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March 26, 2020

Business per unusual: Finding a new normal with remote work

You’re used to working in an office. You start each day grabbing a coffee. Maybe dropping the kids off at school. Commuting to an office. Joining meetings. Weighing in on random conversations with coworkers. Replying to emails, and going to lunch with a client. Before long, you’re commuting home to gear up for the next day. The rituals of modern-day office life are familiar and reliable.

The sudden impact of a global pandemic has forced millions of people to transition to remote work without much of a warning or game plan. Most companies are scrambling to recreate office life...outside the office.

There is a lot of mystery around remote work. The remote part, to be specific. This past week, we’ve had many of our own clients ask us how we make remote work, work. We’ve spent over a decade figuring out remote work at MetaLab with a team that works from 12 countries and 8 time zones. We’ve only landed here after years of questioning how we work—evolving our norms, processes, and policies.  

Zoom, Everyone's New Favorite Business Tool, Is Our Favorite Way To Stay Connected

So, while we’re adapting to this new norm with you, we wanted to share some of the remote life strategies we’ve developed over the last decade that keep us focused, productive and connected.

Build a Strong Foundation

Remote-First Culture & Trust

As Simon Sinek says, “Your company doesn’t have a culture. It is a culture.” Cultures evolve and we’ve learned moving towards a remote culture means dialing up in some specific areas.

In a remote environment, employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day. Here are some of the things that help put these guardrails in place: 

  • Let go of traditional productivity markers: You might have to get comfortable with not actually seeing people working all the time. But it doesn't necessarily mean less will get done. In fact, studies show the opposite. Often, companies see large productivity gains with remote-first teams—individuals have fewer interruptions and are given more freedom to work how and when works best for them. Embrace the heads-down time and think about whether your questions, requests, or check-ins are as necessary as you may have initially thought. Keep in mind that using the metric of output can make it easy to lose track of someone’s workload, so be sure to check in once in a while to ensure they don’t feel like they’re drowning.
  • Allow for varying points of view: In a remote environment, you have to encourage people to speak their minds and make space for dialogue. Intentional investment in creating room for conversations (big and small) is a critical part of keeping a community connected remotely. The work is often better for it as this mindset encourages a variety of ideas and solutions that are so important when working remotely as a team. Before a video meeting, ask everyone to bring ideas or questions on the topic being discussed; heading into a meeting knowing there’s going to be an opportunity to share puts people at ease knowing they’ll get a turn to be heard.
  • Thank someone every day: Call out good work early and often. Take time to thank somebody every day: it helps remote folks feel more visible and has the added benefit of building bonds from a distance. Let your team or teammates know that you notice how much they do, and recognize it. To help with this, we use a tool called Bonusly that lets you collectively celebrate people’s efforts.  
  • Flexible work hours: Set up core work hours when the entire team can expect to be available and define these. It’s best not to make core hours an 8 hour day—trust that your team is putting in the work they need to but don’t force it to be in a set 8 hour period.
  • Take fun seriously: In-person office culture grows around water coolers, lingering after a meeting in a conference room to talk, and after-work socializing. We’re here to get things done, but we’re still humans who love that social connection and it’s no different remotely. We build a strong community at MetaLab outside of the work itself partly through our use of ‘off-topic’ Slack channels. Building public channels about things unrelated to work gives space for new jokes, blowing off steam, and finding common connections with others. We've scattered some of our favourites throughout the post—like this one.
#and-chill—our Place To Stay Connected On All Things Quarantine Binging (also, Please Watch 'tiger King')

Much of the above may seem like common sense. And it is. People do their best work when they are supported and empowered. The more intentional everyone can be in building collaboration, recognition and autonomy, the stronger and more resilient your culture will be in adapting to the change and challenges that lay ahead.

Come Together

Remote Communication

Communication is so vital to working well remotely that it has its own section. While an entire post could be dedicated to unearthing all the various facets of getting communication right, here are some of the fundamentals of remote communication. 

  • Communicate. A lot: Work as a team to create a shared understanding of what communication looks like for your company. Determine what’s better suited for synchronous vs asynchronous communication. Confirm when you've received an update, and most importantly, ask for clarification if something’s unclear. In a remote setting, it’s always better to dial up your frequency of communication—it will benefit you and your team.
  • Document key discussions: Working remotely can mean that it’s harder to document decisions with conversations happening in various forums and tools. To make sure everyone is aligned, document and share all of the items you’ve discussed, decided, and assigned as a team. This can be done with a follow-up Slack message or next steps post in a project management tool. Minimizing gaps in decision-making and reaching decisions as a collective is important to both staying efficient and giving everyone a seat at the virtual table. 
  • Assume goodwill: When working remotely, text-based chat tends to be the primary form of communication. But chats lack the emotional undertones that verbal cues and body language convey about someone’s intent. So, we have found it is best to always start with the assumption that others don't have a hidden agenda. This makes for stronger relationships and stronger communication. If you ever are unsure, ask to hop on a video call and chat things through. And a small thing that has become a reflex for our team: add an emoji or two to a message to convey your intent with what you’re saying—even a virtual smile goes a long way.
  • Set clear expectations: When working remotely, there are fewer opportunities for those “chance encounters” to check in with quick questions and updates. Be explicit about what you need in your communication at the outset of a project or meeting about an upcoming milestone. Our thresholds to attune to others’ needs and priorities may be diminished right now, so it doesn't hurt to dial this up to better ensure smoother sailing ahead.
#aww—our Daily Dose Of Cuteness From Pets Digging To Cats Sleeping

You got this

There is a lot of uncertainty about the future right now, and your team’s resilience will be significantly impacted by the culture you foster, communication norms you develop, the tools you use, and the space you create. For specific suggestions about remote-friendly tools, check out  Notion’s guide.

#metaparents—an Added Lifeline For Those On Our Team With A Much Fuller Household Right Now

While we don’t have all the answers, we wanted to share a bit about what makes MetaLab tick in hopes it helps you and your teams succeed.

If you want to learn more about different dimensions of remote work/life, here are some perspectives from others on our team:

Celebrate little wins
Embrace the scroll
Coach them though big ideas
Embrace the scroll
...make sure anyone can use it
Give them one task at a time
Teach by example
Create a 'consumer-friendly' feel
Focus on the most common user needs, but...
Start with mobile
Principles we
can use today