As the quarantine wears off in several countries and the flurry of "now everyone will see how cool remote work is!!!" tweets disappears from my timeline, it's time for us all to sit down and have a little chat on what it truly means going remote.
A lot of companies are allowing their workers to stay remote. Which is awesome. Frankly, office is truly not required. But if your company hasn't been through a period of remoteness before the quarantine, the remote situation after it will be drastically different. You see, when we all went into quarantine, everyone in the office went remote. Your company suddenly became remote-first. Now, as companies are making remote optional, you'll have an office with open doors and some co-workers inside them, while others work from home. The company has gone remote-friendly or remote-OK. If not done properly, it won't quite be the best time of your life.
Of course, there are major upsides to remote work. Personally I'm a big fan of it. Yes, you don't have to go through the hassle of taking crowded public transportation or driving 22.7 minutes (both ways) to work. Yes, you can spend more time with your kids, your family, your pets and devote more time to what truly matters, like dancing around in your underpants to the sound of Cardi B while sipping a margarita even though it's only 10 AM on a Tuesday. Yes, all that's possible and all that's awesome.
At Subvisual we've been developing a remote culture for some years now. I've spent the better part of the last 12 months living 200 km away. We had a team member across the Atlantic, in Boston. We have a couple more that live in a different city. We even had people travelling to conferences and spending one or two weeks working remotely. We've been through it for so long now, and, let's be honest, as a company we're not superstar remote master gurus™. Because the truth is hardly anyone is.
We're now a lot better than when we started and it keeps getting better, slowly but surely. After feeling like we were bad at it, I actually truly believe we now have an amazingly positive remote culture. After a lot of instrospection for these past few weeks, I have something special to share with you. This is the breakdown of what we learned through the years. This is what you need to tackle in order to build a friendly remote culture and make sure everyone feels empowered and motivated to work. Especially if you have part of the team remote and part of it in an office.
The Not-So-Secret Challenges
This is the most common pitfall that you, remote person, might fall into. I did. And it took me a while to get out of it. It took me a while to even notice it!
When you're at home, you're at the office. When you have to commute, you have a schedule, you know that even though there might be things still left to do, it's time to clock off, let it go, go home and relax. But you're already home. And it's still only 6:10 PM, Imma just finish debugging this and - wow. 8 PM. Time flies when you don't have to care about commuting, about avoiding the evening rush. It's hard to let go, you feel that weight on your conscience, that you can just do this one more task.
Don't. Stop. You're off the clock. Your mental health is important. Go put on some Kool & The Gang, cook dinner, play Rocket League, tilt with the amount of noobs who can't hit a f*#!"@ ball, give up, change to Skyrim, whatever. Go do something else. If you're always in office, it's incredibly difficult to find time for yourself. It's normal that it happens, your brain will pick up the work related visual cues and that will always be chewing you up on the back of your head. If you are fortunate enough to afford a place with an office room, do your best to keep all your work within it. That means no work outside of it, no tools for your craft in other rooms, nothing. If all your life is digital, create a different user for work stuff. Making that extra step of switching accounts to go back to your work environment is an important barrier. When you blur the lines between work and personal life, at first it might seem fine (oh, you're so productive now!) but with time it will make you burn out. Trust me, I've been down that path and it's not pretty. It takes a long time to get back.
Inevitably this boils down to discipline: define a schedule, stick to it. Fail to do so, try again. This is how you create a habit. It's ok to fail, it's not ok to give up.
When you're in the office, you say good morning to people. You have lunch with them. You chat by the water cooler, hear all about last weekend's chess tournament win and how the Sicilian defence is soooooo overrated (yes, I'm looking at you, [VOLUNTARILY REMOVED BY THE AUTHOR. ABSOLUTELY NOT PEER PRESSURED INTO IT.]). And that's fine! That's more than fine, that's awesome and those moments are cherishable! You build rapport, you build friendship, you become a cohesive unit, what a team should be!
