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In the past six months, major tech companies announced that they will allow their employees to work away from the office long term, and in some cases permanently.
As we enter this new era of distributed work, I have collected my reflections on how to make our non-conventional office experience more effective and stay productive in the long term.
Let's talk remote work
Working from home is not a new concept. Companies like Automattic, GitLab and Basecamp have been running all-remote teams since they were founded, and have been documenting the benefits and drawbacks in their company playbooks.
What is unprecedented is the mass transition of office workers from their company headquarters to non-traditional work environments. Throughout the beginning of 2020, companies which operated as co-located for decades had to face this transformation in a very short amount of time, and at scale.
In my experience leading remote teams, the most successful companies are the ones that invest in developing two key areas that distributed work requires us to evolve:
Remote work comes with its own set of specific challenges, and the way a company or a team responds to them shapes its culture.
Adjusting expectations around visibility and accountability, and creating new standards around communication will also establish what tools are offered to workers and what best practices are embraced to support remote work.
For one-to-many, working fully remote can be an empowering experience, as it creates a level playing field where all workers have access to the same resources and information.
Effective communication is a crucial aspect to working effectively from home. GitLab's all-remote manifesto highlights a set of stipulations which help to share knowledge in a distributed world which align well to my personal experience:
Documentation over tribal knowledge
While working from home can drastically reduce the face-to-face time we'll get with our co-workers, there are communication strategies that can help mitigate feeling isolated or disconnected.
For example, ensuring that the same data is avaiable to everyone (whether they can attend meetings in person or not) is not only an important inclusive behavior, but also a responsible and efficient way to distribute knowledge.
Creating an environment that promotes a culture of self-service access to documentation is a great method to cut down on meetings, by allowing co-workers to consume information on their own.
On the contrary, when information is not easily accessible by our teammates (whether because it lives as tribal knowledge or because its access is priviledged), data access can become a bottleneck particularly difficult to overcome, especially when working remotely.
Documentation comes in many shapes and doesn't have to consist of a long paper trail: it can be videos, voice recordings, quick meeting notes, sketches or anything else that helps capture the ideas and concepts that we want to share.
The main value of documenting your work is that it allows for asynchronous consumption and it provides a one-to-many communication channel, which allows team members in different time zones or locales to have access to the information they need to complete their jobs independently.
Here's some suggestions for communicating asynchronously with your co-workers:
There are no a-teams
Despite the transformation the tech industry is undergoing, some companies might not be able to transition to fully remote even if they wanted to, due to the specific nature of their businesses.
When only part of the workforce converts to wfh, it is important for companies to establish and communicate the equivalence between remote and on-site work.
This is an important stipulation that will not just help shift the company culture to be more inclusive of remote needs (for example, by running remote-first meetings), but will also help establish the notion that success is equivalently possible in non-traditional workspaces.
Now that we know the type of cultural impact we aspouse to make, we can talk about the day-to-day tips for a successful wfh setup.
A comfortable workspace in is extremely important for your health and your productivity. The reality is that everyone's wfh experience is unique. Our apartments, homes and improvised workspaces are all different and our familial contexts are unlike one another.
Finding a quiet space to work from home can be challenging, especially at first, but it can also be an opportunity to experiment with a variety of different environments and setups.
For that, I love Benedikt's suggestion of finding different areas of your house that can work for specific purposes: think about when you need to be in front of your computer vs when you are able to take a call while walking around the house. Lastly, if you have access to your work office, working from there every so often can also provide a nice break from the wfh routine.
On top of searching for the perfect nook to work in, I've been finding myself looking for tools that can speed up my workflows while wfh. Usage of Zoom, Teams and Slack has exploded throughout the year, but spending less time in in-person meetings and more in front of a laptop, I've began to appreciate every little optimization of my workflow I could make.
As our working spaces become transient and we no longer have a set workstation, the apps below help you stay in the flow when you tether your laptop to an external display, sit on your sofa or work at the kitchen counter.
Remote work requires us to adjust to communicating differently form a co-located space. These apps embrace asynchronous communication and offer innovative ways to stay connected with your team and co-workers.
We all know that audio is the most crucial part of any remote meeting. As we spend more and more time on calls, we want to make sure we can hear, and be heard clearly.
Use headphones or a headset
Headphones & headsets have microphones that focus on capturing your voice and not the noise around you (ever muted someone because of their background noise or the sound from their computer or keyboard?). Here's some other advantages of using headphones.
Be mindful of your mute button
Master the mute/unmute shortcut in your video call of choice. It is a good practice to keep yourself muted unless you want to participate in the call to avoid unnecessary interruptions. Using the shortcut will help with the "sorry I was muted" scenario ☺️.
Video is the easiest way to stay connected with remote teams. I encourage keeping your video on as much as possible, depending on your surroundings and your level of comfort. Here’s some pointers to help your video call experience:
If you’re using a secondary screen connected to the laptop and don't have acceess to your build-in webcam, try taking the video call on your mobile or tablet.
Of course, you can explore more elaborate setups and customize your videoconferencing setup with custom hardware.
PS: I have explored that route, and at the time of writing, the limited market offering for external webcams and the clumsiness of a custom setup overrules the benefits in my opinion.
I hope I was able to share a few ideas on improving your wfh workflows and communicating better with your team.
If you want to learn more, I suggest reading Gitlab's Guide to All Remote, or looking into an online leadership course, like this one offered by Hyper Island.