As the Coronavirus has spread around the world, businesses are requiring employees to work from home and grappling with the practical implications of suddenly needing to manage a distributed workforce.
InspireHUB is a 100% remote company and has been managing an international staff of digital nomads for over five years. As the creator of the IHUBApp Digital Experience Platform, we also have had agencies and clients use our platform to build employee hubs to help improve their connection and engagement.
From this unique vantage point, we decided to share the internal guidelines and tips that have helped us become high-performers and produce at the award-winning level with the hopes of you making the most of the situation.
1. Recreate Your Physical Workday Virtually
Your workday at the office has a number of predetermined routines that you don’t likely give much mind to but actually help to create your office environment. When your staff are remote, recreating these moments are crucial to keep the connection and relationships strong.
- The morning hello. When you get into the office first thing in the morning, you likely greet various people on the way to your desk. It lets people know that you’ve arrived and are ready to get to work. Ask all of your team to log-on to the real-time messenger you will be using, like Slack or Google Hangouts, and say a good morning as they arrive.
- Have daily standup meetings. Most teams have a version of a daily standup, even if it is informally standing around talking about what everyone is working on for that day. Schedule your virtual daily standup to start at the beginning of your day for at least 15 minutes. Use tools like Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Zoom Video, UberConference, Flock or other simple video-conferencing apps.
- Create a virtual watercooler. Steve Jobs talked about the importance of “casual collisions and spontaneous meetings” but how do you make this possible in a virtual world? It’s actually simpler than you think. Creating a hangout where people can jump in for a break from their work is important. In the early days of InspireHUB, we had a space called the “Watercooler” to encourage people to come in and just connect. Today, the team is comfortable enough to just share, opening with “You have got to come and see this!” and whoever is available will jump in. A part of the watercooler experience is understanding the importance of “shooting the breeze” and not talking about work. Don’t worry, virtual work means that your people’s interruptions are significantly reduced, so anytime spent in a virtual watercooler chat is something to be celebrated not worried over.
2. Determine Your Virtual Rules of Engagement
Recreating your physical workspace into a virtual one is the first step, but your team also needs the rules of engagement to understand what your expectations are on when it comes to managing their time and how they connect with one another.
- Ensure you’re available during core business hours.
It may seem obvious, but when working remotely, people have flexibility put into their days. Ensuring that your team understands they must be logged on and at their respective workspaces during the times they normally kept is important. It means that everyone can count on having the resources and people they need to get the work done.
- Close your “virtual” office door to get focused.
Interruptions, whether it be a “ding” on your messenger or a “knock” on your office door, still have the same negative impact. We allow employees to close their office door by announcing that they are “going dark”. What does this look like? Usually, it’s a message from an employee that says “Hey guys, I’m going dark for the next hour. Before I do, does anyone need anything?” It’s usually followed by a “See you on the other side.” comment. When employees go dark, it means that all their chat notifications and email will be off. If there’s an emergency, we can reach the person via their text.
- Work from home when you’re sick.
This one always gets chuckles from new employees to InspireHUB. One of the strange realities of working virtually is that you are more likely to work even when you are feeling under the weather. In a physical office, you would say “I’m not feeling well. I’m going to work from home today.” Sometimes, it IS possible to still work when you are not feeling well, but not always. You need to set expectations that sick days can be used even if people are working from home. Our experience has taught us that most people will work if they have a cold, but when someone is seriously ill, the best use of their time is spent resting up. It means fewer mistakes, and having your staff back on and strong is important.
3. Follow These Virtual Meeting Etiquette Rules
In-person meetings and virtual meetings share many of the same fundamental rules of engagement for success. However, there are important differences. At InspireHUB, we have created specific rules over the years around our virtual meetings that have helped us make them extremely productive. We’re happy to share our “Happy Meeting Rules” with you!
- Prepare to arrive on time.
It’s important that you not treat virtual meetings as optional in any way. Prior to your meeting, it’s important that you test to ensure your technology is working. Nothing is more annoying than having to wait on someone who is installing something in order to get into a meeting. While it may happen from time to time, ensuring you are ready to go before the meeting starts keeps things productive and respects everyone’s time.
- If possible, be on camera.
Over the years, we found the ability to be on camera makes a significant difference in closing the gap for remote workers. 90% of how we communicate is done with non-verbal cues. The great thing about today’s technology is that it allows you to have face-to-face communications. If your laptop doesn’t have a built-in camera, you can opt for your phone camera. If that doesn’t work, for a small investment (under $20) you can purchase a webcam. It really is a difference-maker.
- Give your full attention. Be fully present.
