How to transition to remote work in a hurry

Wade Foster
Wade Foster / Published March 13, 2020

Working remotely becomes second nature when you do it all the time. But if you need to suddenly transition to remote work, you won't necessarily have effective systems in place. I consistently get emails from folks looking for advice on how to make remote work actually work. While we've written the book on how to do it, that advice is best suited for teams who have time to formulate a plan. But what should you do if you're thrust into remote work abruptly?

Here, I'll share my own tips—along with tips from my friends on fellow remote teams—on how to transition to remote work without warning.

Mimic your office culture remotely

The question I get the most goes something like this: "How do we have fun, stay engaged, build morale, and prevent loneliness and isolation? The office can be a fun place to be. How can remote stack up?"

For a lot of us, the office can be a fun place. We make friends, we have a sense of community, purpose, mission—it's hard to go from that to working from home and only having live conversations with your dog.

Sarah Park, president of MeetEdgar, suggests trying to mimic your office culture in the new remote environment. Is your culture based on spontaneity and bumping into each other? Then set up Slack channels for water cooler conversation. Is it based on all getting in one room and doing some sort of social activity? Sarah's team sometimes has movie days, where they'll all stream the same movie and keep a chat going around it. "You need to get creative about what you normally do in an office," she says. "Find the remote way to recreate the environment that led to your office activities."

Sarah also suggests figuring out what it is that your employees miss the most about office culture—things like taking a coffee break or eating lunch together. At Zapier, folks sometimes set up coffee or lunch dates to mimic that experience. Whatever it is you like most about working in office, try to make the virtual version of it happen.

Embrace social time

The important thing is that you view that social time as a core part of work. Sarah notes:

Get open-minded about it, and really view the social aspect of the work as part of the work itself. In a normal office environment, these activities aren't seen as the best way to spend 45 minutes of your day—but when working remotely, it 100% becomes important. The more time you can spend having a silly conversation on Slack, the easier it is when you get on a video call for the first time with folks on your team and have to start diving into work. It really does help lubricate the work itself.

At Zapier, we have over a hundred channels devoted just to socializing. All of these off-topic channels are prefixed with #fun-: there's #fun-gardening, #fun-parenting, #fun-home-ownership (which is arguably not fun). People can congregate around these shared interests, show off pictures of their new puppy, or show a more personal side of themselves. The time people spend in these channels isn't seen as slacking off—it's valuable team-building.

One time, things were slowing down in our support channel, and one of our employees just said "let's have a dance party." Everyone picked a song on Spotify, recorded themselves doing a dance, then put the gif in Slack. We created a montage of everyone dancing, and it was awesome—people pulled their kids into it, pulled their dogs into it. This kind of thing helps people feel engaged and prevents that loneliness and isolation that everyone worries about with remote work.

Kieran Flanagan, VP of Marketing at HubSpot, encourages people to extend this social aspect to the manager-report relationship. He suggests that managers spend the first five minutes of every one-on-one asking about that person's life. It might feel like a waste of precious meeting time, but it's not—it's a way to ensure that everyone still feels connected, which is crucial in building a remote culture that works.

Default to transparency

The biggest hurdle for managers and individual contributors alike is how to build alignment and demonstrate accountability. Managers want to be sure their reports are getting things done, and employees want to prove to their managers that they're being productive.

Most leaders will suggest: default to transparency. That's one of our core values at Zapier, and it's necessary for anyone working remotely.

Part of that transparency, says Natalie Nagele, co-founder of Wildbit, involves setting clear goals and sharing them. While she doesn't do this on her always-remote team, she suggests that, when transitioning to remote work, you might start with daily check-ins. That leads to less confusion about what folks should be working on, how often they should be communicating, things like that. It's an opportunity to break things down into smaller deliverables so that everyone knows what's expected.

Sarah agrees. "The vast majority of people want to do a good job. But if they don't know what you're expecting their day to be, they'll have a hard time meeting those expectations." She says it's up to managers to be really clear about what the expectations actually are. "Managers need to state the absolute obvious, making everything as clear as possible…Your team needs to know that you're not going to change the goalposts on them."

The transparency extends beyond the manager-report relationship, though. At Zapier, we have all conversations in public channels. It mimics the open-office feel and allows everyone to search the chat logs if they need to find something that happened when they weren't around.

Brainstorm differently

One of the things people ask me all the time: how do you brainstorm remotely? How do you have whiteboard sessions? How do you come up with creative ideas when everyone is by themselves?

The answer: it depends.

Kieran's team uses Miro, but there are all kinds of online whiteboards that offer templates and let you drag-and-drop, add commentary, and collaborate in real time. At Zapier, we sometimes even use Google Docs for the same purpose—it doesn't require a sophisticated tool.

Sarah's team, on the other hand, doesn't really do whiteboarding in the traditional sense. They do their brainstorming alone or in smaller groups and then share with the larger group after.

If you're used to brainstorming together on a whiteboard, try an online version to see if it works. If it doesn't, you might have to adjust your methods for a while and brainstorm alone. Many folks find this more productive, so it's at least worth a try.

Don't expect normalcy

There's a book called High Output Management by the chairman and CEO of Intel, Andrew Grove. In it, he talks about the concept of "task relevant maturity." The idea is that you can have a high performer who excels in one area and not in another—and that's okay.

Right now, your environment has shifted. No one is prepared for the sudden shift to remote work, which means everyone's task relevant maturity is really low. Managers can't expect their directs to be as high-functioning as they usually are, and employees can't expect their managers to know how to manage them remotely.

So as you start shifting to remote work, as Natalie suggested, maybe have regular checkpoints, more than you normally would. Managers can give employees a little more direction than usual to help them flex their remote work skills and get the guidance they want and need in an uncertain, new scenario. Then, as you build up more of a routine, you'll see that task relevant maturity going up, and you won't feel the need.

Be flexible

Even if you do have a plan for normal remote working, things are a little different right now: daycares are closed, schools are closed, resources feel scarce, and emotions are running high.

Everyone I spoke to suggested maximum flexibility. Let people switch the times or days that they work. Be understanding if folks have to suddenly leave in the middle of a meeting. But most importantly: prioritize.

We are all stretched thin right now, much more than usual. Julie argues that it's up to company leaders to figure out what needs to get done—and make sure everyone keeps their eyes on the prize: "If there's a single parent whose kid's school is canceled, maybe someone else, whose work isn't quite as urgent, can jump in for them."

What it comes down to is understanding that things are outside of the normal routine right now—for everyone. Sarah says:

Even if you don't have the kids, or the spouses, or the menagerie of pets running around the house, it's a really noisy time out there right now. We have to give space for people to be emotionally dealing with stuff, whether it's happening in their own house or not. With all the overwhelm—some people find solace in finding productive work and getting things done, and some people don't.

There are so many other things in our world that are taking our attention and time. It's different from a normal remote situation, and we're all figuring this out together. The good thing is, we tend to be resilient in times like this. We're going to see a lot of creative solutions. And if you're willing to learn as you go—and be patient during the adjustment period—you might find that remote work works for you.

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