I have been working with distributed teams starting from 2015. Before this, for more than six years, I had been working in co-located ones. I see many articles and blogs with recommendations for the teams who need to move urgently from their open spaces to home offices. Most of them are reasonable, and 100% helpful. However, I’m missing some crucial accents and the key message: you already have everything you need.
There is nothing better than live communication. Even if someone invents full-size holograms like in science-fiction movies, it will not replace real interaction between people. Communication is not limited only to speech; we read a lot from body language, barely noticeable gestures, and how our teammates behave outside of the meeting room.
“After I switched to the home-office, my effectiveness and productivity increased in comparison with what I had in the open-space before”, — we can hear from the newly made remote workers.
I am sincerely glad for them. However, this change may well be rooted in the fact that they just had an immature culture of interaction when working side-by-side. Indeed, even if someone sits at the next table, it does not automatically mean that they can interrupt your flow whenever a brilliant idea comes to mind. In addition to that, local improvements for an individual does not imply the corresponding increase in the performance indicators on the team or whole organization levels. Local improvements can make the entire system performance even worse. Please refer to Eliyahu M. Goldratt and his theory of constraints (TOC), and especially his book “The Goal.”
If your people are used to working shoulder-by-shoulder in the office, after switching to the remote mode, the team’s effectiveness and productivity will definitely drop.
This is good news if you can recognize and accept this. First of all, it will correct your expectations. Secondly, when acknowledging the problem openly, the ways of its resolution become more apparent. What is more, you are not alone in this, and your team can help you.
It’s not time to complicate
When the situation around is more or less stable, you can calmly and thoroughly plan the transfer of your employees to the remote home-offices and fulfill the plan within one-two or three years, changing culture and organization bit by bit.
When the hell is around, and nobody realizes what is happening, the most reckless step would be to confuse your team more by introducing new processes, roles, and tools.
Your people have already found themselves in unusual, unclear, inconvenient circumstances. The best thing you could do is to keep the maximum of what they are used to while working in the office:
- Live communication. It is recovered by frequent joint calls. Video calls are better. They are supported by WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, which are likely to be installed on your teammate’s smartphones. So there is no need to explain how to use them because they are already in use.
- Chats in messengers. Group chats are supported by the same applications as above plus by a few popular ones like Telegram. These apps have versions for basically all the platforms you need: Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and web-versions for browsers.
- E-mail. Time-tested and the most common business tool. Everyone knows how to work with it from anywhere.
You already have everything you need. The remote work doesn’t require any special tools, which you are not aware of. It doesn’t require changes in organizational structure or implementation of new processes either.
If someone is used to attaching sticky notes to their monitor, let them do it in the same way. Task planning in the notepad? Welcome! A sheet of paper and a pencil can replace a flipchart or a whiteboard. You can easily digitize everything. Just take a picture via your smartphone and send it in an e-mail or drop it to a group chat.
As for management, then it can stay as straightforward as you can imagine. There are no special tricks here:
- Set the task, describe the expected result.
- Plan together, agree on the due date.
- Check the intermediate results regularly.
Making up for the gaps
You usually have many small talks and informal meetings during lunches, joint walks, in the office kitchen, or when occasionally meeting each other in the hall. You know, many useful chats happen in the smoke room. It is an often case when you see someone, it triggers you to ask how they are doing with some task. Common office areas give regular opportunities for such kinds of triggers. In addition to that, you see how people look, their mood, what they are doing, when they leave the office. Now, you have lost this luxury.
If you don’t stimulate communication, you’ll find your people in their bubbles soon. Bring all your creativity to re-create maxim your team had before. Joint lunches, small talks during a break, hobby clubs, smoke areas work online too. Just don’t be shy to organize them.
- Make them a minimum once a day. Typically teams do a joint sync-up / ”stand-up” / status meeting. Just follow that you don’t go beyond 10–15 mins. Usually, it’s possible if there are no more than 10 people on the call. Such joint calls help teammates feel that they are actually teammates and work together within the same team focusing on the same goals.
- Everybody should turn their camera on. Explicitly agree on this with your team. We (humans) interact more effectively when we see each other. Text messaging carries some information. The voice adds intonations to it, and we detect and take a lot from them. But when we see a face, we get even more: emotions, mimics, gestures. If someone is shy about their home environment, cats, or kids running around, my recommendation is to move a work desk so that the wall behind them would play the background role, which never gets anything extra.
