For a lot of people, this is the very first time they are working from home. Some newly-remote workers have kids, others have pets, and others are completely by themselves. At 409 Co, we're lucky enough to have been a completely remote and distributed team since the beginning. So, the context of "stay at home" is pretty normal for us. We've completely built our operations around remote work so we understand how to telework and stay accountable. What I've not been seeing in a lot of this conversation is, how do you manage a remote team?
For every person who is working from home, there is at least one person who they report to. Normally, those conversations would have happened at round table meetings or office chats. As a manager, you could generally assume someone was working because they were in the office. But now, that's not the case. Here are some tips that I've learned on how to keep your team engaged, happy, and sane during this time of uncertainty.
You're probably already using Slack, email, and a variety of other project management tools to communicate with your team and keep your projects organized. Keep it up, but amplify it and encourage it! There's no question, it's important to ensure everyone is on track with what's going on and feels comfortable to reach out for clarification. However, when you're not working together in the same space, it becomes unclear how much work one person or another is doing. Sometimes that causes people to feel resentment towards other members of their team thinking they're not pulling their weight. Encourage updates and celebrate small accomplishments where people can express the work they're doing in order to keep everyone feeling like all the members of your remote team are pulling their weight. Many project management tools have an integration with Slack to auto-generate daily summaries of completed work.
The most isolating part of remote work (even in times of none self-isolation/quarantine) is missing out on the casual conversations. In an office space, people get to talk walking in between meetings, while getting tea, making lunch, etc. No one gets the opportunity for when you're only communicating through screens. You can help combat this by setting up a #random channel in Slack. A #random channel for your (newly) remote team allows them to post memes, little quips, photos, whatever! That's the point, it's random for the random points of conversation that people have during the typical day in office.
A "Work Sesh", to the 409 Co team, are times when all we do is hop on a Google Meet and just get work done together. I know other people that call these "Virtual Power Hours", but ours aren't as intense as the traditional power hour model. It's fine to have your phone, get distracted, and talk about non-work related topics. The idea stemmed out of missing the days in college when you would just go to the library, a cafe, or section of campus with friends and work together. I might've been working on a Spanish paper, while a friend could've been finishing up their Econ question set. We didn't need to be working on the same thing or even talking that much, but the intention is always to get work done. Offer one for your remote team and give people the opportunity to be productive, but not alone.
This is the one I typically get the most eye rolls and shocked looks for. At 409 Co we dedicate 30% of the time at the beginning of every meeting to just talk and catch up. Since our team is scattered all over the world, a lot can happen in our lives between one meeting and another. We found that no one wanted to get to know each other when we made every time that our team was together only focused on the tasks at hand. By doing so, we encouraged an environment where people dreaded being involved. Instead, we implemented the 30% rule and gave our team members something to look forward to - connection. Our meetings are more efficient and enjoyable. In fact, our remote team is actually excited about our All Hands calls.
This tip isn't about accountability or making sure everyone is paying attention. I included this because it's especially important in remote meetings the team is present. It's so crucial to be able to read the subtle context clues that come from someone's eyes and facial expressions. You want to see your team members laugh and smile because that will make you laugh and smile (which is something we all need in times like this). On the other hand, you want to see expressions of disgust and address those as they come up. Shipra Kayan in her Distributed 2019 talk explained that she encourages all the participants of her calls to turn on Do Not Disturb or airplane mode on their devices to minimize distractions.
Note: the only exception to camera rule is wifi signal. If someone's wifi isn't great, they should turn their camera off to ensure that their thoughts and ideas are getting across as clear as possible. (and by the next meeting they should find better wifi).
In conclusion, managing a remote team doesn't mean that all of a sudden you're going to be stuck with people not doing their work. It certainly doesn't mean that there has to be a decline in productivity. But, while we're all adjusting to this time of work from home, please make sure to care for the mental health of your team. Feelings of isolation can be devastating. Be patient with your teams, communicate with them, and give them time to adjust.
The last thing I want to say is, to everyone asking me, "how do you do this?" "How do you work from home all the time?" My response is always the same, "there is a big difference between WFH when you have freedom of mobility and now. This isn't WFH, this is work from where it's responsible."