Aaron Shapiro

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6 Ways to Make a Remote Company Effective

May 4, 2020

The pandemic has forced my company, like many others, to go remote. While I’ll be happy when we’re finally able to return to the office, remote work can be surprisingly effective. Here’s how:

1. Do What Software Developers Do

Remote work may be new for you, but it isn’t new for software development. Distributed teams have been common in engineering groups for more than a decade. In fact, remote work for engineers can be more effective than in-person environments because a home office can be distraction-free… no noise of an open office environment; no coworkers wandering by distracting you; no unnecessary meetings.

A distraction-free environment is then coupled with tight accountability to ensure remote developers are completing tasks in a timely manner and hitting deadlines. Typically, this is done with project management software, like Jira, that assigns specific programming tasks that must be completed, and tracks completion rates and level of effort required to complete tasks. Teams often embrace an agile model, where goals are set for 2-week “sprints” and the remote team has a daily stand-up meeting, where each individual reports on progress and discusses items where there are issues or more collaboration is required. Usually, an individual--a “scrum master” is tasked with keeping the team on track--they’re running the daily standups, monitoring and updating tasks, and making sure the sprint goals are met.

This model can be applied to any kind of remote team: set goals for each two-week cycle; track tasks with project management software, and hold a daily stand-up to keep everyone on track. Productivity is then measured on what people actually get done, as monitored by software, not on how much face time they have in the office.

2. Say No to the Half-Hour Zoom Call

One of the benefits of an office environment is the casual interaction and quick check-ins that can happen by popping your head in someone’s office and asking a question. When everyone’s remote, that’s not possible. Too often, the half-hour zoom call has replaced it: whenever someone has a question or need to discuss something quickly, a 30 minute zoom call is booked, when 30 seconds may be enough IRL. The result: a day filled with Zoom meetings, and no time to get anything done.

So say no to unnecessary Zoom. Establish expectations among your colleagues that all our time is valuable, and that there’s a preferred channel for quick, spontaneous questions and interaction. Whether it is a text, slack chat or--scandal!--a phone call. In my case, I prefer a spontaneous, quick video chat, which brings us to…

3. Instant Video

Outside of spontaneity, the other big thing we lose is the emotion connection that’s only possible with an in-person interaction. While nothing can replace it, the next-best thing is video. So let’s make the most of it. The best way to do this is to install a culture of instant, spontaneous video. What this means is: when possible, if there’s a reason to quickly interact with someone, try to do it by video. When things go beyond a simple yes/no question, audio is often a faster and more effective way to communicate than waiting for someone to type a response, and typing a response yourself, and then waiting again over iMessage. And a phone call is suboptimal for making a connection. The answer is therefore video, spontaneous video chats that aren’t scheduled in advance. Depending on your team’s culture and protocol, this can be Facetime, or texting someone a Google Meet URL. They’re fast, effective, and another way to break down the silos of working remotely.

4. Stop notifications. Now.

Between texting, Slack, email and (if you follow #3) instant video, it is easy to be overrun with notifications. Nothing gets done, because you spend the whole day responding to messages blessed at you--not to mention the distraction of social media pushes. No matter what your job is, you’ll need some quiet focused time to get things done. And that means no distractions.

How bad are distractions? According to a study from the University of California at Irvine, if you are in the middle of a focused task and are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back in focused task mode. Multiply this by countless notifications and you spend the whole work day distracted, unable to truly get solid blocks of work done.

The solution is simple: turn off notifications. Establish time that is for focused work, and during that time turn off everything that can distract you from getting things done. Then, set aside other hours for communications and lighter work: where it is ok to get distracted and have that stream of Slack notifications flood in.

Embrace this religiously and you’ll find something interesting: many of those urgent things that distract you are not so urgent after all, and often resolve itself. As an unscientific experiment, I turned off all notifications for one work day--24 hours of no email, texts, nothing. It was oddly quiet and relaxing! A day later, when I turned everything back on and scanned my messages, more than half of the items were things I no longer needed to respond to--they were handled without me. The primary culprit--questions or requests that were sent to groups of people, where a good half the people on the group didn’t really need to be on the thread. So fewer notifications not only means less distraction and more productive work; it also means less work.

5. Weekly Inspiration

Without regular office interaction, it is easy for people to forget why they go to work in the first place--beyond money, what are we trying to accomplish, both near term and long term? Why is it important? And, it is easy for people to forget how their work fits into the bigger picture: what are other teams working on? What’s new for the company in general? What are we all trying to accomplish?

While these questions exist in any organization--there’s an old adage that leadership can never overcommunicate--these questions are even more important when people are at home and can easily forget that they’re part of something bigger than themselves that’s really important. Every team and company exists to do something important and provide real value. The details of this should be communicated frequently.

For this reason, I’ve found that a weekly all-team or all-company meeting is critical--a frequency that’s far more frequent than the monthly all-hands that is more common in in-person companies. These meetings should communicate everything that’s going on in the business and team, so everyone’s up-to-date on everything going on… and reminded about the mission everyone’s trying to accomplish.

6. Zoom Happy Hours

Perhaps the biggest overlooked part of remote work is culture. How do you build a distinct culture and work friendships when everyone is in their own home? Consider Zoom Happy Hours as a solution. At Dayforward, we do this twice a month: someone is responsible for running it, and they create a virtual activity for each happy hour--whether it is virtual bingo, charades, or just everyone having a drink with a theme, like end of summer, where people are asked to dress accordingly. It is silly, it is stupid, but it also does a good job of bringing folks together. Virtual birthday parties, or sending everyone swag is another way to keep things fun. The point is that work is a big part of our social life, so the more we can do to replicate that in the remote work environment, the better.