Earlier this month Twitter announced it will allow some employees to work from home “forever” if they wish, as the past few months have proven that working from home is a viable option for a company of their size. It proved to be a bit prescient, or perhaps simply provided the kind of air cover that enabled other companies to rapidly follow suit. Regardless, it surely isn’t the last we hear of companies embracing remote work as normal operating procedure, as companies of all sizes adapt to near- and long-term social distancing guidelines.
Managing a distributed workforce seems like a no-brainer for a global company with employees on multiple continents working together in a non-Covid world. But what about smaller organizations adapting to the new normal? How do you create, protect and promote company culture and norms in a startup, for example, if your employees don’t have regular facetime during the course of the workday?
When “company headquarters” don’t exist
Our small (but growing) firm has never had a home office. When the company was created, our founder wanted to work with experts at the top of their game, regardless of where they live. Our 10-member team and larger network of top journalists and marketing experts reside all over the US and beyond. Some of us have never been in a room together. And we’ve been successful.
In the last six years, we’ve proven that “the office” is wherever we are working. And that’s just about anywhere – at home, in shared workspaces, in our clients’ reception areas, in coffee shops and in our cars when the coffee shop is too loud for a conference call. We’ve proven you can “go to the office” anywhere.
Despite our sparse time face-to-face, our company culture is strong, our firm’s values are internalized by every team member, and our work product is valued by our clients. Ensuring our firm maintains these attributes as we grow means we live by a certain set of norms.
- Emphasize communication. It’s easy to burrow into communication tools like email and Slack to get the job done without hearing another human. But what we mean by communication is calling or video conferencing with teammates regularly. We find it’s ultimately more productive and prevents miscommunication when you just pick up the phone. In early March when it became clear COVID-19 would affect every aspect of life, we changed our bi-weekly team calls to weekly video calls, so we could keep on top of the news as a group and see for ourselves how each team member is holding up.
- Understand that life happens. Work and home life are mixed together like your favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s. At the moment, life is hard for most everyone, from the mundane daily frustrations brought by the elimination of work/life boundaries to the severe fallout from a virus that has infected almost 6 million people globally so far. Pay attention to each individual’s personal challenges and mental health. Proactively redistribute the workload when someone needs it, because you know your team of Type A’s won’t ask. We like to say everyone gets a turn at the shit show; we’ll pick up the slack while you take yours.
- Encourage the skills that make a great remote worker, and don’t be punitive when someone doesn’t live up to a new standard. Successful remote workers have great pro-active communications skills, regularly ask clarifying questions, are willing and able to embrace the latest-and-greatest technology tools and can work in just about any setting. As an employer, it’s your job to provide the tools, systems and support each team member needs to get their job done.
- Set boundaries around work hours. With team members in different time zones, some who work late at night and others who complete projects on the weekend, it’s important for employees to know they need to only be available to their teammates during normal business hours. Just because they receive an email from a coworker in the wee hours of the morning doesn’t mean they need to respond outside of their normal schedule. Sometimes there are exceptions, but they should be few and far between. We include work hours, i.e. time zone, a part-time schedule, with employee contact information so everyone knows when team members are available.
- Be transparent about the health of the organization. Keep your team members up-to-speed on how the changing economy is affecting your business. Hopefully, you can provide a sense of security in a world that’s not secure.
- Prioritize the professional and personal development of team members. Support your staff in learning and achieving something that will not be evaluated in a performance review. Provide resources and the time to learn something that doesn’t directly reflect their job description. The most valuable remote team members have a growth mindset and proactively seek out new ideas and information.
- When possible, allow remote workers to use the technology platform they prefer. We want our team members to use technology quickly and efficiently, so we don’t force them to learn a new platform. We provide a technology allowance and (outsourced) technical support and allow team members to use the computing platform of their choice. At the moment, Mac users are outpacing our PC users 2 to 1.
- Most importantly, remember that conflict is inevitable and when it occurs, intention is everything. While we debate our work and challenge each other on a daily basis, it’s never personal. Our stated intention is that we strive to communicate respectfully, honestly and directly, and to address conflict immediately. This has never been more important.
These are some of the ideas we’ve embraced over the last six years. We have big plans for our firm. Someday (hopefully) the world will be on the other side of coronavirus, but at Big Valley Marketing, we’ll still be working from home.