For many organizations across the nation, remote work is now the new norm. What was once considered a way to attract and retain talent is now a necessity for businesses that need to operate when “stay at home” orders are in place. Are you new to this new way of work? If so, experts from M Science and Very are sharing their tips for success.
Ryan Prosser, CEO of Very, an enterprise-scale Internet of Things solutions firm, says that his company has always been a remote-first work environment but not always a remote-only workforce. “From day 1 in 2011, we were 70% remote workers, but it was finally at the end of 2018 that we made the call to go 100% remote,” he shares.
“When we had a physical location, our employees just were not utilizing it,” Prosser adds. “Because our work is very cerebral, it is best done in a heads-down, distraction-free environment, and so we found that engineers weren’t using our physical space because they wanted to be able to control their surroundings and minimize cognitive distractions.”
“We also noticed that our 70% remote workforce intrinsically created a two-tiered work culture,” he adds. “This is where some people have access to the office to have face time with their manager, water cooler conversations, holiday parties, etc., while others experience the company culture only remotely.”
“Having a two-tiered work culture can become corrosive, and we knew we could be more equitable if we went entirely remote.” And thus, Very became an entirely “remote-only” work environment. But how was this news received?
“When we made the final call to go remote, the 70% who were already remote were either not impacted or happy to now have the opportunity to help their teammates transition and place more effort on building an even stronger remote work culture,” Prosser says.
“It was only a hard transition for 3–4 employees who were utilizing the office the most and are intrinsically very social team members,” he adds. “For those members of the team, we placed more energy into making sure they had a voice and were a part of building an online community. This was one impetus for us to create the Remote Work Commission.”
Prosser explains that when the company transitioned to 100% remote, it formed a “Remote Work Commission” (which consists of 3 people to represent the company’s roughly 70-employee workforce). “It was crucial that they came from different workplace culture sentiments, which meant having one previously remote worker, someone who was enjoying the switch to virtual, and someone who was experiencing the hardest transition,” he says.
“The goal of this commission was to identify persistent issues, come up with creative solutions, and separate idle complaints from true trends that should be addressed,” Prosser adds. “They meet once or twice monthly and have a Slack channel to share anecdotes and data points that will be brought to the attention of management and, occasionally, the company as a whole.”
Now that the commission has been around for over a year, Prosser and Very are extremely proud to have these team members solve common challenges and gripes that come up due to teams being dispersed.
Prosser shares some of the ways teams are able to help each other remotely, saying, “One creative solution suggested by the Remote Commission was our ‘tip of the week.’ Each week, we post a remote working tip, along with a question, to our general channel in Slack.”
Prosser explains the following tip as an example: “Take a quick break. Even a 10- to 15-minute walk can be very beneficial to keep you focused and fresh during the day. What’s your favorite way to take a break?”
“From there, employees can begin a conversation and give others inspiration for a midday reset. It can become very difficult to pull yourself away from your work, but studies show how important it is both mentally and physically,” Prosser adds.
He also offers some additional tips when working remotely, which include:
- Reread your messages before you hit send. Tone is often misinterpreted in text-only communication and can come across in a way you didn’t intend.
- Make an effort to be social. You are a human, and you need social interactions to maintain balance. Make sure you make time outside of work hours to have a social life.
- Save your ASAPs. We all want to get everything done now, but saying you need something ASAP when it can actually wait is very disruptive to the rest of your team. Be realistic with your needs and expectations.
These tips are great to share with your newly remote workforce, and one way you can keep them engaged is to try customized work “battle stations.”
Battle Stations to Set the Tone
At Very, the company offers remote workers a $1,000 home office stipend as soon as they join the team and are given an additional $200 each following year. These funds can be used toward buying new monitors, desks, chairs, and so on, Prosser says.
“Some team members are new to remote work and immediately spend all of their stipends within the first week, but a good portion of new employees already had a pretty great setup, so they were just buying things here and there over the course of the year,” he says.
