With COVID-19, better known as the Coronavirus, spreading around the world, there has been an increasing number of businesses telling team members to work from home or not to travel to meet with colleagues, partners, or clients. Working remotely, when done improperly, can harm a company’s productivity, effectiveness, and culture, and with a potential global recession looming, these are consequences that no company can currently afford. Today, we will share a guide for quickly implementing a remote work environment the right way. It’s based on years of experience and will highlight some of the not so obvious learnings we’ve had along our journey of working remotely.
Our professional services company, over 100 team members strong, has been 100% remote with no fixed office spaces for almost five years. Another company we admire, Invision, has more than 800 employees and is very successfully working as a fully remote company. We’re part of a growing trend of virtual companies that have proven this model can not only work but can be a competitive advantage.
Shifting your organization to be an effective Remote Work environment falls into four key areas of focus: communication, tools, new ways of working, and culture.
Communicating A Shift To Remote Work
Whether this was a shift you were planning, or you now have to react to Coronavirus rapidly, the first step should always be clear communication from leadership. Working from home could last a week, or it could last several months. Take advantage of this moment to better equip your company to work remotely for the long term. Your initial email should go out company-wide and should include a follow up invite to a company-wide training session on how to work remotely and best practices for working with other remote workers.
During any period of transition, your team will look to managers and key influencers for guidance and support. your managers and key influencers must be given the first round of training, get them on board and excited, and direct them to help drive new behaviors within the organization and lead the change.
The key message to communicate is that as a company, you will be doing a significant amount of business remotely. to be successful, every team member is going to have to get comfortable with a new set of tools, new processes, and new methods to be productive as a team. Because this change ultimately impacts how your team works together, versus as an individual, it’s vital that they understand that this isn’t about working from home, but about re-thinking the way that they work so that remote work can be just as productive and fulfilling as working in person. When any one person fails to adopt these new ways of working, it becomes far more evident than in a traditional environment.
Video Communication Is Essential
The first crucial step in strong remote work culture is having the team adopt a fanatical adoption of and commitment to video conferencing. Although this may seem like a “nice to have” feature, it’s a critical factor in success. Human beings, ultimately, feel more connected when we can see each other. Whether we realize it or not, vast portions of how we communicate come through our body language, eye contact, and other forms of nonverbal communication. We recommend video calls leveraging Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype for Business, not just for group meetings, but every one-on-one chat between team members.
When remote workers connect via video, it’s amazing how quickly we forget that we’re remotely connected. At our annual company, in-person gathering, we frequently find ourselves saying that we forget it’s the first time we’ve met many of our co-workers in person because we’re so used to seeing each other.
Also, we have found that in today’s hyper-connected world that many workers struggle to refrain from multitasking. Being on camera typically makes team members more-present, which ultimately leads to more effective communication.
The critical challenge to this being effective and widely adopted can be thrown off by one or two challenged team members struggling with technology issues. To ensure that this is effective, make sure that every team member has high-speed internet access, a functional webcam, and a good microphone and headset. We recommend issuing out a standardized USB headset with a noise-canceling microphone to avoid the lone users that cause echoing, feedback loops, or muffled audio that can cause any meeting to break down.
Simultaneously, for your on-site staff, make sure that conference rooms are properly equipped with essential equipment. Although it’s sometimes hard to get video set up well in a conference room environment, the audio must work well. Dialing in for audio on the standard conference system and also connecting via a computer for video can sometimes be tedious and time-consuming. We recommend this excellent and inexpensive conference room speaker be added to meeting rooms to make sure every person can both hear and be heard. You may want to use double-sided tape to stop them from wandering around the office too easily.
If you truly want remarkable remote work experience, we recommend The Meeting Owl. It connects to a laptop or video conferencing software and is instantly recognized as your webcam, speaker, and microphone, but with a twist. It sits in the middle of the room, and its unique 360-degree design offers an exceptional omnidirectional microphone, a powerful speaker, and, most importantly, a camera system that automatically puts whoever is speaking in focus on the screen. If you have a lot of people working remotely and want them to feel very engaged with another large group that is together in one place, then this is a game-changer. We’re so passionate about this device’s impact that we keep one at the company and loan it to our clients so that they can see the impact first hand.
Quickly Implement These Remote Working Basic Tools
Although collaborative office productivity software like Google’s GSuite or Microsoft Office 365 are becoming the norm increasingly, many office workers fall back to old habits. These can include emailing attachments to each other or working with on-site file servers versus working on files in cloud storage like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. For those of us that have worked with in-office file servers with mapped drives that are as easy to access as an additional hard-drive that concept has been replaced within Gsuite and Office 365 with similar concepts. Each platform has introduced software that makes their cloud-based drives appear as local network file servers but without the complication of VPNs or other obstructions that IT would have historically mandated. The new approach makes it much easier to collaborate.
Encourage your team members to focus on leveraging cloud-based documents that multiple team members can access, edit, and collaborate on simultaneously. This reduces the chances of confusion and should speed the completion of documents that require multiple people to complete. Work with managers to have them create folder structures for cloud drives that are easy for teams to understand when storing or accessing documents in a collaborative environment. Push managers to get their teams to upload relevant documents into the cloud as a best practice. Over time, you’ll discover that this behavior inherently creates more collaboration regardless of whether you’re remote or on-site.
