On Monday 16 March 2020, the setup of our company changed forever. The previous day, the President had declared a state of disaster. As a company, we decided to “strongly encourage” working remotely immediately. On Monday afternoon, most of us packed up our things, not knowing how long it would be before things returned back to normal. Weeks? Months?
As a company, we were fortunate that we were immediately able to be highly productive. Here are a few lessons learnt over the past few months that have helped enable this.
When working remotely, body language and other physical queues are non existent. This means that one can’t keep inferring and assuming in the same way one may have previously in an office environment. It’s important to keep teammates in the loop, even if it does mean stating the obvious on many occasions. It may not be so obvious to all.
Stick to a schedule
A better word for this may be “rhythm”. Are there set days and times for standups, team and management meetings? A lot of the informal, yet extremely valuable, conversations that occur naturally in an office environment, fall away. When working remotely, one needs to compensate for a loss of these ad hoc conversations and rely more on scheduled meetings.
Keep the culture alive
Our company culture is important to us. We speak about one of our values in our monthly company briefings, we write about it in internal memos, we have the values plastered on pillars in our office and we hire (and work with) people that fit into our values. Since working remotely, some of the things we have done to foster this are:
- A post by a team member each day, giving us a report, often with pictures, on their life: how they are doing, the good, the challenges and then nominating someone else for the next day. We seem to have a lot of bakers in our company!
- Keeping up our monthly company feedback, with a posts on the overall status of the company, drilling into divisions, ending off with a post on a value as well as the nominees and winner of “employee of the month”
- We have kept up and even ramped up our learning / training sessions, presented by our senior people
Rely on your systems
As a company, you did not previously have good internal systems and processes, but managed to work around it through physical proximity and meetings, you would now be exposed. Conversely, if your systems and processes were sound, then working remotely (for a service based company such as us) should not (and for us, did not) pose a problem at all. Again, due to no physical queues or ad hoc meetings, our systems became even more important. Jira (with many of the optional extras), Bitbucket and Slack are the three most important systems, with the former two being accompanied by strong workflows and processes. Strong systems and processes mean that physical distance between team members, to a certain extent, becomes irrelevant.
Trust your people
One of our team members, in a daily post, told a story of how her dad was shocked that we would just let her go and work from the Eastern Cape, asking “how do they know that you are doing your work”? Her response was a smile and “Dad….”.
I find that by trusting people, and letting them know you trust them, most will not abuse that trust. It also boils down to the culture of the company. If the company values trustworthiness, leadership and being accountable, then trusting the team to work remotely is not a big leap of faith at all.
Help people succeed
There should be no silly blockers to effective remote working. Do what you can to talk to the individuals and see where you can help. Do they have chairs, workstations/laptops etc? We allowed our staff members to take from the office what they needed, in order to setup their work environment at home.
If anything, the productivity of our company has shot up. Undoubtedly, many of us are working longer hours and struggling to separate work and life. If your work space is next to your bedroom it does become hard to distance yourself from work.
However, being “always on” is detrimental to the individual and will eventually affect the quality of their work and life. We all need to work out for ourselves how to best deal with this. Working remotely is a reality that is here to stay. Even when we reopen the office, I will personally not go in every day in the way I used to. I will certainly spend time at the office, for those meetings, whether ad-hoc or not, and physical queues, but this will not be a daily occurrence.
This hybrid approach will be true for many people and the environment will thank us for it. Less travel, less traffic and less pollution. This may well be the one long term positive effect coming out of this crisis.