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Coronavirus: keeping your team effective while working from home

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Companies all over the world are cancelling travel, stopping events, and sending employees to work from home. If the coronavirus outbreak continues, this situation will likely only get worse, with teams who are used to co-located working now finding themselves sat at laptops in living rooms or readjusting to life in a home office.

At Human Made we’ve been working remotely for nearly 10 years. We’re now at over 70 humans all over the world, working from home or co-working spaces or coffee shops. While we often feel like we don’t get to see enough of one another, we are lucky to be somewhat protected from the disruption because it’s business as usual for our day-to-day work.

I love remote work but I often find that, when people are new to it, it can take some adjustment. If you suddenly find yourself working from home, you might find it helpful to learn about some of the things that we have found useful to keep our company effective.

Human Made team members on a video call

1. Openness and transparency are key

In a remote context, transparency is essential. We use Slack for synchronous communication but as much as possible we default to public channels instead of private channels or direct messages (DMs). My personal approach is to default to the most transparent I can be – ideally a public channel, but if that’s not possible, then a private channel with as many people possible, and saving DMs for personal messages or HR stuff.

There are a few reasons this is important: it allows for the free flow of communication and ensures visibility of discussions; it ensures that people can see what is going on across the company and they aren’t boxed into little silos; it means that no one is accidentally left out of an issue that they should be involved in.

2. Default to async

Actually, this is probably more of an aspiration for me than something that we do all of the time. It is very easy to end up with your week scheduled with back-to-back calls, rather than focusing on getting your head down and getting work done. This can result in feelings of unproductively and demotivation.

Asynchronous communication is a really good way to combat this. By async, I mean posting a discussion topic somewhere and letting someone respond in their own time. This allows room in your schedule for working through tasks while making sure that necessary discussions are happening.

3. Document all decisions

The other disadvantage to calls is that decisions sometimes get made between the few people on the call and that decision doesn’t effectively get communicated more widely. Also, some people who needed their voices to be heard may have been absent from the call.

Ideally, decisions shouldn’t be made on calls, but in asynchronous discussions. If that isn’t possible then it’s important to document decisions and the reason for those decisions. That will give people visibility about what is happening across the company.

4. Assume best intentions

A large component of communication is non-linguistic. We communicate through our tone of voice, our facial expressions, our body language. When your primary medium of communication is text, you lose a huge amount of the sentiment that is being communicated to you. You also lose contextual information about the person. Are they having a bad day? Are they under the weather? Has something crap just happened to them?

We have found this to be a particular challenge because we don’t just rely heavily on text-based communication but we have people from a wide variety of cultures who are often communicating in English as their second language.

Through my years working remotely I have frequently had experiences when I read something that feels a little off or that uses words that jar. My instinctual reaction is to get annoyed, but in those moments I make myself step back and question whether the person intended the sentiment I interpret or whether I am reading incorrectly into it. Asking a question for clarification usually helps me to get past that moment.

5. Video calls for the difficult conversations

If you do need to have a difficult conversation with someone else, it’s always best to do this in a video call. This is as close as you can get to an in-person conversation. If it’s a tense situation it’s even more likely that someone will come across as terse or rude in text communication, and it’s even more likely that you will jump to conclusions.

Also it’s much easier for people to be evasive when they are communicating in text so if you are worried about someone and you think they are shutting down, it’s best to get on a call to talk it through.

6. Keep your information organised

After 10 years of running a company we have an immense amount of information stored across many different platforms. It’s overwhelming to think about all of the stuff that we have. It can certainly be a challenge to find things at times. Finding information can be a big time sink so it’s important for people to be able to easily access the information that they need.

7. Keep up the water-cooler discussions

We use Slack for a lot of general chit-chat and it helps us to keep in touch about things that maybe don’t seem important but are important for ensuring that we feel connected to one another. We have loads of interest channels, including tv, music, food, books, kids, scrubs, blockchain, blogging, clothes, etc. Some of them are quieter than others but it just means that there are places for us to chit-chat. We also have a company-wide general channel which ebbs and flows throughout the day.

Update: Meanwhile, we’ve created a dedicated Slack channel for COVID-19 in order to ensure our team members can choose to participate in discussions around the pandemic when they want to, or avoid them when they need to focus or feel overwhelmed. We’ve also updated our public company handbook with our current policies and measures around the Coronavirus pandemic.

8. If someone’s behaviour changes, ask them if they are okay

It can be so hard to tell if someone is burnt out or struggling in a remote company. One of the big signs for me is when someone changes behaviour: someone who is usually chatty might start to withdraw; a productive person’s productivity drops; a person starts being short or snappy with others.

With no boundaries between work and home, burnout in remote workers is a real risk. It’s important to check in with people if you are worried about them. I’ve written more about how to recognise burnout in our company handbook.

9. Encourage your team to create boundaries

When you work remotely it’s very very easy to lapse into working in the evenings and the weekends. It’s tempting to always try to do one more thing and then it’s late in the evening and you’ve not switched off yet. People need to set their own boundaries for when they expect to be working and when they won’t be working, and the team should communicate that with one another. These boundaries should be clear and respected. You could put together a ‘How I work’ document to set expectations.

Further resources

These are some of the ways that we’ve found help to keep us to collaborate. Remote work can be a challenge but it’s also possible for your team to work effectively when you are rarely in the same room.

If you wish to explore further, below are some additional resources on remote work and managing distributed teams.

Conference talk: Navigating Remote Working Professional Relationships

Dee Teal is a Project Manager at Human Made

Conference playlists: Out of Office

Out of Office is a remote, live-streamed conference on work in the digital age we organised in 2016 and 2017, with speakers from Baremetrics, Github, Hanno, Zapier, and Yonder.