“What happens on your first day at a new company? Generally, you’re given a preset workstation—potentially a creaky, used uncomfortable chair; a generic desk; and perhaps an external monitor,” Prosser says. “Being fully remote, it’s completely up to employees to decide how they want their home office to look and feel.” At Very, these home offices are referred to as “battle stations.”
“In order to get people really excited about what their battle station could become, we implemented a competition to show off their home offices and gave out prizes such as ‘best use of space’ and ‘best cord management solution,’” Prosser shares. And how did this go over with the Very staff?
“Within a day, the publicly posted submissions started rolling in—not just generic pictures of their space but full-blown mini-movies with amazing production value,” Prosser says. “People really put a lot of effort into their submissions and revamping their ‘battle stations.’”
Prosser says that the experience was really fun and helped Very accomplish some important things:
- Get people to bond outside of their standard workgroups.
- Allow employees to see into the lives of their fellow teammates.
- Give inspiration to those struggling to create an ideal space for them to enjoy while working.
This is a fantastic idea to keep workers engaged while working remotely, and it can also help workers bond while being at home. Additionally, employers that are forced to go remote can use this strategy when onboarding new hires. Even though these new workers can’t physically meet their colleagues, they’ll be able to get a sense of their new workers’ personality based on the creativity of their workstations.
Chat Applications to Keep Connected
As a way to keep workers connected to their remote colleagues, many employers are turning to applications like Slack, and this is also the preferred communication channel at Very. “We have chosen Slack to be the nerve center for the company,” Prosser says. However, it’s not without its limitations.
“Slack can be a very effective communication tool in some respects, but problems can arise when so many people are following or expected to check a given channel, much like a Twitter stream,” Prosser shares. “This makes it hard for our heads-down engineers to catch up on a conversation.”
To combat the problem, Very created a special bot. “If anyone posts something that is important and that all of the team should not miss, someone can tag it with our ‘ICYMI emoji,’” Prosser explains. “This creates a digest e-mail that is sent out each Monday and ranked by level of importance. It was a great fix for a very common complaint that people had. It just takes about 5–10 minutes to apply and has been an invaluable resource within the company.”
For HR professionals looking to implement something similar, Prosser explains that this tool is a Slack plug-in that the company had developed for its own Slack account, but unfortunately, it is not available to the public. “In its current state, it would require a developer to install it into your Slack, but if any development teams would like to reach out, we’d be happy to help them set it up for their own companies,” Prosser says.
On top of using Slack and its own customized plug-ins, Very also enabled additional insight, apps, and shortcuts that empower team members to solve their own problems and find answers easily within Slack. “This includes using an app, Guru, that can call up answers to FAQs, company policies, and other processes that anyone could possibly need to do,” says Prosser. “Because of this integration, we’re able to spend less time searching for information and more time doing what we were actually hired to do.”
Very also takes additional steps to stay connected, which include making sure to integrate outside partners such as contractors and its PR and law firm, using highly curated channels that can quickly triage any needs right there in Slack. “Many companies are not utilizing their communication tools beyond their team, and that is another missed opportunity,” Prosser adds.
While it seems Very has engagement, culture, and communication nailed down, remote work doesn’t come without its challenges. Prosser shares that as recently as a month ago, the biggest challenge has been in recruiting.
“Prospective new hires are sometimes concerned that they aren’t going to thrive in remote-only workplaces,” he says. “The new hires who make the jump and join are always so surprised at how robust and connected they feel at Very—some even say the culture is far more engaging than past workplaces—but that unknown has given some candidates great pause.”
Prosser adds that some candidates have even taken lower-paying jobs because they were unsure if they would thrive in a work-from-home job. “Losing some amazing candidates because of the remote work environment is a difficult reality but one that, thankfully, doesn’t come up all that often,” he shares.
Advice for Employers New to Remote Work
Now that more employers have been forced to go remote due to the coronavirus outbreak, we asked Prosser what advice he would give employers that are new to remote working arrangements.
Be patient. “You will not get everything right overnight,” he says. “We have been able to build a strong remote work culture because we have been at this for years and have been tweaking and improving along the way.”
