Creating a Healthy Remote Environment
VP of Engineering at Wefox
Spain was one of the countries severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and we had to suddenly shift to remote work. We had less than a week to complete the transition; that included enabling 150 people -- out of which 50 people on my team -- to work remotely. Before Covid-19, our employees could work a day or two per week from home and around 15 percent of our workforce was already full remote. While I am a big believer in remote work I encountered numerous situations I wasn’t prepared for. They allowed me to learn about different challenges of remote work and contribute to the creation of a healthy remote environment.
The actions we took were both processes- and people-oriented.
First off, we facilitated our employees’ access to the proper equipment. We made sure that they could safely access their computers or chairs and if that was not possible we would arrange for the home delivery. We wanted them to be comfortable when working from home and have all the necessary equipment.
We introduced a thoughtful control of working hours and were repeatedly emphasizing the importance of work-life balance. I would personally help people who were struggling in the beginning and parents were especially having a hard time balancing their professional and personal responsibilities. We were very clear that we didn’t expect them to deliver at 100 percent and that we understood how difficult the situation had been for everyone. We expected them to be safe first and work when they were comfortable instead of when the schedule was dictating.
We strengthen company-wide psychological safety by adding courses on mental health and work-life balance and creating helpful content on our e-learning platform. We also ran surveys to better understand our employees’ needs and pain points and how we as a company could help. Besides psychological support, we also offered fitness classes to help our employees take care of both their mental and physical health.
Also, we intensified our communication with our employees, and I set up virtual open hours -- three to four hours weekly -- when they could approach me with any work-related or personal problem. It also helped me build rapport and trust since I was fairly new to the company. We also encouraged team leaders to host informal remote events like digital lunches or Friday beers that would make people feel connected on a personal level. We were also piloting open cameras so that the whole team was available on camera during working hours. They could (un)mute or turn off the camera any time they want but that created an environment where people felt more empowered to contact someone, start a conversation, etc.
I was committed to improving my regular catch-ups with the team -- first weekly and then biweekly. We were also sending out surveys to make sure that all topics important to the team were addressed. We wanted to remove any uncertainty that troubled them -- uncertainty around workload but also around the strategy that we were revising during these turbulent times.
I also increased the frequency of one-on-ones with my reports and group sessions. Instead of monthly one-on-ones, we moved to weekly and biweekly one-on-ones and I would make sure to include personal along with performance-related topics. Previously, I was dedicating 10 to 15 percent of my time to the team, but that increased to 30, even 35 percent when we transitioned to remote work. While we were in the process of developing a new strategy that required my extensive involvement, I felt that my team was of utmost importance to me and that I should dedicate most of my time to nurture their trust and confidence.
- Lack of personal interaction had a profound effect on trust and confidence among employees, especially those recently arrived (I hired 12 new people during Covid-19, but I was also new to the team). While technology is still unable to replace the most humane aspects of interpersonal communication, much of it can be overcome through a creative approach that includes digital lunches or remote happy hours.
- Communication is crucial. Don’t shy away from overcommunicating and make sure your messages are understood well. Also, conduct surveys and intensify regular catchups and one-on-ones to better understand your employees’ needs and pain points.
- Work-life balance can be especially hard for some people on the team like parents, high performers, or managers. While different people have different habits and attitudes toward work, the company is responsible to ensure the wellbeing of its employees. As a manager, you should facilitate resources to address the problem and be there to coach employees who are having a problem with setting up boundaries (instead of benefiting from their overwork). Encourage them to disconnect from work, to make clear boundaries, and find the balance. Without proper rest and balanced life, they will not be able to perform at their optimum.
- Some people on the team will also struggle with productivity, especially those who are not self-driven and will have to be guided (most often junior and less proactive people). You should facilitate that guidance through pair programming, mentoring sessions, more frequent one-on-ones, etc. You need to provide them with a safe environment to accomplish an expected productivity level and allow for a learning curve as with any other new skill.
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