2020 is off to a raucous start. I don’t think any of us would have predicted things to play out quite this way. Even when I wrote about the shift to remote work a few months ago, I didn’t think the need for all of us to move quickly to remote work would happen so fast. But here we are.
As social distancing becomes the norm and teams, organizations, and entire companies move quickly to remote work, there are several things we can all do to smooth the transition and make it seamless for our teams, customers, roommates and family members. While I mean this to be helpful during the quick transition to remote work, the same principles apply for any transition to remote work.
As individuals, there are several steps we can take to stay productive, keep things moving along for ourselves and our businesses, and help everyone around us keep their sanity.
Physical. Defining some physical boundaries will make the transition to remote work easier for you and roommates/family.
For those of us fortunate to have dedicated offices or work spaces, this is easier. But even with a dedicated office, you may need to redefine the physical boundaries now that you’ll be home more often. I know that my office gets used frequently for building marble mazes and other games, so now that I am working from home, my office has to be dedicated to work.
If you don’t have a dedicated office, defining a place for work will be helpful in establishing a routine and creating space and separation for work. If that’s a corner of the apartment or bedroom, or even the kitchen table during the day. It will be important to define the space for work, get it set up so you can be effective, and get everyone on board.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the power of establishing the right context by establishing predictable circumstances:
“Habits thrive under predictable circumstances like these. Focus comes automatically when you are sitting at your work desk. Relaxation is easier when you are in a space designed for that purpose. Sleep comes quickly when it is the only thing that happens in your bedroom. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable.”
Temporal. Creating boundaries around your time will also be critical. Working remotely, especially if it’s new, can be a big change. It’s easy to lose yourself in things going on at home since you’re there, but it’s just as easy to let work bleed into your home life since there is no longer a boundary.
So setting up a schedule for your time “in the office” is just as important as it was before. It can be flexible, and likely will have to be since you’re also dealing with lots of other things (and during a pandemic, there’s a good chance you’ve got kids at home and many things to worry about). But keeping a good schedule will ensure you can continue to get important work done and also keep your home life somewhat normal.
Mental. Mental boundaries will probably always be the most difficult. It’s hard enough to define mental boundaries between work and personal life as it is, right? How do you not take your work home with you when it’s right there, all the time? How do you not take the stress of home to work when they are in the same place?
Creating physical and scheduled spaces will be helpful in getting some mental space. But allowing yourself some head space will also be critical. This will be a time for change. Give yourself some time to adjust! Take breaks. Take a walk. Be sure to clear your head regularly and find the right mental balance. Creating a routine, which we’ll discuss next, will also help with this.
Create (or maintain) a routine
If you’re shifting to remote work, either temporarily or more permanently, create or maintain your routine. As someone who has worked from home frequently, the most productive days I’ve had are the ones I’ve maintained my standard routine for work. That means getting ready like usual, even getting dressed like I’m heading to the office, and then stepping into my office and starting my work day.
I’ve even heard of people “commuting” to work by leaving their house, walking around their neighborhood, and then arriving back at work. I think it’s a great idea. Creating a ritual to get you in the habit for work will set the right tone. It is critical for success, especially as you transition from being in the office to being remote. I’ve found that transition periods are usually times when my routine slides, and that is when my productivity also slides. So maintain your routine if you want to stay productive.
We take communication for granted when we are all in an office together. We can always pop in whenever we need or schedule a quick time to catch up or meet. When we’re not all in the same space, that becomes more difficult, so we can’t take communication for granted.
Fortunately, the tools are all readily available. We just have to use them. That may mean changing some of our habits. But it is very doable. While we can’t just pop in for a quick chat, we can pick up the phone for a quick call. And we should do Zoom calls or video chats to keep face time.
We also need to keep records of discussions we’re having. So posting Slack messages, keeping meeting notes updated, and keeping everyone in the loop frequently is key. Over-communicating, especially in the early phases of the transitions, is critical. It is better that everyone feel like too much communication is happening than to feel like too little is happening. So don’t be afraid to communicate frequently.
Focus and Prioritize
So much of our work today has become urgent, lower importance items that take up tons of time. From emails to meetings to low-value tasks. As you shift to working remotely, especially if it is for a short period, take some time to seriously assess the high value items you can do. Prioritize that work.
