Our experience with remote work
When we wrote on our fan page at the beginning of the year: "Don't lose your head, buckle up and start off the new year on the right foot," we really meant it. We did not lose our heads, but the pandemic changed almost everything from the ground up. Working from home? Face masks? No flying or vacation? Making sourdough? Cold water swimming? Oh my!
Footnote upfront: I tried both cold water swimming and making sourdough. At first glance, two different activities, but if you have ever stopped at Kamenáč in Trnava, you know how close the standing water is to creating new life.
Working from the safety of your home
"Digital agency, where is the problem?" - you might ask. However, it was not easy at all. For example, a year ago we did not even allow home office, which in this critical period resulted in a lack of technical background. There were several reasons why we resisted to implement remote work for a long time, concerns about our team being one of them. The positive team atmosphere and attitude are undoubtedly more difficult to transfer to the online home environment.
Modestly, in ten years we have managed to co-create a truly amazing environment. It's hard to make up for those mornings when we meet on the ground floor of our house, digest the news from our lives, books and the internet, mock the latest episode of a popular TV show, make harmless fun of each other, have a serious laugh and then dive into our projects. Later, we make fun of each other again and diver even deeper into our work. And so on. After 90 days at home, it is still an integral part of me having experienced it every day for ten years in person, not in a Zoom meeting.
The pandemic gave us an annoying pinch. Luckily, within the first two weeks of March we managed to put the technical support, transfers, instructions and procedures for remote work together, and therefore survived the first wave of the pandemic quite well. I am still a bit surprised that we suceeded in doing so in a relatively short time and in such a globally tense situation. Of course, the recommendations of reliable IT suppliers from our friends also helped. Thanks for that!
During the long summer days, it was time to look back, analyze and evaluate. Since analysis results should be used for further development and assuming that we would certainly not avoid future waves of the pandemic in the upcoming months, I decided to approach remote work more boldly in the future.
I closely watched the changes other companies were implementing and got inspired where possible, playing the social stalker on Facebook and LinkedIn. :-) And not only on social media, but also, for example, in the timeless book Remote: Office Not Required. Its writer, Jason Fried (the founder of Basecamp), already in 2013 described his experience with remote work. Therefore, seven years later, I am not going to pretend to have invented the wheel. On the other hand, there is no one-size-fits-all guide - by simply and thoughtlessly taking over the experience of others, much more can go wrong than it might seem. That is why I have thoroughly adapted only those experiences and recommendations that are most suitable for our agency, and which I believe can work in a long run.
Personal responsibility and freedom
First of all, we changed how we perceived our working hours and place of work, introducing the possibility to work without predetermined space restrictions and fixed working hours. How can a work like that work? Let me start by saying that it ain't no anarchy. We follow simple principles. I will not analyze all of them in detail, just summarize the most important ones (and the individual tools we use to achieve them) in the following basic areas: availability, communication, responsibility, efficiency and quality.
It is common practice in agencies to define the maximum number of days of remote work, most often 2-3 days a month. We have decided that it is not essential for us to determine the limit for days spent working remotely. We can make independent and responsible decisions based upon our personal needs but also our work duties and obligations.
We chose a completely different approach, the so-called office days. We will show up at the office for at least five consecutive days within a month to work in personal contact - a small guarantee of not turning into a wild animal. We will meet with those who will work from abroad in joint meetings at least three times a year. If our internal epidemiological traffic light monitoring system is activated, no office days are required while orange or red.
As fans of minimalism, we have removed any unnecessary administrative steps, such as approval of remote work or vacation days (vacation only has to be reported in advance). Personal responsibility and freedom above all! However, it will not work without trust.
