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Work from Home! The Future of Teamwork Is Distributed Anyway

In an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world, remote work and distributed teams just make sense.

Not all companies can work remotely and distributed, but most can work at least partly distributed. If your company hasn't done so already, it’s time to head in that direction. Even before the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, remote work has been consistently on the rise. In the US alone remote work has increased a dramatic 159% over the past 12 years.

With rapid technology advances and the need to continuously adapt to change caused by a world that has become exponentially more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VACU), the trend towards remote work and distributed teams is only going to accelerate. This is a positive change and one that’s been artificially delayed by our pre-existing collective beliefs as to how employees or any groups working together towards common objectives are most productive. Hint: It’s not co-located, open-plan offices.

Remote work done right has a multitude of benefits including but not limited to increased productivity, reduced facilities overhead, improved employee morale, talent attraction/retention, and the ability to hire the best people regardless of location. All of these benefits combined ultimately result in faster innovation, higher profits, and a happier workforce.

It’s not just individuals and product development teams that are going remote. All corporate departments and levels are making the move. HR, Finance, Marketing, Legal, even Executive Leadership Teams and Boards of Directors are now able to work both distributed and often entirely remote. An excellent example is HackerOne, which, in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, has become an altogether remote organization. In his recent article, HackerOne CEO, Marten Mickos, talks about why they transitioned from roughly a third of the company working remotely to a hundred percent remote.

“The Industrial Revolution brought us the idea that work is a place different from home and that work is done in physical proximity of many other people. It is the idea of the joint workplace that is the anomaly. Working from home is natural.”
— Marten Mickos

Drawing from a decade of remote contributor experience and working both with and on many high performing distributed teams, here’s a practical guide for organizations now being pushed to make the leap. I’ve broken it down to the three core areas necessary for success: people, processes, and tools.

Remote People

Teams, departments, divisions, companies… it’s all groups of people collaborating towards a shared mission, purpose, and an ever-evolving set of objectives. While openness, transparency, and trust are important for any modern organization to succeed, a culture that embraces these values is critical to the success of a remote organization. This is especially so in an international company, with distributed teams located globally across different timezones, having different native languages, and their own national set of holidays and observances. It becomes even more difficult when you take into consideration that not all employees are ready for the responsibility and accountability that comes along with remote autonomy. A Remote First or even partially remote business must foster a culture of support, trust, and shared purpose in three ways.

  • Leadership First — The leadership team has to show the way by being more accessible than ever before. They must also be able to work remotely and set a clear example. Executives are online and responsive to all direct reports during agreed-upon regional core hours. Equally important, they’re also offline evenings, nights, and weekends ensuring that an always-online, always-working mindset doesn’t take hold. To increase accessibility and transparency, Remote First leaders will hold company-wide online meetups, such as a monthly or even weekly “Coffee with the CEO”. This can be done via a Zoom webinar or a similar video conferencing tool. Below is an example of a company calendar for a weekly cadence of online teams and company-wide meetings.
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Company meeting calendar in Favro
  • Goals and Objectives — While a company’s mission might be set in stone. The objectives necessary to drive that mission are dynamic and always responding to both customer and marketplace changes. To enable autonomous distributed teams and promote an individual contributor’s sense of purpose these objectives need to be as clear as possible, also providing a forum for feedback. It helps to communicate the reason for the objective - why are we doing this and the expected results. Here’s how one company achieves this using the Favro app for planning and collaboration.
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Objectives and Key Results are formulated and prioritized in Favro backlogs. Committed Key Results are planned and tracked on Favro boards.
  • Digital Culture — Both business and personal conversations will now be taking place digitally. To establish a digital culture that builds trust and camaraderie, provide virtual spaces, and encourage practices that continue to allow for personal interactions. Be extra friendly online. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to use those emojis and give praise more often. To avoid feeling isolated, team members should be able to pop in and out of virtual water coolers when they feel the need for some colleague companionship. An organization Slack or Teams channel is ideal for this.

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A virtual company coffee break (“Swedish Fika”) via Zoom

Remote Process

As always, especially in agile organizations, keep your processes as simple as possible. This being said, in a remote organization, those processes now need to be very explicit, agreed upon, and concisely documented. Like a special forces unit, your teams will need to know how to operate independently and without supervision. Clear situational operating procedures and ways of working are essential. Leadership should be able to pass along intent, and thanks to well defined remote processes, trust teams to make it happen.

  • Cadence — With distributed teams, a consistent inspect and adapt cycle is crucial to success. Daily, weekly (or iteration), monthly (or program increment) progress and planning meetings are all necessary touchpoints to make sure everyone is aligned. A cadence of synchronization needs to take place at all levels of the organization.
Team level — A daily standup or planning meeting to communicate progress towards committed goals.
Teams of Teams / Program level — At the end of each value delivery iteration, which should be every two to four weeks, review what was delivered as a team of teams, and based on stakeholder feedback, plan what will be delivered for the next iteration. Team retrospectives should also be held online to determine what’s working, what’s not working, and what improvements can be made.
Organization level — When working as a remote organization, the need to stay aligned as a whole needs to be ensured with regular company-wide online townhall style meetings. At least once every quarter, these synchs continuously provide top-level direction and provide for a necessary sense of we’re-all-in-this-together.

