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Working From Home Can Be Fun and Productive When Done Right

Remote
Motivation

10 June, 2021

Ahmed Othman, Engineering Manager at Zalando SE, talks about the dramatic change in the reality of remote work with the use of proper tools and resources.

Problem

Hardly surprising that the pandemic has made the abrupt transition to working from home. This hybrid way of working has added numerous complexity. Our team needed plenty of meetings throughout the day, which became fully remote. In essence, some employees are burnt out or blurring out in new and unusual ways. It seemed like it had not only impacted the work-life balance but their performance was also hindered.

We were already so busy with our daily agendas that we hardly had time for more synchronous communication. Gradually, we, as a team, were losing social interaction, where spontaneous conversations no longer took place organically. Most of our team members were torn apart between handling family affairs and their deadlines, side by side. Before it became one of our biggest pitfalls, we took some actions to fix it.

Actions taken

To begin with, I brought a change in my management style. I began to understand the root cause of the stress and became more empathetic towards my team members. The stress level varied from person to person, as everyone had a different kind of lifestyle. I tried to listen and understand what every person might be going through.

The second step of action was to be as flexible as I could with the deadlines. There is no alternative to being a flexible leader when it comes to dire situations like the pandemic. During meetings and talks with my team members, I found out that deadlines were one of the main causes of stress for our team. Even if the work is small or does not have much effort to be put on, the deadlines can cause a lot of pressure.

A good way to mitigate this pressure is to move away from firefighting mode and switch to building a longer-term roadmap and invest more in planning. In that way, I could just divide the work with the team and estimate these tasks. Then I take these estimations and compare them with the deadlines I have, I change the order of the projects/features until they all fit in the expected timelines.

Lastly, I tried to optimize our usage of the tools as much as possible. Too many video meetings were also a cause of stress for the team, so I made every effort to get the same output from the asynchronous tools we would get from the meetings in a synchronized manner. so we replaced our daily “standup” meeting with forums where people would update their status on the chat every day. In any case, if only a meeting can resolve a critical issue, then the specific people can conduct meetings, where not everyone has to attend. I also changed the retrospective meeting and divided it into two parts. The first part is an ongoing offline survey during the sprint in which people collect success stories and pain points, then during the retrospective meeting itself, we discuss the action items on how to improve our process based on the survey output, this saves us at least half of the time of the meeting.

Again, to regain our social interaction as a team, we switched our standup meetings to daily coffee chats. It is more like an informal session, where it is optional for people to attend. We hardly talked about work in those kinds of meetings, and team members would bring in their pets or kids or even show us the cake they had baked earlier. This practice was most important for our team to come back to the performance level that we were initially on.

Lessons learned

  • A little trust goes a long way. I learned that trust is the secret ingredient that improves the quality of relationships with colleagues and team members, even from afar.
  • Understanding team members triggers their strengths and helps to improve communication. Therefore, it helps to grow a successful and motivated team.
  • From a leadership perspective, try not to broadcast all the stress you may get to the team. It is not healthy to promote distress as it will not help anyone; instead, encourage mindfulness, and you will receive excellent responses.

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