Posts in Category: Work

Working Remotely Part 1

The spread of the SARS-CoV-19 virus brought in a new reality to our lives. Offices closed, air travel has been reduced or even grounded to a halt and Zoom stock value, along with daily active users, went through the roof.

Companies such as Twitter, Google, Amazon and other West Coast Tech giants have all announced that they will allow their staff to work remotely until the end of the year or permanently. Even large European companies are following the trend. Siemens just announced that they will let all their employees, all over the world, work remotely 2-3 days a week. Siemens’ CEO Roland Busch stated that “these changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office.”

As someone who has been working remotely for the better part of the last 5 years, there are a few tips and tricks to help you keep your sanity.

1. Be selective with your camera use. It is sometimes funny to see the whole team on camera. It’s nice but there is little value in having pages and pages of Zoom panels with your entire BU on video. You can not see everyone’s faces anyway so why bother? Use video for 1:1s religiously or for a small brain storming session, but be careful when trying to use video with a big crowd. Speakers should always use video.

In recent months, you had a glimpse of many colleagues bed rooms. While it is a nice way to increase the team’s trust and cohesion, it is also perhaps one step too far. Tools such as Zoom and Teams have a way to add a virtual background. Use it. Your colleagues do not need to see what your bedroom looks like.

2. Keep a routine. Let’s face it – you used to travel non stop and was jet lagged for large parts of each month. Now, you are at workin from one timezone, you get to sleep in the same bed every night, you can easily build yourself a routine. Morning routines are especially important as they set the tone for the day and typically (hopefully) the morning time is the quieter time. Scott Young has an excellent short article explaining the idea here.

3. Make sure your colleagues know your timezone. In a distributed workforce, knowing one’s timezone is essential. Make sure you let your colleagues know your location. You can just add this information to your email signature, providing some examples: “I work in Central Europe which is 9 hours ahead of California. Your 8AM is my 5PM.”

4. Keep your calendar updated. Let’s face it, many people have a hard time keeping their calendars up to date. A great best practice is actually to block the time you plan for family activities, meals, sleep and sport. Help your colleagues trying to find time to discuss something with you by making your availability obvious and easy to schedule. Most team calendars have a function that searches for a good time to meet. Keeping on top of your calendar will help you connect with your colleagues.

5. Focus on outcomes. Yes, Mr Busch from Siemens (this is funny for a German) just discovered that management should focus on outcomes. But this has been a best practice for a really long time. It just works. If you deliver, consistently and repeatedly, the location from which you work will make no difference to your manager.

6. Call it working remotely. Stating that one is working from home cheapens the work. The location from where one works should make no difference, so call it what it is “working remotely.” You may work from home one day and the next day from a co-working space and later in the week from a coffee shop. No one needs to get a location update every time you make a change, but your colleagues still need to know that you are working remotely. So keep it simple.

Many of us are not going to see the inside of the office in 2020. Some of us will very rarely see the inside of an office in the future. In 2013, Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo!, announced that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side, that is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” That did not help Yahoo! improve productivity (it was eventually sold to Verizon), innovate or collaborate. These days, where there is no alternative to working remotely, we can all use the opportunity to find more productive ways to communicate, collaborate and to work side-by-side…virtually of course.

The Tyranny of Timezones

As you log into an internal company-wide engineering event at 3AM, barely able to keep your eyelids open and mistyping your password about 5 times, you can’t help but consider the tyranny of timezones. With some countries still under heavy lockdown and a widely distributed Covid vaccine still months away, being physically closed to an office is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Just in the past few weeks, Amazon announced that their workforce can work remotely until the end of 2020, Google and Facebook have already made such announcements, and your own office, in beautiful Palo Alto, California, seems to remain closed for a very long time. Even offices that are starting to open, like the local office in Munich, is operating under reduced capacity allowing only a small portion of the workforce to come in.

So being close to an office is loosing its importance. However, an office is simply an indication of geographical connection. Employees that go to the “German Office” are likely to be working together, serving customers in Germany (or DACH) and are bound less by the office, but by their timezone and customer base.

And this is where the tyranny of timezones comes into play. A company-wide event can never work on a planet with 37 time zones (explanation to this strange data point is here). Typically in the corporate world, the timezone of the person setting the agenda serves as the baseline, It is natural that an individual looking to set a meeting is starting from her own calendar and then considering other people.

Companies could consider organizing around timezones rather than locations and let employees choose their timezone. A night owl living in Ireland might enjoy working in the East Coast timezone whereas an early morning bird in Poland might enjoy the quirky, half an hour off, Indian timezone. Companies can also define transitional timezones where employees in roles that require bridging very conflicting timezones (like India and Pacific Time Zone), are dipping into a good portion of one time zone and another good portion of another timezone.

There is no reason why an employee working in a PST tribe is unable to effectively work from Baja, California. There is also absolutely no reason why an employee bridging between IST and PST, living in London, is unable to spend the afternoon with the team in Chennai and the evening with the team in Seattle. These are personal decisions that a job seeker can make. In fact, advertising timezones in job listings might be much more effective than locations. “Must be able to spend at least 4 hours a day in IST and 2 hours in PST” will be a much more precise description of a desired capability than “live in the U.K.”.

The digital revolution is changing the way we live and work. It is time to reconsider timezones.