- Organize meetings on non-business topics. People have a more vivid life than we can observe through the prism of work. When you work remotely, you typically join the call when it is scheduled. Usually, we schedule work meetings and thus lose those sudden small talks, which so often happen when people work together. Find a way to recreate them online. It can be a regular “Friday chat” meeting or a group chat where you can share your availability for such “small-talk” or “joint-lunch” or “time-break” chats. You can also “warm-up” for 10–15 minutes before the work meetings.
Since quite a noticeable part of direct synchronous communication will tend to move to instant messaging, you’ll need to provide the following minimum:
- Create general group chats, channels. There should be no more than 10 of such. Otherwise, it will be confusing. Create a flood-chat on top of that. People need a place where they can share cool videos, jokes, memes, and news. Legalize this channel.
- Avatars should be real. Let everyone set up the photo they like. This creates the effect of presence and improves the quality of text communication like the camera during a call. You see the face and feel the text better.
- Encourage the use of emojis. We use them on social networks and with our friends and families for a good reason. They help us imitate emotions which we are missing in dry text messages. Don’t be shy to use them with your teammates too.
In the office, you can see who is doing what. So you don’t get any concerns if someone is at the meeting, having lunch or talking to somebody else at the moment, or if they are sitting with their headphones on peering intently at the monitor (which means it’s better not to interrupt now).
Remote mode feels differently. You send a message and don’t get a response for a while. You try to call, but with no success again. It makes you frustrated. Your problem is certainly the most important and urgent one. You have no idea why it’s so difficult to respond. One more hour or two, and you are close to being angry, imagining how your teammate is messing around.
To avoid wrong expectations, they should be aligned with common agreements. They can be unified: everyone must be available from 9 am till 6 pm and must respond to the messages or call back within an hour. However, individual promises work better (yes, I would call them “promises”). It is important to publish them somewhere, so everyone is aware of them.
For instance, “Alex is available after 11 am because he can work effectively late in the evenings. He always responds to the messages within an hour. In case of urgency, please call his mobile phone number. He usually has lunch from 3 pm till 4 pm. He dives into programming after 7 pm, so the response time may increase.”
Another good practice is to write about your sudden unavailability to one of the group chats. For example, “I have an appointment at the hospital at 1 pm but should be back by 4 pm” or “Sorry guys, a pipe burst in my bathroom, I’m waiting for a plumber. I’ll update you right after we fix it.”
To make your people work remotely, you must ensure that they have everything from the technical perspective. The best way is to set up a call with everyone and personally check if they have remote access to the vital resources, applications, and shared document repositories. Help them cope with VPN and other security obstacles if you have such.
Make a list of the contacts which should be reached in case something falls or doesn’t work properly. You and your team must learn how to fix such issues quickly.
The Internet bandwidth must have a buffer, so children should not occupy it with YouTube or some music streaming services. If it is possible to buy an Internet package at max speed on a company dime — do it. Slow Internet makes us nervous and impacts work performance directly. The same is applicable to slow computers. These issues should be resolved first.
Do not skimp on a high-quality headset. Otherwise, joint calls will turn into a headache for all the participants.
Offices all around the world have more or less the same work conditions. Some facilities can have a more fancy interior, somewhere else you can find a gym or a ping-pong table, but nowadays, most of the time, we sit staring at the monitor, moving a mouse or index finger on the touchpad, and typing something on a keyboard. So, in fact, we all do the same thing at the same time (say hi to the herd instinct!)
Home is different. Everyone has their own unique context, and there is an infinitive number of family setups. Someone lives alone, another one has a husband or a wife, kids, or parents. This imposes limitations on the ability to work remotely.
You can demand someone’s availability from 9 am till 6 pm as it is stated in the employment contract, but if a three-year-old kid is yelling nearby, neither the penalty nor the threat of dismissal will change the situation.
The right strategy is to discover the conditions your people have and help them find the most appropriate schedule. If spouses have a single laptop they have to share, or one of them needs to look after the children while the other one works, they can do it in intervals of 2–3 hours or in a day or two.
