This piece was originally published on Medium.
I’ve often wondered whether working from home as a team would be something to consider for HomeHero. Having closely watched teams in the startup space do it to great effect — most notably Basecamp whose book Remote makes a strong case for it — there are reasons to believe that working from home might actually help us scale in the immediate future and keep things lean, especially in light of COVID-19.
In our team we already have a well utilised but optional work from home culture; mostly to accommodate team members who live outside of London and those whose concentration depends on at least one day a week in isolation (coders, writers, introverts). We have one senior hire come into the office 1–2 days a week only, managing her team effectively the rest of the time. We have a lead developer who works between our office and his home by the sea in Bournemouth. And we have a roving marketer who moves from office to coffee shop to workspace all in the service of a good day’s work.
So when it comes to how we work effectively from home as a team, we’re not far off. Despite having to close the office as a response to COVID-19, our work structures have been put to the test only insomuch as to test out a hypothesis I was slowly probing that remote work may be the way forward for us. Meetings have been transitioned well to Google Hangouts. Training has been given on the basics of remote communication (to great effect). A team member has developed a plugin to enable us to give emoticon encouragement during virtual presentations. In fact, the team has taken to remote work like a coder to Ruby-on-Rails.
This has in part been down to changes we made last year to how we collaborate as a team. We structure our work to a logical system called OKRs, which means we align around clear goals, and divide up projects in a straightforward way. All our meetings work around these OKR outcomes so, in the absence of the conversational tangents of in-person meetings, they tend to be more productive.
However, there is a BUT.
While I’ll take this more streamlined work process any day of the week, I can’t pretend there haven’t been threats to how we function as a team. As we’ve left life in our buzzy office in East London and gone remote, something has started to fall by the wayside. It’s the living, breathing, harder to pinpoint part of a company that is now under threat. It’s the part of a company that makes the difference between decent and being world-class: Culture and Community.
I could not be more serious about the point I’m about to make:
Every single company that has invested time and resources into building a good culture needs to proactively address how they keep their teams connected and social when going remote.
What is imperative in this crisis, on top of the obvious need to keep the metaphorical lights on, is protecting the community values and authentic connections of the team we’ve spent so much time building.
Because culture is important. Of course. We hear that daily.
But, really, why?
Because I believe that much of the success we have had to date is because we hire good people and we help them gel. We hire decent, emotionally intelligent staff and we underpin this with a common understanding that our successes in overcoming problems together and driving projects forward are down to our work relationships and how we communicate. We’re close, we’re collaborative, and we have put a lot of work into that part of the business.
So where does that leave us when we’re not in the same room every day?
It leaves us with an important strategy to start planning; a new digital connectedness to embrace.
It’s early days but we’ve started on this work in earnest. What follows are the first four strategies we’re leaning into to keep the team connected, social, and not without our shared laughs.
1. Introducing Donut
The way we work with OKRs means it’s been necessary to ensure bonds between all team members — and the happy byproduct has been that we’ve gained a lot from that socially. So in the absence of quick coffees in the café next door, we wanted to find a way to replicate the more spontaneous side of colleague catch-ups.
Donut is a Slack integration to get teams connecting socially, while retaining the random nature of office chats. Every week on Thursday at 10 am Donut pairs and introduces two colleagues to grab a virtual coffee, lunch or donut. The app is hooked up to one of our Slack channels, and every person in that channel is matched to a new person each week. It’s then down to them to make time for a chat before the next introduction.
For those who find chit chat on the harder side, the app also automatically generates conversation starters to break the ice. The jury is out but I’d love to hear if any other companies have had successes with this.
2. Daily CEO Q&A
I was concerned about losing the informal relationship I have with my team, as a CEO who hot desks with everyone when in the office and is a party to the group dynamic.
When we were still in the office, and COVID-19 was the overarching topic of conversation, I noticed that the team was looking to me for a daily steer on information around the crisis as it unfolded. There was a clear need for clarity and reassurance when it came to what was going on in the world and our business, and our close relationship meant I could provide that reassurance day-to-day.
Now we have left the physical space, I have introduced a 15-minute daily Q&A with myself, every morning without fail, where I encourage that same informality so that no questions or topics are off-limits.
The purpose is threefold. One, to update the team on the business. Two, to update the team on COVID-19. Three, to kick off the day with an open, honest forum and share resources around wellness, coping mechanisms, and personal tools. So far it’s proved to be a warm, vulnerable way start to the day together, and a meaningful way to acknowledge that this crisis has both personal and professional repercussions that need to be addressed.
3. Friday #WFH Lunch and Learns
We have also launched weekly Lunch & Learns on a Friday. The idea here was to wind down the week with something non-project-specific; something that speaks to the wider interests and skills of the team. With Lunch and Learns, we’re interested in showcasing topics that matter to individuals in the team, things they can teach us, life lessons to be shared. Topics are anything around from a lifehack on productivity, to a guide on tools to safeguard mental health, a workshop on how to grow your personal brand, and a synopsis on a book that’s changed someone’s life.
I’m excited to see where these will take us. The personal branding lunch and learn has already inspired one team member to launch his first Medium page around design and collaborative work challenges. It’s peer-to-peer personal development and it’s got potential.
4. “Heroes at Home” Virtual Film Club
We’ve always taken our monthly socials very seriously. In part this is because there isn’t a homogeneous HomeHero employee; we’re vastly different personalities which means investing heavily in bringing us together. With our original socials, we’d rotate who was in charge each month, to get a taste of each person’s idea of a good time, from karaoke to immersive theatre.
In its place, we’ve launched a fortnightly virtual film club, another way of hooking into our unique personalities and enjoying downtime together. Each month one person recommends a film. We have Google Hangout where they give a 15-minute presentation of their selection, we then countdown to play and watch it simultaneously, and keep the comments flowing in Slack. This shared activity, although remote, feeds into conversations throughout the rest of the week so it’s a good way to keep our small talk alive.
It’s a work in progress
That’s where we’re at with this. Only time will tell which tactics continue to work for us and which fall by the wayside. The key point here though is that we continue to prioritise this.
We’ve gone on to nominate two members in the team as our work-from-home champions to keep an eye on and implement new developments in the space.
Finally, we are only as good as the peers we can learn from. So I’d love to hear from you on how you’re adapting to remote work. Feel free to comment or contact me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org