Staying connected in a COVID-19 world.

Tips on remote workforce productivity, some moments of inspiration, and valuable information during times of uncertainty.

This article’s purpose is in no way intended to spread fear or piggyback on the sensationalist media surrounding this pandemic. Rather, its objective is to offer potential insight on how to strengthen your team’s productivity and engagement in extremely trying times.

Over the next week or so, if possible, it’s likely your staff will need to work from home or remotely if they aren’t already. Telstra has announced that their office workers will be asked to work from home until the end of March, and Apple has closed all stores outside China until the 27th of March.

Businesses in which staff have this ability are already prepared to do this. But as a business owner or leader, how can you ensure your team doesn’t feel isolated during this time and how can you have confidence that the work will get done?

Today I interviewed good friend and client of ours Matthew Barram, Chief Technology Office (CTO) at Ensight, a company specialising in sustainability for the energy and resources sector. With their head office in Centurian (near Johannesburg), Matthew works remotely from his home in Brisbane and manages a large software team of developers across four continents and multiple time zones. I asked him how he manages and fosters a culture of engaged and productive people across such difficult logistical circumstances. His answers were extremely valuable and insightful, some of which I am already implementing with my team and all of which I now share with you below.

Q. Firstly what are the best tools/software and processes for remote work?

“The tools are less important than your actual systems and processes. Start first on defining what you’re hoping to achieve and how your team is structured, then identify the right tool or software for the job.”

Matt’s recommended applications

Other helpful ones

  • Monosnap – screen recording app. Record a video and explain.
  • Droplr – Quick screenshot/file sharing app.

 

Q. How do you start each day? 

“Each day we’ll do a quick Virtual Slack-based standup where everyone outlines what they’re working on for the day and what their focus is.”

 

Q. Do you do any other catch-ups or check-ins? 

“When you’re remote, you don’t get the chance to hang out with people. We deliberately create the opportunity to have a general non-work related chat, just to connect. Whatever is relevant to stay connected. We follow a process where people have a chance to say how they are, how they’re feeling, any highlights of their week, any concerns. These conversations should be more about their personal lives rather than just what they’re working on. It’s a chance to just connect as people rather than co-workers.”

(Note: Matt’s sentiment is supported by Author, Simon Sinek, who recently posted a video on Instagram talking about the importance of ‘Huddles’, which you can watch here.

“We have a policy that everyone starts these meetings with video, not just audio. Video is so much closer to an in-person conversation and much better for communicating than just audio.”

“We also have Retrospective catch-ups at the end of a project sprint. This allows us to report on how we did, what we’d do differently and things to learn from moving forward.”

 

Q. During the day how often will you check-in?

“One formal check-in per day, then communicate as necessary to get the jobs done.”

 

Q. Do you have any tips for the best methods of communications or interactions? 

“It’s so important to have a documented Communications Hierarchy Plan. This provides clear expectations around reply times for each method of communication be it phone call, message (WhatsApp or SMS), instant message (Slack, Skype), email or project management update.

We have guidelines of what’s expected in regards to reply times, for example, a phone call is urgent and should be immediate, a WhatsApp message may be within an hour, an instant message within a few hours and email within one business day.

These guidelines can be different amongst teams but they must be communicated effectively so that expectations are set and followed.”

 

Q. How do you keep staff engaged and motivated during remote work?  

“Exactly the same as in a real office, by having a clear vision, setting short-term and long-term objectives and ensuring every team member knows their roles, responsibilities and key objectives. People want to feel included and know that their contribution is valued. Individual team members need to be aware of, “Is this still the priority?” It’s easy for a conversation to happen somewhere a goal or objective may shift or change and not be communicated to the entire team.”

 

Q. How do you keep them accountable? 

“We track our time on all the different things we work on. Not necessarily hourly, but in half-day blocks. You expect to see that progress is made on the things we’re working on. If no progress is made, there is something happening.

We follow Basecamp’s ‘Manager of one‘ as part of our recruitment policy.

Every team member is expected to plan their day, to some degree. Very easy to not work on the right things, get sidetracked.”

 

Q. Are there any other recommendations or advice for people managing a remote workforce? 

“You have to have a high level of trust with your team that they’re doing the right thing. With remote work – you must assume good intent.”

(Note: Matt has recorded a video on this topic which I feel is extremely valuable)

“Don’t expect it to be easy and immediate success, don’t compare yourself to businesses who do this all the time, compare yourself to your business yesterday and track how you can improve. Expect it to be challenging, have a plan, communicate properly.

 

Q. Any advice for people who are working from home? 

“Changes to your physical environment can have a massive effect on your mental state. Get outside, go and work on the deck or veranda, move around.

The way humans work, it’s really good to assign physical locations to types of work. Separate rooms or spaces for different activities..

Don’t try to write a report in bed, don’t scroll on Instagram in your office.

If you need a break, go for a walk.

I’ll get up and mow a section of the lawn for example.”