In this bizarre time of living sequestered lives and reading daily news updates about Covid-19, a number of our clients and acquaintances have asked how we’re managing the transition to working from home. In our case, we’re not transitioning – it’s how we’ve always worked. We have an office in downtown Boulder, but have folks working from all over Colorado, Washington, California, Alabama, Costa Rica, and Sāo Paulo.
As a business owner and team leader, I’ve struggled for years with establishing great culture with a remote team. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: remote work is qualitatively (and I’d argue also quantitatively) worse.
If I could have everyone in the same office, I would. You truly can’t replace those connections made when stopping by someone’s desk, sharing a coffee, and working literally side-by-side.
My first advice: get ready to feel less connected with your team.
In order to counter the effects of working remotely, here’re a few lessons learned over the years:
Have a Plan
First, think through it. What are the policies and habits you want to instill, how will you communicate the transition, what technology platform will you use, and where can folks go to get support? Will you buy webcams for everyone? Do you require being on video, or is that optional? And, the classic joke, does everyone have to wear pants?
People will have lots of questions. Be ready for them.
Get Slack or Teams
It’s not only a meeting platform like Zoom or Webex that you’ll need – it’s also vital that you adopt a messaging platform like Slack with which you can communicate in real time with your team members.
And pro tip: make sure you define a naming convention for rooms in Slack or you’ll quickly drown in wondering if it’s “#team-rabid-rabbit” or “#rabid-rabbit-team”. Rooms profligate like, well… rabbits in these apps. If you can keep them to a tight minimum, good on you. We have literally dozens of rooms. Keeping them organized is critical.
Acclimation takes time. Getting used to looking at a webcam is a new habit, and figuring out what works best in Slack versus sending an email is a bit confusing. Establishing a new rhythm with your team will only go as quickly as it can. (As my team can share, I’m pretty impatient… Not helpful, particularly these days when there’s enough stress to go around.)
Support and Test
Folks will struggle with connectivity and tools. Microphones and headsets are a must. Help test and get the technology kinks worked out. It’s pretty irritating when you lose the first 10 minutes of a meeting to tech issues. With the right support, your team will become pros.
Structure Your Days
We offer flex time at Codence, but we do operate as a team during business hours. I start work at pretty much the same time each morning. We have a regular team meeting each week. I check in with managers daily. I make time to get outside and walk my dog. I’ll admit, I need to do better with having a proper lunch. It’s important to have work hours, both as an individual and as a team.
Break the Ice – A Lot
I often begin meetings with random chit-chat. I don’t just dive into the agenda. I like to use ice-breakers – moments to go around the “room” and ask people some bit of trivia: favorite movie, preferred soup, an inspiring book recommendation, and so on. By incorporating deliberate ways to get to know each other, and to prompt active participation, you’ll replace – to some degree – the organic ways in which people get to know each other in-person.
One of my favorites: “What’s a show you recently binge-watched and would prefer not to have to admit it?”
Start on Time
For some reason, it’s even worse to have people late to a virtual meeting. I have no idea why, but it is. As a leader, set the tone… we start on time. I recommend just simply making it a habit and people will get the point. You don’t need to punish or enforce – just simply begin your meetings on time and folks will get the idea.
Take a shower, dress for work, don’t roll out of bed five minutes before a call. You’ll get your mind into a work mode, and you’ll benefit from keeping your routine in life.
And a lifesaver: an excellent coffee pot. I swear by Nespresso – coffee in minutes.
You’ll need a desk, away from kids, noise, and the clutter of a kitchen. You may not have an extra room to devote to a home office, but at least give yourself a place to be “at work”. (One colleague of mine got creative with a shed in their backyard.)
There’re lots of articles out there – here’s one – that talk about sitting being bad for our health. Likewise, it’s bad for mental focus. It’s even worse when you’re stuck in a chair in front of a webcam and can’t shift around because you’re trying to be present for others. Follow the 50-10 rule and try to get out of your chair for ten minutes each hour. Clear your head. Stretch. Toss a ball with your dog.
Be on Camera
Yep – it’s weird. Yep, there’re lots of times when it’s inconvenient. You have to comb your hair. You’ll get busted if you start reading email during a meeting. You can’t make faces at your idiot boss. Get on camera. Just do it, enforce it. It’s not optional. It makes a ton of difference for both you and your customers. Don’t let the introverts off the hook with excuses.
Schedule a Chit Chat Meeting
Set up a regularly scheduled, unstructured “Chit Chat” meeting. Totally optional; allow folks to drop in and say hello. Share lunch. Discuss why baseball is the greatest sport ever invented. (it is, by the way.) Start a classic cake versus pie debate (it’s pie, duh).
Focus on Results
This one’s tricky and is arguably the most important on the list. Be clear with folks what results you expect from their work, and fixate less on the means. When in person, you can sort of pick up on how busy someone is, how well they’re working, and, well, supervise them. Remote work doesn’t allow for that… someone can go watch the Mandalorian at 2:00 pm and you’ll never be the wiser.
It’s important to make clear agreements, set objectives, and then hold your team accountable. A great benefit of working from home is that it effectively wipes out many forms of micromanagement.
A commonly held management belief is that people feel motivated to do their jobs if they have, among other qualities, autonomy. Embrace working from home, be a better boss, and give it to them.
After the Dust Settles…
I know the news is not great these days. It’s downright scary, and at the time of writing this post, I have no idea how it will all play out. I do hope we all remain healthy, safe, and can return to some sense of normalcy soon.
It serves as a very poor silver lining given the circumstances, but I will say, my team has benefitted from becoming practiced at working remotely. In a lot of ways, it has made us a better company. I bet it will for yours as well.
Scott is an expert in FileMaker and other technologies, with decades of software development and a lifelong love for inventing new apps. Deeply passionate about both project management and design. His family has deep roots in Colorado, he loves spending time in the mountains, and is an enthusiastic cook.