Across The Board

Updates, inspiration, and musings from the folks behind Trello.

6 Rules To Live By When You Work In An Office But Have Remote Team Members

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For anyone who hasn’t caught on: Remote work is here, it’s happening, and your employees are happier if they are given the option to do it. Whether it’s the ability to work from home some days to a fully scalable, entirely distributed team, the processes needed to accomplish this successfully are the same.

Trello started out as a small team all based squarely in one office in New York City. In 2013, however, we began to allow employees to work remotely and in four short years the amount of remote workers eclipsed the amount of people working in HQ (Trello is approximately 65% remote). 

This dramatic shift in employee locales meant adapting to a lot of changes in how (and when!) we work, where and how we communicate, and also, equally important, how we socialize. For HQ employees, it meant a lot of change in consideration for our remote brethren.

If you’re thinking of allowing employees to work remotely, or you’ve already adapted to it and are experiencing growing pains, here are some tried and true tips to ensure your remote employees do not feel, well, so remote:

Commandment #1: Value Individuals Over Infrastructure

Demonstrating empathy for your colleagues is the glue that holds a remote company dynamic together. Whether it’s their life circumstance, their work experience, or their feelings of inclusion (or lack thereof) in the company, it all starts with listening to remote folks and being empathetic to their situation.

People don’t always live in the location of the office for a myriad of reasons. Often it’s due to their partner’s job, their need to be close to their families, or their willingness to adapt to the lifestyle requirements of the office location (for example, forgoing a backyard space in order to live in New York City).

emily_chapman.pngNYC isn't for everybody, and the amount that someone wants to deal with street garbage in the summer has no bearing on their ability to be an excellent contributor to the product.”

- Emily Chapman, Technical Account Manager, NYC (formerly remote from Atlanta, GA)

If you work out of the office, try working from home a few days to understand where your remote colleagues are coming from and learn more about what their typical day might look like. It’s easier to understand their circumstances and communication pain points if you try it out for yourself. Plus, no commute! Woo.

There’s another bonus to demonstrating empathy at work: The ability to be empathetic carries over into the development of your product. If you cannot understand and cater to the circumstances of your colleagues, how can you understand your users’ pain points in your product? Listening to your users’ feedback is paramount to building an effective product, and empathy is the cornerstone of that process.

Commandment #2: Avoid Impromptu Meetings At Someone’s Desk

This advice actually reaches far beyond the realm of remote companies. Walking up to someone’s desk with the intention of hashing out important decisions is a problematic communication tactic for a lot of reasons:

  1. Once discussed, all of the thoughts evaporate into thin air. The decisions and reasons behind those decisions are not documented anywhere for anyone to see and potentially could be forgotten later.

  2. Walking up to someone’s desk without a pre-planned meeting is one of the largest killers of deep focus, often meaning that person is forced into the dreaded realm of context switching.

Let’s say there are three people on a team, and one of them is remote. If two out of three people are constantly making decisions themselves and filling the remote team member in, not only does the remote employee not get a chance to give input before a consensus is drawn, but they are also constantly plagued with the feeling of being left out. And, real talk: it’s because they are being left out.

Of course, having impromptu meetings happens (and that’s okay!). The key here is accessibility. If you need to do a quick sync, have it over video call or in a public chat room where everyone can see the context.


ryan_sorensen-copy.png “Bringing the conversation and context out of in-person silos keeps us honest, lets folks who aren't around join in, and gives us all the knowledge we need to make the right decisions at a personal and company level.”


- Ryan Sorensen, Growth Team Lead, Trello, Los Angeles, CA

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That is bizarre,” or, “Being able to walk up to someone’s desk to ask a question is how we’ve always done it,” then truthfully, you’re not really committing to remote work. Just try it out first before you dismiss it. Give yourself and your team a chance to evolve. You’ll probably even find that your in-office colleagues appreciate the lack of interruptions, too!

Commandment #3: If One Person Is On A Video Call, EVERYONE Is On A Video Call

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If your solution to Commandment #2 is, “Oh no problem. We’ll just have a meeting in a conference room and pipe in the remote workers on a big screen,” you’re also going to run into some problems.

When a group of people is sitting around a table in the same room they can provide each other with facial cues as to how they’re feeling, and easily see when someone else is about to speak. These sort of micro-interactions are crucial to smooth communication during a meeting. The folks who are piped in as giant chat heads on a big screen cannot easily distinguish a group of people sitting in a room.

A few pain points:

  • If remote meeting members want to raise a point or ask a question, the ease to gracefully interrupt is unavailable.
  • If something funny happens at the table and the group laughs, remote workers feel left out of the joke.
  • If someone is talking quietly, it’s difficult for remote people to hear.
  • If there’s a delay in the video, then people sitting in a conference room are having a different experience than those on the video call.

Remote employees on a big screen are putting in extra effort to read the room, taking away from their ability to contribute to the meeting.


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Having everyone use their own computers to dial into meetings (even if some people are co-located) means everyone is on the same playing field. Without this practice, it's easy for the people who are in the same room to have a conversation with each other but not the remotes.”

- Dan Lew, Android Developer, Minneapolis, MN

If everyone sits at their desk on an individual video call screen, the playing field is equal. Everyone’s faces are easily distinguishable, it’s easy to know whose turn it is to talk, and it simply puts everyone’s input on equal footing.

It’s important to note that we didn’t always do this perfectly at first, either. HQ Trello folks thought it was pretty weird to all sit at our individual computers for an all-company meeting the first time we tried it. Now, we can’t imagine doing it any differently. Meetings feel much smoother with everyone on the same page.

Commandment #4: Communication Is Asynchronous. Deal With It.

With a distributed team comes distributed timezones. For example, the Trello marketing team hails from LA, Chicago, Houston, Boston, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Barcelona, Tokyo, and Canada. That’s five countries and five timezones. And believe it or not, we’re a tight knit bunch that gets a whole lot done. But we are also very considerate of the fact that we might be working when someone else is sleeping.

One rule to live by on a remote team is that no decisions are made last minute. If you have an item that requires some input and decision making, then you are sourcing feedback well before the second you need to ship it. You can’t expect immediate answers because your co-workers inevitably don’t work the same hours as you.

While this may seem like extra work, asynchronous communication actually ends up being more efficient. This is because meetings are pre-planned, often weekly standing times when everything is discussed as a team. It also eliminates those pesky “stop and chat” impromptu meetings that not only leave remote employees out, but they also interrupt flow of concentration and force people to context switch.


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“Working remotely means that outcomes are valued over everything else. People are trusted to work in their best environment, at their optimal time to do their best work.”

- Stella Garber, Head of Product Marketing, Trello, Chicago, IL

 

Commandment #5: Socializing Is Not Around A Watercooler

Obviously, if you share a physical space like an office with others, then there is inevitably going to be some impromptu bonding, like a silly shared interaction in the kitchen, or a casual conversation about weekend plans. It’s natural human behavior that occurs in a friendly work environment.

This is not, however, the only form of bonding that can happen when your company also has remote employees. Remoties like to chat and hang out, too! And don’t forget, they’re sitting in a quiet home office or co-working space all day so they’re presumably even more agreeable to socializing.

Because communication is more intentional at remote companies, it can be helpful to set up some pre-planned time for socializing. Allotting specific times in the week for folks to get on a video call and not talk about work can help supplant the “watercooler” conversations that happen in real life.

Developing a personal relationship with your remote colleagues can also make it easier to approach them when you need to actually interface with them for work-related projects.

Another aspect of socialization occurs in chat apps like Slack and HipChat. Employers should not shy away from employees establishing social channels where they can share pictures of their kids, vacations, or pets. There can also be channels dedicated to hobbies, interesting trends in the world, or even just for sharing silly pictures. All of these experiences help the team feel more connected, no matter where they’re located.


leah_ryder_2.png"When Trello hosted a beach day for HQ team members, remote teams were encouraged to have an 'adventure day' doing an activity they enjoyed.
It's OK for office teams to do things together and not feel bad that remotes are being 'left out' - the key is including them in a creative way that is a perk for them too."

- Leah Ryder, Content Marketing Lead, Victoria, BC

Commandment #6: The Tools You’re Using Matter. A Lot.

When it comes down to it, remote work would not be possible if technology had not advanced such that solid internet connections, better video call platforms, and generally more robust software were not available. So, it’s important to leverage the right technology to make the process smoother.


lydia_m-1.png “The tools have to be good. Good chat interface, good video call tool, whatever equipment folks need. We need to be able to make sure communication is supported at a foundational level.”

- Lydia M, Recruiter, NYC

 

The best way to do this is to listen to employees about which tools make it easier for them to communicate, see progress, and ultimately get more done. The best tools are the ones that remove roadblocks for people.

Here are a few that work well for our remote team:

  • Zoom:

    Good video conferencing is perhaps the cornerstone of an effective remote company, and we’ve tried them all. We’ve found Zoom to be the most reliable across all forms of internet connections.
  • Confluence:

    Confluence is a way to broadcast information in the form of an internal Wiki. It’s great for long form content, whether it’s explanations of policies, strategy docs, or internal news that is necessary to publicize to the greater company. There are useful features including commenting (both inline and at the bottom), replies, and formatting.
  • Trello:

    When you need to see progress, at-a-glance status updates, and house all relevant resources related to a project, Trello is it. It’s great because the information lives there 24/7, so no matter which time of day a person needs to access the info, it’s all right there. (Trello, by the way, would not be as user-friendly of a product without the constant dogfooding it receives from the remote team that builds it.)
  • Slack:

    Day to day chatter still exists, but now it’s in digital form. Chat apps are nice because they keep a record of the conversation for anyone who wasn’t actively present for it. Chat apps also allow for participation from more people at the company because it’s not location specific: i.e. just the people who happen to be standing in the kitchen during that time. “Social” features like emoji reactions are great for remote companies to communicate more.  

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 As a company we work to help users have perspective by using Trello, and being international and remote while using Trello internally as a team goes a long way to see if we're doing right by ourselves first.”

- Jakub Misterka, Front End Developer, Chicago, IL


You should be selecting the video conferencing software with the least friction, and the chat software that feels the most like a virtual office. Afterall, video and chat are where an overwhelming majority of the communication is happening.

For more tools, check out this infographic on when to use what tools for remote work.

Remote Work Best Practices Cheat Sheet:

  • Assume remote for all meetings. Opt for planned meetings where there is a written record and everyone is included.
  • Put the video conference link in calendar invites so there is no scrambling in chat right before the meeting.
  • Establish a process and structure around meetings so everyone can easily follow along no matter where they are located.
  • Always assume positive intent in communication. Tone and nuance do not always come across over chat, thus assuming your colleague is coming from a positive place helps to smooth over any potential misunderstandings as they are being ironed out.
It’s worth mentioning that these fundamentals for communication are not limited to the remote work paradigm. These tips can be considered best practices for any office culture that wants to foster better team communication in an environment that relies increasingly on digital communication.

Do you have experience working remotely, or working with remote colleagues? Share these tips on Twitter, and tell us about your experiences and best practices you’ve learned.

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