Last week I wrote up some quick tips on using zoom for remote work meetings, but I also wanted to write up some suggestions about remote work in general. As a disclaimer, I've been working 100% remote for around 18 months. Before that, I worked in your typical “open plan” office settings. The following is based on my experience and research, I don't claim to be an expert on remote work and I'll include links to some helpful resources if you want to dig further. I also work as a software developer which is undoubtedly one of the easier roles to perform remotely, I don't pretend to have answers for more collaborative occupations.
This is Not Normal
With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world right now, pretty much everyone who can work from home is working from home (or at least, you should be). What employees and employers both have to understand here is that this is not normal. Don't expect everyone to be 100% productive right now. Everyone is under a lot of stress, some will have young children at home, others will have relatives they need to care for; even if people were able to come into an office as usual productivity would be down due to all this extra stress.
Moving to remote work, and suddenly, can be a drastic change for all involved, but even those of us who have been working remotely before this will tell you that these are not what normal “work-from-home” environments look like.
That aside, there are some things you can do to help ease the transition to full remote work, at least in the short term.
Favour Asynchronous Communication
Now that you're working remotely, forget about 9-5. Don't get me wrong, you need to communicate and you need to be online at the same time to do it, but don't expect everyone to be punching the clock at the same time. Give people some flexibility with their time (that is assuming you don't already).
Part of this means moving to favour asynchronous forms of communication (e.g. email). This has a lot of benefits. For one, people have a chance to read over the information when it is most suitable for them and they have time to consider alternatives, questions, or points for further discussion. In a ‘traditional’ office environment, many discussions happen in a back-and-forth manner simply because it is easy to grab everyone into a meeting room, not necessarily because it is the best way to discuss the topic.
Dissemination vs Discussion
On the way to asynchronous work, you'll want to start developing a sense of when a piece of information requires dissemination, and when it requires discussion. Company announcements, strategic decisions, project roadmaps, and many more things could fall into the ‘dissemination’ category. In the past these may have been done with various in-person meetings, so the natural inclination is to turn these into in-person virtual meetings. However, these are often ways to disseminate information to a group (company, team, etc) and do not require any output from those involved. Meetings that are meant only to spread information with little or no discussion are an ideal candidate for email.
Discussions, on the other hand, may warrant real-time meetings. If a lot of consideration and long-form proposals are required, an email chain may be best. For quickly hashing something out, perhaps real-time chat (text). If you find (or expect) a lot of short back-and-forth clarification is going to happen then voice or video chat is a natural choice. This naturally leads us to the concept of ‘bandwidth’.
In remote communication you see the following hierarchy of ‘bandwidth’, that is, how much information can be conveyed ina given timeframe:
- Video + audio
- Audio only
- Realtime chat
- Email / Asynchronous communication
By default, I'd start at the bottom and work my way up. This doesn't necessarily mean to step through each rung of the ladder, but when thinking about which one to choose I would start from the bottom.
Email is something of a special case, as this is what you would do for disseminating information (mentioned earlier or if you do not require a quick response.
Text-based real-time chat is the most common communication. A lot of team communication, at least for software development companies, is short discussions or question-and-response dialogues. If you need to debug a problem, or maybe you expect some run-on questions (a project manager checking in on team members, for example) then an audio call is often faster and more efficient.
A lot of human in-person communication happens through non-verbal signals (body language, facial expression, etc). I think this is why a lot of teams that are used to in-person communication tend to default to video calls as the stand-in solution. As the team becomes more used to remote work, however, you may want to transition away from video as it is often more convenient for people to talk without having a camera on, angled correctly, etc. I've been working 100% remotely for almost 18 months and I could count on one hand the number of video calls I've had during that time.
Regardless of what software you use, large virtual calls are a bad experience for all involved. The inherent lag in the system makes large group discussion painful with people talking over each other or cutting each other off. Personally, I'd feel doubtful about having a discussion call with any more than around 5-6people. If your company is used to having large meetings I'd suggest you ask yourself these three questions:
- Is this meeting really necessary?
- Do all these people contribute to the meeting?
- Do all these people need to receive this information right now?
There are some exceptions to the “small meeting” rule that can make it work, basically by following one of these rules:
- Only a small number of people are in the discussion (everyone else just listens), or
- The meeting structure is highly regulated, everyone knows who is speaking and when
“All hands” type meetings can use both rules (my current company has a weekly all-hands where everyone is present but only department heads speak, and they do so in a pre-defined order). Another one is something like a standup meeting, in our daily meetings we have around 10-12 on my team and we cycle through alphabetically so each person knows when their turn to speak is coming up.
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Over-Communication (In a Good Way)
Assuming you move more of your communication to be written (which has other benefits too), be aware that writing is not the same as speaking. Writing often does not convey the tone or emotion that you would have used if you were speaking. In simple terms, a written sentence will be read as harsher than the spoken equivalent. This can be particularly true if your team culture has humour or sarcasm as an ingredient. Lines meant to tease can be read as insulting. Comments meant as helpful critique can be taken personally. The main solution to this is just to write with this in mind, and also a generous helping on things like emojis can help show if you mean things to be joking or friendly.
The other thing about remote work is that others cannot watch over you. This means that if you don't tell your boss/project-manager/team-mates/whoever what you are doing, they will not know what you are doing. Blocked by something? Make sure people know that. Working on something difficult and need time to think? Make sure people know that too.
Default to Trust
The common refrain of new-to-remote-work managers is “how do I know my employees are working if I can't see them?” The obvious answer here is “You don't.” The more detailed answer is two-fold, firstly just because someone is sitting in a chair within your sight does not mean they are working. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if you have employees who will not do their work without being monitored, you're either a micro-manager setting themselves up for disaster (even without the remote work aspect), or a school teacher.
Assume everyone wants to do their job and is trying their best in the current circumstances.
On a more personal note, it is easy to overlook the things we get automatically when we have to work in an office: You see other people, even if briefly. You might get some air or sunshine, even if only in the car. Remote work does not exclude these, but it does mean you'll need to be more deliberate about them, particularly with the current wave of social distancing in many parts of the world, broken down a bit more:
Remote work means you will not get the “watercooler” or lunch-table chat with your colleagues that might normally occur. Depending on your workplace you can either work this into your schedule (i.e. small ‘coffee groups’ to chat about non-work items, video lunch groups, online gaming together, etc). Another point is to be more deliberate to contact any social groups you have outside work: family, sports clubs, churches, etc.
Sunshine & Outdoors
Try to get some sunshine during the day, and ideally get outside and breath in some fresh air. This doesn't have to be a lot, even just walking to the letterbox or the end of the street and back can be enough to uplift your mood.
I won't pretend to be an avid exerciser myself, but neither can I deny that it is a well-known way to improve your mood and reduce depression.
While a lot of this post is informed by my experience working remotely, it also includes pieces I have picked up from other sources. Here's a list in case you want to dig into remote work more deeply:
- Remote by the team at Basecamp, a great primer on how to make remote work feasible
- Remote Q&A Pt 1, Remote Q&A Pt 2 episodes of the Rework podcast by Basecamp about how they manage remote work (about 1 hour each)
- Buffer Stories about remote work. Buffer has been remote for a long time and have posts going back several years on how they manage it.