Finally, implement a company-wide business chat platform. If you’re on Google, we recommend implementing Slack versus their internal tools. If you’re using Office 365 then Microsoft Teams is very effective. These tools, unlike the one-to-one messenger apps each of use every day, are truly designed to foster collaboration and broader communication within companies. Channels, one of the key concepts in these tools, are designed to act like focused chat rooms around very specific subjects. For example, you could create a channel around your entire marketing team to discuss broader department-wide initiatives or a more focused channel around your website that only involves the key team members who are working on that initiative. The goal of these platforms is to get your team less focused on never-ending email threads that can struggle to scale or make sense over time and instead create focused conversations that others can easily scan and catch-up on to stay informed.
When used correctly, the combination of video conferencing, collaborative productivity tools, and a well organized company-wide chat platform can super-charge your organization. These produce highly productive, collaborative teammates that are very in sync with each other – frequently even more so than a team that sits together, but is not highly coordinated.
Over-Communication Is Key To This New Way of Working
In a remote work environment, it is not unusual for workers or managers to question another person’s productivity if they don’t have visibility into their activities. That’s why we stress that remote-workers need to be over-communicative in letting their peers and managers understand their output. For some workers, being vocal and drawing attention to yourself is uncomfortable but in a remote working environment, it’s key that workers push through this feeling and make sure that their managers and their peers understand what they’re working on. Overcommunication may ensure that everyone on the team is confident that each team member is productive and working in the same direction, but it has an additional byproduct, collaboration, and productivity increases.
Another effective practice that can help, especially in fast-moving businesses, is a daily “stand-up”. This concept is taken from Scrum style software development but can be useful in any org. It requires that each team member “stand-up” and share what work they completed since the last meeting, what they’re actively focused on now, and if they have any impediments to completing those tasks. By its nature, over-communication and the concept of doing a “stand-up” is aligned to delivering outcomes and holding people accountable to their own word.
We have been told by many of our colleagues that they feel more connected and in-sync with their co-workers than they have at prior traditional roles where they went to an office every day. We attributed this to a strong culture of over-communication.
Running Great Virtual Meetings
Shifting to a culture of video conference focused meetings doesn’t happen overnight, but adopting some of these best practices can really help. As mentioned earlier, ensuring that the team members have reliable basic video conferencing equipment and tools is a foundational step but understanding how to collaborate virtually is key.
For group meetings, require that all attendees, if possible, join via video. This helps everyone feel connected, but most importantly, it shows that people are mentally present and focused. Make sure everyone understands how to screen-share and when relevant, share collaborative documents with team members in the meeting. Being able to work on one document as a group is efficient and effective. If some team members weren’t able to join the meeting, then share a recording of the meeting in the relevant Slack or Microsoft Team’s channel for others to review later. These are simple acts that require little or no effort once you learn to adopt the tools that make a significant difference for collaborative teams.
We have found that the vast majority of meetings can be completed in 30 minutes and that dropping the length of the meetings gets all participants more focused on achieving an outcome in the allotted time slot. Since you may need to connect with more people virtually during the day, these shorter more focused meetings leave more time to execute tasks or have quick meetings with other team members, if needed.
Finally, we recommend focusing on “working sessions” versus meetings when possible. Some meetings are designed to share information and bring consensus. Still, when working with colleagues to complete tasks, we find it’s very productive to bring multiple team members together to sit in a virtual meeting where we all work on our respective tasks to complete a broader initiative. This is comparable to sitting in a room to work with your colleagues. Just knowing that you can quickly discuss things in real-time while all potentially working on the same collaborative document can force entire teams to rally towards completing a project faster on a tighter deadline. It’s also a fun way to interact with colleagues and fosters a deeper collaborative culture.
Remote Work Culture Can Be Just As Strong As Office Culture
In our experience, remote work culture promotes some of the best parts of a company’s culture while avoiding some of the pitfalls of traditional companies.
When this is implemented properly it will help foster trust among employees, pride in their work, and a shared sense of accountability and accomplishment. We find that team members build strong personal relationships by collaborating and have increased respect for their co-workers through a deeper understanding of what they do via over-communication.
It also gives team members more time for themselves, their loved ones, and their activities which helps people to deal with the stresses of work in a more productive manner. Healthy and happy team members tend to be more productive and more focused during their work hours. Most don’t want to lose the privilege of working remotely and will make the extra effort to maintain that privilege.
Our company still gathers together as a whole once per year over a two day period. We use it to discuss some of our most meaningful challenges, but also to spend quality time together with colleagues from across the country. If you’re adopting a remote working culture, we still recommend you find ways to gather as a group annual or semi-annually at a minimum. You can also encourage groups to meet up for a monthly cocktail hour, dinner, or other activity on their own time. These are not company events, cost the company nothing, but continue to foster culture. Because teammates don’t see each other every day in the traditional sense, we have noticed that these events generally get a high turnout.
Remote Work Can Transform Your Business
Although you may be reading this post deciding on how to deal with the current Coronavirus crisis, there is a silver lining. Remote work works! Adopting the best practices of remote work will make your team better communicators and collaborators regardless of whether they’re in a physical office or not. Making every member of the team effective at working remotely also makes teams more conscious of how to work with other online team members and even third-party partners or vendors.
Whether your company’s future is 100% remote or some hybrid of on-site and remote, these practices will modernize your organization and make it more resilient to emergencies while minimizing risks to your company’s productivity.