On the other hand, when you are remote, you don't have anyone to talk with. No water cooler. No coworker casually drinking from the beer fountain your eccentric startup CEO just acquired - "so what if it's 11 AM on a Wednesday, it's 5'o clock somewhere!" - When you're remote, you're on your own.
"That sucks" you conclude. "This sucks" you insist. "Let's do dailies!"
Daily meetings are the most common solution to combat isolation. Schedule a time, get everyone online, have a chat with your team. If they are company-wide dailies (very common in startups) this might not apply to you. If, however, you are part of a small team within a larger team, you might end up in this scenario.
The following is an excerpt of an internal Basecamp post I wrote last year, discussing being remote and how we can improve it:
I only talk with people once a day, during the daily. Literally just with Pedro. Only person from Subvisual. Other than him, the other participants aren't even part of the company. We mostly complain about stuff, Pedro's house not being finished yet and we casually mention what's on our plates for the day. That's it. A 15 min affair of communicating with human beings. There's nothing on Slack and, as far as I can tell, even the company seems closed. Fridays are very much office-centric (again, not that this is negative, at all). The best feedback you get is an occasional tweet with people jollying around the office. From my personal stand-point, I don't talk with anyone at all and my days are mostly spent reading or making things up to entertain my mind.
There's nothing wrong with dailies per se, but you should be aware - they are a tool for project productivity, not for fighting isolation. This happened during a time when most of the team was in-office and all the goofing and joking around happened within it. Jokes wouldn't be on Slack. Nobody even would say anything on #random and if I took the initiative, I would barely get someone replying and would feel ignored and isolated. And afterwards I'd see everyone happy on Twitter. This is daunting. This is scary. And it leads to a negative feedback loop because after you neglect your remote co-workers, they will feel isolated and reduce their interactions, leading them to be even more neglected by other coworkers and increasing their isolation. Applications like Slack, Basecamp or whatever, are the main method your coworkers have to communicate with you. Don't leave them hanging. That's your tool to combat isolation, not dailies. Dailies are work, not watercooler, beer sipping, chess bashing fun times.
(Yeah and those Friday references - we allocate our Friday to what we call "investment time". Improving ourselves and our company, learning new languages, frameworks, techniques, trying out weird things, giving talks to each other and so on. More on that later.)
Another powerful tool for battling isolation is to create actual moments for goofing around. Every Monday we have a 30 min call to discuss how our previous week was. It's not about work, it's about our personal lives, just to share what we've been doing, how Pedro's house is still not finished even though he's been claiming "just this one thing missing" for the past year and a half, how the new Cardi B single is 🔥🔥🔥, you know, the yoozh. Every Friday, at the end of the day we have a call to discuss what we accomplished in our investment time. This tends to include people trying out fancy new beers and sharing them. Every day, at the end of the day, there's an opt-in call for folks to just chat. And occasionally you see people on Slack creating calls while they are just coding or doing their thing, each on their own project, but all in the same call to mimic the office environment (beware this might hurt your productivity if you need to be focused and should be handled with care). Create and nurture those moments, it's your team, they're your co-workers and sometimes we all need to talk about chess and the Sicilian defence being overrated.
So, to reiterate: don't bank on dailies - they're a tool for communication within a project, not for isolation. Care for asynchronous communication, reply and encourage discussing everyday life on tools like Slack. Share gifs and videos that make you laugh. Create moments for people to join in and goof around. And please, if you do have a beer fountain in the office, send a few bottles to your remote coworkers, it's only common courtesy.
We're a small company that relies on democratic values. We all have the right to an opinion. Company-wide decisions are discussed with everyone and we are free to object. But being remote, for a while I felt more distant than ever to the decision making process. This happened because of (1) meetings - discussed ahead - (2) offline conversations, and (3) our transition to Basecamp being rough.
