In line with World Mental Health Day on October 10, we decided to do something different – take an internal look into how we operate as a company. Tackling the mental health crisis that has been fueled by the Covid-19 situation across the world is no easy task and remote work culture is at the center of management practice discussion on a weekly basis.
We know that navigating this new social contract is strenuous – and as a remote-first and partially distributed team, we have learned a thing or two about this. Now it’s time to share this knowledge.
Covid as a catalyst for change
We all know the promises of working remotely and working from home – being in charge of your schedule, no more bothersome commutes, wearing comfortable clothes, having your own work pace and style and always looking great because you didn’t have to walk or bike through the rain – and if not, you can always just turn off the camera.
Sounds great, right?
In a perfect world, everyone could work in the environment they choose. However, change is hard – and contrary to popular belief, people really don’t like change. It is up to the management to ease the process.
Due to the pandemic, there are plenty of employees who are now learning the ropes and navigating this unknown structure. We all could have been proactive in putting best practices in place – but best practices are only best in the situations they are created for – and most companies are put to test to walk the talk of agile management.
Remote work is here to stay and even though it feels as if this happened overnight, it has been in the making for a while. This change does not have to be complex or resource-draining: Using this opportunity, companies across the board are embracing digital tools, automation, and AI-powered workflow management – and focusing on putting more emphasis on how meaningful work is done.
Remote – not only a way to work but a way to live
There are, however, real downsides and struggles to remote work and they need to be considered. According to the State of Remote Work report, the biggest concern for the remote workforce is unplugging – the blurring of work and off-work time. As these become more intertwined with working from home, companies should acknowledge the problems and help employees put in place structures – or move towards asynchronous work.
One of the biggest challenges of remote work is the feeling of isolation and working in silos. Increased automation and digitalization naturally change the internal ecosystem of an organization, but tools to keep the whole team connected should be considered. Human connections become increasingly meaningful, especially when we consider the multiple scenarios of people working from home.
This other side of the coin of working at home includes distractions (“oh, I’ll just reply to this email” or “I’ll just fold up the laundry real quick”) but it is also important to know that your co-workers may live in very different situations from the ones you might experience – think kids and family, pets or even crappy bandwidth, and accept that some things are out of our control.
Internal communication tools such as Slack should include channels for water cooler talk – and jumping in for a casual chat about whatever is on your mind should be encouraged and help to bring humanness back into the work we do.
This is not to say that we should increase meeting times or screen time. You shouldn't feel like you need to accept every invitation to yet another Zoom happy hour or games night. Video calls can be more emotionally draining than a regular get-together because they are rigidly planned, and the shift to working from home has somehow made at least my personal social circle think that I am available to jump on a call at any time.
The same goes for company meetings. Do you know the feeling when you’re sitting in a meeting, scheduled for an hour – and all you can think of is that this should have been an email? Yeah, me too. Packing your schedule with half-work-half-social meetings gets neither done and results in a knee-jerk reaction to the next invitation I get.
An MIT study outlines that this anxiety we get from working remotely is due to the lack of passive face time – just seeing someone around the office space gives you the feeling that they prioritize work. Even more concerning, however, is the notion that management was 9% more likely to describe employees with whom they shared more passive face time, as “responsible” and “dependable” – and are more likely to promote and advance those employees.
"Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can." – Jack and Suzy Welch
The deliberate design of a remote-first company
Levity is a remote-first company but even within our team, in some instances, we have had to learn the hard way. This, however, only drives us to constantly adapt and question our logic - "is this really the best solution to a problem?"
Keep in mind, though, just because something works for someone, doesn't mean it works for you – strategies need trial and error and you need to provide the tools that work for your employees to stay productive, healthy, and connected.
Working remotely often means working alone with no one to keep track of you except yourself. This lack of in-person supervision means that we ourselves must be more accountable. When working in a manager-subordinate setting, this can often lead to excessive micromanagement rather than constructive feedback. There are strategies to get around this, though. To name the ones we are using at Levity:
- Tools like Clubhouse and Notion help you structure your work in your team in a collaborative and open manner.
