Remote working 101: advice from WFH veterans
Time to adjust: getting used to remote working
For the last three years, almost 75% of the Luminous team has been remote at any one time. Embracing this ‘agile agency’ model means we’re never hindered by location, and we can work with amazing, PR professionals that work all over the country, and across the world.
While these are difficult and uneasy times for everyone. And for full teams adopting remote working for the very first time, it can take a period of adjustment. As WFH veterans, we’d like to share some remote working advice.
Rather than offer tools and top tips, here are some pearls of wisdom on how to create a culture that supports remote working. These are all things we’ve learned through experience, and we hope they help you navigate the novel working conditions we’re facing for the foreseeable.
Creating a remote company culture
Businesses must actively invest effort to create a culture that works in a fully remote environment. Just because your team vibes perfectly when they’re in the same room, doesn’t mean it will happen when working from home. There are challenges specific to remote teams.
There’s also an outdated but pervasive stereotype that working from home is almost skiving off: even though the data clearly shows this isn’t true. When Luminous first moved to remote working, we were pleasantly surprised at how much more productive we all became. Then we realised why. Homeworkers are likely to work longer hours than their in-house counterparts. With no commute, it’s easy to be at your desk earlier and stay later.
As ever, the routines, behaviours and rituals that define a remote company culture, must come from the top. Bosses absolutely have to lead by example. They must be present, setting initiatives that help with inclusion, connection and knowledge sharing, along with actively reassuring staff where needed. If you worked in an office, you wouldn’t expect everyone to be at their desks for eight hours a day. Leaders need to work with the team to help them set the boundaries between home life and working hours – and ensure they take a lunch break!
Of course, the founder and CEO can’t do everything: not even in a small business. A strong remote culture relies on a clear and sturdy structure, positively engaged people and competent and compassionate managers to support everyone. These managers should be the ones checking in with staff, and actively encouraging them to enjoy those ‘water cooler moments’ that all great teams share – remote or otherwise. In troubling times, these are more important than ever.
Creating a thriving and supportive remote team culture is definitely possible, as the Luminous team will testify. But, it does just take a bit more work from everyone.
Transparency and communication are essential
Until you start remote working, it’s hard to know where the gaps in your communication will be. Employees learn so much from being in the same physical space: they almost absorb information. When your team is separate, you need to proactively ensure this same level of communication takes place regularly and with ease.
Establish communication rituals: set times for regular team check-ins and protect these fiercely. It’s very easy for virtual meetings to get rearranged or dropped but treat these as seriously as you would a face-to-face meeting. As well as team meetings, set regular catch-ups with individual team members in advance, so nobody feels like they’re left on their own.
We use video calls as much as we can. It’s a little closer to face-to-face and allows you to read your colleagues’ body language if they’re tired, stressed, or unmotivated. This gives you a head-start in offering help.
However, don’t get sucked into the communication ‘trap’. For it to work, communication must be open and honest. Speaking every day does not equal effective communication if you’re keeping concerns to yourself. Again, founders should lead by example. If you’re having a hard day: say something. If you need people to help you, ask for it. By normalising this process, it allows you to tackle any problems in your team head-on.
Finally, you have to accept that you need to talk to your team more. Your team will want connection on video chats and calls. We have found that they want this for so many reasons. Typical in-office day-to-day connections between team members deliver everything from reassurance and the need for validation and connectivity, to soothing insecurities and the need to be part of a common vision.
Be prepared for this to put a strain on management and leadership resource while everyone settles down to new remote working practices. However, if you approach it from the beginning, the guidelines and processes that you put in place will help your people achieve a healthy balance between feeling supported, and still part of something. You will set a wonderful balance between achieving a nurturing and supportive environment, that is positively thriving, productive and efficient.
Establish how you effectively share knowledge
So arguably, all teams know this is a big thing to get right. However, this is even more crucial when you have a remote crew.
When a team is working in different places, effectively keeping track of the nitty-gritty of projects also becomes more challenging. Even the most brilliant project plan will rely on a little bit of sponge-like team osmosis of information.
Remotely, you don’t just know about a job’s status when you haven’t been a part of client status calls, debriefs and moments of genius. We quickly realised how many extra levels of detail we needed to get down into systems when you don’t hear your teammates going about their day. This is another reason why you may need to talk more, as per our advice above.
These systems should follow the processes of how you do things and what it takes to deliver the work you and your team do daily.
We tried a lot of project tracking software and apps before we settled on the one that worked for us. It took a lot of trial and error, and it also required us to invest a lot of effort, time and money to set it all up in a way that worked well for us. You’ll never get a piece of project management kit that works perfectly for your team. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise.
So, remote teams must be disciplined at making sure systems are updated daily at an absolute minimum. These system updates should happen 2-3 times a day so that those working on the same projects are not duplicating effort or missing crucial parts of the job. In contrast to what we said above about talking more, you will find that this is the stuff that your team actually don’t talk about enough!
Whatever you settle on, it needs to provide enough detail to allow team members to pick up and run with a project should any other team member be absent. In our experience, you get out what you put into these things. If your team can’t use the project management software properly, it won’t be any more effective than a spreadsheet so put in the training time.
Yes, you may need to learn how to mind read.
Really successful managers of remote teams have built up a superhuman sixth sense when it comes to reading the happiness levels of their individual teamies. When you aren’t in the office with your team, you will have to work harder to anticipate the mood, to recognise the ever-changing behaviours and to seek out the potential challenges. You won’t always get this right because, quite frankly, we’re not mind readers however developed your sixth sense is.
But if you can all spend more time than usual getting to know your colleagues really well, you certainly do get really good at heightening those spider senses, even down to recognising underlying subtext in emails or being able to associate typical tone of voice phrases that might indicate what your team is really communicating.
Don’t underestimate the gap that will come from not being able to read subtleties of facial expressions and body language that we get from physical working environments. Of course, your team will still be going through the full range of moods and emotions – from happy to stressed – that happens to all of us, day-to-day. However, even through messenger-style chats, we’ve learnt to recognise how your team is holding up, just by understanding typical response times, tone of response and changes to the normal styles of communication. Businesses that spend more time trying to equip this sixth sense and invest time into ensuring that their people are well supported by team managers who notice the little things, will help alleviate issues down the line.
Promoting health and wellbeing
While most forward-thinking businesses strive to encourage wellbeing as part of their company culture, this is even more important among remote teams. Business leaders should advocate for employees to look after their wellbeing and stay active when working from home. This is especially true in times of crisis.
As well as encouraging staff to take breaks and keep reasonably within their working hours, bosses must empower people to be active. Encourage your team to go outside on a sunny day, even if it’s just lunch in the garden. Allow them to be flexible with their breaks if it allows them to go for a run or do a workout as well as grabbing some fuel.
Luminous even has a #ShakeYourBooty slack channel where we share inspiration, encouragement, photos and tips to make sure we all are involved with helping one another to remain active. This was important for us as we noticed very early on our remote working journey that on a busy day, we weren’t even walking 1,000 steps in a whole day.
Importantly, we don’t just encourage active workouts on this channel – we are also big supporters of using the break times to participate in mindfulness activities.
As you know, happy and healthy employees are the most productive and more loyal to their employer. So, we urge you to think about the initiatives that can bring you together, whilst also encouraging your remote team to remain healthy and active.