The unfortunate fact is that many businesses will suffer as the economy turns. So we all need to focus our efforts on the highest value tasks we can perform and ensure that we are delivering value for our companies, our customers and our users. The more we focus, the more value we can deliver. And the more non-essential we can cut out.
As managers and leaders, we are now in the position to manage remote teams, whether or not we were ready for that. Hopefully, if you’re a leader, it is something you’ve been considering or have experience with. If not, welcome to the party!
Communication with your team will be the single biggest success factor through all of this. Communication about ongoing work, expectations, changes that are happening, etc.
As a leader or manager, you need to stay apprised of what is happening with your team. It won’t be as easy as walking around an office to get a feel for what is going on. Your team members can’t just pop in either. It will require effort on everyone’s part. And as a leader, you set the tone for the team. So set a standard of communication, especially early on by having regular chats with team members. They need not be long or comprehensive, but just ensure that you’re staying updated.
You will also have to strike a balance. You’re not trying to manage every aspect of your team’s work either, at least hopefully that won’t be the case. So you’ll likely need to find the right cadence. Communicate that to your group. Let them know that you will be finding the right balance and you’ll all be working together. You’re all in this together.
Next, be sure to set clear expectations with your team. When will you be having meetings? When will you expect people to be available? What will communication look like? How will you handle issues as they arise? You may not have all the answers immediately, but starting to set clear expectations will avoid so many issues down the road.
In past teams, we set the expectation that we do video calls, video on for everyone so we can all see each other. That set the tone for the team so there were no questions.
In our current situation, we’ve set the expectation that team members have kids at home and that we are okay with that as a group. If kids pop into calls, that isn’t a surprise or issue for us.
As a leader, have these conversations with your team. Outline expectations and then document them so everyone is aware. You can keep documenting things as you go.
And that’s a great segue to documentation. Documenting discussions, decisions, meetings, etc., will be even more than ever before. If you haven’t been in the habit of documenting things, this will be quite the change. But it will be a good change and a good habit to create.
Taking notes doesn’t have to be onerous. You can rotate the responsibility around the team so it isn’t a burden on any one person, or have someone dedicated to the task. You’ll want to ensure you note important decisions and action items so you can follow up in the future and so anyone who wasn’t able to be part of the conversation can catch up quickly.
Creating team documentation is an important key. With everyone remote, even for a short period, there is less ability for the regular interactions and so it is even more important to write down team norms, helpful hints, and other useful bits of information. Product management, for example, is learned much more by apprenticeship. But when everyone goes remote, there is obviously much less opportunity for that in a traditional sense. So we have to communicate more and write down as much as we can to help newer members of our team continue to learn their roles.
With the turmoil and chaos surrounding everything right now, it would be wrong to expect performance of teams and organizations to be unaffected. As leaders, we should acknowledge that there is so much more happening than we can fully get a handle on. It is tough and may get tougher still. So let’s help our people do the best they can. That is our main purpose.
With that said, we all still want our companies to be successful (I hope). As leaders, we can’t manage by butts in seats. Hopefully that isn’t how you’ve been doing it, but that won’t cut it in a remote world. Therefore, we need to focus on the metrics that matter most. How can we ensure that our teams are delivering value? Find those metrics, make them obvious, and work with your teams to align your goals against them. And measure your success by them. Hint, it won’t be hours worked, lines of code delivered, or emails answered.
One ongoing practice for my team has been to set a few goals at the beginning of each week for the most important things to accomplish and then report back on those goals. I also do the same. More on that in another article. But it helps keep the focus on what is most important and ensures accountability.
Moving to remote work can be a huge benefit for many people and organizations. As part of a larger strategy, it is great. When it happens suddenly because of sudden events such as pandemics, it can seem like a strain initially. However, with the right steps, it’s not only manageable, but can be just as effective as being in the office. By creating the right boundaries and expectations, focusing on the right priorities, and communicating relentlessly as individuals and leaders, we can continue to be successful as teams and companies.
And as we manage the transition, hopefully we can incorporate remote work as part of our larger strategy going forward.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.