- Toggl offers a tracker to focus on productivity through time management and self-discipline.
- Even setting your status on Slack to “doing deep work”, “going for a walk” or “crappy internet connection” help to set up lines of passive communication. There is strong argumentation for why multitasking does not work – and this often includes communication.
Due to the lack of feedback and open communication, the feeling that we are not doing enough is one that we tend to internalize but allowing this to fester causes tension and is a real threat to healthy work-life balance. Even more, incomplete information kills productivity, and this is something we should actively mitigate.
A simple hack: Upon starting your day, ask yourself: “Do I have all the information to do my job today” – and who do I need to talk to in order to say yes?
We realized very quickly at Levity that communication comes in many shapes and colors. It was a no-brainer for us to fully embrace asynchronous work. Our team operates from multiple locations, and time zones, and we aim to be more than just the sum of our parts.
Allowing each team member to work when they are the most productive (yes, night-owls, I'm referring to you) and according to their style (working visually, taking the time to mull over a task, or working out loud) sets a structure that grants a higher level of commitment. A Stanford study found that employees who were able to choose how, when, and where they work increased their performance by 13% - a significant gain that shouldn’t be dismissed.
Do you know the saying speech is silver and silence is golden? When it comes to remote work, communication is the key, and it is not as simple as it used to be. We cannot take it for granted. The tricky part? The social contract has changed and we need to be crystal clear about what the expectations are.
Email as the king of communication is dead – tools like Tandem and Slack are making communication more agile. Agreeing upon a Slack code of conduct in your team allows everyone to see when you are available, or when you are engaged in deep work. Setting your status on Tandem, a tool that we use internally for watercooler hang-out, allows you to see if anyone is available for a chat, or to bounce some ideas off of a colleague. Setting one company calendar helps you to have an overview of who’s in and who is not, and setting office hours lets your teammates respect your off-time.
Inclusion is something we need to deliberately design into our new processes. In Levity, we have an office space for those who prefer it, but for company meetings we each use a separate laptop, to make sure that those of us working remotely feel equal.
Being socially more connected is a different game to play. Company happy hours and game nights are great – but encourage variety. A few other ideas to consider:
- Set up a virtual lunch date.
- Give your colleagues a tour of your house.
- Go for a virtual walk together in your neighborhood.
- Organize a masterclass.
- Do a virtual movie night watching Die Hard and see who can recite the most lines (Thanks Justin from Zapier for that little gem, even though he prefers Nicolas Cage. Die Hard, on the other hand - is the perfect way of getting into the cold, cozy Christmas mood.)
The options are endless (check out this cool list from Toggl) – but they should never be mandatory. Most importantly, though, don’t forget to check in on your teammates, and check on yourself. Internalizing your frustration or isolation will eventually catch up and affect your work and health.
When working remotely, mentorship can become a huge aspect. A Stanford study done in partnership with Ctrip found that remote workers were promoted at half the rate of those who worked from the office – and transmission of knowledge plays a big role.
It is important to set up one-to-ones to make sure open communication about the advancement and development of culture in the organization takes place. These micro-interactions help employees to achieve smaller tasks, share wins, ensure cultural alignment and reinforce shared goals through feedback. Trust your team and they will trust you.
But not all of the responsibility lies in leadership or management. Employees should proactively find the right balance in work and off-work time, social interactions, and task management. Accountability and work ethics are important, but so is asking for managerial support when it is needed. Setting up your methods of working, a workspace that enhances productivity, tracking time spent on tasks and a proactive mindset to problem-solving will help you find more meaning in your work.
Remote work is here to stay, whether we love it or hate it, and it is up to us to define it. It is not just enough to state that we are or will be a remote workspace, or that this is necessarily the new normal – but rather put in place structures and manage our organizational design and actions actively to set ourselves up for success.
In any case, modern organizations have to change to a proactive mindset. Even though learning the ropes and navigating the new normal can seem ambiguous, the practice of this cannot.