Spend some time now getting your nerve center up and running. “This means making sure all of the resources, documents, processes, and other knowledge that are often stored in filing cabinets, bulletin boards, and your employees are accessible, organized, and easily retrievable,” Prosser says. “Even if this remote work ends up being a short-term status, this shift will still be a valuable resource for new employees and occasional remote workers and unburdening those who are often asked to support sporadic requests.”
Accountability is key. “And, most importantly, worry less about losing line of sight of your employees, but continue to hold them accountable to the standards you have always had,” he shares. “At its core, remote work is about providing the needed flexibility and trust for your staff to thrive in an environment that works best for them.”
Prosser adds that there will be growing pains, and it will take time for some organizations to get into the right rhythm, but “if you allow employees to take the flexibility needed to make the transition, you may find that the quality of the work improves because you are enabling your staff to customize their environment success.”
Sustaining a Remote Culture
Like Very, M Science, a data-driven research and analytics firm, has also switched over to remote work, and the company has seen positive results.
“When we physically moved our employees remote, we decided to take our culture with us and lean on it more than ever,” says Annette Harwood, Head of HR at M Science. “At M Science, we are encouraging our employees to take daily resets by offering a variety of virtual and interactive activities to increase their productivity; give them a break; and, most importantly, have some fun. These are stressful times, and our M Science community is supporting each other, and we will get through it together.”
According to Harwood, M Science’s executives shifted the operations remote by creating several new communication and technology strategies. “Our tech experts jumped fast and ensured that each member of our company was fully equipped with the appropriate devices to work from home,” Harwood says. “At the same time, managers implemented strategies to foster communication and interactions with their team members through standing video chats, chatrooms, and daily calls.”
“We decided to create a companywide work-from-home chatroom so that all employees had the opportunity to opt in to the regular office chatter,” Harwood shares. “Employees have shared their quarantine tips, from experimenting with recipes such as pesto on eggs, strategies for home-schooling kids, workouts to stream, recommended shows, and general community support for each other.”
Harwood adds, “With no water breaks on-site, we also launched a series of virtual coffee breaks during which employees were divided into small groups to take a breather and video chat.” But that’s not all; M Science took it one step further and turned its regular office culture into a virtual affair.
“In addition to our core remote strategies, which moved us fully operational remotely both quickly and efficiently, we scheduled a series of virtual and interactive activities to keep our culture alive and follow the CDC guidelines and ‘social distance’ our events,” Harwood says. “Our employees all around the world have been participating and connecting with each other to take a break, relax, and laugh.”
Laughter really is the best medicine, and it’s also a great way to keep your workforce connected. For companies looking to implement a virtual culture, Harwood offers the following strategies:
Virtual trivia happy hour. “We held a virtual trivia happy hour during which employees were invited to compete in a 60-question interactive trivia game while on video chat with each other. The faster and more accurate you answered, the higher your chances were of winning. The winner took home a gift card to the grocery platform of his or her choice,” she says.
Virtual meditation: “Heather Lilletson of Yoga for Bad People lead us through a virtual, companywide meditation that focused on finding balance in this environment through breathing and postures,” Harwood says. Lilletson told employees “to think that they are the sky and everything else is weather and that weather always passes.”
Harwood explains, “We realize that this virus is effecting everyone in his or her own way physically and mentally and want to aid in our employees’ mindfulness and will be offering a series of virtual mindfulness activities for our employees during this work-from-home period.”
Virtual workout: “Yogi Emma Bowen hosted an interactive private yoga class for our employees to stretch and get some exercise during our quarantines,” says Harwood. “We wanted to encourage staff to join and also aid in the fight against COVID-19. M Science donated an amount for every participant to WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.”
Virtual employee celebrations: “There is no postponing our monthly employee birthday and work anniversary recognition celebrations. While challenging when everyone can’t celebrate over cake, we are brainstorming innovative ways to celebrate virtually,” Harwood adds. “We will not let celebrations slip by.”
M Science and Very clearly have a strong focus on keeping their employees engaged and connected while working remotely. If your workplace has been forced to go remote, or you’re looking to do so in the future, keep these tips and strategies in mind!