In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many companies have revised their work-from-home policies. The health and safety of employees is a top priority for employers, including Protocol Labs, and social distancing and remote work can be an effective way to accomplish this.
PL was founded in 2014 as a fully-remote company. Today we have more than 100 team members worldwide. In some ways, our distributed nature has minimized the disruption of a shift to social distancing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted us to reflect on best practices in a remote office environment.
A core focus of PL’s work is censorship-resistant communication – helping preserve and grow humanity’s knowledge. Open communication, in the world and our day-to-day lives, is part of what helps us find purpose in our work. The current situation has heightened that sense of purpose for many Labbers. Below, we’ve gathered wisdom from our team on how to thrive in a remote work environment:
The rise in remote work wouldn’t be possible without technology. Widespread access to high-speed Wi-Fi, new instant messaging and communications apps, as well as digital technology like the smartphone, are all instrumental in making remote work realizable. As it stands, however, 80% of the U.S. workforce are stressed out by poor communication and 74% of workers report feeling left out of essential company communications. These problems can be compounded by asynchronous work, where workers on a distributed team live and work in different time zones, and aren’t all available at the same time for essential communications.
To help overcome the difficulties posed by asynchronous work, remote workers should prioritize clear, concise, effective communication. For example, if you’re communicating with someone eight time zones away, avoid simple “yes” or “no” questions – you’ll wait eight hours to get a response, and you’ll likely want to ask a follow-up. Spend time thinking about how to frame your questions – “If yes, then what? If no, then what?” works well – to avoid long delays between emails.
Protocol Labs also has a standard suite of tools that we use daily, including Slack for team chat, GitHub for threaded discussions, Google Drive (where we store our in-progress documents like the draft of this very blog post!), and spreadsheets for tracking our work. We make it a point to be generous with permissions across these platforms so everyone can find what they need. Plus it encourages folks to work together, out in the open.
Another issue posed by remote work is information overload. To address that, we created our company handbook, the goal of which is to be the single source of information for everything Labbers need to know in order to be successful here at Protocol Labs. Hosting it in GitBook gives us access to their powerful search functionality for finding detailed information like travel guidelines or expense policies. Compiling this information into a single source of truth puts the knowledge needed to be productive at everyone’s fingertips – reducing logistical questions and helping steward our culture over time.
There is a time and purpose for synchronous meetings. Examples include high-bandwidth bidirectional communication for brainstorming or for decision making. For these meetings, we use Zoom video conferencing software.
Before we meet, Labbers lean into async communication – sharing agendas and reading material in advance – to make our time together more productive. And during Zoom calls, we raise hands and track questions in a queue in chat so everyone gets a turn to speak.
We take notes during meetings and often record them to share with those who can’t attend. After conference calls, we share these notes and videos widely within our organization. Async work can quickly end up in silos – it’s better to over-share.
Video conferencing is a great tool for regular check-ins, too. Biweekly all-hands meetings are a way to share team updates, celebrate launches, and update team members on the macrostate and trajectory of projects. In a physical office, these changes and updates are more visible. You can see when a new hire joins, when another team is celebrating a launch or a birthday, or who is staying late to hit a deadline. But these day-to-day rhythms of a team are less visible when you’re distributed. Setting up a regular, team-wide call with life updates at the top and project updates at the core keeps everyone engaged. At PL, we celebrate Labber birthdays by singing Happy Birthday across Zoom on our bi-weekly meetings. It sounds terrible (there’s always a slight delay with 100 people off-mute!), but it always gives team members a reason to laugh together. And it will give your team another excuse to sing Happy Birthday that doesn’t involve washing your hands!
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of workplace friendships. But studies show that healthy, supportive social interactions with work friends are key to building a successful team.
In this way, remote workers have it harder than their traditional office counterparts. It can be challenging in a remote culture to know when to start and end your workday, and harder still to manage your time during the day. Technical issues can be a challenge, especially when you can’t ask IT to swing by and fix your monitor. And some remote workers report feeling isolated or lonely – a feeling that can hit especially hard during periods of social isolation like this.
To make friends and stay socially plugged in, it’s important in remote work environments to take proactive steps to learn more about team members’ communication styles and to build rapport. Apps like Donut, practices like scheduled rubber ducking, and time set aside for virtual happy hours and virtual coffee with your peers can ensure that communication channels stay open and sociality doesn’t diminish with geographical remoteness.
Perhaps the single biggest takeaway from our experience with remote work is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Telecommuting succeeds when it adapts to the flexibility of distributed teams, and telecommuting fails when it is modeled inflexibly off of the standard office nine-to-five. Company executives, managers, and workers need to communicate about the specific policies that work best for individual workers and teams. Flexible scheduling, results-oriented work assessments, and individual adaptability are key.
COVID-19 is transforming workplaces around the world. At Protocol Labs, we plan to continue building new tools to improve the internet and honing our remote-first best practices. Join us in our mission to make the web faster, safer, and more open. Check out our current openings and feel free to reach out with questions about how we work.