It seems there have been thousands of internet blogs and Facebook posts giving advice on remote work from people that have been working remotely for less than a week – such is the internet, so why not add to the noise with my opinions too?
I don’t want to give the impression that remote work is rocket science or that I am any kind of expert, I will gladly admit that I have muddled through this last couple of years and have learned far more from my mistakes and ill-founded assumptions than through careful planning or education. However, I like to think that I have grown and learned a few things along the way.
Remote working is far more nuanced and complex than people realize and there is an awful lot of good intentions and bad advice out there. The news organizations are even worse, the BBC had an article recently that I think must have been written 20 years ago about remote work and dragged out and polished up and presented as advice, it looked like it was written by someone that had never actually worked from home and was just a series of stereotypes on home working.
A very brief history of our experience. Two years ago I was asked to create a remote office for our software consultancy division. The goal was to enable us to recruit more software delivery teams and grow the company more quickly. The constraint was that it had to be an Agile environment and had to maintain the culture of our organization.
Remote Collaborative Teams
I quickly realized that this was actually a novel idea, the vast majority of remote work is asynchronous and solo – the very opposite of Agile.
Agile, the way we do it at least, is very interactive. Our teams have impromptu meetings multiple times a day – we call these turnarounds as in an office the team spins their chairs around discusses a topic for a few minutes and then goes back to work. Achieving something as simple as that in a remote setting turned out to be very rare and more complex that I had anticipated. We also follow XP practices and Pair programming which are heavily interactive so again we wanted to avoid the conventional advice for solo work.
Over the last 2 years the Virtual office grew from 1 person to around 120 employees, we have a cross sections of all roles within a software delivery team, and we were working incredibly well. We have come up with a range of effective tools and processes. I was feeling very pleased at how quickly we had grown and how stable things were for an office that was so new. People were happy, productivity was high, turnover so far has been very low.
And then of course we had the impact of Covid-19. This meant that the rest of the organization was asked to work from home. We added 500 more people to a set up that we had designed for around 100 in the course of one weekend with almost no notice. I had the support of an amazing leadership team and an IT group who pulled out all the stops to help. Between us we managed to scale our Virtual Office from just over 100 to 650 in the space of a few days, with very very few hiccups.
That is not to say it was easy but we were able to keep the entire workforce productive based on the lessons we had learned over the previous 18 months.
So what have we learned?
- The right tools are important but they are only half the battle
- Someone compared it to playing chess, you can hand someone the board and pieces but you can’t expect them to play, you can teach them the rules but even then it takes a while to be competent. The same is true with remote working tools. Most of us have them but very few of us know how to use them and even fewer of us use them effectively.
- Remote meetings are different, it takes time and effort to make them effective
- We are deprived of body language and social cues, we need to reinterpret the world based on less information. There are different mechanisms we can use to achieve the same things but we must adapt.
- Learn how to configure your audio. YOU are causing pain to your team mates
- That noisy keyboard, the rustling papers, eating, drinking, singing to yourself are all painful to your co-workers
- You should probably find a friend you trust to calibrate your microphone with. Position it well and be sure you can be heard clearly. If using a headset be careful that the microphone is not near your nose or too close to your mouth, heavy breathing is not good.
- Get a good quality headset or microphone. The built in microphones are generally poor quality and pick up all sorts of interference.
- Learn how to position your camera. The view up your nose is not a good look
- I often see people with laptops have them positioned so that the camera is looking up at them, this is a really unflattering look.
- Other common mistakes are sitting with a window behind you or in a dark room.
- Take regular breaks
- Take a short walk, check in on family. Or take a short while outside or away from the computer. Change position regularly, set a timer to remind you.
- Get a comfy chair
- chances are you will be spending more time snuggling with that chair than with your spouse. Your back will thank you at the end of a long day!
- Be aware of eye strain
- bright lights can be painful over time and you can turn off the blue light on monitors or turn on the night light mode to be more comfortable.
- I struggled with this a lot and ended up buying some new light bulbs and some computer glasses to help.
- Find a way to differentiate between work and home
- Shut a door, turn off computer etc. This is really important, it is very easy to get in a situation where there is no clear line between home and work. For our own sanity it is sensible to turn off notifications on your phone and close the laptop. It is far too easy to see a message and get drawn back into work late at night, or to start work before you have even finished your first coffee.
- Make time to socialize in meetings
- Take 5 minutes to chat at the start of a meeting.
- Since moving to remote work we seem to have developed a guilt at spending time socializing. I hear people apologizing for talking about personal things at the start of a meeting. Those social interactions are a key part of team building and are necessary for a high performing team they are not something to apologize about.
- Prioritize time for social interactions. I don’t mean scheduled 30 minutes of forced networking, but maybe you could consciously catch up with co-workers when you see them, just making a little extra time being friendly before or after a meeting.
- Our office has adopted an unofficial 5 minutes past the hour meeting start time. I still come to meetings on the hour and spend that 5 minutes chatting with anyone else that shows up early, this is a great opportunity as there is no implied pressure to get on with the agenda.
- Working from home does not need to be solo working
- If you are doing solo work then hang out in a room with others doing solo work so there is opportunity for human interaction.
- This is my biggest lesson of all. I think all of the companies that have set up asynchronous working patterns devoid of human interaction will suffer from the lack of collaboration and engagement as time goes on. Scheduled/forced socializing is not the answer.
- Creating an environment where co-workers can collaborate or simply be in proximity to one another promotes healthy team work. We have casual chats and ad-hoc work discussions. Feedback loops are fast and effective. We feel close to our teammates and feel connected. This feeling of proximity, awareness and connectivity is incredibly valuable.
For me working from home has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, by encouraging collaboration and interactions throughout the day our teams are happy, engaged and effective. I hear other companies are struggling with disengaged, and lonely employees and I would strongly urge you to consider a more collaborative approach even if the work your employees are doing is solo it doesn’t mean they need to be.