Remote work –the dream for many an employee and the nightmare for many a manager in pre-COVID times. But then came the pandemic and changed everyone’s mind.
Over the past six months, our own team at MightyCall, a SaaS telecommunications company, has gone from in-office to 100% remote. This means we experienced a crash course in all the stages of remote work: from the initial thrill to the stress of working in a busy household, the successive digital burnout, and the lost rapport of live conversations.
Yet in these same six months, we’ve also built up an environment that made it possible to jump over the challenges and get to the heart of remote work. As a result, in the midst of the pandemic we’ve been able to release a new, award-winning product feature and keep our team spirit thriving.
What did we do differently and how did we work around the challenges of remote work? As we found out, it was all about “separating the wheat from the chaff”: transforming popular remote work tips into individual strategies that really worked. Here’s what we did differently and what your team can do too.
Popular Tip #1: Replace Chat and Audio Calls with Video Calls
At the beginning of the pandemic, every second office practically moved to Zoom, and ours was no exception. Back in April, we planned to do as many video calls as possible, feeling sure this will increase team bonding and help us regain the human aspect lost through remote work. What we really ended up with didn’t help productivity. For most of us, kids, family members, and pets self-isolated in one household seemed to conspire against our attempts at simulating a live office environment via Zoom. And no, virtual backgrounds didn’t help.
What we discovered: No two teams are created alike. Finding the right communications style (and platform) is key to remote work Zen.
For us, that meant separating informal video chats/fun nights and formal work. For everything work-related, we chose chat and audio calls via Discord. Discord has separate chat rooms (or “servers” as they’re called) so teams from one department no longer have to manually invite each other. Every chat room is a community for various departments (for us that’s development, operations, UI, marketing, etc.). Moreover, people from other departments can drop by to see what’s new. This helps managers know what everyone is up to without even asking and contributes to Agile practices.
Popular Tip #2: Pretend Like You’re in the Office
For teams that moved out of the office during the pandemic, even a greater dilemma than the work from home dress code is work from home schedule. If you’re managing a business with several dozen employees, should your team keep to the regular 9-5 when working from home? Or should you opt for a more flexible schedule as long as everyone does the job?
What we discovered: We work best by trusting each other and focusing on output.
Admittedly, some teams will need a rigid 9-5 schedule. But even though we’re constantly on deadlines to deploy and release our product, we discovered that our team can opt for some flexibility. Among the most frequent work from home complaints our team initially voiced was the problem of finding a calm space and time in the house. For many of our colleagues, this meant working early morning and late evening hours when the kids are asleep and they can focus on work. A solution that we found effective was setting mandatory hours (for example for daily standups and meetings), and then letting the teamwork on their schedule as long as the job gets done in time. Did we mention dress code has never been a problem either?
Popular tip #3: “The New normal” is About Digital Transformation
By fall 2020, most of us are wondering when exactly “the new normal” is supposed to begin — or better, end. According to popular advice, one of its most popular aspects is digital transformation, and the key to surviving the pandemic and acing remote work lies in going digital. Surely, for businesses in need of tech tuning, remote work is a good reason to catch up digitally. But for tech teams like ours and anyone caught up with their innovation homework, digital transformation is just the beginning.
What we discovered: Transformation starts at the root. Proven methodologies help.
Even though we’ve been implementing Scrum practices before the pandemic, in the past six months of remote work we’ve permanently moved away from Kanban to Scrum. Our developer team separated into two groups, and we now work in two-week time periods. We also adopted Scrum’s daily stand-up meetings –15-minute morning calls where we share what we worked on yesterday, what we’ll be working on today, and solve issues first thing in the morning. This mode of work has made it possible for our team to work on a flexible schedule and release a new, award-winning product feature during the pandemic.
Popular Tip #4: Send Out Presentations in Advance to Save Time During Calls
In the effort to save everyone time, one of the remote work tips that catch attention is to have everyone prepared for online meetings in advance. This means sending everyone a copy of your presentation, and instead of going through it during your meeting, reserving the meeting time for questions and answers.
What we discovered: Presentations aren’t a fun read. Usually, presentations equal procrastination if left optional.
For our team, sharing the screen during video calls has been the best way to bring information across and make sure it’s absorbed. Sending out presentations beforehand proved unactionable. Even if it takes more time to get from the presentation to the Q&A part, it’s much more engaging and productive for employees to view presentations during video calls by sharing the screen than relying on their good conscience alone.
Popular Tip #5: There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Communication
If there’s one commandment that characterizes remote work in general, it’s “over-communicate whenever possible”. With the traditional office conversations, meetings, and even chats by the coffee machine that could clear up small issues gone, everything moved into the virtual realm. While in theory there seems nothing wrong with “a call here, a call there”, in practice “Zoom fatigue” wouldn’t be a coined term if things were that simple.
What we discovered: Dividing up communication into several channels freed up our day and helped us avoid burnout.
At the beginning of our own remote work journey, we diligently obeyed the “over-communication” rule. Quickly enough, trampled by the virtual meetings stampede, managers including myself realized they have no time left for actual work. It was then we decided to separate our communications into several channels: for non-urgent communication and information, we use email; for urgent communication — Discord chat, being sure to tag appropriate team members; audio calls for daily stand-up meetings; and video calls for team-building, informal chats, and fun activities.
As every team that has switched from in-office to fully remote in the past months knows, remote work still has a lot to teach us. Since remote work is highly individual, remember that there are no “good-for-all” tricks. The practices that are worth adopting are those that maximize your team’s productivity, allow flexibility, and avoid burnout. Whatever your industry and team size, the best way to grow closer to your team is to ask them upfront about the problems they’re experiencing with remote work and being open about exploring individual solutions.
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