This post is a crash course on Remote Work for a smaller team that is forced into this reality by COVID-19. I am linking some all-encompassing tutorials at the end. This post is meant to get you started with the basic ideas of remote work in 15 minutes.
Switching to a remote environment will take work and won’t be ideal in the beginning. Remote work requires shifting mindsets, and people are not great at that. But you have no other choice. I am using terms “Remote Work” and “Work from Home” interchangeably in this post, because to slow the spread of the virus, your colleagues should stay at home.
Who am I? I am leading a remote team in a company that has been distributed for 10+ years. We have 1200 employees in 76 countries. These are practical tips I learned there.
What’s the deal?
COVID-19 ( / Coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2 ) is an exceptionally infectious virus that can spread „by air.” A long incubation period means that people will infect others before they even realize they are feeling unwell. The virus has already spread to the majority of the world’s countries (a primer on the virus here).
That means a couple of things:
- One employee can infect the entire office by coughing into the coffee cup cabinet
- In fact, everybody can be infected right now and not show any symptoms
- People are stressed with the situation and will be reluctant to work effectively. Most likely, they will be sitting in your office, browsing Twitter, reading up on the virus, and freaking out.
- The most effective tool we have available right now to cope with the Coronavirus fallout is to slow the spread.
We are pretty sure that hospitals won’t be able to deal with all the cases once we reach pandemic levels. 80% of cases are relatively mild, but 5% requires intensive care. Approximately 1% of people who catch the virus die.
As The Economist has put it: „Flattening the spike of the epidemic means that health systems are less overwhelmed, which saves lives.”
What can YOU do?
If you are a small business owner or a team lead, you need to get on that Remote Work bus ASAP. The most responsible choice you can make is to let your employees work remotely.
- They will minimize the risk of getting infected during the commute in your office
- If (god forbid) they get infected, they won’t pass that on to everybody else while sharing a donut
- They will be able to take care of the loved ones if it comes to that
- You will help slow down the progress of infections in society.
“To minimize risk, stay home if you can. This may mean canceling meetings, working remotely, or skipping a conference (if it hasn’t been canceled already).” – „How to work during pandemic”
How seriously should you take this?
This is a sample of companies that have closed down entire offices in light of the Coronavirus:
Ok, what is this Remote Work?
I am going to explain to you four pillars of remote work and recommend you another four tools to start doing it ASAP.
If your work happens in front of a computer, it can happen remotely. Yes, face-to-face interaction is the best way to transmit complex ideas, details of the tasks, hilarious jokes, and deadly viruses.
We now have fantastic technology for all of the above except viruses. These tools have been used for a while now – Remote Work was exploding even before the SARS-CoV-2.
4 Pillars of Remote Work.
Remote work is by design asynchronous. People will take tasks, post updates, have discussions, and go to focus on new tasks.
You can try to keep everybody in sync all the time, but this is exhausting, frustrating, and futile. You won’t know what they are doing at their homes or if they are checking Facebook, and you need to make peace with that.
Newsflash: They probably check Facebook at your office as well.
The biggest challenge with asynchronous work is that you may be blocked by someone else’s task. But you can plan around that – think of what you will need tomorrow and have started working on it today.
It’s challenging but worth it. When you see in the same office, it’s easy to hide inefficiency by looking busy. Remote environment strips that facade, and you are left to confront the reality of your management style.
Making sure nobody is blocked is the biggest challenge as a manager. It will take practice and yield exceptional rewards.
The takeaway is:
Instead of worrying about what your people are doing right this second, try to slice the work so that they can work on pieces independently. And let them have their lunch.
You can’t just walk in, scold people and control what they do. When you do that online, they can just run away from the computer. You don’t want that. Instead, you want your people to be challenged by the work or at least see the value of it. It’s surprisingly easy – we all want to be useful, challenged and learn new skills.
Remember to provide enough context and give them input into the details of what you need done. You are not as smart as you think, and your employees may be more capable than you imagine.
They want to do a good job. Let them do a good job.
Communicate a lot. A massive chunk of what you want to say will be lost in text, and even video calls help only to a certain extent. You will say one thing, and your team will understand something completely different. It’s easier to spot that in person.
Double-check, over-communicate, and write things down. If you feel it takes too much time, you’ll save it by having already written it down and being able to re-use previous notes.
