Adopting a remote-first company culture in the time of Coronavirus

March 18, 2020
6 min Read

Coronavirus cases continue to rise globally, with over 200,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths as of March 18. In a relatively short amount of time, the outbreak has spread to over 150 countries and territories across the world. The threat is real and people are becoming increasingly concerned as more cases with no clear epidemiological links are discovered every day.

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COVID-19 Outbreak World Map per Capita

The best we can do at this point is to adopt everyday protective behaviours, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

As a preventive measure, an increasing number of companies are restricting business travel and encouraging their employees to work from home. Major companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter have joined the remote movement in response to Covid-19 concerns.

As more and more companies take measures to protect their employees, it is now more important than ever to consider transitioning your team to remote work, even if it’s just a temporary measure.

Studies show that working from home has a number of benefits, including increased productivity and decreased employee turnover. But we need to keep in mind that such studies monitored employees over the course of months, if not years, and in different circumstances.

In the case of Coronavirus-driven remote work, it’s a whole different story. For one, we might be talking about longer periods of isolation. Loneliness and lack of social interaction is a problem in itself. Moreover, companies might be forced to make the transition to remote work overnight. Becoming a remote-first company is not an easy undertaking and it requires planning and preparation time. Putting together a remote work policy in such a short amount of time is a challenging task, but it’s not impossible.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind when transitioning your team to remote work:

        1. Communication

             First and foremost, communication is the most important aspect of working remotely. Teams need to be able to collaborate efficiently. Besides email, there are numerous tools and platforms for real-time messaging and videoconferencing that can help your employees stay connected.

             Tools such as Slack, Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts are all great choices, but regardless of what your team decides to use, it is important to set expectations and outline a communication strategy framework.

  • Settle on fixed meeting times and make it clear that everyone is required to join. Setting up a shared calendar and creating recurring events will ensure that everyone on your team is on the same page.
  • Take into account time zones. Scheduling meetings across multiple time zones can be quite challenging. If you find yourself in a logistical pickle, keep in mind that nowadays there is a solution (or an app) for everything. Tools such as Timeanddate, Agreeadate and Everytimezone can help you find the best time for your meetings.
  • Establish an effective meeting cadence. How often you should meet is up to you and your team. Setting up the right meeting cadence is not something that happens overnight. Try experimenting with different patterns (e.g., daily standups, weekly meetings, all-hands); the goal is to find the one that maximizes productivity for your team.
  • Encourage video conferencing. Face-to-face interaction can ensure that we don’t lose emotional context. Non-verbal cues provide important context, allowing information to be conveyed effectively, even across language and culture barriers.

        2. Project Management

             Becoming a remote-first company requires rethinking your project management processes and aligning them with the new circumstances. Keeping track of everything when working with distributed teams might turn out to be a bit more challenging at first, especially if this is a whole new territory for your company.

             The good news is that there are plenty of online software solutions that can help you with everything from assigning tasks and setting deadlines, to tracking progress and sharing files and information.

             For file-sharing and organization, Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive are all great options that allow you to sync files across devices and back them up in a secure environment. It is important to find the best option for your company and stick with it, so as to avoid the confusion of having files distributed across platforms.

             As for Project Management software, popular options include Basecamp, Jira, Trello and Clubhouse. Such tools come with great organizational capabilities that ultimately translate into productive collaboration. There are plenty of great platforms out there, but again, it is important to do your research and select one that best responds to the needs of your company.

             Technology is a great facilitator and it has helped businesses come a long way, but it is not a substitute for strategy. Defining clear processes and procedures is vital for the success of your project management action plan.

        3. Productivity

             How do we measure - and improve - productivity in the workplace? This is probably the most daunting question businesses are faced with when transitioning to a remote environment. Quantifying productivity can be rather tricky, as it requires defining clear performance metrics and methods.

             Many companies fall into the trap of micromanaging, but that approach is more likely to kill productivity, rather than support it. A better alternative is to set up a system that measures performance through results and focuses on project outcomes.

             On a more positive note, data show that working remotely can tremendously improve productivity among employees.

             Many factors come into play, but there’s one in particular that seems to carry special weight, namely the ability to focus without interruptions.

             What’s more, face-to-face interruptions are by far the most common and the most disruptive, mainly because they are impossible to ignore. According to a study from the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus and get back on track after a distraction. As it turns out, losing focus can cost you as much as 6 hours of productivity per day.

             Although working from home comes with its own set of challenges and distractions, it certainly accounts for fewer face-to-face interruptions.

             Remote work ultimately translates into autonomous employees who have the freedom to optimize their schedules and environment for maximum productivity.

        4. Trust

             The last and probably most important aspect of building a remote-first company culture is trust. Giving your employees a sense of autonomy and ownership increases morale and productivity, thus creating an overall positive work environment.

             It may be tempting to try to control each aspect of what your team does throughout the workday, but micromanagement has been proven to be the least effective management style. This approach ends up destroying trust and hindering productivity in the workplace.

             Instead, allow your employees to prove themselves trustworthy and capable of self-management. You’ll find that most people are intrinsically motivated to perform well and deliver high-quality work. Make it a priority to build a culture of trust and support and success will follow.

Final Thoughts

The Coronavirus outbreak is changing how - and where - we work. Companies all over the world are developing strategies towards building a remote-first work environment.

For businesses to survive, we need to understand the implications of the crisis and adapt on the fly to uncertain conditions. But more importantly, we need to start looking out for each other, protect our employees and foster a high-trust culture where innovation and success can thrive regardless of the circumstances.

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