The traditional border between work and home is so deeply integrated into our mindset that it’s not easy to ignore it when you need to work from home. Home is associated with rest, dinner, free time with your family. This mental anchor is a real problem at the beginning. You want to pull, but it holds you back. You must literally force yourself to work when you are at home. It is always difficult to change habits.
If you want your brain to switch to the work-mode easier and faster — use right conditioned reflexes.
- Ideally, you turn one of your rooms into a work-room. If you don’t have such a luxury in your apartment, make a work-corner. Hide everything that can distract: musical instruments, books, TV. Sit so that you can’t see a sofa or a bed. They are very attractive and invite you to take a break every time you see them.
- Agree with your family when they shouldn’t interrupt your flow. It can be a particular time frame, a door closed, headphones on your head. If it seems that the agreement doesn’t work, then just calmly repeat it again. They also have their “old” reflexes still triggered: you are at home, which means that you are not at work. It takes a few reps to get used to it.
- Dress in “work” clothes. Wear a watch, apply makeup. Do everything that you typically do before you go to the office. Despite the vast number of jokes around this topic, this natural hint really works. In this sense, we are not very different from Pavlov’s Dog.
It’s much easier to focus on the task when you are at the office. Environment helps. Probably you felt the same in a co-working or a library. Everyone was working on something, and this positive herd instinct was driving you to act.
Remote work requires a higher level of self-discipline. Many find the Pomodoro approach very helpful: 25 mins of work rotate with 5 mins of a short break and 15 mins of a long break after several iterations. The method, in fact, is what we all had at school: after the ring of the bell, you are already prepared for the next 45 mins of hard work, but after that, you’ll be absolutely free for 10 mins doing anything you want.
There are tons of free apps for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS with these Pomodoro-timers.
Trust and result
There is a common fear that people work less or even keep hands in pockets when they are remote. This is where micro-management often arises with the paranoiac tendency to follow every step.
First of all, let’s be honest with ourselves. Switching to the remote mode, most of us will indeed work less at the beginning. It’s not because we are terrible idlers, but due to the objective reasons considered above.
Remote work at home is not the same as at the office. It requires other habits, which demand some time for them to be developed.
Secondly (let’s stay honest), even if somebody is in the office in front of their computers, it doesn’t automatically mean that they work 100% of the time there. I met individuals who spent hours watching comics and videos on Youtube, just switching windows when their manager went by.
That’s why I’m sure that the way to enhance the supervision of your remote workers is hopeless. It will not help to resolve your real business tasks but certainly will provide you and your team with additional stress. Well, let’s say you get to know that one of your teammates works three hours a day instead of eight. So what? Fire them? Will it help you with your business goals?
The number of hours spent on a chair is getting less and less important for the remote-mode. The result is what we should shift our focus to. Let your people find their own ways to reach the business goals considering their own individual context.
Trust is always paired with the personal responsibility of the teammates. First of all, it is a responsibility for yourself. You’re responsible for forcing yourself to do what you are not used to, for improving your personal discipline and that of your family members, for planning your day considering all your specific dependencies, for not being afraid to report on any difficulties (which will undoubtedly happen) before they turn into any serious issues for the whole team. This attitude must be explained and demonstrated by example.
You can find many articles describing special life hacks for distributed teams. However, in my experience, the interaction culture does not depend on how far the teammates are from each other. The culture is based on respect and always supports interactions in the same way.
- Put your mic on mute if you don’t speak. The same is applicable when you are in the meeting room. You shouldn’t distract someone speaking, so we are quiet.
- Don’t speak together with somebody else at the same time, thus turning the call into a mess. It is known as “a raised hand” rule for traditional offline meetings.
- If there are many participants on the call, you need a moderator. It is exactly the same when you have a crowd of people in a single meeting room.
- Share your screen if you lead a discussion. Visualize as much as you can using any drawing tool you like. That will increase the chances that all the participants leave the call with shared understanding. We actually do the same using flip charts and whiteboards on offline meetings.
- Capture meeting notes during the call. Send them via email, or in a group chat, or upload them to your wiki after. The meeting isn’t worth much without clear and agreed outcomes.
Chats and e-mail
- If a chat looks like a ping-pong match, suggest having a call. Respect each other’s time spent on typing. The thing is that only a few people can accurately express their thoughts through the text. Most probably, you misinterpret what your teammate is trying to say.
