“We encourage everyone to work from home, starting tomorrow.”
That was the afternoon of Tuesday, March 10, 2020, only about three weeks ago. Everyone at I&CO gathered in our conference room. At that point, it felt potentially premature for a company to be asking its employees to work remotely.
That sounds naive now.
That day, we put together a guideline called “Working Remotely During COVID-19” in order to ready ourselves for this New Normal. It proved to be immediately and tangibly helpful. Since then, the guideline has evolved, and we encourage readers to make comments in the document so we can keep evolving it.
We also think that this situation is teaching us how we can collaborate better and strengthen our culture, not only during this unusual time we now face, but also in the life after COVID-19.
Here are a few of the principles we’ve observed to be useful that could have lasting implications.
1. Be visible
Working remotely, often from home, can increase your productivity. The minute you finish your breakfast, you can start work just by sitting in front of your laptop, and without the hassle of commuting. Digital tools such as Zoom and Slack have made it exponentially easier to work remotely while being connected. But also they can also be a cloak, obscuring our actions and reactions in ways that face-to-face meetings don’t allow.
In the age of connected and distributed collaboration, visibility and transparency are more critical than ever for the dynamics of your team.
Turning your camera on, a practice we’ve heard from other companies, makes a surprisingly big difference in making sure everyone is present, engaged and meaningfully involved.
And when working remotely, whether it’s through your calendar or the status in Slack, be as transparent as possible about your availability. This not only makes collaboration and process smoother, it reduces stress on your team members.
The lesson here is this: don’t be too comfortable with the convenience of digital tools.
2. Build rituals
To be efficient but also effective, especially when remote, you have to consciously build a groove for your team. And to do so, you start with small habits and rituals that everyone can partake in.
Building a groove doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve asked our team to be patient and forgiving. Practices such as daily scrums are common and important in developing habits for your team — and staying connected if you continue to work remotely after COVID-19 is behind us.
At the same time, because these practices can be somewhat mundane, it’s easy to let them slip. We’ve incorporated “Everyone’s Fun Fact” when doing daily scrums, where each person shares a completely random fact. It’s refreshing how these small, silly and human rituals can have such a positive impact on the team’s dynamic.
The thing is, good work doesn’t come from more meetings or video chats. Ultimately, it comes from trust and empathy within your team.
Perhaps the most visible example of successful over-communication can be seen in how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is currently addressing coronavirus. His daily briefings have become the source for New Yorkers, as well as many around the country, for what is happening and what one government is doing.
And what he’s doing has an underlying formula that is also encouraged at large organizations like Google: inform, request, decide.
This can also be a good formula for teams and team leaders working remotely or in person.
Inform your team by providing a clear status of where you were yesterday and what you want to accomplish today. Request clearly defined tasks assigned to specific individuals, ideally with deadlines. And by having clear decision-makers, make decisions — big or small — so that things move forward.
Making decisions, even if they might be wrong, is better than not making decisions.
Another small but significant communication habit we’ve asked people to employ is avoiding one-to-one messaging when working on a team, even for things that are specific to an individual. This sounds a little counterintuitive and even draconian. However, these DM’s on Slack can become “side chats” and can cause team members to be out of sync more quickly than you’d imagine. When you need to message someone on your team about a task, address that person (i.e. “@so-and-so”) in an open team channel.
The more informed the teams and the decisions are, the better. And that starts with over-communication.
4. Be off, to be on
Being virtual can help you eliminate inefficiencies. And that sounds all positive.
However, we’ve heard and seen more and more colleagues who proclaim how tired they end up being each day because their days have now become packed with non-stop video meetings.
Digital made the world Always On. Now, we’re becoming even more On. All. The. Time.
We’ve come to rely on technology to virtually connect us and make us more efficient. But efficiencies can creep up on your mental health, and it’s up to us humans, not tools or machines, to take care of ourselves and really connect with others.
Recently, we’ve consciously introduced various activities that, one way or another, might seem non-essential and even inefficient in our now-hyper-efficient workdays.
Many of those activities are taking place on Slack channels since we are now all virtual. They include: #letters-of-recommendation, a channel for recommending books or movies/shows; and #WFH-but-still-connected, a stream of photos based on a daily theme such as OOTD, snacks, art, music, and animals.
We are all professionals and we often work on serious stuff. But we have to find small ways to regularly be off. Being off helps you be on effectively, and ultimately more productive.
One thing, though, about “Off” activities: They actually require discipline, especially when your team is remote. For instance, our officer manager introduces a theme every day for us to participate in.
These “Off” moments help remove barriers and hierarchies, create a vibe, and gradually a culture, that brings us closer even when we are remote.
These random yet intentional activities are essential and have reminded us that we are not machines.
Remember, we are all human. And let’s remain that way.