Remote Work in Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic
21 May, 2020
Many organizations are experiencing a sudden change to remote work caused by the onset of coronavirus and social distancing measures. This pervasive change affects a great number of companies. However, this is not a normal remote work. In regular circumstances you would have a lot more opportunities to prepare -- from hiring with specific skill sets that would work remote to the ability to periodical get-togethers. In addition, being anxious about family or the economy create an atmosphere that weighs on many.
After spending 12 years managing large remote teams, I’ve developed a number of practices to run high-performance teams. Here is my list of best-practice instructions:
- Overcommunicate on everything. Remote work removes face-to-face interactions and requires forcing conversation and repeating key messages far more often than when communicating in person. Overcommunicate daily routines and project details providing sufficient information on what you are doing and what is going on.
- Maintain visual interaction. Turning video on helps with making communication more human and real. Non-verbal communication plays an important part in our interchange and visual interaction helps with understanding non-verbal cues. Written communication, while crucial for communicating over a certain type of information, can be often misinterpreted.
- Be proactive and be ready to approach other people. Don’t assume that people will approach you -- reach out first and try to get a pulse on the situation. Set up additional one-on-ones to ensure keeping up to date on frequency.
- Reiterate the support for flexibility. In unusual circumstances, people need more flexibility, from taking more time to develop a remote routine to arranging for child care. Look at the output rather than the hours.
- Give people more attention. However, be careful that being more attentive doesn’t end up in micromanaging. People should still have their own space and the team should still perform autonomously.
- Maintain a work-life balance. For high-performance teams, overwork is more likely than underwork. People generally don’t try to game the system, but they can easily slip into working late nights. Set the boundaries clear and reasonably.
- Maintain the momentum on the team. Set clear goals, timeframes, and expectations adjusted to the changed circumstances and pay a close eye to the output. Try to notice when people are stuck. For engineers, watch for the regular cadence of poll requests and commits. If you see big gaps, reach out, and offer your help. Sometimes simple nudges can motivate people.
- Watch out for new and junior employees. When building a remote team, you hire for specific skill sets that work best remotely. In these circumstances, make do with who you have. What makes people succeed or fail remote is their level of self-directedness which doesn’t necessarily correlate with being new at a company (but usually correlates with seniority). If your employees haven’t developed the level of self-directedness, you should reach out more frequently and prompt them along.
- Remote work requires more discipline in writing things down. Make sure you have strong paper trails. Avoid hard synchronization points between team members and do more hand-offs. Prepare a proposal and asynchronously pass to the next person for a review rather than always waiting for a time when everyone is available.
- Keep your company culture. You especially want to preserve your company culture in rough times but you also want to boost morale. Do virtual happy hours and get people together on a call or socialize doing online contest and fun Zoom backgrounds. Encourage social conversations mixed in with meetings. Don’t get right down to business -- do relaxed daily standups or small talk intros.
- Manage yourself. How a leader acts (and feel) is contagious and just as much so remotely. How you react influences how other people will respond. Also, take care of setting your own boundaries and maintaining your own work-life balance.
The coronavirus pandemic forced more people to work from home. While some already had experience running or working in remote teams, for others this was a novel and unexpected change. Not all organizations had the time to prepare for remote work. These instructions should help you optimize your work process and make your remote experience more efficient and productive.
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