Come Monday, voilà, you are a distributed work-force. This is a Survival Guide for managers that need to drive a company that became remote overnight. Tricks to communicate within a remote company where everybody is operating from home.
We have built Platform.sh from the ground up as a distributed company and have now 180 employees, almost all of them working from home. Over the last five years we have spent countless hours refining our processes and methodologies, our communication methods and our tools.
Many companies will have to do this in one single day. And there are going to be challenges. So here, in the most modest way, I would like to try and offer a few insights and advice on tricks, tools and methods that worked for us over years to properly communicate with a team of people working from home. Hopefully, this may apply to your businesses and help you save a bit of time.
Before I give my own advice I’d like to direct you to Gitlab’s handbook. A distributed company works, first, by writing things down. When you will have figured out the things that work for you. You will have to write your own. For the time being, they have done a splendid job at it, and it is a great source of inspiration for many.
So, here are a few tips that can be quickly implemented:
1. Open a private chat for your company (Slack, Microsoft Teams, Mattermost, Matrix…), right away. You can simply not operate a remote company without a chat, plain and simple. And have everyone on it. Email alone simply DOES NOT work for remote. Because over-communication in a distributed company is key. And over-communication over email … is the worst thing that one can experience (other than a lethal virus). And because the chat system is both the coffee machine and the informal communication medium. Because, no good work can happen without a coffee machine.
2. Provide an “how to” with simple rules for your team. Remember the chat is there to be asynchronous, it’s written and it remains. Set some ground rules immediately:
a. No “Hi”. If you want to say something, say it. Don’t expect answers immediately. Don’t say “Hi”, wait for the person to acknowledge, and then ask the question. That is rule 0.
b. Be explicit. Acknowledge reception. Sometimes you need to be sure someone got a message. Be explicit. We use this for incident management where someone would say “hey, David we have an issue with Let’s Encrypt revoking a few million certificates” and David as a response actually types out stuff like “@channel I am the Incident Commander for OP-17701 / Deploy Git 3.3.84 / Let's Encrypt cert issue”. A lot of implicit signals get lost over chat. Make sure, when need be, to be very explicit.
c. Channels creation: Add to the usual teams channels (#marketing, #finance, #hr…) an #on-boarding channel to help new employees, a #questions channels is great too, a #random to keep the week-end debriefing chat only in one place, an #the-outside-world for market insights... Because the normal socialization contexts of your employees have changed. A high number of channels is ok. Have some large ones. And some topic specific ones. Coordination happens on big channels. Detailed work on small ones. You’ll figure it out. But “too many channels” is probably the correct baseline, a bit like power outlets. If your chat system supports threads. Use threads.
d. Use @Channel appropriately. This command alerts the entire team, use it with purpose. Not that many things require to distract the full channel’s follower’s attention.
e. Make most channels public. Train people on reducing the amount of direct messages they use. The usefulness of the chat is giving people context. Over-communication is key.
3. Use video-chat for synchronous meetings; these are meetings, the same rules apply. Bring a written agenda to the table (we find a shared Google doc to be very effective). Make sure notes are taken. Reserve meetings for decision making, management sync up points, and crisis management. Minimise those. Keep them short. Video-calls are less effective than in-person. Remember, in this context, people will probably be home, with kids jumping up and down. The rules of decorum change. Over-communicating on chat is excellent. Over-communicating on video will kill your productivity.
4. Short slide decks are good for decision making. Never assume everybody read every word you wrote in every channel. Make sure that stuff ends up in formats people can actually grok. We like to produce short slide-decks for decisions. Longer document formats to capture longer conversations. But one thing you should not do is to think your chat can become your ticketing system. There is no accountability there. If you are used to assigning tasks orally to people, don’t bet on the chat to replace that. Use an actual one; Jira (most of our teams use that). Trello (some of our teams). Basecamp. Anything. A lot of grief can happen here.
5. There’s no more “water cooler” for spontaneous conversation. Start writing things down. A remote company relies on making information available, well organized, easily accessible. It also relies on transparency.
6. You won’t be able to manage by walking around. Check-ins for remote teams have to be far more proactive, and questions more direct, as you won’t be able to understand sentiment from facial expressions alone.
7. Trust is everything. Last and not least, trust your employees that they will do the right thing. Employee contribution is the only measure that matters. Without trust the whole system collapses.
And keep it up! This situation will not last forever, and eventually things will return to normal. This experience will make your team stronger. See this as a learning experience. Leverage this to write your processes and playbooks in more details, this will drive better productivity for everybody, on-boarding new employees will be easier. Finally impose this chat system that your team was always reluctant to use and which never really picked up, move more things to the cloud, leverage collaboration tools. This challenging health crisis may well be an opportunity for positive change in your organization. Remote is more resilient. Remote is more eco-friendly. Remote enables for more diversity. Stay safe!
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