Write stuff down in Google Docs. Discuss in Slack and Zoom.
Level playing field
If you are letting people work from home, EVERYBODY has to work remotely. If the situation is not the same for everyone, then co-located people will keep their old communication habits, and remote colleagues will be left in the dark. Companies that „failed at remote work” did a half-assed job of choosing a poor soul to be left in the dark and continued to share information face-to-face.
Either your team is in the same space, or it’s at home. This is not quantum physics, where you can be in 2 places at the same time.
Do or do not. There is no try.
4 Free Tools to set you up for remote success.
Zoom is the new Skype. It’s more reliable, more dependable, and better suited to remote work than any other video-call software. It has taken over the remote companies by storm because it has unmatched quality. There are other tools, just none worth trying.
Since you don’t see your coworkers in the office, meeting them on video helps to transmit all those non-verbal signals that are lost during voice calls or email exchanges. I recommend you do zoom calls frequently at the beginning.
My best tips for Zoom calls:
- If you are switching from the office and are on the same timezone, set up a daily check-in call ( say 10 am ). Ask everybody what they worked on yesterday and what they are planning to work on today. Make notes in Google Docs. Use that call to also work on your remote setup. Put that on the Google Calendar and invite your coworkers, so everybody has a link to the call handy.
- Zoom has a good enough free plan. You need to start paying if you want to have meetings for 3+ people longer than 40 minutes. You can also stop and hop on a new session every 40 minutes. That is what I do.
- Buy your employees good headphones ($20-$45). Take this seriously. Lousy audio from (god forbid) earbuds they got with their iPhones will be disproportionately frustrating.
- Back against the wall, light in front. Selfie ring helps. Seth Godin has more advice.
- The internet does not have to be that fast. Even the one from your iPhone hotspot will be fine.
This will be your primary communication channel. Since you are no longer communicating in person, you need a central hub and email is not suited for that. Slack is for all those situations where you would come over, say something in the shared space, share a joke, or have a look at what your coworker is doing.
Slack is a shared chat, with different channels. Channels help to separate various concerns and make it easier to manage.
- Do not require everybody to read everything. Chose one channel with mandatory reading (the typical pattern is „#announcements” ). Every new mandatory thing decreases the chance they will keep up.
- Once you make a decision or have takeaways, move to more permanent storage. Google Docs is good.
- Remember to goof off. You need to provide an upbeat environment. If it becomes stressful, your employees will just stop working. The common pattern is to have a „#watercooler” channel and post lots of memes.
- The free plan will have some limitations. Mainly it has a limited history of conversations. Free is enough.
Google Docs / Drive
You need one place which will be the source of truth, and people will refer to when they are confused. Since they will be working asynchronously, you have to make it easier for them to find information that they need. Shared Google Drive and Docs will help you exchange documents and keep track of your decisions. You are also producing work, which most likely has the shape of documents.
My tips on working with Google Docs
- Write down as much stuff as possible.
- Do make a shared folder in Drive and tidy up the structure frequently
- Make sure to have one place where everything is linked – it can be a Google Doc with a list of running projects and links to docs each describing the progress of the project
- Update those documents!
- „Where is X, what the status of Y” should require no answer – it should be apparent where the information is always.
- You can work using the personal Google Accounts. You don’t need paying for GSuite.
Honorable mention: Trello
Trello is a simple tool to track the progress of the tasks in your team. Who is doing what? How is X doing? Did we finish Y? That’s what Trello is for.
- You can connect it to Slack so you can always see what your people are working on
- Again, the free plan is your friend
How to put it all together – your action plan:
- Make sure everybody has a computer at home they can use. Buy them headsets. They will need email addresses, but @gmail.com is fine.
- They need accounts for Google Docs, Trello, and Zoom. They will also need to install Zoom
- Wash your hands
- Register a new Slack for your company, invite your team
- Start chatting on Slack, make #announcements, #general, and #watercooler channels.
- Wash your hands
- Start your first Zoom Call. See how it goes
- Don’t touch your face
- Dump all work into actionable tasks in Trello.
- Start writing stuff down in Google Docs.
- Wash your hands
- Suddenly Remote Playbook from Toptal is the most up-to-date and comprehensive resource around
- „Remote: Office not required” is the best book on the topic.
- The ultimate guide to remote work by Zapier
This list is short on purpose. Sign up to my newsletter to get more resources about remote work: