9/11 is a landmark event in modern history. As a teenager I was unable to grasp the magnitude of it. Like many other people, I remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I heard about the disaster. It was an earth-shattering event and things were never the same afterwards.

2020 will have a similar effect on the world. The impact of the coronavirus crisis may even be wider in scope than 9/11 because the tragedy is unfolding globally. As well as all the immediate suffering, there is a crisis emerging slowly but surely. This does not diminish the pain of people who have lost their loved ones, of course. However, the economic crisis has only just started, and many businesses are feeling the consequences. As such, demand for new solutions and ways of working is increasing.

When the crisis hit us

It is difficult to prepare for a crisis, but as a digital company thanks to the nature of our work, we have been able to manage this crisis effectively. We always had a setup that allowed for staff to work from home on an occasional basis, even though we never had to make use of it on this scale.

From one day to the next, we started working from home. Our IT infrastructure stayed the same. As our software is based on the web and in the cloud, broadband and coffee is all we need to get going

Lessons learned

For the last six months, we have been trying out new methods of collaboration. We supported our clients, pitched new projects, performed online interviews, developed and shipped entire applications, and we did all this whilst working from home. Although we had always known this was possible, we had never battle-tested this working model before. Some things worked better than others. We have learned some lessons along the way and would like to share them:

Managing remote teams during a crisis: 10 lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak

1. Get to know your colleagues and develop your empathy

In a way, work has become more intimate as we hear about or see more of the homes of our colleagues during video conferences. This might feel strange at first, but it creates an opportunity to get to know one another. People can relate to you if you are genuine and authentic.

2. Make time for social events

We have an amazing team culture at Smart Digital and the virus didn’t stop us: from baby showers and speed dating to regular yoga sessions, we just continued everything we did before the coronavirus outbreak but it’s all based online now.

3. Make onboarding fun

It can be an intimidating and awkward time to start a new job at the moment. Do everything you can to include your new team members. We made sure our new colleagues were involved in every team meeting. Don’t hesitate to send a message to arrange a quick call to introduce yourself and get to know one another. Make sure you don’t just talk about work.

4. Check in on each other

Every morning we have a short team meeting. In these difficult times, I learned about my colleagues’ kids and what is going on in their home lives. Checking in with people regularly is important, especially during a pandemic when people may become unwell and need support.

5. Implement Pair Programming for development projects

A lot has been said about the advantages of pair programming. Although it has always been part of our company culture, it’s now the primary way in which our developers work: it fosters team collaboration, allows knowledge to be shared on a continuous basis, creates transparency, ensures less bugs, and prevents loneliness. If you’re looking for a free open-source screensharing solution, check out Jitsi.

At Smart Digital we use a communication and collaboration platform. This means that everybody is just an online chat away from having a conversation with the team. Now this platform is the primary way to communicate, chat and laugh together. It will (hopefully) never be the same as sitting together and enjoying spending time together. However, we were surprised at how well we adapted to this new way of doing things.

6. Avoid sending unnecessary emails

Let’s admit it, emailing is a pain. Emails are a relic from the past. Instead, why not use a collaboration/chat system? It keeps project-related data in one place, and nobody gets forgotten simply because someone forgot to press “reply all”. Besides many commercial options (MS Teams, Slack etc.), there is also free and open-source software available for use, e.g. Keybase or Element.

7. Use chat groups/channels

When you’re discussing work, use groups and channels so everybody is on the same page. Many tools allow documents to be attached to the channel to keep everything is one place. Positive side effect: it moves the infamous lunchtime conversations into a project context so the guy who wasn’t in the office stays up to date, too.

8. Change your status

If you’re away from the desk in the office, people will see. But when you’re at home, nobody else picks up a call for you. Be transparent and make it easy for your team by using your status to show whether you’re available. Some apps let you connect your calendar to automatically change your status when you’re in a meeting. On the flip side, use “do not disturb” to make time to get some work done.

9. Mute yourself when you aren’t speaking

It can be challenging when you’re working in a room full of people and everybody is speaking on the phone. At home, you can speak without disturbing your team members. This works well for pair programming sessions or small groups. But when the group gets bigger, the chance of disruptive background noise increases. A simple remedy for this is to mute yourself when you’re not speaking.

10. Personalize notification settings

Chat and team collaboration software usually offers fine-grained control of notifications. You can set email reminders, mobile and desktop notifications for your channels, topics and groups. Customize everything to your needs so you get exactly the information you need… no more and no less.

The next wave?

This is not intended to argue in favour of remote work. On some occasions, it would have been better to be able to visit a client and speak in person or celebrate at the summer party, which everybody had been looking forward to. We like seeing each other, even though we are a digital company. Regardless of all the speculation, time will tell, and the data will show whether working from home proves effective.

For the time being we have no choice. If we don’t want to contribute to the spread of a virus, we need to adapt and let the crisis teach us. If we do this, perhaps 2020 will not only be remembered as a year of trauma and political crises but also as a year of progress.

If you have been working remotely for some time already, these lessons are probably not new for you. The things we learn may vary from industry to industry and company to company. If you are facing different challenges or you have learned some lessons you would like to share, I would love to hear from you.

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