These days, with the coronavirus forcing most offices to close, the Internet is overflowing with tips to help employees work effectively from home (sometimes even with kids!). But how can more-traditional companies accustomed to an in-person culture figure out—in just a few days, or weeks—how to competently set up and manage a newly remote workforce for a sustained period of time?
It’s not necessarily easy. But companies now diving into transition could potentially learn some lessons from companies that are already operating with remote cultures, says Andy Kitson, the head of people ops at Redox*, a Madison, Wisconsin-based healthcare-IT company that calls itself “remote first.” That means the vast majority of Redox’s approximately 170 employees were working remotely before COVID-19 upended just about every facet of American (and global) life in the past week. Redox’s workforce spans 33 states.
Many core aspects of Redox’s culture—from the way employees run meetings, solve problems and help each other with projects—are built around a remote setup, according to Kitson. Redox even hires with remote work in mind, structuring interviews and related problem-solving challenges in ways that mirror the company’s remote-work cadence. “Most people we hire, we never actually meet in person,” Kitson says.
It all points to why it can be challenging for a company to quickly go remote. But the technical tools that enable remote work are far more sophisticated today than they were even five years ago, Kitson notes. And by setting up other relatively simple remote-work rules and strategies, even the most old-school company can better manage employees who aren’t spending all day in an office cubicle. Here are some tips for companies scrambling to make the transition today.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
“As a remote company, you have to be more intentional around communication,” Kitson says. Because employees aren’t stopping by each other’s desks to chat, or running out for coffee together, they miss some of the face time that’s essential to understanding the rhythms of a workplace. That means remote companies often need to over-communicate with employees about new company initiatives, goals, news and other issues.
It also means companies need to create cultures in which employees over-communicate with each other, according to Kitson. This means communication around work product, but also explicit discussions about what results employees need from each other and which specific projects or tasks they need help with, he says. To help promote this, Redox gathers all its employees together, in-person, twice a year for gatherings it calls “Team Week” for knowledge sharing, brainstorming and socializing. That togetherness pays cultural dividends through the rest of the year.
Embrace tools like Slack and Zoom
New, cloud-based technology accessible via a web browser has made remote work much easier today—and can help companies quickly move to a remote setup if they need to. For Redox, the core tools are Slack for employee communication and Zoom for video conferencing. Kitson says Slack is “public in a way that email isn’t . . . we’re able to think about a group of people who can see the same conversation,” as opposed to focusing on 1:1 messaging through email.
Even Slack’s built-in emojis are helpful to keep employees motivated and connected. “It sounds dumb, but (emojis) are critical,” according to Kitson. “It’s so hard to convey emotion in writing, especially in writing you’re doing really quickly. So emojis become the equivalent of being able to use body language.” Redox also relies on Google Docs for document collaboration and tools like Retrium for organizing “retrospectives”, or structured group discussions, around various issues. The tool was originally used to host discussions around coding issues being handled in the Agile software-development process, but many groups at Redox now use it to “surface the issues that matter most to them,” and also “prevent the loudest person from dominating the conversation by making sure all perspectives are shared,” Kitson says.
Have a donut
Speaking of emojis: Slack also offers many lightweight, add-on applications that can help bring employees together. The “donut.ai” add-on helps virtually introduce people who don’t know each other via direct messaging, while the “Hey Taco” app allows employees to drop taco emojis into their messages to “show praise, appreciation . . . or just simply put a smile on someone’s face,” according to the app’s creators. It might sound silly, but in a virtual work environment, these touches can improve teamwork and morale.
Get ready for your close-up
Because there are no in-person meetings at all-remote companies, setting rules around video conferencing can be crucial. At companies like Redox and InVision*, which also has an all-remote workforce, everyone is encouraged to use video, and not audio-only, for meetings, so participants are more present for discussions. Both companies also encourage employees to video in separately for meetings, even if they happen to be in the same location, so that everyone can be seen clearly and participate.
InVision also sets standard “office hours” during which all employees, regardless of time zone, are expected to be present and available to work. Seeing cats, dogs and young children in the background during some meetings just comes with the territory, executives of these companies say, and can in some ways bring employees closer together by offering periodic glimpses into their personal lives.
Offer ways for employees to get help
One downside of remote work is the extra steps employees sometimes must go through to get help with a work issue—which means problems may go unnoticed for longer periods of time.
In an all-remote environment, “no one’s going to walk by and see you struggling,” Kitson explains. Redox tries to address this by stressing from the moment an employee is hired that “you have a team who is here to help you,” Kitson says. The company also tries to foster a culture in which asking for help is accepted and encouraged: It set up a “Healthy Minds Resource Group” channel on Slack, for instance, where employees can go for help with specific challenges or just to seek help if they’re feeling overwhelmed. An employee might note that “sometimes I feel like everyone on my team is better at their job than I am,” according to Kitson, and receive encouragement or more specific help from others.
An all-remote, or remote-first, workforce requires a special kind of commitment from a company—which means it’s challenging to switch from a traditional, in-office culture to a remote setup suddenly. But with many companies being forced to do that now, employers may have little choice but to try to make it work. Technology, and common sense, can help ease the transition.
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