With so many of us now working remotely from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that your team feels connected and engaged with each other, and with your organisations mission and values. Some staff will be relishing working from home, while others may be struggling with the lack of social connection and energy that in-person interaction can bring. For business leaders, supporting and managing these many different personality types through this time can feel daunting to say the least.
With staff in Australia, New Zealand, and The Philippines our team at Grassroots IT has been impacted by the pandemic in many ways, including everyone making the transition to work from home. Although parts of the pandemic situation have certainly been difficult to work through, for us working remotely has not been one of them. With an established team spread across three countries we were already well accustomed to working remotely.
Of course, it was not always that way. It has taken time, effort, and many mistakes to get our people and our culture comfortable with working remotely and working from home. There is of course the decision of what tools and platforms you will use to support your remote working efforts, but possibly more important is the process of establishing business practices and new cultural norms to make the most of the 'new normal' of remote working.
It will come as no surprise that in our experience, communication is the key to success. Communication with a remote team is very different to communication with a team that works together in an office. Business leaders must understand this difference and be intentional about adapting communication channels to suit the changing workplace.
Some of the ideas below may already be part of your organisational norms, some may seem self-evident, and yet others may sound awkward and uncomfortable. In all cases these are strategies that we have adopted and evolved within Grassroots IT to successfully support our staff to achieve their best in a remote working environment.
The Daily Huddle
The idea of a daily huddle certainly is not new, but for some reason it does seem to be one extremely powerful habit that many organisations feel awkward about implementing. Popularised in the book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish, a daily huddle is a short, fast moving meeting ideally lasting no more than 15 minutes. Our daily huddle has become the highlight of the day for many of our team, and for everyone it's an energising, connecting way to start the day. Here are some key points about how we run our daily huddles at Grassroots IT.
- We huddle at 9am every workday. This is the ideal time for us with staff across three time zones, but whatever time you choose I would recommend making it as early in the day as possible.
- We meet in a group video call using Microsoft Teams. The call is scheduled in everyone's calendar so all they must do is click a single button to join the meeting.
- Everyone joins the video call from their own computer, even if they are in the same office with shared video conferencing facilities available. This may sound odd, but we've found that when working with remote staff it's important to have a level playing field with everyone at their own desk, rather than some people in a shared meeting room, and others solo on their computer.
- We have delegated the running of our huddle to the best person for the job. He is outgoing, energetic, and empathetic. He is not the most senior person on the team, and he does not have everyone reporting to him, but he thrives leading our huddle where a more introverted person would shrink away and hate every moment.
- Our entire team joins the huddle (there are 20 of us) and we go in alphabetical order (or reverse sometimes) with a quick share of any wins and blockers that we have. These can be work related, but often they are not, particularly during pandemic lockdown, with people getting far more value from sharing something personal with their colleagues. I think my favourite win that I shared recently was how happy I was with my latest batch of homemade beef jerky!
- We keep it light and fun. Our huddle is quick and filled with plenty of jokes and laughter. Every three to four weeks we have a themed Friday huddle, such as pyjama day or beach day, where everyone comes to the video call dressed in theme. The key here is, once again, choosing the right person to lead your huddles each day. The right person will bring energy, enthusiasm, and ideas to the huddle, helping everyone to connect as a team.
The Power of Video Calls
Many of us default to sending an email when we need to communicate with a remote colleague. There is nothing wrong with this as such, and indeed for some communications email is still the most effective method. In our experience though, email can often be an inefficient method at best, and a confusing waste of time at worst!
Chat tools can be useful, however at Grassroots IT video calls have become the go-to method for discussions with one or more colleagues. Not only do video calls let us communicate so much more efficiently and effectively than text alone, but they also help to maintain the interpersonal relationships & connections between staff, where text communication does not. Here are some key points on our use of video calls.
- Whatever application you choose, it needs to have these three features:
- Let you start an ad-hoc video call with a single click
- Allow quick and easy screen sharing
- A mobile app to keep staff connected while away from their computer
- In the early days, leaders must be intentional about driving adoption of video calling to set the culture. They must make sure staff are sufficiently trained on the software and comfortable with its use and, critically, they must lead by example every opportunity they get.
- Ensure all staff have quality cameras and headphones. There is nothing worse than being on a call and struggling to understand someone's terrible audio!
Now don’t get me wrong. There is still an important place in team communications for email, phone calls and text chat. In our experience though video is by far the most effective method for remote team members to hold discussions.
Channel your communications to maximise signal:noise ratio
As our business has evolved over time with a remote team, we have evolved not only the tools we use to engage our staff, but also how we use those tools. When our team was smaller pretty much everyone received all communications. We had one or two email distribution groups, one or two chat channels and perhaps one or two Yammer groups. With a smaller team this worked well, as it kept all communications out in the open, and everyone informed.
