By Ben Congleton, with many contributions from Olarkers and friends
Coronavirus just created a worldwide experiment in remote management.
Almost anyone can work from home successfully a few days a week (or even for a week!), but when weeks turn into months, the tactics and processes you developed working in an office break down for remote teams.
I wrote this guide with our team because we’ve run a remote company for over 10 years and know how hard the transition can be. From face-to-face management to remote management, from in-person employee to remote employee – I want you to be ready to bring your whole self to the challenges unique to working remotely.
This may feel counterintuitive. Isn’t the lack of a commute one of the biggest reasons everyone is raving about remote work? Sort of. You may not realize this, but your commute is serving a purpose: it is mental space and time between home and work. It is your time. Commuting serves at least one valuable benefit, mental buffer time, and often serves as one of the few periods of personal time we get each day.
Lose the commute, and lose this buffer time. It is not hard to imagine rolling out of bed, showering (or not showering), grabbing breakfast and carrying it over to your laptop to start your day. In fact, is that how you started your day today? It’s more or less how I started my day if I interspersed some anecdotes of taking care of small children.
Some solutions I’ve tried or heard others try: Starting the day off with a great device-free breakfast, taking a solo drive to clear your head, creating a new morning exercise or meditation routine. When not under quarantine, dropping kids off at daycare, commuting to a coworking space, or creating a coffeeshop routine can also help.
When you are an office worker, you likely work from home occasionally to help catch up on life.
Working remotely means work is no longer physically separate from your life. Your pets, children, and significant others will all know you are around. In fact, you will be physically present to help with all sorts of home-related activities, at any time. The dishes in the sink will call out to you. You’re home, so why not go ahead and put those dishes in the dishwasher, right?
Challenges I’ve personally or heard of others dealing with while working from home: flooded basements, dogs that need to go on walks mid-day, children who can’t be brought to daycare due to illness, diabetic cats, windstorms, power outages, tracking down dogs that have jumped the fence, doctors appointments, feeding children lunch, letting a significant other take a nap, grocery shopping, dishes, cleaning up messes pets made, barking dogs, meowing cats, preparing meals…the list goes on.
Your home life is full of challenges. In an office, these challenges are not concurrent with your challenges at home. This is a big transition and there is no silver bullet.
More than 90% of us have friends at work (Future of Workplace / Virgin). Over 50% of us report we have a best friend at work. Working remotely will not cause your friends to disappear, but it will change the way you interact with them. Grabbing lunch together starts to involve a commute if your coworkers are local, and becomes more or less impossible if your coworkers are geographically distant.
You won’t run into people in the halls or walking from your car. You may find that you spend most of your day interacting with your cats, and when your significant other returns from work and wants a break from interacting with people, you may find yourself needing social interaction the most. If you have kids, you may find yourself missing the company of adults.
There are many solutions to this problem, but they don’t work for everyone. We’ve heard positive results from coworking virtually, shared group chat rooms, online group fitness classes, scheduling lunches and coffee dates on FaceTime. When not under quarantine, participating in sports teams, trivial nights, attending weekly lunches, and carving out ‘me’ time in the evenings to attend events can help.
Solitary confinement and remote work are not the same, but humans are social beings and need varying amounts of social interaction. It is well known that having a strong community of family and friends creates longevity, it is well known that isolation impacts mental health.
Your coworkers and managers will no longer automatically know how you are doing from informal interactions. If you have a strong informal support system at your office, you will need to build a more formal explicit support system when working remotely.
Some solutions I’ve seen others use: virtual therapist appointments with companies like Talkspace, setting up video chats with coworkers, scheduling team retreats on video calls, being transparent about your mental state with your co-workers or managers, open communication when taking time out of the office for mental health reasons. When not under quarantine, in-person therapist appointments, coworking spaces, in-person team retreats, and building healthy in-person social routines can help.
In most offices, there are people in charge of ensuring that your internet is fast, available, and reliable. Having worked remotely for 10 years, I have become accustomed to intermediate outages and slowdowns in internet connections impacting meetings, important conversations, and creating frustration.
Solutions I’ve tried or heard others try include: purchasing a 5G hotspot as a backup, tethering my phone, cutting out video, dialing into meetings using a phone, upgrading my internet connection so that both me and my wife can be on video calls at the same time, upgrading my physical network hardware to reduce latency, using Facetime, and/or calling colleagues directly, or even rapping tinfoil around a USB-C to HDMI connector to reduce interference with WIFI.
Imagine losing your internet connection at the worst possible time during the most important conversation. It will happen, and you’ll need a plan to recover quickly.
When you are in an office and your computer breaks, you can hand it to IT. When you are remote and it breaks, you are lucky if you can drop it off at an Apple store. If you are unlucky, you may need to ship it off for service. Without your primary computer, you will likely be unable to access your VPN without coordinating with IT.
Solutions I’ve tried or heard others try: buying a cheap Chromebook, portable hard drives for backups, as well as assorted connectors to be able to mount and boot from an external hard drive.
Imagine not being able to work for days because your primary computer is hosed while trying to meet a critical deadline. It will happen.
In an office, you can hear a coworker sneezing and another talking excitedly on the phone. You knew that one of your teammates was going through a tough time by the way they sat at their desk. You know this because you can observe your team and look for physical cues. When working remotely, you are left with few tools to assess the situation on your own and must rely on well placed questions and cultural norms.
Some solutions we’ve seen tried: in depth 1:1s that dig below the surface, building a culture of transparency and disclosure, normalizing radical candor, building trust to create a safe psychological space, and using video calls on a regular basis to bring in more context.
Imagine working at a huge company where you never see anyone from another department in your building. You never overhear anyone in sales talking to a customer, you never walk past a conference room full of sticky notes where a UX designer is sketching out a new product feature. There’s no impromptu discussions with teammates from other teams at the water cooler.
Siloing is real and it happens naturally. The challenge is that in a remote company, siloing happens quicker and requires explicit process and thought to prevent.
Some solutions we’ve tried: weekly all hands with full status updates from each lead, weekly all hands with deep dives from each team in a quarterly rotation, bi-weekly status update memos, cross functional collaboration meetings, quarterly and annual kickoffs, placing links to our vision and goals at the top of every meeting document, founder AMAs, mid-quarter checkins with each team, putting extra effort into framing the WHY behind our actions in writing.
More Coming soon
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This guide is an Olark collaboration, special thanks to Sarah, Kaitlyn, Mandy, Miranda, and others for their contributions.
Special thanks to Jeff Koterba for permission to include his comic in this post