In the current climate, many organisations are considering their operational plans for having some, or all, of their workforce remote from the office for an extended period. While the technical underpinnings are easier to set up than they were a decade ago, there are cultural, etiquette and leadership considerations that take longer, but have long term value when established.
Building a remote working culture doesn’t happen overnight, but some organisations have built it from the ground up with great success. At Bulletproof, we had a policy of hiring the best people wherever they were, which gave us access to some great people not based in Sydney, or even in Australia; at our peak we had 180 people, in six different Australian centres, USA, South Africa, Thailand, Germany and the UK. As a service provider, we used the worldwide coverage to our advantage in building a follow-the-sun support capability, but it wasn’t without some challenges. Here are some learnings we gained along the way.
Working remotely, or even away from HQ, means some people are not present when discussions are held. Remote teams or individuals can feel isolated from the action. This means anything important needs to be said on a few different channels, and where possible to do so at the same time – like in a town hall with remote video conferencing capability. (See timezones, below). Also, a water-cooler conversation needs to go virtual or be mapped across to email if it resolved anything important (aside from who should have won lastnight’s game!)
For regular communications as part of day to day work, we found a few things that worked well included:
- Regular (virtual) standups. Have a team get-together every day or two to quickly close out any items you were waiting on responses from your team on, or to make and re-issue any company-wide announcements (together with how they might affect you). The virtual aspect means remote folks can dial / connect in and be present and interact with other team members regularly.
- The right mode for the right urgency. We had a simple rule of thumb that used priority and urgency for a response to determine the channel to use: Email – non-urgent, next business day; Instant Messaging – ASAP, but within an hour or two; Mobile text – semi-urgent, within a few minutes (but longer if you’re in a meeting); Voice call – urgent – respond now, or as soon as you can. The exact technologies may change (for example using video chat instead of voice calls) but the timing rules still help.
- Missed Messages. A lot of organisations have ‘live’ instant message channels where streams of messages go past. Splitting these channels by relevance (e.g. Announcements for company-wide comms; Team-wide channels for operational chat; Fun or Trivia for ongoing chit-chat; IT for help with IT issues, etc.) helps people tune out or only connect when they have time. While it helps to be connected, missing messages is a risk, so for announcements, repeat via Email or provide the ability to subscribe to daily or weekly digests.
When you have people spread around the world, there are a few extra considerations to be taken into account. For example, setting a meeting time, whether 1-1 or for a whole of company town hall, needs to take into account remote timezones. With such a widespread team, we could never please everyone, but we tried to alternate times to suit different remote timezones over time, for fairness. Also, expecting a response inside your business day may not work if the person you are waiting on is asleep. Be considerate to timezones. On the upside, if you time it well you can get a question answered overnight, which might otherwise have taken til sometime later the next day otherwise.
Although forced isolation and CBD lockouts may be on the horizon, think about how and when you can get the whole team together. We arranged for those who were remote, but able to travel to our HQ or another main centre within a few hours to get themselves there for the town hall meeting day once a month (with plenty of advance notice), and we even provided lunch or snacks that day to help (bearing in mind we were an IT services company… you may need different bribes!). Many were very happy to have the opportunity to socialise and meet face to face with colleagues and some made a two or three day trip of it, so they could spend more time with colleagues or attend meetings in person. We ran the same process for people moving between main centres such as Sydney and Melbourne, while carefully managing travel costs. Again, you may need to consider travel bans in your plans.
If you’ve ever wondered why remote working hubs and offices are springing up everywhere, this is why: isolation affects us all. We found that some teams who were in the same regional area but still remote arranged to work together from time to time – say once a week – at one of their homes, or at least to catch up for coffee to socialise and have some face to face time. This really helps break down the effects of isolation.
Ask the question: RUOK?
As managers and leaders, we need to be aware that those working remotely will be the first to feel isolated when things are changing quickly, or when wider, gloomy things like pandemics and economic recession take up our thoughts. Rise above these, to stay positive; but also reach out to your team and your colleagues and ask, “are you ok?” A quick chat, coffee, remote video call or message can go a long way to feeling cared for and connected with the mothership.