I'll preface this with my opinion: offline conversations are essential for a small team to act quickly and be agile. If it's not company-wide, the decision process doesn't have to go through everyone and if 2-3 people get together organically, discuss something and reach a solid conclusion, that's perfectly fine. Halting and saying "wait up, let's get this in a call and discuss it with everyone" or "let's get everyone into this" is counter-productive and doesn't allow for the fluidity you need in small teams. I'm not in the camp of "make every meeting online, even if all participants are in office" as that is a killer to productivity, at least in our team. Every year we define our yearly and quarterly OKRs and subsequently create AoRs (areas of responsibility) to make sure we achieve them. If the folks responsible for marketing need to make a quick decision (which you, a remote worker, might not care about), having a chat and discussing it offline is more than acceptable. Problems only arise when you're not communicating those decisions properly.
For a while, at Subvisual, I saw this happen quite frequently and it was common that people discussed matters offline but then failed to notify others. The most common consequence was that someone else, not involved in the decision, would eventually make a post or lengthy argument on Slack or Basecamp and end up being followed up with a "oh, we've discussed this and it's X". Frustrations arise not because you weren't part of the decision, but because you took your time and put effort into thinking about a problem, structured your thoughts, wrote a lengthy message, only to feel dismissed.
This is more common than you think and just because things go well, everyone likes what you do and nobody tells you they feel frustrated, it doesn't mean it doesn't happen. When these scenarios are unfolding, given enough time, the remote members of your team may end up giving up the effort of tackling issues and discussing them because they're lost in favour of an offline discussion. Online discussions take time and effort. It's much easier to pull someone to the side and talk. You're talking with a human. Even more, with a human you probably actually like! It's so much more pleasant and you feel so much more connected. But if you don't open these conversations to remote folks (when it makes sense to) and don't communicate the outcomes, you're removing power from your equals that just happen to not be there, for whatever reason.
We transitioned to Basecamp about 8 or 9 months ago. It wasn't a smooth transition. We decided to do so because we had to improve our asynchronous communication. Also because, well, as good as Slack is for chatting, it's not the best for important asynchronous discussions that you'll want to revisit. Saying something is cheap. It's quick and easy and consequently it's not difficult for conversations to get lost in a flurry of small, unstructured messages. With many people joining in fast, with poorly structured thoughts and ideas, the value of asynchronous communication gets lost. So we decided to switch to Basecamp for longer and important discussions.
But when we made the switch, it was hard to get everyone on board with it and to add a tool to the workflow. It was just too out of hand. Now, to me, this is the greatest advantage of Basecamp. Even more so if you disable the notifications. You actually have to set time aside to check and devote to it, just like you would for e-mail. This is wonderful for asynchronous discussions since you'll have a period devoted to thinking them through and writing coherent and structured thoughts.
However, to add that one tool that is out of hand, that requires you to consciously make an effort of using it and checking it, might be a difficult habit to create. In the beginning, we were seeing a lot of discussions with barely any answers, or none at all. You would scroll around in message boards of different topics, see people asking for opinions and getting 1, 2, maybe 3 others to pitch in. That's 25-33% of our company. That wasn't enough. Besides Basecamp being out of hand, a big factor that lead to it was what I mentioned previously - a lot of discussions were happening offline and people weren't accostumed to sharing the outcomes, even though Basecamp is perfect for that. The lack of responses was leading to a negative feedback loop: nobody replies, poster gets discouraged, fewer posts, fewer replies. If you're remote and the rest of your team is in an office, this is a big factor in feeling cut-off from the decision making progress.
Eventually, we made a conscious effort. Started sending out reminders on Slack, asking for opinion and tagging directly and some (cough Roberto cough) were the acting police officers replying "yeah that's cool and all but can you move it to Basecamp?" in every. single. discussion. on Slack. For me, this was a game changer and thanks to the efforts in making the switch, our communication and decision making process improved dramatically.
Beware! Here be dragons!
