Remote Working – Tips & Tricks from an International Company
by Ihar Heneralau  |  19 March 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is limiting the way we interact as human beings, and impacting every facet of our society. For businesses, this means teams working from home as employees follow the practice of social distancing.  For many who are not used to working remotely or don’t have existing processes set up, this shift can be very challenging and present difficulties when it comes to working effectively.

Because ICVR is an international team split between two continents, over the last 3 years we’ve built our business inherently based on digital communication channels and quickly onboarding new employees into our system. I want to share here some tips and suggestions on how to make the process of having your team home smoother.

Core Pillars: Communication, Processes & Discipline

Communication

Encourage efficient conversation between team members – there are a lot of tools today on the market to chat, call, share and collaborate on documents.

  • Slack or Microsoft Teams
    • Great communication tool for instant messaging, easy to separate communications into project focused channels and threads.
  • Zoom / Hangouts / Skype
    • Run group calls and scrums using either of these tools, and encourage screen sharing when applicable to explain and discuss more clearly.
  • Google Drive: Docs & Sheets, and Confluence 
    • Good ways to collaborate real-time on documents together with your team. Google Docs & Sheets give you ability to edit & comment on documents without sending documents back and forward and reduce time needed for direct calls.

Processes

Instill clear processes for self management and task distribution and make sure the team understands and follows them. Use task tracking tools to clearly assign tasks and communicate. It’s very easy to lose action items, for example, in a 25 email thread. 

  • Asana, Trello, Monday 
    • These are all great solutions that provide an easy way to manage and distribute tasks between team members. It’s important that every member stay on top of updating their tasks.
  • Jira & YouTrack
    • These are some great solutions for teams & projects that require more powerful and full-featured task tracking, but can be more difficult to onboard new users who are not familiar with them. Do research and pick what is best for your project, because switching halfway through a project is never fun.

Discipline

Make sure to keep your communication channels, cloud storage and task trackers organized and up to date. This is the responsibility of each employee, and of project managers to remind people as they’re getting up to speed.

Although working remotely allows for more flexible hours, it can lead to big communication issues if team members have schedules that don’t synch up (especially across time zones). Plan around this and create a clear shared schedule between the team with as much work hour overlap as possible. Schedule daily calls within this window to keep communication going.

3 Rituals to keep everything running smoothly:

Ritual 1: Weekly Planning

The team starts with a single list of tasks (broken down as granularly as possible) planned for the projects (we call it a backlog), sorted by priority. When team members make the weekly plan, they pull items off the top into a “Sprint backlog” and assigned to each team member. Some key things to remember:

  • Estimate the scope or difficulty of each task using time, and make sure team mates have enough time during the week to complete tasks. 
    • The person assigned the task should be doing this whenever possible rather than having an arbitrary or unrealistic deadline imposed by management. 
    • Task time estimation is a skill that needs to be developed. The more you do this, the better you will become at doing it accurately. Adjust future estimates by looking back previous ones and seeing where the discrepancy came from.
  • Measure your task completion velocity – the number of tasks completed in previous sprints – to provide a guide for the number of tasks that can be completed in the current sprint.

Ritual 2: Daily Standup/Huddle

Once per day the team gathers for a “Standup” meeting. No phone or other activities allowed, and the meeting must be as short as possible, so everyone can go back to work. Feel free to impose a time limit per person of a few minutes to help with this. Each person is required to say:

  • What I did since the last standup meeting.
  • What I am working on and will do today. 
    • Pay attention to this, because often people are not working on the top priority, or they get stuck on one task. If you have a different priority, this is a chance to ask them to switch.
  • Needs, roadblocks, and problems
    • Encourage everyone to be as honest about this as possible. Oftentimes people are afraid to admit if they are having issues or roadblocks and it’s important to identify them as quickly as possible. Even management should do this.

Ritual 3: Retrospective

After the sprint / work period is completed, the team does a quick “retrospective” to discuss what can be improved in the next sprint. It is a good idea to schedule these discussions on a regular basis, and constantly work to improve team productivity and happiness. Management should record this feedback somewhere and use it to inform future decisions and inspire changes. You can also use a happiness survey, anonymous questionnaire, and so on depending on what works best in your unique environment.

Some Other Tips & Tricks

No single system can be one-size-fits-all for every company, and it’s important to constantly evaluate your communication structure and see what you can improve on. Some of the little things we’ve done along the way include:

Onboarding Employees

In a virtual work environment it’s easy for new team members to feel like they’re just getting thrown into the deep end. For the first week, and intermittently after, a manager should have dedicated daily calls with new employees to check in and answer questions. This helps to imitate the onboarding training employees would get in a physical workspace and make them feel like part of the team.

Limiting Private Messages

Once, when slack sent statistics about our workspace at the end of the month, we realized that over 80% of messages sent were through private messages. Private messages restrict transparency of information, leads to miscommunications and having to repeat things, and makes people feel more isolated.

Team members were encouraged to keep all communication in public channels, even if they were just asking a question to one specific person. Responses can be nested in a slack message thread, and other team members can benefit from this information if applicable.

Help Desk Channel

Similar to the above point, all technical questions and general issues are asked and answered in a dedicated channel. Then, whenever anyone else encounters a similar issue, they can search this channel and view previous responses saving everyone time.

Daily Company-wide Task Announcements

All team members are required to share at the beginning and end of each day a one line message in a dedicated channel. This lets people know what’s going on in the company, even in other departments, and helps build a feeling of one connected office.

Don’t Forget the Human Element

This one is really important and often overlooked when working remote. There is an organic social element that arises in physical offices that allows people to connect on a human level independent from work. Make an effort to facilitate this whenever possible. 

  • Spend a minute at the beginning of calls asking how people are doing, and what’s going on in life. Meetings don’t all have to be straight-to-business and impersonal.
  • Management should have a virtual “open door” policy where team members can come to them whenever they need to talk about something
  • Encourage team members to play some online games or something similar together after work hours 
  • Have an off-topic “watercooler” channel where members can share cool links, funny memes, and so on

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