Given the COVID-19 crisis, most companies that can have shifted to temporary work from home policy. While about a quarter of those companies are likely already adept at working remotely — at least to some degree. The rest are completely new to this way of working and it’s not an easy shift. I’d like to share a few tips from our experience working with remote-first companies and across distributed teams.
With software development work, it’s easy to ship code using just a laptop and internet connection. Where remote collaboration starts to break down fast is at the input level: “Can you hear me….let me try, oh Jenny can you repeat that?”… and around we go…
Of course, step one is a decent internet connection. Not much can be done if there’s an unreliable internet connection. That’s the prerequisite for all the advice that follows.
Make sure team members have a headset with a boom microphone so voices come through loud and clear and a working video camera to see faces and gestures. Headsets don’t have to be expensive to be effective.
Protip: avoid omnidirectional microphones which will pick up far more background noise. Here’s a headset many Carbon Five employees prefer.
Meeting face-to-face is different from screen-to-screen. The gestures and nonverbal cues one uses to orchestrate an in-person meeting lose some of their impact in the virtual universe.
At Carbon Five, we’ve made it the meeting owner’s responsibility to manage question flow and order. We’ve also developed several conventions around meetings when we’re on a distributed team. For example, we always have an agenda and we raise hands for questions and comments which prevents voluble folks from dominating the conversation.
Some teams also have a rule where if one person is remote, the whole team jumps on separate video calls to keep things equal.
Protip: some online meeting tools like Zoom have built-in features for hand-raising which makes managing larger meetings easier.
If you’re not already using an internet relay chat (IRC) tool, like Slack, I recommend you invest in one. When your team is remote, you can’t rely on email to communicate. Email is too time-consuming and difficult to follow a conversation there.
Here are some example use cases for which instant communication is awesome:
I know some companies only use instant messaging for the tech team. I don’t like this model because it fosters isolation and increases overhead of inter-department collaboration. If you’re considering shifting temporarily to a remote policy, I recommend opening up your internet chat tool to the broader company.
If you’re not already doing some type of daily check-in you should start. Remote work can feel lonesome, especially if your team isn’t used to this method of working. Having a daily standup keeps the team connected to their colleagues and the work at hand.
My team has individual standups for each of their projects, yet we still do a weekly office standup to check in as a larger group. And we’ve been staying connected through a variety of virtual events including tea time, happy hours, thematic days. We also did an early reflection on our remote experience to troubleshoot issues and generate solutions.
Some employees don’t have the personal space at home to work effectively and will be encumbered by a sudden shift to that way of work. Be upfront with the current window for this new policy and help employees find solutions to their home challenges. Perhaps it’s flexing on work hours to get around a pesky roommate or providing noise-canceling headphones (hem-hem, speaking from real experience with a certain needy cat). You can’t control employee environments, but you can coach reports to overcome impediments.
If you’re struggling with the shift to remote — and believe me you’re not alone — try running a retro about working from home to understand where the biggest pain points are and collectively generate solutions to resolve them. We have a free tool called Stickies that makes the process super easy! And feel free to reach out to us via our office hours if you have any questions.