It is extremely tempting to do other work when you are sitting in a meeting. It’s just too easy to quickly check an email, or read an article. When starting our meetings, we ask our staff to please take a moment and close down all their other windows so they won’t be tempted. Additionally, we ask them to face directly into the camera. By committing to being fully present during the meeting, you ensure you won’t miss any important points, and you don’t have to worry about doubling back on items already discussed.
- Discuss how to interrupt to make a point during the video chat.
Agree on a system of moderation, whether using the “hand raise” feature available in some video conferencing tools or doing the same by simply indicating that in the chat window. Not everyone is comfortable interrupting others who are talking even in a traditional meeting environment. The power of a virtual meeting is that employees who may be quieter, shy or introverted will be able to pose their questions in this new environment.
- Hold your meeting in a quiet space whenever possible.
It’s not always possible to accommodate this, but it makes a huge difference. In a traditional meeting, you are typically in a quiet room with a door shut. Virtual meetings offer more flexibility, but without the quiet, it can be difficult for everyone to focus. The more sensitive the meeting, the more a quiet space is required. For example, it may be okay to take the conference call for a creative brainstorming session from the airport but not for a sales call where you want to make a great impression. Some quick tips to quiet?
- Shut the door of your room, if possible, to reduce noise and distractions.
- Mute your microphone when you’re not talking.
- Set your microphone to reduce ambient and background noise.
- Interrupting an on-going virtual meeting.
The same etiquette that applies to meetings at your office applies to the virtual world. You may ask someone: “Should I be at that meeting?” but you wouldn’t just invite yourself to the table (necessarily). However, sometimes something really important will happen, and you need to interrupt a group of people in the middle of a session to deliver some news. In this case, we usually opt for a ping to the group on a message. However, we’ve had the odd occasion that warranted someone jumping into the call. Explain to the employees WHEN this can happen in advance. Also, interrupting any meeting requires that certain etiquette should still apply. “Sorry to interrupt, but I think you guys need to see this…” is usually effective. We also use humor at times like these. My personal favorite was when a staff member jumped into a virtual call and declared: “Wait? Is this room double booked again, or am I just in the wrong office?”
- Follow all the same success rules for meetings that you follow now.
Just because a virtual meeting is “different” doesn’t mean the rules change. At InspireHUB, in addition to the virtual meeting rules, we also follow these:
- Don’t call a meeting if it can be done through email.
- Have an agenda and a goal.
- Ask yourself the question: “Why am I in this meeting?” and if you’re not providing value - leave.
- Take detailed personal notes for your future reference.
- Review the minutes taken from the meeting for accuracy.
4. Don’t Let Out of Sight Employees become Out of Mind
One of the complaints from remote employees is that they are often made to feel like they are second-class citizens because they are not thought of for important opportunities or projects.
The problem is not the staff who are working remotely but rather a lazy company culture that doesn’t think with intentionality about who should be at the table.
(Ouch! That’s a tough truth pill to swallow.) When you are working on projects or holding meetings, the first question your team should be trained to ask is “Who needs to be at this table?”. This will force your team to really think about what staff need to be involved, and it will also ensure that critical employees who are working remotely are not left out. Here are some other practices that we train our leaders to do at InspireHUB:
- Do daily “check-ins.” It takes a fractional amount of time to send a message that asks: “How’s your day?” to your direct reports. You’d be surprised at what a difference this simple, human, touch-point makes!
- Set expectations and track progress. Chances are you already have something in place to do this even if you’re not part of a remote workplace. By managing your projects well, you will ensure that resources are properly allocated. Use tools like TeamWork, Asana, Basecamp, Trello or Monday to collaborate on setting tasks and managing time.
- Invite employees to contribute creatively. At InspireHUB, we’ve built a Digital Experience we call “The Office” that gives our employees the opportunity to engage with one another. It’s part private social network, part intranet, and part fun. Employees can post, like, comment, distribute, share, and reference a variety of materials. We have other clients who have built extranets and websites to engage the members of their audience. It doesn’t have to be a full portal like what we have for ourselves and for our clients. Something as simple as a shared google doc with a running “Wouldn’t it be great if…” list that allows everyone to contribute can be just as effective!
5. Get Ready for Future Transformation
If you’re thinking that after the Coronavirus disappears that you will return to “business as usual,” you should be prepared for the possibility that is not likely to happen. Research has proven that remote workers are more productive than in-house teams. The reality is that, after your staff has a taste of working like this, and you have had a taste of increased productivity, neither side is going to want to go back to the old way of doing things. Use this opportunity within your company to figure out what is working and why. Poll your employees and use their feedback to transform the way you will work in the future.
The great news is that, while you may have been forced into managing a distributed workforce because of the Coronavirus, if you handle this situation right you will find your workforce more productive than ever!
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