Work in the time of SARS-CoV-2

You wake up in the morning, go through your morning routine, check your email and find out that your business leader/CEO/head of people operations have set a company-wide policy of Working from Home.  You work for a Technology company which actually means that you are perfectly set for a Working from Home type of a situation, but within two days you hear all your colleagues that are used to going to the office complain about their new state of working from home.

You can help.  You have experience.  You spent the last 4 years working from home.  When you go into the office there is typically a 14 hours flight involved and at least one border control.  You have advice to offer.  You also know that for some people, those who are always late by just a few minutes to any meeting, those who will “send by the end of the day” but often do not, working from home will be a tough challenge.

Any challenge is an opportunity to grow.  Working from home and minimizing social contact is imperative at the time of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.  If you want to understand why it is important to minimize social contact now, you should spend the 25 minutes needed to read this excellent article.  But even if you don’t read the lengthy article, you have no choice.  No one will go to the office and most customers will not take that face to face meeting, so you better figure out how to effectively work from home.

  • Bookend your workday.  One problem that people who work from home are facing is that work will spill into their family life and into their home.  You already talk about work at the dinner table and check one last time your email while watching Netflix with your significant other and now with work being in the home you are basically going to be working all the time.  Don’t. You must bookend your day with physical separation.  The morning, for example, can start with a jog around the block or a bicycle ride around the lake near by.  20-30 minutes before you read your email or took your first conference call.  You start your meetings at 6AM since you live in California and your customers are in Europe?  Well, maybe it’s time to block your calendar and start your first conference call at 06:30 or do what you do anyway and take your conference call with you on your walk.  Whatever you do, do not shift in your PJs with your morning coffee into the computer and start working.  This will make you miserable within 5 days.  The same routine applies to your evening.  At some point, depending on your family situation, you have to declare that your day is done.  At that point you turn off the laptop, lock it in your home office or the table you spent the day working on, and then you leave the home office and commute back to your home.  You physically leave the house, take a walk, ride your bike, drive to the supermarket, and then come back home.  You are done with working for the day.
  • Do not confuse email with communication. Ever since your Working from Home policy started, you see a spike in the amount of emails you receive every day.  People like to confuse email with communications.  Email is not communications.  Only a tiny percent of people in the world are getting payed to “do emails” (those who do tend to be Nigerian Princes).  Email should be used to set a meeting, summarize a meeting, or convey a one-sided piece of information to your colleagues.
  • Do not confuse chat with talking. Most Technology and technology-dependent companies have implemented some sort of chat programs.  These might be official business tools like Slack or Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams and some unofficial chat tools such as Facebook’s WhatsApp or Apple’s iMessages.  In any case, you already hear people complain about typing 12 hours a day.  Don’t. The more effective way to use these chat program is to convey information quickly.  If you need more than 10 exchanges, switch to voice.  Voice is about 1000 times more efficient way of communication.  You can ping your colleague, see if they are available for a quick chat, and then call them using the same tool.  Most chat programs have a voice function so all you have to do is express the need to chat and then call.  You can follow up with a quick summary email if that’s needed.
  • Invest in silence. One of the best financial investments you can make in a world in which Working from Home is the new normal is a great noise cancelling headphones that are also a great microphone.  There are plenty such options in the market.  The good options are expensive, but will keep your sanity.  Why are these things so important?  You will be spending a large portion of your day speaking to people.  You want to have two free hands to type your meeting minutes and you want the headphones to be comfortable.  Last but not least, you want people to hear you well.  There is an added bonus to having a good set of noise cancelling headphones: they will take care of the outside noise from your neighbour mowing the lawn or the construction truck backing in a drive way.  Outside of a great chair for your home office, the best investment for your work life sanity is a great set of headphones.  Sony WH1000XM3 are a great investment, but other good options exist in the market.
  • Communicate your communication tools. Some companies have a plethora of collaboration and communication tools.  For example: Office 365 (which  includes Teams), Skype for Business, Zoom and Slack.  How will your colleagues find you?  If your IT organization did not conclude on the correct tool to use, make sure the people who work with you know how to get a hold of you.  Consider being flexible and using what your co-workers find as the most convenient tool.
  • Use Video. You lament the loss of meetings where you can see your colleagues and sit around the same table.  Have you considered turning on your video camera during your next conference call?  Why is it that you miss meeting your colleagues around a big conference table yet are keeping the video chat function off?  If you start your day by commuting to the home office that means that you are properly dressed.  If you find a good place to work at home, you have nothing to fear.  Keep the camera AWAY from you and face the camera.  You can stay connected and also show your office to your colleagues.  Using video during conference calls will also mean that you will be missing your colleagues just a little bit less.
  • Focus on output. The virus outbreak and the fact that most people are now Working from Home means that we can finally shift our focus to deliverables and not “being there.”  Your manager and colleagues will now see how productive you are as opposed to being that person in all the meetings.  You need to produce output that is shared and communicated with colleagues, managers and customers.  The virus outbreak and the workforce being directed to Work from Home might finally get us to increase productivity.  If you need some inspiration on the topic, read this great HBR article.

At this point no one knows how long it will take before you’re allowed to go back to the office.  You are likely to be staying at home for at least 4 weeks now.  Get comfortable with it.

Use the technology we now all have.