Over the past few weeks, companies employing millions of workers have had to figure out how they can make remote work work. Organizations across the technology industry and beyond have moved to working from home as a temporary solution for keeping employees and communities healthy.
When we started Tidelift a few years ago, we knew that we wanted to build a distributed team. Remote work wasn’t foreign to our four founders—we all have backgrounds working on open source software, where the contributions come from people all around the world, and collaboration without co-location is key.
So we’ve been incredibly intentional about designing our culture around the remote work experience because we know the way we communicate and interact on a daily basis affects our happiness, productivity, and success as a business.
While we got many things right from the beginning, there are other areas where we have done poorly but learned and improved over time. Here are some of the key lessons I can share from our experience.
Create a consistent meeting experience
If one person is on video, everyone is on video from their own machines. We didn’t always work this way, but when we tried this, it was instantly a better experience for everyone. It’s critical, particularly for teams that aren’t used to working from home, that everyone is able to see everyone else’s face.
We even use this same technique in interviews—we have pairs of folks talking with candidates at the same time. If your team is even partially remote, this is the single biggest tip I can give you to make the experience better.
Design group social opportunities
One example of a virtual social activity is our daily “water cooler.” The basic idea is that we set aside 15 minutes where we all join a shared video call, with no agenda. We shoot the breeze, talk about the newest board games, what we watched on TV last night, what the dog is doing right now, introduce a new employee, whatever.
We have conversations about so many fun things and it helps us all be humans together. Different people’s interests are represented and the conversation meanders and even sometimes gets quiet. But that’s okay. We appreciate the chance to be a little social and break the remote work solitude for a few minutes, while seeing people we wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see and talk with.
If your team is new to working from home, creating a chance to talk as a group about topics that have nothing to do with your business can help maintain a sense of normalcy during a tough time.
Engineer 1:1 social situations
Not everyone is extroverted and wants to jump into a conversation with dozens of people. So we use donut.ai to facilitate random pairings between two people so they can learn more about each other in a smaller setting. Some of our team members do this while walking to show coworkers cool parts of their neighborhood or home working space.
Pick one preferred communication mechanism for the company. It’s important to have a primary place to go for information and communication, and we have chosen to use Slack as our primary tool. The ability to have low-latency discussion is an important distinction over email and gets us closer to the way people interact in person.
Slack also helps us “default to open,” where as many conversations as possible are happening on public channels where every employee can access them, as opposed to email, where only the people who are copied can follow along. Side benefit: this also makes it possible for new employees to catch up on discussions that happened before they arrived.
We use Zoom for video calls and have a standing expectation that if you’ve been talking in circles about something on Slack for more than 10-15 minutes, you start a video chat to increase the bandwidth and reduce the latency even more.
Along these lines, another good policy is to ensure people don’t have to read everything. One of the criticisms of using Slack heavily is “there is so much to read.” But for us, Slack is the virtual office. Conversations happen all around in a physical office that you may miss, so the same will happen in your virtual office.
Ensure decisions are made remote-first
Many of us have worked in organizations that supported remote work, yet all of the important decisions were made by people who were co-located in an office. We learned from this not to marginalize people who were working from home. Now it’s more important than ever, not least for employee morale, not to make decisions in smaller groups than are normal for your company under typical working conditions.
Focus on written communication
Written communication becomes the default when working from home, so you have to focus on doing it well—and prioritize the time required to communicate in a distributed team. This can come out in ways that aren’t obvious: writing design docs around features that will be built, descriptive text for designs to try to flesh out the details, or writing project plans to coordinate across people and teams.
Know that text is lossy and your teammates mean well. We all are occasionally short and in text, communication can seem even more abrupt. Remember that we’re all in this together and gently let someone know (in private) if you see them coming across more harshly than they certainly intended.
Those are some of the most important things we’ve learned along the way about making remote work successful. We hope it’s helpful to you as you think about how your company can approach designing a productive home work environment for the coming months.
All the above said, remember that work can be challenging right now for people. While we have been set up for remote work from the beginning, most of us have a degree of stress and anxiety about world events that will make some days harder than others.
Also, in addition to just the normal of working from home, we are now working from home with partners, kids, or roommates in the house as well, which adds other complications. And as a parent, there may be an aspect of trying to give kids a sense of normalcy and learning.
So be empathetic to your coworkers and don’t write any current challenges off as just the result of working from home. I think that my friend Mark said it well last week:
I've worked from home for almost 20 years before this job. I'm very comfortable working from home. And I'm struggling right now to maintain any sort of focus or feel like I'm getting much useful done.— Mark Imbriaco (@markimbriaco) March 23, 2020
But you know what? I'd be struggling exactly the same way in the office.