at 9.30am, our team gathers for a half hour Zoom chat where we share what we’ve been up to. You would think there’s not much to share given that we’re all cooped up in our apartments all day, but you would be surprised. Indoor workout advice, cat competitions, bored dogs, bread making, trying to guess who’s rocking some sweatpants — the possibilities are endless. We’re also hosting 5.00pm Margaritaville hangouts (margarita optional), so our team can unwind after a hard day’s (remote) work.
In a sense, we’re sort of mimicking what happens daily at the office. If that involves a lot of spontaneous banter or water cooler chatter, maybe have an open room or open Google Hangouts that’s just open all day. “You can turn your camera off if you want to and work away, but there’s always what I call a lifeline to humanity,” John told me. If it involves bemoaning the weather together as you bump into one another in the kitchen, grabbing lunch, or doing happy hour on Friday afternoons, try to arrange online replacements.
This can sound counter-productive, investing all this time and effort into creating virtual social interactions that have nothing to do with work itself, but it’s absolutely worth it. First, for the sake of team building, which can suffer greatly, and secondly, for our own mental health. These quick chats can help reducing feelings of isolation and promoting a sense of belonging. The sheer amount of pictures and videos being shared right now in our #tower-pets Slack channel just proves how we need silly cat videos now. We’re quarantined, overwhelmed, stressed and anxious about all the unknowns around us — connecting with a coworker, even if it’s just for some laughs — is really helpful.
Wade Foster, CEO at Zapier, recently shared on a blog article:
Co-founder and CEO at Zapier
One time, things were slowing down in our support channel, and one of our employees just said “let’s have a dance party.” Everyone picked a song on Spotify, recorded themselves doing a dance, then put the gif in Slack. We created a montage of everyone dancing, and it was awesome—people pulled their kids into it, pulled their dogs into it. This kind of thing helps people feel engaged and prevents that loneliness and isolation that everyone worries about with remote work.
Step six: Automate, automate, automate
Right about now, a lot of companies are in survival mode — especially in industries such as travel, hospitality. Support agents are working around the clock to help customers with their flight cancellations, hotel reservations, and so on. Non-stop calls, full inboxes, tickets pilling on — it’s one thing to handle a 20 or 30% increase in customer interactions, it’s a whole other ball game to deal with an increase of 300%.
If there’s one thing our Director of Customer Support Luís Pinto knows, is that in times of crisis, you should automate as much as possible:
Director of Customer Support at Unbabel
In my experience, the only way to redirect ticket volumes is through self-service. Every information the customer needs should be on support portals, FAQs, company website, email newsletters, even social media. If you can remove 20 or 30% of that volume, it’s such a big help. In times of crisis, support teams need to understand which are the ten or so most asked questions — did my flight get canceled? what are the next steps? what’s your refund policy? — all of these need to be readily available.
Step seven: Hang in there
This is not a normal work-from-home scenario. We’re all still adjusting, taking care of ourselves and loved ones, trying to figure this out and learn as we go. As Riordan said, “You’re going to make mistakes.”
Director of Support, Ireland at Shopify
If you go into this thinking that you’re not going to make mistakes, you’re wrong. You’re going to make mistakes. Find peers outside the company who have done or who are doing remote work and lean in and listen. If you try to take an office space culture, which I’m going to refer to as being quite square, and you put it into a remote culture, which is quite circular, it’s not going to work. We all know you can’t bang a square into a circle. It just doesn’t fit. So you’re going to have to understand that it’s going to take a while to mold into the right shape.
If there’s any upside to this, is just how kind strangers from the internet can be. Over the last few days, many messages have flooded social media offering services, advice, or just a friendly virtual shoulder. Companies with all-remote or almost all-remote cultures are sharing guides, organizing webinars, all so that this transition can be as smooth as it possibly can. Not just for business leaders, but also teachers and students struggling to keep up with the school year.
We weren’t ready for this, but we’ve been through worse and bounced back. With the right tools, mindset, and just a little guidance, you might just pull it off.
There’s plenty information online to help you with this transition. I, personally, recommend:
- Gitlab’s Guide to All-Remote
- Remote Without Warning: How to adapt and thrive as a suddenly-remote company
- Zapier’s Guide to Working Remotely
- Working across land and sea: Tips for remote communication
- Remote work tips from Basecamp
- How to lead a remote team (an online event next Friday)
- The Art of Socializing During a Quarantine
- The Social Distancing Project
- Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do? — It has nothing to do with remote working or COVID-19, but hey, it’s fun, and we could all use a break.
That’s it, folks. Stay home and stay healthy!