This article, of which I’m the original author, was written as internal material for Silverfin, my employer, before we were all forced to work remotely by a deadly pandemic. It was then released on Silverfin’s Engineering blog at the beginning of lockdowns in Europe in March 2020. It is reposted here with permission from Silverfin.
When it comes to remote work at Silverfin, we have a joyful mix: We have people working from our main offices in Ghent (Belgium) and London (UK). We also have small offices with a handful of people in the Netherlands and Denmark. People working in these offices work from home from time to time. We have around 25 people distributed in other European countries. Some teams are fully distributed and used to working remotely, some are sitting together in the same 16m2 surface. Some are mostly in the same location, but with a few people in another office or country. On top of working in teams, we often have to work cross-team with people that are likely not in the same physical location. The end result is that everyone has to work remotely from time to time, even those having an assigned desk in an office.
Here are a few tips and tricks that have been battle tested by our teams, that could hopefully help you in the remote adventure. Without further ado, let’s start with:
Get comfortable with awkwardness
Most of the tips that follow involve an amount of change that will feel awkward to you. So the first important thing is: be ready to do things that seem illogical or overreached at first.
If one person is remote, everybody is remote
This is very helpful for everyone to feel comfortable: if you are 3 people working together, and one of them is not in the office, consider the whole team of 3 to be remote. This will really help the one person that is remote, and in the long run, it will also help those in the office (but might not seem like it at first). Here are some examples:
If you have a video call, everyone should use their own device
If you are doing a video call, and 2 people are in the same physical place (like the office), they should nonetheless all open their own computer and do the video call as if they were elsewhere. It helps in 2 ways:
- The one who is remote does not feel excluded or like a “special case”.
- Everyone has to talk to the microphone and articulate well. As you can’t rely on others overhearing what you said, this helps for everyone to understand what is said in the same way. This also avoids that awkward moment when you want to ask a question to the person next to you and are not sure if you should ask the question facing the mic and not looking at the person, or facing the person but not facing the mic, and therefore not being understood by others on the video call.
Talking about awkwardness, it takes some effort for people in the same office to do this, as the first instinct is to use only one computer. However, from experience, it definitely helps to do the one person per computer mode.
Write everything down
Again, in the case where some people work from the office and others elsewhere: write every question and every conclusion down: in chat messages, in your favorite documentation tracker, in emails; wherever is relevant.
Ideally, always use written communication only, so that everyone can see what is said and concluded. Even if you end up discussing something “live” with someone, immediately report it (to a chat channel, documentation, wherever is relevant). This way the conversation is not lost on other people who are working on the same project or task.
Does it feel strange to write a question in a chat to the person sitting next to you? Yes, definitely, but you get used to it.
This has a lot of benefits in the long run:
- Tracking history: you can always go back and see questions, answers, what was decided and when.
- Not disturbing people unnecessarily: the person sitting next to you that seems to always be available for a question, may in fact be working on a complex problem and in deep thought.
- Prioritisation: not everything needs immediate answers or comments.
- Self-documentation: documentation is rarely the strong point of any company, but if you have to write everything down, you will soon realise that a lot of things self document this way.
Note: this is a goal to have in mind. In practice, not everything will be written down. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to have this goal in mind and try to write down as much as possible.
Don’t hesitate to make small calls
Sometimes written communication becomes unhelpful or messy and it’s actually better to talk. Writing everything down does not mean you should not make calls.
One attitude to have is: a call can be unplanned, and short. It can be 5 minutes just to clarify a point. You don’t need to have any formalities (this doesn’t mean you should not be polite).
This sounds like a small thing, but if you get used to being in this mode, you get a lot of things unblocked quickly without charging everyone’s agenda (because let’s be real: if you plan a meeting, it will generally be at least half an hour long).
As a first step: work from home together
People working in fully distributed settings are forced to do this. It’s actually harder to be half-remote and have some people in an office and some remote. If possible, try to conduct tests with all working from home on the same day or half the day. This will show you where more attention is needed.
In my opinion, this should apply to everyone all the time but is especially true in a remote setting. Written communication only gets you this far: there’s no emotion, no tone of voice, a lot of context can be missing. Consequently, written communication is often perceived more negatively than the author intended. One small tip is: use emojis 🙂 ! That might sound silly, but they can actually convey a lot about your feelings!
A good habit is to add as much context as possible to the communication: why things are done is generally more important than what is done (this can generally be figured out). This is especially important if you are communicating with people from other teams who don’t have all the knowledge your own team has. It can be really hard to get into this habit, especially if there’s the option to quickly talk through the matters with people sitting next to you. However, adding context around the why is very helpful for those who don’t sit next to you, and in the long run for record-keeping. Some of us could rant for hours about how often we go back to something we did one month ago and no longer have a clue about because we didn’t properly document why we did it.
If you are pairing with someone (on chat messages for example), going back and forth all day to achieve a task, it is important to inform that person if you won’t be available for some time. They can’t see you going to a meeting, or being taken away to do something else. Depending on the task you are trying to achieve together, it can be very helpful for the other person to know if they can expect something from you immediately, or in 1h, or at the end of the day. Simply writing small messages like “I have a meeting, will be back in 1h”, “Jules asked me to do this, it got priority, I won’t be very responsive for the next 4 hours”, etc. will help you both a lot.
If you get into this process, little by little, you’ll see the fruit for yourself and your team.
Read with grace
The corollary to “overcommunicate” is to read other people’s communication with grace. Always assume the best intention from the author. As humans we have the natural tendency to feel threatened or attacked. Bear this in mind and choose to assume that the author really meant the best.
One small tip to train yourself: write something for others with the best intentions, and then try to re-read it in an angry tone. You might be shocked to see that what you just wrote with the best intentions can be misinterpreted! So now when you read something and think it’s an angry tone, you can do the reverse exercise: read it in an enthusiastic voice. See, it works almost all the time 🙂
Get to the point
If you need to disturb someone, get to the point. Don’t make small talks before coming to the actual question or reason for disturbance. This might sound like it contradicts the “overcommunicate” point but whenever you do disturb someone, bear in mind, they will want to go back to their work as soon as possible.
This applies when disturbing someone live, but also when writing a chat message: don’t ask if you can ask a question, just ask your question right away.
Of course, you can be polite and ask how the weather is, but keep it short, and immediately write your question below.
I’m not saying you can’t have small talk on chat though, that’s perfectly fine, but the person you write to should understand if you are here for the small talk (in which case, if they are in deep work, they can maybe answer when they are done) or if you are here for a specific question and you are waiting on them.
There is no end
Working better remotely is a process, it’s never finished. We treat the tips and tricks described in this article as an ideal to follow. This does not mean that every remote person is already doing everything perfectly. Things can and will improve gradually. Please take this article as a way to encourage each other, not to point fingers. Enjoy the remote journey!