Since we can set truly flexible working hours, we needed to ensure that the availability of our team members overlapped at some time. We have therefore defined the mandatory availability of at least four hours within a working day somewhen between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., which has to be determined by each of us at least one day in advance. Now there is really nothing to stop us from going to the gym, taking care of administrative stuff at a local public office, running errands or a few laps during the day (BTW, which do you think will take more time?) or just go out with the family during daylight which is impossible in winter when working from 9 to 5. Yes, you got it right, one can even pack up and leave for four months to surf and work in Bali. Yikes, the pandemic, but in a year…
The basic principles of accessibility are as follows:
- freedom to choose a place of work without restrictions;
- informing in advance about one's availability;
- overlapping for at least 4 hours a day.
There are only two basic principles of communication:
- effective and transparent communication;
- don't forget about non-work-related communication, don't shut yourself off.
To prevent any communication hiccups, we stick to the following tips:
- regular online calls;
- we always assume misunderstandings before malice;
- we always communicate in writing, even after a video call we write down what we have agreed upon;
- if someone does not understand the assignment, they summarize all their questions and share them with others en bloc (no piecemeal);
- if even after additional explanation questions arise, one does not hesitate to place a video call, during which everything will probably be resolved very quickly (it is really much more effective than lengthy writing);
- we never use conditional when submitting ready work, e.g. instead of "it should be finished" we use "I'm done", which means that I stand for the result and I have tested everything.
Responsibility, efficiency and quality
For the purposes of this article, I would simplify and summarize this complex topic in three principles:
- reliance on quality output and timely delivery;
- double check of finished work, high quality as standard;
- planning and division of tasks into smaller units.
That's all folks, right?
Nooooooo. In the office we introduced rotating office seating without a guarantee of a permanent seat, meaning that one can reserve the seat next to a particular colleague for the next day.
In this way, those who are currently collaborating on a project and need to communicate more intensively can sit together. Also, when several team members work remotely, those working in the office can sit closer to each other or farther apart considering today's social distancing rules.
Moreover, we have developed instructions for solving possible issues in the field of communication, teamwork, productivity, management and planning. Fortunately, we haven't had to use them yet. However, what we definitely use are our simple principles of how to be a better manager or colleague at a distance.
Several years ago we have implemented the clean desk policy which we have recently upgraded when we started to transform our IT equipment. You know, without MacBooks we would witness quite inconvenient, albeit funny migration of iMacs across the office space.
Nice theory. Where are we currently at?
We have been following these principles since the end of October, which makes for perfect time to already come up with hasty conclusions now, but we indeed have a few observations. Evidence of accessibility must be as simple and transparent as possible. That is why we cannot do without a tailor-made tool that better suits our needs. We currently use Toggl Plan and Toggl Track, which we are satisfied with, but they are not ideal for the purposes of availability evidence. Therefore, we have been developing our internal tool which will run on Laravel + VueJS and use the API of these services. We will be happy to publish the code base.
I can say for myself that the good old "lead by example" (under all circumstances) always works. If you pretend that the virtual meeting bothers you, you will never get this format accepted by others. And this applies universally.
My personally favorite is virtual coffee / tea at three, which I organize at least once a week. Anyone who has time then can join our group conversation on a pre-selected topic. Each week we cover a different subject. It's quite relaxing and everone says (sincerely, I hope) to be enjoying it very much. Sometimes I have the feeling that during our online discussions we go deeper than when talking in person in which case we are more likely to end up making jokes.
I also cannot forget to mention the positive response to the introduced changes from team members who commute to work. On average, several of us spend an hour a day just commuting to the office. It is five hours a week, which by the way is approximately ten days per year spent only commuting. Any chance to save time has increased overall satisfaction and work-life balance has taken on a whole new dimension.
Benefits and expectations
For me, it's quite clearly the following:
- the shift from classical time and chair management to management of quality of work and outputs;
- more prompt support for foreign clients located in different time zones, which in our case and in regard to our new clients from Canada and the U.S. is becoming more relevant sooner than we expected;
- easier hiring and flexible way of work of team members, even outside Slovakia;
- keeping up with the modern times and adapting to current needs;
- and last but not least, really healthy work-life balance.
Our plans for the future? We have several and we are obviously not done by implementing the changes described above. We'll see… :-) And what about you? Have you made any changes? An what is your experience?