However, as our staff numbers grew these few communications channels became noisier and noisier, and in turn less and less relevant to more and more people. In fact, people started to ignore and miss communications altogether because too much of it was not directly relevant to them. The signal to noise ratio was simply too low, so people disengaged.
To address this, we started slowly creating new communications channels with a tighter focus. For example, rather than having a single team in Microsoft Teams for the whole company, we created a team for our technical service delivery staff, and another team for our finance and admin staff. Within those teams we then created even more focussed channels for chat and content around a specific function, topic, or group.
These teams are all still open for all staff to access if they wished, however it meant that they could focus their attention just on the channels that were most relevant to them, knowing they could safely ignore what was happening in other channels if they wished. Once we made these changes staff engagement across our communications channels rebounded stronger than ever.
Encourage Discussion and Sharing of Ideas
Without the benefit of having everyone physically in the same room, it is important to find other ways to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, stories, and experiences between staff, and encouraging discussion and interaction around those topics. In the non-work world social media platforms such as Facebook effectively serve this purpose, however such platforms are not appropriate for the workplace.
Yammer has been extremely effective for us, providing a platform for announcing updates on projects or marketing campaigns, sharing business wins, asking for feedback on business ideas and giving praise to team members.
Importantly too, it does not have to be all work related. We also use Yammer to share photos from our team social gatherings, as well as update on fun activities our team members have been working on at home. We have a particularly active Yammer group called The Tree House where team members share the personal and fun parts of their lives such as gardening, cooking, pets, and sports. This element has had an extremely positive impact on the strength of relationships between staff, as they discover common interests and learn more about their colleagues beyond simply their role at work.
Here are some key points for how we use Yammer at Grassroots IT:
- We create separate groups to ensure the right people are receiving the right messages. Again, this is about maximising the “signal to noise” ratio to keep people engaged.
- Keep business related conversations and personal conversations in separate groups.
- Posts can be shared in other apps (for example, in Teams chat and emails) to boost exposure.
- Have some fun! Encourage team members to share aspects of their personal lives if they are happy to - maybe their sports team had a recent win, or they just completed an artwork. Having some visibility into lives outside of work is a great way to encourage social connection between team members as well as positive mental health.
- Lead by example - engage with posts and encourage participation on Yammer so that your team members feel seen and acknowledged and know that what they post matters. Encourage business leaders to check in at least once a week and comment on people’s posts, ask questions and offer opinions.
The Friday Roundup
This is an idea that I got from a colleague of mine who successfully guided his own business to place multiple times in the Great Places to Work Australia awards. When I first started The Friday Roundup I honestly didn't expect it to have much impact, but I’ve been truly amazed at how enthusiastically it's been received by staff - to the point that if I'm late sending it on a Friday, staff will start messaging me asking when it's coming!
In short, The Friday Roundup is an email sent from me (the Managing Director) to all staff. It starts with some commentary on the week that was (or any other timely topic) and finishes with dot-point collation of key happenings from the week. It takes me no more than 30 minutes to write and has proven hugely effective in supporting staff engagement. Here are some key points for our Friday Roundup.
- Keep it consistent. The same senior business leader must write it every week and send it by the same time on the same day every week. Have the same email subject every time. Use the same fonts, colours, and general layout.
- Use the starting commentary section to make staff feel included and connected with the business leadership. Be transparent with both wins and challenges, and importantly with how you as the leader feel about those and how you intend to respond. Share company information that staff may not receive in their normal role, such as a high-level analysis of the business’s income streams, goals and priorities. Be sure to share your opinions and not just state facts. This is your chance to connect with your people through open, transparent communication.
- Establish a format and methods to keep it quick and easy to write each week. Because our team actively uses Yammer to share updates throughout the week, for us recapping on the week is a simple matter of reviewing the week's Yammer posts, and writing a short dot point with a link back to the post.
- Use it as an opportunity to recognise and praise individual team members, and to reinforce messaging around your company mission and values.
- Make it a fun, positive read. Add some jokes, include some fun memes of gifs (they’re my favourite).
While team members might be physically separated, it is important to keep them connected and engaged – to each other, and to the company culture. Through video calls and daily huddles, minimising noise and maximising clarity in the channels of communication and encouraging networking and regular contact through Yammer and ideas like the Friday Roundup, business leaders can help promote a happy, productive and engaged remote team.
If you have questions about any of the Microsoft products mentioned in this article or about the best practices for business continuity in a state of emergency, don’t hesitate to reach out. Or if you have some extra time on your hands and want to take a deep dive into Microsoft Teams with us, click on the link below to access our on-demand webinar.