To say the coronavirus (COVID-19) will impact our way of life for the foreseeable future would be an understatement.

The business landscape has changed. To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, businesses are enacting semi-remote or fully-remote operations, an unfamiliar model for many.

Ondema has been a fully-distributed company, with employees in multiple states, since 2017. We’ve experimented with remote work frameworks and tools to capitalize on upsides and minimize downsides. Furthermore, the product we provide, the Workspace, is designed for collaboration independent of physical location.

We’ve done this for a bit, but are by no means experts. Our hope in sharing what’s worked for us is that it may help some businesses adapt to remote or semi-remote models in the era of COVID-19.

Research shows that remote working can be as effective as co-located working but there are “connection challenges.” According to Google’s Distributed Work Playbook, the main challenges are 1) getting connected (arranging logistics such as meeting rooms and time zones), 2) being connected (ensuring technology supports the work), and 3) feeling connected (building and reinforcing trust).

Below are some of our lessons learned in addressing these challenges.

1. Refine roles and norms

Roles in the office are usually well-defined with titles, org charts, etc. But new challenges emerge when transitioning to remote operations. It’s easy to ascertain the status of Tim’s work when you can walk over and ask him. Employees responsible for collaborating with teammates must now do so in different manners. Management must set the tone and norms for remote operations, especially if it’s a new model.

Norms set clear expectations for how teams operate, although many times they’re assumed if not explicitly stated. How will information flow? What does the decision-making process look like? What methods of communication are appropriate for different circumstances? Who needs to participate and when? What’s the process for things happening outside of normal working hours?

comm channels
Ondema’s communication channels, based on content and urgency.

We encourage creating a living document of remote-work norms to be socialized with the team. This living document, owned by an individual in a leadership position, should be revisited and iterated on frequently, especially during the initial phases of remote work. We recommend weekly at first and monthly after that.

2. Embrace cloud software

If your remote-work communication strategy is built on everyone hitting “Reply All”…I’m sorry. Remote operations past minimal information flow will be wildly inefficient and subject to error. Your inbox will become the bottleneck if it isn’t already.

The cloud has revolutionized the reliability, speed, and cost-effectiveness of business value delivered through software. If your business isn’t leveraging these tools to A) build operational flexibility and B) enable productive (remote) work, it’s negatively affecting the ability to compete now and in the future, let alone operate productively during a pandemic. I don’t say that lightly.

Ondema uses cloud software for everything from daily communication to workflow prioritization to automating payroll. We’ve experimented with many tools and settled on a foundational few, listed below. (We use more cloud tools for development; our focus for this piece is on general collaboration and productivity tools).

Meetings – we use Zoom for internal and external meetings. After trying out different solutions, we selected Zoom for its simplicity and reliability with voice, video, and screen-share.

magical unicorn
A typical, daily Go-To-Market Standup over Zoom. Elijah and Greg are not amused.

Communication – we’ve used Slack for years. It’s easy to see who’s online and in work mode, organize communications around topics instead of recipients, integrate other applications, and collaborate. Implementing Slack has cut down email traffic by 80% and greatly improved timely information flow.

slack
Our Slack #development channel, where the dev team collaborates on all things software.

Workflow – we’ve used our product the Workspace to prioritize, assign, track, and communicate around specific work for 2+ years. More on that below…

3. Make work visible

We are a massive proponent of making work visible for any type of operational model, be it co-located or remote. So what does it mean to “make work visible?”

Dominica DeGrandis authored the brilliant book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work and Flow. In it, she describes how to design and use a tried-and-true system to do five things:

  1. Make work visible.
  2. Limit work-in-progress (WIP).
  3. Measure and manage the flow of work.
  4. Prioritize effectively.
  5. Make adjustment based on learnings from feedback and metrics.

The first and most critical step is to make work visible. This involves having something (notice I did not say someone) all key stakeholders can go to for a single source of truth on A) what is being worked on, B) who is working on what, C) what still needs to be done, and D) who will work on that. If all of this information lives in peoples’ heads or disparate systems, things are bound to slip through the cracks when crazy times hit…like coronavirus pandemics where remote work is mandated.

A system of record is critical, ideally one with “information at a glance” capabilities. Implementing a visual work management tool is often times the best solution. This was famously championed through kanban by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, the gold standard for workflow management and productivity.

workspace
Our development team’s WIP page with work status, prioritizations, and assignments.

Simple, intuitive visualizations make it easy understand work assignments and status. Collaboration tools (messaging, audit logs, etc.) built around those visualizations make work even more visible, and are absolutely critical to team productivity. Leveraging the power of the cloud ensures everyone has access to the same, up-to-date information.

4. Keep check-ins frequent & tight

Nobody benefits from long, winding meetings, or meetings that could have been emails. If these happen through the lens of a videoconference system, it’s easier for participants to mentally check out.

We’ve found that regularly-scheduled, short meetings are best for disseminating information, keeping everyone engaged and on task, and identifying potential blocks before they happen.

We have two recurring, daily “stand-ups:” one for the go-to-market team and another for the development team. They’re scheduled for 30 minutes but usually last less than 10. Everyone quickly goes through what they worked on yesterday, what they’re doing today, and if they have any blocks. We then dive into anything that needs attention in “tea and cookies” after the standup, and do so in as streamlined a manner as practical.

Longer meetings are certainly important, if used sparingly. We refer to these as “working sessions” and schedule them ad hoc. They differ from the stand-ups mentioned above in purpose and intent. Stand-ups are geared towards information exchange and aim to be succinct. Working sessions are for planning, problem solving, or when multiple sets of eyes are needed (e.g., reviewing a large code change prior to deployment).

5. Loop in your ecosytem

As the pace and complexity of operations increase, productivity is less a function of an individual business and more a function of that business’s ecosystem.

How helpful would it be if a customer that habitually calls you for status updates could simply log into a system and check for themselves? Instead of constantly communicating with all suppliers/partners/subcontractors involved on a particular project every time something changes, how useful would it be if they could just periodically check a system of record for new information? Or receive automated updates from that system of record?

partner accounts
Preview of what a Limited account can see in the Workspace. In this case, the schedule for only work assigned to the Limited account is visible.

If you are already using technology for collaboration and productivity, looping in (select members of) your ecosystem can yield big wins. Providing pertinent information on scheduling and status reduces misinformation, phone calls, emails, and other productivity killers. Most importantly, it promotes engagement and alignment with key cogs in your ecosystem, be they customers, partners, suppliers, etc. If done correctly, they’ll be stoked.

Our customers use the Workspace’s Limited accounts to tie in their ecosystem. It’s proven to be a cost-effective and scalable way for them to collaborate and build trust. Even more so when travel and in-person meetings aren’t viable options.

Summary

In these turbulent times, businesses must do what they can to build agility and thrive after the dust settles.

For businesses that have the option – working remotely has its tradeoffs. We encourage you to adopt a model that is aligned with your culture, iterate on the model, and, for the love of all that is good and sane in this world, please don’t just click “Reply All” and call it a day.

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