Working Remotely, Part 2: Strategies for Success
Today’s blog post is written by Christina Johnson, Senior Manager of Client Support, PatronManager.
With remote work on the rise, it’s become more and more important for organizations to adapt their processes to a world where distributed work is more common and in-demand. Whether your employees work from home once a week or in a more long-term way, an intentional strategy and remote-first mentality can help your organization succeed in this new work environment. Two weeks ago, my colleague Shasti discussed the importance of collaboration and communication in this blog post. This week I’ll get more specific and talk strategy for teams working remotely.
It’s essential for your entire team to be clear on a basic set of expectations, right from the start. In particular:
Working Hours: When you’re not in the same physical space, knowing when someone is online and available is key! Those you work with on a day-to-day basis need to know when to expect you to be working in order to communicate and collaborate on projects more effectively. A simple and easy action item to take here would be ensuring your coworkers have access to your work calendar and vice versa.
Responsiveness After Hours: Working from home does not (and should not) mean that you’re on call 24/7. A work-life balance is important for mental health and avoiding burnout. If you’re working remotely, make sure to close your laptop after work hours. (I’ve found that it’s helpful to have a designated work space in my home that I’m able to “leave” when I’m done with work.) Conversely, if you’re working on-site or in a different time zone, make sure to be conscious of when your remote coworkers are off the clock.
Using Video for All Internal Calls: This is key to feeling engaged and connected to your colleagues! Face to face communication can help put your coworkers’ words into context. Without it, a lot of body language and meaning can be lost. Here at PatronManager, we use Zoom for internal meetings, but there are many other video call alternatives.
As well as having basic expectations laid out, you’ll need to make sure you have a solid technical infrastructure in place to collaborate remotely. Having the right tools set up is vital in every workspace, but it’s even more important for remote workers since technology is your lifeline to your organization. Here are some specific things to keep in mind:
Laptops Over Desktops: I have found that having a laptop (as opposed to a desktop) makes the remote working lifestyle much easier. Even though I have a designated workspace in my home, it’s nice to have location flexibility, particularly when I travel for work. I do have a “desktop set up” per-se, with a mouse, keyboard, and extra screen on my desk, but my main hardware is a laptop that can be detached when necessary.
Webcams: As I mentioned above, having a webcam is crucial for video calls. Most laptops have these pre-installed, but if you happen to have a desktop, it’s worth investing in one so you can see your coworkers in meetings.
Good USB Headsets: Clear audio enhances comprehension, so everything you can do to make sure you have high-quality sound is vital. I have found that just having a good headset (with a microphone) works wonders.
A REMOTE-FIRST MENTALITY: COMMUNICATION & DOCUMENTATION
As managers, an important thing to implement and reinforce for your team is a remote-first mentality. This means operating on the assumption that at least one person on your team will be working remotely, and defaulting to communication methods that accommodate that, such as planning for video calls and utilizing project management software. Buying into organizational standards about communication and documentation is the cornerstone of success in remote work.
Written Communication: To be able to work successfully as a distributed team, transparency and overcommunication are vital. In my experience, this means sticking to whatever digital communication platform your organization has implemented outside of email.* Our team, for example, does the vast majority of our communication through Chatter in Salesforce, and a culture of psychological safety — the shared belief among a team that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking — is what makes this work.
In a psychologically safe environment, individuals feel they can show one’s self without fear of negative consequences. Psychological safety makes public question-asking and visible work possible, and in turn, public question-asking and visible communication allows your team to work together to share expertise and operate more efficiently. A good place to start in creating this type of environment is to develop a set of communication guidelines with clear expectations for your team. Some specific things to keep in mind:
- As a manager, make sure to instill and reward a constructive, team-first attitude where your direct reports prioritize teamwork and supporting peers.
- Establish guidelines for giving constructive feedback. Constructive feedback should be focused on observed behavior and information, rather than on an individual’s personality. It should also focus on what has occurred, rather than passing “right or wrong” judgments.
- Be clear about what information is for internal eyes only, and what information is public-facing.
- Develop and implement shared standards about what to do if something isn’t working well or you need to have a potentially hard conversation. We use a hashtag (#checkin) to signal a non-judgemental way of flagging something for further discussion, whether it’s a “hi did you want to follow up on this” moment or something more serious. By writing down what to expect in those moments, you create a safer space to have those conversations.
*Using transparent communication tools such as Chatter or Slack streamlines and shifts conversations out of one-to-one channels like email and into “one to many channels.” This cuts down on duplicate expertise requests, and it keeps everyone from drowning in email.
Real-time Communication: In addition to written communication tools, interacting in real time both one-on-one and in larger groups is part of a remote-first mentality. But how do you create a connection and build rapport with your colleagues in a virtual space?
In my experience, it’s all about consistency. Regular one-on-ones between managers and direct reports, as well as weekly team huddles, are of the utmost importance. Being physically distant shouldn’t mean you feel disconnected. I would also recommend implementing virtual office hours or a study hall forum — optional meetings where your team can get questions answered by others, or just have a space to work with other humans where you can ask questions aloud and be around people.
Aside from formal communication, it’s just as important to maintain a sense of camaraderie and build fellowship among a team. Our team does this by setting new employees up with peer mentors to foster stronger deliberate relationships. We also make digital spaces specifically with the purpose of bonding over non-work related things. For example, we have various groups set up in Chatter and Slack to discuss topics ranging from pet photos to parenting to RuPaul’s Drag Race. We do this through video as well — our holiday party takes place on Zoom, and staff members often host informal video call gatherings like virtual coffee hours and crafting parties.
Documentation: Documentation is another area to focus on as part of a remote-first mentality since it provides people with the information they need to do their job effectively. A good mode of operating to adopt is: if information isn’t in a fully shared space, it doesn’t exist. This means documenting questions and answers, and adhering to clear standards about knowledge sharing. Some things to ask yourself when evaluating your documentation standards:
- Do you keep all of your documentation in a shared digital space?
- Does everyone have access to the documentation they need to perform their duties well?
- Is your documentation consistently updated?
- Do you have clear standards for what is the “record of truth” — the most up-to-date accurate version of a piece of content or material?
- Do you have shared naming conventions?
- Do you archive out-dated documentation?
This might seem tedious, but once you’ve answered these questions and created documentation standards customized to your organization’s unique needs, I guarantee it will save you a lot of time and stress.
I hope these strategies, in conjunction with the concepts my colleague Shasti laid out in her blog post, spur some thought for you in regards to opening your organization up to embracing a remote work culture. When you start with clear basic expectations and stick to transparent communication and documentation standards, you’ll be well-poised to help your organization succeed whether you’re in the same physical office space or located across the country from your team.
The content in this post was developed in collaboration with Shasti Walsh, Associate Product Manager at PatronManager, and Vee Bell, Director of Board Governance at Teach For America.