BY JANICE ALEXANDER
The sudden transition to working remotely can be a rough one. While working from home is not an unfamiliar concept — particularly to those in the tech industry — moving to a completely virtual office, especially in such an unsettling climate, is a significant adjustment that brings its own set of challenges. For at least the next few weeks, this will be our new normal, and we must find ways not just to cope but to thrive, despite the external pressures and internal angst we are facing because of COVID-19.
In other words, we have a few tricks up our sleeves when it comes to keeping our teams engaged and efficient and, more importantly, maintaining high energy levels in the virtual workspace.
We know that one size does not fit all, but we took some time to think about the simple things we’ve done that have worked wonders for building camaraderie and boosting productivity on our remote teams. In the next couple of lines (of text… not code :)), we break down a few tips that we hope you and your team will find useful.
First things first - focus on your people.
One of the key values of Agile is “individual and interactions over processes and tools”. This should be your guiding principle in building your remote work culture. As demonstrated in the recent tissue paper rampage, we can become obsessed with throwing stuff at problems (such as tools, technologies, and rules) that we don’t quite know how to solve or at situations over which we have no control.
This tactic never works the way we intend.
Now is a time to focus on the individual and collective needs of your team and provide the support they will need. Not only must your team members work on adjusting to a new physical workspace, but they must also battle with social isolation due to missing out on the daily interactions with their team members in the office.
In simple terms, people get lonely and can feel disconnected not only from the team, but also from their work and the company in general. This is one of the most common complaints about remote work, especially for the more extroverted individuals. It is crucial for you to be deliberate in creating regular opportunities for interaction among your remote team.
Make individual and team check-ins part of your work-from-home routine.
We’re a pretty close-knit group at QualityWorks. We are accustomed to “cooler conversations” and random stop-bys at our desks just to check in and we are deliberate in translating that into our virtual workspaces as well.
Here’s how we do this:
- We facilitate our weekly team huddle sessions with an “All cameras on” policy so we get to see everyone’s lovely faces and hear how they are doing. We also use this time for team updates, pop-your-collars (where we share about the great things individual team members are doing), and other light-hearted, fun group activities.
- We have dedicated communication channels for fun social interaction. Our Slack channels and WhatsApp groups are usually abuzz as we check in with each other, send updates, and share memes and other lighthearted content to keep us going.
- As an Agile team, daily standups are a part of our routine in our project teams. This time is used mainly for updates on our work progress and to identify blockers or areas where we can help each other. Even if you are not a practicing Agile team, this can be a great way for your remote team to stay in sync and get those deliverables met. The agenda should be as simple as asking:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What are your goals for today?
- What are your blockers?
- Generally, we have scheduled get-togethers and team events at the office — and being remote doesn’t change that! Try to plan virtual events such as coffee breaks and game nights. Host a Netflix watch party with your team. Currently, we have a standing workout session twice per week in which the entire remote team meets to complete fitness challenges over Google Hangouts.
Over - Communicate.
The greatest obstacle you may need to overcome during this transition to working remotely is managing and maintaining communication with your team. Navigating this hurdle requires a new level of commitment to find ways to stay in touch! You no longer have the luxury of just scurrying over to your teammate’s workspace or tapping on their shoulder when you have a question or want to share an idea. Neither can you just walk into your boss’s office to ask for the approval or signature you need.
It can be easy to overlook just how reliant we are on these spontaneous day-to-day interactions to get our job done and to keep our sanity. You and your team will now have to be very deliberate when connecting with each other.
Successful collaboration in the virtual space requires OVER-communication on all levels.
Come up with a solid plan that sets expectations regarding how communication at all levels will be handled. This plan should not only account for widescale communication but also for those daily one-on-one conversations that we rely on to get our jobs done.
Here’s what we recommend:
1. Choose a communication toolkit that allows for quick and easy communication.
Everyone “loves” good ol’ emails and phone calls; however, these communication tools by themselves simply won’t hold up in your virtual office. Fortunately, there are tons of communication and collaboration tools at our disposal. Take advantage of this by creating an ecosystem of tools that will ensure the natural escalation of communication needs.
2. Yes, you need video conferencing.
Your focus should be on encouraging as much real-time, in-person communication as possible; there’s no better way to do that than by maximizing video. If you haven’t already, you absolutely must begin to do this by adding video conferencing software to your toolkit, such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet.
Choose the one or two tools that best fit your team’s needs and make them the standard tools for everyone to use. It is important to set certain expectations on how video communication should be handled by your team. For example, being able to see each other while on our calls makes all the difference. At QualityWorks, we have an unwritten rule of keeping all cameras on during our team meetings.
Seeing everyone’s faces helps us to stay close and connected.
Side note: Prepare yourself for the technical issues: Network problems, choppy connection, dropped calls. They will happen.
3. Create a space for “cooler conversations”.
Your second tool should be an instant messaging platform that acts as your virtual “tap on the shoulders”. Popular team chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams® can help fill this void, but before deciding which app to use, consider the features that will be most valuable to you and your team, such as:
- Will this app be used solely for chatting with your team, or will it be used as a full-on collaboration tool?
- Will this be your new file-sharing hub?
- Do you need this app to be able to integrate with other apps currently used by your team?
- Will the app also function as a task manager?
- How will you use the app differently than using email?
Factors such as speed and affordability will also play a key role in your decision making.
Personally, we love Slack and Whatsapp groups, and most of our chatting takes place there; but there are free apps like Google Hangouts and other affordable alternatives to Slack that offer a free plan up to a certain number of users with basic functionality. Here’s a list of collaboration and chat apps that you can check out.
Note: Some meetings can STILL just be emails. Increased communication channels are not incentives to create an 8-hour schedule of back-to-back meetings. Your remote team still needs the time and space to get actual work done.
Flexibility is key to keeping your cool during times of uncertainty. Flexibility is a key tenet of Agile because it allows for greater adaptability to changes. Responding to change over following a plan is, in fact, one of the core Agile values.
It is highly unlikely that everything will go as planned. Accounting for this possibility and adopting a flexible mindset while rethinking your projects and initiatives will help to assuage the panic your team might feel when things go awry, and it will help them pivot quickly to finding the best solutions.
At this point in our history, every team from every industry is experiencing some form of disruption to their monthly and quarterly plans and objectives. Your team members are also handling disruptions in their personal lives. Giving them a little wiggle room will allow them to breathe and realign to be most productive.
You are not alone, but the teams that learn to adapt quickly will have the greatest advantage. Consider areas in which there is room for flexibility, whether it be in time, scope, or budget. Work through taking actionable steps to accommodate small changes that will still allow you to deliver but with less undue pressure.
Stay positive. Stay productive.
On a final note, positive energy is contagious and can go a long way toward keeping team morale and productivity high. Starting with leadership, there should be a concerted effort to spread encouragement throughout the team.
Be deliberate in celebrating the big accomplishments and small wins of your team. Think about opportunities to support team members who are having an especially hard time coping with the reality of the COVID19 crisis and working remotely. This could be as simple as sending out an e-card to celebrate a milestone or sharing tips with your team on how to practically achieve the balance between their personal and professional lives.
We hope these tips and tricks will help your remote team keep the ball rolling. We also hope you will use this time as an opportunity to find new and innovative ways to work together and knock those goals out of the park.
If you’re looking for further advice or strategies in managing your remote team or driving your digital transformation, reach out to us to schedule a FREE consultation. We’re ready to help so we can all get through this crisis together!