- Mute all the automatic notifications for the group chats. Remote mode implies more asynchronous interactions, so the number of messages will increase. Notifications distract, you lose focus and context, which might result in less productivity.
- Try the “Do not disturb” mode when you need to work hard on something. It mutes all the notifications and helps to stay focused.
Tools should fix specific dysfunctions
If you decide to introduce a new tool for your team because most of the distributed teams use it, you will likely move in the wrong direction. Especially in the case if this tool is distributed with a monthly subscription. The desire to use the maximum of its functions if you pay for it every month will be hard to overcome. Imagine if a man gets a tool kit with 50 pieces. He needs a screwdriver and a spanner but has to find an application of other instruments as well. Weird, right? But this is how it typically works if someone starts from the tool, but not from the problem to resolve.
As I have already mentioned before, management can function brilliantly, even if it stays super straightforward and simple. You can do it without fancy apps. Tasks, result expectations, and due dates can be set up via e-mail. Progress can be checked on the calls, and current status can be collected and kept in any spreadsheet like Excel or Google Spreadsheet. To support this vital process, you don’t really need boards in Trello, Slack for messaging, and Zoom for the video-calls. More popular Skype works well enough. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Another thing is if you and your team are faced with specific organizational dysfunctions that are poorly addressed by the tools you have at hand.
Is it difficult to understand who is doing what while many things are happening around? Is the overall team progress down to the goals not very clear? Well, visualization via virtual Kanban-boards usually helps in this case. They are supported by products like Trello. Columns in such a board are statuses, and the tasks (cards) are moving between them. At a glance, you can quickly define how you are doing in terms of the whole team. Besides Trello, such boards are supported in all popular teamwork tools: Jira, Redmine, Miro, Notion, Kaiten.
With no flipcharts or whiteboards at hand, meetings get poor. Any visualization is a powerful thing to complement text or voice. That’s why don’t be shy about using the most straightforward tools like Microsoft Paint drawing there with your mouse or a touchpad. If you are used to a marker pen, buy a pen tablet. I use Wacom Intuos S. It works perfectly with Microsoft OneNote (free), which represents, in fact, an unlimited virtual sheet of paper. You can draw on it as you do on a flipchart or a whiteboard and add text inserts.
Another drawing tool that I use very often is Draw.io (free). This is an online tool that allows you to create almost any diagrams like Use Cases, Process, or Sequence Diagrams. Wireframes (UI mockups) are also supported.
If WhatsApp, Telegram, or Viber doesn’t fit your requirements for some reason, consider a free, open-source Rocket Chat. It is a worthy alternative for the popular Slack.
You can use Skype for video calls. Other popular alternatives are Google Hangouts and Zoom. All these apps support screen sharing.
Even if you are great guys who capture all the meeting notes and distribute them via email or share them in the group chats, you may find it challenging to find needed information after a while. It’s like: “I do remember that we agreed on this, but I looked through all the related chats and email chains, ran my day into the ground, but didn’t find the agreement.”
The issue is solved by the wiki-like tools. Among them is Confluence, Redmine, Wiki, Notion. Essentially, it is an organized set of web pages which you and your team incrementally create to store agreements, the decisions made, and other info that can be used in the future. The knowledge base can be built free, using text documents in a shared repository by smartly organizing the folder structure.
Pareto on a remote
“Finally, he shared some practical things!” — can say someone silently. I can reply to this. I described the techniques and tools at the very end intentionally because their implementation will give you 20% of improvement at best. In a worst-case scenario, it may lead to a negative result, because any changes generate more uncertainty.
It’s easy to fall for a promising marketing text, which perfectly describes some great tool specially designed for distributed teams. It’s not so difficult to buy or subscribe to this tool, expecting that everything will self-organize somehow with it. It is quite common that you may want to shift or release responsibility for actions when the next steps and their consequences are not clear. But you must realize that it will likely pull your team away from a positive outcome.
80% of the positive effect is hidden behind establishing reliable communication and providing your people with the necessary working conditions at their home-offices. Help them to elaborate on their individual schedules and assist in developing new habits. These are the very 20% that you should focus on with your team right now.
I wish you good luck, and I hope that the experience of remote work will not scare you and your team off. I believe that remote work is the future.
Alex Postnikov (https://www.linkedin.com/in/aspostnikov/) — remote teams manager, consultant and coach