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An example of a distributed team Retrospective (Spotify’s Retro Kit — Boat) held in Favro
  • Organizational Flow — The flow of value through an organization doesn’t just happen between product teams. Especially in a remote environment, organizational flow of value from idea to delivery and everything in-between requires collaboration between cross-functional teams and more traditional parts of the organization. Development, Operations, Marketing, Legal, Finance all need to collaborate to optimize value streams. Working remotely can be an advantage here since there are no physical barriers (seating plans, floors, buildings) to collaboration. If facilitated by the right processes and online tools, true organizational flow of value is allowed to flourish in a much more natural way.
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A Marketing team collaborating remotely in Favro with a Product Development team by sharing a live Marketing Roadmap for product launch coordination
  • Ways of Working Playbooks — When teams and departments are no longer co-located, always available playbooks should be created based on team member discussion and agreement. These establish the playing field and will help with onboarding new team members in the future. It’s also a good idea to create and publish a high-level organizational remote playbook. The very successful game development studio Super Evil Megacorp has done this and made their playbook public. It provides a superb example of what should be covered.
  • Progress Tracking — When companies first move towards remote employees, the initial instinct is to track activity. How will we know if anyone’s working? How do we know they’re not slacking off and playing Fortnite on company time? That way of thinking and putting into place time and activity tracking procedures will destroy trust and crush moral. Trust and accountability are the cornerstones of a successful remote organization and as a leader, you should manage flow rather than tasks. Knowledge workers, and modern employees in general, will perform better when they feel empowered to succeed instead of micromanaged and supervised. A perfect example of this is to use an app like Favro to view progress towards commitments and objectives in real-time. There’s no need for status reports that can be curated and task-based metrics that are easily gamed.
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A Favro Kanban of art assets flowing from start to finish showing real-time work in progress
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A Favro Control Chart view of the same art asset Kanban showing valuable flow-based metrics for predictability and continuous improvement

Remote Tools

Most companies already have an overabundance of tools. Starting the move towards a Remote First or partially remote organization is the perfect time to re-evaluate the hardware, software, and SaaS tools currently in use. It’s an opportunity to modernize and simplify. Remove legacy software silos and remote islands of information created by different teams and departments using various tools. Agree on a much smaller library of vetted cloud-based tools and apps, which will make it much easier for distributed teams to collaborate regardless of team member location. For example, Favro clients have replaced up to 20 different tools for planning, documentation, and collaboration, with a single app. For business-critical information, the ideal is to establish a single source of truth for the entire organization with a tool that also lives up to enterprise-level security and data governance in the age of GDPR compliance.

  • Infrastructure and Hardware — If not fully cloud-based, there will most likely still be a need to access legacy systems and databases. If that’s the case, VPNs and security protocols will have to be established. Empower your remote employees to work from anywhere if need be by providing laptops, smartphones, and fast, dependable internet connectivity for everyone. Also, consider offering a budget for employees to create a productive home workspace, including an ergonomic chair, desk, printer, noise-canceling headphones, lighting, and whatever else is deemed beneficial to staying focused.
  • Communication, Planning, and Collaboration Obviously, with the vast majority or even all communication, planning, and collaboration taking place online, the need for proven SaaS tools and apps is going to receive top priority. Here are the essentials.
Video conferencing, online meetings, and webinars — Meetings at all levels of the organization and during all synchronization points will be dependent on your selected video meeting app. The enterprise tool of choice has recently proven to be Zoom. Encourage using cameras whenever possible for better communications.
General communications — At most organizations, email still reigns supreme for most written communications. A team-centric communication app like Slack or Microsoft Teams has proven to be much more useful for general discussions and decision making and essential for remote teams.
Collaboration and planning — Remote team members need to be able to plan and collaborate on commitments, deliverables, and tasks. They also need to track the flow of work from start to finish. That’s where an app like Favro comes into play. With Favro, real-time collaboration on actual work is done in team-based collections, containing cards, boards, and backlogs that can be shared with other teams and departments for transparency and organizational flow. It’s also used for contextual communications where conversations take place on the cards that represent the work. This often establishes Favro as a remote organization’s single source of truth.

Remote First and Always

As with any transformation, it’s best to apply the concept of inspect and adapt to the journey itself. While the current crisis might be forcing companies to suddenly go all-in with remote work, it’s still a good idea to take an iterative approach. Moving forward, at regular intervals, take a look at what’s working and what isn’t. Keep the good and change the bad, continuously improving remote people, processes, and tools.

If there is any good to come out of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, hopefully, it will be a new way of working for many companies: organizations that don’t look at remote work and distributed teams as a short-term, crisis mode fix, but a new normal. Given the many benefits of Remote First both to companies and employees, the workplace as we know it may never be the same again. And that’s a change for the better.

Written in collaboration with Kirsti Wennberg, Maria Ingelsson, and George Azzam.

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