The COVID-19 outbreak began impacting the markets long before the outbreak made its way to the United States. To many tech leaders, however, the degree to which the pandemic would impact every aspect of company operations came as a bit of a shock. Some organizations are set up well to shift to remote work—but many others, even if they previously had a flexible policy, have never had to embrace remote work to such a degree, and the sudden shift caught them off-guard.
Because my company has been a globally distributed firm since our founding in 2006, I suddenly started receiving tons of questions from other CEOs and former colleagues in early March as they came to grips with what COVID-19 would mean for them. They asked questions such as:
- How do I ensure productivity?
- How should we change communication strategies?
- More all-staff emails?
- Video calls?
And these are just a few of the questions I’ve heard. In an effort to help out during these trying times, what follows is my advice for effectively running a distributed team.
Have the Right Mindset
A globally distributed company only works with the right culture and mindset, and it takes work to establish and maintain this. Embracing work from home requires an understanding that:
- Getting out of your house needs to be proactively planned or it won’t happen.
- Life and work are very co-mingled when working from home—this is a double-edged sword.
- Flexibility is an advantage.
Every leader worries about productivity and distractions when they allow their employees to work remotely; however, if you aren’t careful, your employees can go too far in the other direction to their and the company’s detriment. When working from home, it’s easy to just work and work and forget lunch, walks, coffee breaks, or interruptions of any kind. This is one of the hardest transitions for people who move from an office to working from home, and it can burn them out. Encourage remote workers to take lunch breaks, go out for a walk during the day, walk their dogs, have a snack with their kids, etc.
If you don’t proactively emphasize this, and your employees don’t plan it, it won’t happen, your employees will burn out, and productivity will plummet.
During this lockdown period, try to find ways to allow people to virtually connect, whether it is to randomly pair people to have some voice calls to increase social interactions, or to plan some online games to encourage more non-work time together.
Furthermore, when working from home, personal life and work life are intermingled. It’s important to communicate that it’s OK for people to prioritize their personal lives at the appropriate times. Encourage them to take time out of their traditional working hours to take care of their kids, or participate in some activities with them (since most kids are home at the moment). People may feel guilty for putting their personal life ahead of work during the workday, so it’s up to leadership to alleviate these feelings.
I always tried to set an example, sharing when I was taking a few hours on a weekday to visit a museum or go for a walk. While we aren’t visiting museums now, it’s still important to deliver this message. After all, flexibility is one of the great benefits of remote work. Your team might as well embrace it.
Implement Both Synchronous and Asynchronous Communications
When working in an office, almost all communications are synchronous: meetings in a conference room, 1:1s, chance meetings and chitchats. When you have a distributed team, you will remember the synchronous meetings, but you also must design effective asynchronous communications that are casual, fast, fun and informative.
We use email for more formal communication: weekly activity summaries, monthly key decision emails from the CEO, and more. But we also use a team chat and collaboration platform for quick communications, which allows people not directly engaged in the communication to digest asynchronously. With everything changing, you can’t expect communication methods to remain the same and it’s important to allow people to communicate in the way that best aligns with their work needs.
Use a Collaboration Tool to Document Every Activity
Asynchronous communication is the main method for most people when working from home. The downside is it’s easy for action items to get lost, so it’s critical to organize and document nearly every activity.
For example, we create a “task” in our collaboration tool for nearly everything we do, no matter how small the task is. The task has an owner and involves those who need to do different activities or approve certain steps of the task. The task always contains a description of the situation, steps that must be taken, and who needs to take them.
For this process to work, it is important to agree ahead of time the tool and the process to use. Furthermore they won’t work for you if you don’t use them the right way. It took us some time to develop the habit of putting every activity in writing, even when it’s an urgent situation, because it preserves the team knowledge and provides a means for people to go back, review, and learn.
It’s Not All About Work
We firmly believe that happiness and well-being are critical to workplace productivity, but how do you know if someone is happy if the whole company is remote?
To try and promote both physical and mental health and wellness, set up non-work channels to allow people to share their everyday lives. We share exercise routines, cooking recipes, good videos on mental health, and even occasionally run synchronized weekly workout sessions.
It’s also best to use video whenever possible. You can learn a great deal about a person via video. I often start my video-calls by talking about things not work-related e.g. current events, common interests or hobbies, a book we came across. This allows me to get a feel for whether the people on the other end are happy or not.
Create Unstructured Time Together
Unstructured time does not happen automatically in a distributed team. You need to make it happen because it’s super-important to building strong working relationships. During a recent product launch, for example, we held an all-day video meeting, so people could drop in and out, getting updates or handling any urgent matters, and even had a party via video conferencing. It doesn’t always have to be tied to an event either. Find reasons to “get the company together” in an unstructured way. Working from home can be very monotonous. It’s up to leadership to find a way to shake things up and keep building team spirit.
Not all of the above will be right for every company, but they’ve worked very well for us. COVID-19 is creating a myriad of challenges, but with the right mindset and strategies, at least some of them can be overcome.
Ning Wang is CEO of Offensive Security, where she is responsible for the company culture, vision, strategy, and execution. Ning joined OffSec after more than 20-years in stints as COO, CFO, and CTO at companies such as HackerOne and lynda.com.
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