Whenever someone is enthusiastic about "more meetings!", you should be suspicious. Especially under the guise of "fighting remote isolation". And this happens because of two reasons. The first one is that as a company you want to maximise productivity and nothing is a better killer of productivity than unnecessary meetings with too many people.
Pulling seven people away from their work for an hour is worth seven hours of lost productivity.
Jason Fried and DHH, Remote: Office not Required
The second reason is that if your meeting has part of the team on site and part of it remote, it will be incredibly discouraging for the remote folks. My experience is that, without a proper remote friendly culture, every time you have 3+ people in a meeting, with the bulk of it in the office, it quickly becomes one of the frustrating experiences you can have if you're remote. You'll end up feeling ignored because you don't get the same opportunities to talk like people in office. You feel like if you interrupt, you'll be rude. Nonetheless, you try to pitch in and people ignore you. People talk over you, because they're there and it's easier to listen to someone who's right in front of us. When (if) you finally catch a break in the conversation and get the chance to talk about what you wanted, most of the time the conversation is already on a different topic. And most of the time, the people discussing have already reached a consensus so now, whatever you want to question or ask or suggest is pretty much already agreed upon and decided.
A quick workaround I've seen many teams implement is asking "hey, remote folks, what are your thoughts?". The problem here is the timing. This usually happens after the topic has already been discussed, as to not break the conversational flow. Quite frankly, most of the time yes, you wanted to add something but now people have already discussed what they wanted and what you wanted to say was referring to something several minutes earlier. Now everyone is looking at the screen waiting for you to say something and you have two options. Either 1. you decide to go ahead, speak your mind and rewind the conversation, say what you wanted which will make the conversation loop and is very commonly followed by a "I think we're looping and we should probably discuss this on Slack/Basecamp/X" (to be fair quite rightfully so, you are indeed looping). Or 2. you do understand the awkwardness of forcing the conversation to loop, feel that the train has already left the station and just go with "nah, I'm good", which in time will feed the isolation and powerlessness you feel.
I was (probably) the first one to notice this pattern in our company and address it. After dissecting it, we concluded there is no easy solution but to make a conscious effort of noticing when someone remote is trying to talk. If you're in the office, you need to be the champion of this. You need to take charge and say "hold on, I think <Lovely Person Who Happens To Be Remote> wants to add something". You need to place yourself in the shoes (slippers, probably) of the people who are remote. It is also your responsibility, as an awesome coworker, to make sure the people who are not in office feel comfortable, empowered, and you're all having a pleasant experience. At the same time, when you're remote, it's your responsibility to own up, not be quiet and not refrain from saying what you wanted to say. People at the office want to hear you just as much as you want to share and add to the conversation. As Zamith taught us from his experience working from Boston, sometimes the only solution is to just start talking, even though others keep talking over you. People will notice you and give you their attention. And the next time around, they'll be aware that you want to add something.
So to recap, these are our steps for an awesome remote culture. They might not apply to you or your problems. But they worked out pretty well for us:
- Create moments for goofing around.
- Dailies are not those moments.
- Chat with people, most of them have something interesting to say, like the fact that the Sicilian defence is overrated.
- Send beer from your beer fountain to coworkers.
- Having meetings with people in office is not a sin, but not communicating decisions and outcomes will bring you 36514 years of bad luck.
- Use tools like Basecamp, Trello, Asana, and so on, to communicate asynchronously.
- Don't do too many meetings.
- When you do meetings, if you're in office stand by your remote coworkers and make sure they get a timely chance to speak their minds. If you're remote, own up and just speak your mind. Your co-workers want to hear what you have to say.
- And finally: implement Margarita Tuesdays to the sound of Cardi B. If you're not allowed, implement them by yourself at home because you now have an awesome remote culture.
PS: We're hiring a front-end developer! We're remote friendly, incredibly curious and a lovely bunch! You can find more details on our hiring blog post.