From now on, your workday starts with a battle. A battle not to live, but to work.
Your sofa’s calling you with its soft pillows; your blanket reminds of how good it is to sleep. As soon as you win this battle by walking past your couch and to your home office (no doubt with tears), your cat attacks you. He wants to eat … no, play … no, be pet.
Your kids are singing songs; your wife wonders if you want a coffee or your husband asks where you put his headphones. And come on, you are a Scrum Master: you have to collaborate with so many people, and they take sooo long to answer, or just don’t. Now someone has forgotten about the meeting, and, oh no! You don’t have their phone number! The video call tool has an automatic update …
That’s how many people view remote work. And yes, sometimes, things go wrong. However, the whole companies working remotely have shown that it’s possible to fight this everyday struggle and organize your workplace to avoid most of the challenges. Aside from the cat and kids part :)
How have we managed to avoid disaster? We’ve developed working agreements and habits, which I will describe below.
In real life, home office is just another mode of work. You develop your approach and habits, then it goes smoothly. And come on: If you can handle traditional office distractions, like the coffee aroma and your colleagues discussing their skiing trip, how could those at home be worse? You have at least one colleague who laughs louder than your kids sing, several colleagues who talk to themselves (yeah, yeah, I am one of them) and multiple team members you look for when the meeting starts, located near the coffee or skiing colleague, or both.
So, how do you switch to remote mode?
It all comes down to having a solid communication strategy: planned communication channels, advanced meeting culture and a lot of back-ups. Let’s look at the details!
The right communication channels create the backbone of efficient communication, both remotely and on-site. In our experience, it’s extremely important that:
Everybody receives the meeting invitation originating from one tool and checks for them at least once per day;
You have convenient stable communication tools like Slack: your colleagues should be able to snooze the notifications and tune the channels;
Back-up communication tools are in place (we used Telegram when Slack was down; we also call people we can’t reach there);
There is one main communication tool with agreed-upon collaboration rules. For example, on Slack, there will be several channels (chats), and you agree on which ones are muted completely and which ones have to be reviewed, e.g., once per day. As soon as you add another tool, you add noise, complexity and make the work less efficient. It’s impossible to have one tool for the whole company because different positions have different needs. However, strive for as few channels as possible, and clarity on when to use what.
A stable video conference tool is chosen, and it’s light enough to be quickly installed and runs both on PC and mobile. If something goes wrong, it should be easy to switch devices;
Detailed instructions with snooze and mute recommendations are developed, as well as test runs with the newcomers on all those tools;
You should also choose tools together and always ask others for help :)
Let me give you a detailed example ofhow it can work — the setup we had at my last remote workplace:
We used Slack and Zoom, with Telegram as a back-up.
We checked our emails once per week because all the important news was introduced and discussed in the correct Slack channels.
We had an agreement on what channels we should mute and what we never mute, and those differed from person to person according to their needs. Why? Because developers need to work in a flow most of the time, and with an interrupted workday, it becomes mission impossible.
We still had problems with a calendar, but as soon as someone installed a Google calendar bot on Slack and established reminder protocols, it was solved.
We deployed channels with integration to Jenkins, GitHub, validation bots, etc.
Slackbot sent Zoom links with channel mentions before every meeting.
We used statuses: I am eating/I am running/I am sick/Off walking. It was clear who had their notifications snoozed, who was at the meeting.
There were off-topic (flood) channels we checked when bored: the ones where you share the latest photos of your cat or funny gifs.
Everything was set up so it was easy to follow the news, simple to reach people if there was a real need and perfect asynchronous communication for non-urgent topics. This required no extra effort and resulted in the highest possible efficiency in the end. It also should be mentioned that it was not completely stable; we had to improve it when there were major changes in the company life.
Good tools setup reduces working noise, helps concentration, doesn’t spoil your mood and doesn’t de-motivate. This makes your work extremely more effective. Every minute you delay the meeting because something doesn’t work is not only a waste of time, and therefore money, but is also depleting energy while boring and stressing people. Remembering that you contact Ben via email, Lisa’s on Skype and Todd prefers Slack doesn’t facilitate productivity :)
In remote mode, all your problems become more notable than on-site. If your communication channels fail, you need even more time to contact someone. If you don’t have high-quality live meetings, people will struggle to focus but often make themselves look involved, especially if you are a boss. This is extra true if all the meetings are like this and everybody is used to them. Maybe they will discuss it over coffee later, but the organizer won’t get the feedback they need so much.
If you have a boring or unnecessary meeting online, people will start switching off their cameras and browsing the internet.
As meeting culture is a pretty big topic, I will just share several tips here that spice up remote meetings:)
Start with energizing small talk: Show off your cat. Discuss the news. Ask about that skiing event!
Fill in the pauses! Even when you are waiting for others. It’s the perfect time to check how your colleagues are doing, make some jokes and ease up the atmosphere.
Don’t have one person speak for more than three minutes. These switches force you to make the meeting interactive; plus, it’s easier to concentrate when the speaker changes. And if they are boring, it’s just three minutes :) Yes, it’s difficult to organize it this way, but almost always possible.
Use interactive tools like Miro, Draw.io, FunRetro: anything that enables asynchronous work on the same thing.
If you are to deliver some information that is difficult to perceive, do it several times and in different formats. E.g. you want everybody to know that the company is preparing for a client visit. Say it, then ask someone to provide a related update, send a survey about it, ask for specific help actions, etc.
Take breaks. Every 45 to 60 minutes, there has to be a break. And yes, it works the same for on-site meetings unless you completely change the format or play moving games to switch.
Remind people about the meetings personally and in the channels, at standups, when you are starting a new format or your move to another tool. But only at the beginning; if people don’t get used to it, find the reason why (often it’s a tech thing you can fix easily).
Set up your routine for all the key events: Remember, it reduces complexity!
Last but not least: involve everyone in shaping your meeting culture, challenge it together. Discuss it openly; ask for help when you don’t know how to solve a problem. Don’t make the meetings a one-man show, and always question your format and the meeting participants.
Support your Company Culture
Company culture is built in the teams, not in the one-pagers we all receive. Building or supporting your culture remotely may seem impossible, and that’s why many just don’t try when it comes to remote collaboration. However, in reality, you just juggle the approaches, and the actual work doesn’t differ too much.
Remember, as soon as you have the opportunity to meet your colleagues in person, do it:) Team gatherings at least once every three to four months are important. Also, let newcomers meet several colleagues at the start; it’s proven that they get into work faster and share positive feedback about such trips.
Ok, so it’s time to move to what’s special about building culture remotely:
Set up your small but engaging online traditions: special morning greetings, pics from holidays, funny code names for events, custom reactions, etc. Choose several so all people are touched by at least one tradition.
Indicate what texting behavior is good and what is not; let the team decide and discuss how the challenges are to be resolved. E.g. if they miss some important messages, let them brainstorm how this can be fixed. It’ll take some time but will have much more buy-in than if you just suggest your solution. For less mature teams, you’ll have to be more sophisticated: first, explain why it was important or let others (ideally, early team adopters) do that.
At live meetings, team building should not be about drinking beers, and definitely not about work, unless you want to exhaust your team. Do something together: cook, play sports, climb a hill, solve a puzzle. Choose only the activities that will help them learn about each other.
During online meetings, allow more small talk than offline. This will make the atmosphere safer and let people open up.
My cat is sleeping, my husband has found his headphones and went for a run. I thank my couch for supporting me in writing this article and wish you good luck with working remotely! Make the most of it :)