Coronavirus is forcing the US technology workforce to become remote-first in one week. The message is clear: the coronavirus is here to stay, and in the US, it will get worse. Reducing disease propagation by limiting the use of shared spaces (e.g., offices and classrooms) is a critical measure that can help flatten the curve of coronavirus and ensure that our medical systems don't become overwhelmed. As a result, institutions and organizations are closing their doors in favor of remote students and workforces. But for small startups that may have no experience working remotely, becoming remote-first in such a short period is going to be a challenge.
Textile has been a remote-only company from the start, and we've had time to experiment with different tools and processes to make a remote company function. Today, for all those small companies that are becoming remote-first overnight, I wanted to share some of the tools we use, the resources we reference, and the practices we employ. Hopefully, this information helps you succeed and possibly even become a stronger company.
Keep your team connected
For teams that have generally worked together in a shared space, the move to remote work is going to leave them feeling pretty disconnected at first. You’d be surprised how many small interactions happen when in person, that can keep people in-tune with the moods, needs, and concerns of their teammates. When you become remote, think about creating new channels and rituals that can help fill each individual need to share with, and hear one another.
- Use team chat. Slack, Discord, and Keybase are just a few options. You are probably already using one, but in the early stages of becoming remote, you are going to need this tool a lot. Some remote teams grow past using the always-on chat channels which is interesting, but maybe not the first step for a team that has just been thrown into remote-only.
- Create a #workhours channel in your team chat. This is where your team can share the comings and goings, such as “heading for a coffee” or “just back from walking the dog”. It may feel like spam, but it helps to keep people human. It wont scale with larger teams, so you’ll need to experiment with splitting it into multiple channels as you grow. It can be used in conjunction with features like Slack Statuses.
- Measure your team’s mood. We use our automated team standup (see below) as a place to occasionally check the general feelings and well-being of our team. Every few days we mix in questions like, “Are you doing anything for your health today?” or “What is your mood today?”. The former is helps to remind people that doing things for their health is encouraged. The later is in the form of a multiple choice, and gives a safe and simple way for people to signal that they are doing great or maybe today they just need to focus on work and not be interrupted too much.
- Over-communicate time-off. In a remote company, it’s easy to miss when people are going to be away. Managers and teammates may all be impacted by time-off, so it’s important to make it obvious when it’s about to happen. At Textile, we have a very open policy about time-off. So each person enters their upcoming time-off in a shared calendar. Next, we have a program that runs each Friday that reads any time-off in the upcoming week and announces them in the team channel.
- Help your team over communicate at first. Don’t let them go quiet. A lot of changes will come with this new setup, so it’s critical you have all the information to learn and adapt quickly.
Maintain company momentum
None of us have seen an event like this before, so things are going to get weird. It’s essential, though, that you keep your company momentum, creating business, protecting jobs, and reducing anxiety on your team.
- Automate your standup. For small teams, an automated standup can help people communicate their short-term plans and accomplishments. We’ve been using Standuply for a year now and it’s worked well. Two standard questions every Tuesday through Friday are “What did you do yesterday?” and “What do you plan to do today?”. The goal of this standup is to keep information moving between team members. We don’t use it to record or share critical decisions or ask questions, simply to give a brief overview of where we are focused.
- Weekly team meetings. We have bi-weekly sprints, so we have a sprint kick-off call every other Monday. In the in-between Monday, we use the same time to have a shorter team catch-up. These calls are where we all discuss new information or big planning changes. You can do more calls, but we found one per week was more than enough for planning and about right for getting face-time among our teams. Here are some tools to help you scale your team meetings: Zoom: it’s really helpful to use video for remote-team calls, and we’ve found Zoom to be the best. There: you probably aren’t facing this if your team just converted to remote, but in case you do, timezone awareness can go a long way.
- Get your roadmap in order. In a remote team, people need to be more self-sufficient. A clear roadmap always helps, as individuals can see the most important work that needs to get done and then find ways to contribute. We slip away from our roadmap from time-to-time but each time we get it back in order, it’s very refreshing and motivating.
Efficient information flow at any company is hard, and now that you’ve moved to remote work, it’s going to be even harder. No team lunches, no chit-chat while waiting for coffee, no physically dragging folks into a meeting. These little changes add up, so you are going to need to develop new processes that help move information around the company. Access to information will help your decision-makers make better, and more aligned decisions.
- Team newsletters. Each team lead can summarize planning, vision, and critical changes in a bi-weekly internal newsletter. The newsletter format is ideal as it will scale to very many teams, as individuals can unsubscribe from individual team newsletters they don’t feel are important to their work.
- Open project tracking. Be sure anyone on your team can find and review timelines and planned work so they can be more effective contributors.
- Meeting notes and team memos can help ensure information is captured. Zoom has built in tools to create meeting recordings. Their cloud viewer allows you to watch those videos at 3x. This can be a great way to not force everyone into a video call while still making the summary available to others. Other tools you may find useful include: Dropbox Paper, Otter.ai, Anytype, Nuclino, Slite, Roam Research, GitHub Wikis
- Create team communication guidelines (here are ours). Getting information to flow can be a double-edged sword as it may leave some team members feeling overwhelmed. Be sure your team knows the best practices and etiquette of using chat as a primary collaboration tool. One of my favorites for example, is the No Hello Rule. Here are a few more resources to get you started: Slack Remote Tips, Setting Status with your Calendar, and NoHQ Remote Tips.
- Another thing your team should know is, when not to use chat. There are many scenarios where your team chat is just not the right communication channel. For example, leaving messages for people not currently working can often be more problematic than just sending them an email. One of the most important that we learned is whenever disagreements start to escalate, it's critical to move from chat to voice-based communication. Many dimensions of communication such as emotion, sarcasm, and emphasis can be lost in chat and make disagreements hard to resolve due to misread intentions. Create a rule for moving to voice or video early in these situations, it helps a lot.
Learn from the best
Above everything else, remember that many people have done this before, and many of them have been pretty open about sharing what works and what doesn’t work for remote companies. Here are a few more resources to get you started.
- Book: REMOTE: Office Not Required
- Blog: Intimate remote work
- Video: Building and Scaling a Distributed and Inclusive Team
- Comic: Why working from home is awesome and horrible
- Report: State of Remote Work, 2019
- Tips: GitLab Remote Tips
Finally, if you ever want to pick my brain, feel free to setup a call.