How we successfully work from home

In this time of (self-)isolation, I thought I’d share how we’re making home working productive and keeping the social side of work alive to help our teams keep a sense of community.

Thank goodness for the cloud

Thankfully, like many companies, the work we do isn’t location dependent, and our business continuity plan means we don’t rely on our office for any critical services, so we can be productive while staying at home and protecting our NHS.

For a couple of years, we’ve been focused on moving all the applications we use onto cloud platforms. Now we can work from anywhere. For example, we use Google’s G Suite for all of our documents and spreadsheets. Not only can we access documents from anywhere, it has also significantly improved our collaboration: multiple team members can work on a document at the same time, whether or not they’re in the office.

Distributed team work

A key part of efficient software delivery is team collaboration; the same may be true for your business.

We aim to remove as many barriers and produce as little waste as possible, embracing the Lean approach. Anything that adds friction to interactions between team members can reduce productivity. For instance, when a team member is unsure about something, we always encourage them simply to ask a colleague. A quick chat is a very efficient way to remove misunderstanding.

This is easy in an office environment. How frequently do you turn to a neighbour and ask their advice or opinion? You look around and see who is busy, decide when is a good time to interrupt, get a quick answer and then you’re back on task. This short feedback time is essential to efficient productivity.

How many times have you had a fortuitous conversation in the office? When you overhear colleagues discussing something, you often learn something useful yourself, or there might be an opportunity to chip in with your own knowledge and help them.

How does this happen when you’re working remotely? It takes effort to ask a question. If your only means of communication are telephone and email then maybe either you won’t bother to ask, meaning you might continue with a misunderstanding; or you might have to wait a while for a response. Phoning someone feels much more disruptive - especially when you can’t see whether or not they’re in the middle of something.

It would be very easy to lose these interactions when working remotely.

To try and mimic the office, we’re using video conferencing to set up virtual team rooms: all members of a team have a window open with a video conference running constantly that replicates the office they’d normally sit in. When you’re “at your desk” you join the conference; when you’re “in a meeting” you leave it. Everyone can see their teammates when they are at their computers, you can hear when they are talking about something and, importantly, you can easily add to the conversation or ask a question. We stay muted when we’re not in a conversation so everyone can stay focused, but can quickly “pop our head up from our desk” and get the answers that lubricate the smooth running of the team. We use Google Hangouts Meet for this, but most other video conferencing platforms would work equally well.

Distributed community

We’ve worked hard over many years to build a real sense of community in Black Pepper, and while we’re all apart, we want to ensure we keep it alive. When we’re in the office we bump into people in the corridor, kitchen or breakout room; we can easily visit them at their desks or meet for lunch; we can organise social events and lunchtime board games. When we’re scattered to the four winds, we have to be much more deliberate in keeping these interactions going.

We’ve been using Slack for years (rather than email) as a conduit for chat and focused information dissemination. This continues to prove invaluable for keeping in touch with everyone when we’re all remote; not only via the usual text conversations, but it works well for video calls when we need to discuss something one-to-one.

We don’t want to lose those kitchen conversations. They might seem trivial but they help us all socially and keep us sane. There are times of day when people naturally gravitate towards the kitchen, so we’ve instituted a virtual tea break every day at 10am and 3pm; everyone is encouraged to grab a drink. take a break and come to the virtual kitchen for a chat. As in office life, not everyone joins every time but it does give people a chance to take a step back from work, decompress and chat with friends and colleagues who they aren’t working with constantly.

We would normally spend 10-15 minutes together every week at a company-wide standup meeting to get brief updates on what’s happening around the company: on projects, sales and marketing, innovation and strategy; highlighting social events and upcoming training and running our employee photo competition. Plus ça change… now this meeting is virtual too. It’s really important to us that everyone keeps up to date with what is going on across the organisation at least once a week, now we can’t physically be together.

Being human

Finally, as a management team we want to make sure we keep in touch with everyone to check they have everything they need; and to make sure that everyone is happy, healthy and coping during this tricky time. So as well as our standard monthly one to one meetings, we’re making sure to chat with everyone for a few minutes during each week.

It’s all about continuing collaboration and communication; because we’re now a distributed company we need to find ways to keep our relationships and sense of community alive. Using video conferencing makes the interactions that bit more human; using it for more than just planned meetings really helps us all feel like we’re still one team.

I hope this has been useful, if you’d like to know more, or have any additional suggestions that we can learn from, I’d love for you to get in touch.

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