It’s been a challenging year for businesses, to say the least. Among the issues faced by companies trying to navigate the risks of COVID-19, working from home has become common enough to popularize its own abbreviation: WFH. Many companies frantically shifted to employees working from home when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Some returned to the office as soon as possible, while others have taken their time and even started considering whether to go fully remote or adopt some sort of permanent hybrid approach.
Here at Katey Charles Communications, we have had remote staff members for 17+ years. While we do have a physical office in St. Louis that Katey uses regularly, our other team members work from their homes in St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, rural Illinois, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Nashville and Connecticut. And while we have many clients in the St. Louis area, we also have clients and strategic partners located across the country spanning all four time zones.
We’ve learned a lot about what works (and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t) when your team is spread so far apart. So for this edition of Good Thinking, we thought it would be helpful to share what we’ve learned along the way.
Working from home is not for everyone
Running a company with remote workers requires finding the right people and then trusting them to get the job done. What qualities do we look for when hiring remote staff? Here are a few:
- Comfort with technology
- Superior communication skills
There are more, but if someone doesn’t like being alone or has a hard time staying focused without a good deal of external motivation, working from home is likely not a good fit.
Clear expectations and frequent communication are a must
Managing a remote team requires setting expectations clearly and consistently, ideally in writing and as part of the onboarding process. For example:
- How do project requests get communicated from one team member to another?
- What should happen if an issue arises with a client or a project?
- What hours of the days are staff members expected to be “on,” checking and responding to phone calls and emails?
- How quickly do you expect team members to respond to client emails or internal messages?
It’s vitally important for anyone who manages a remote team to set up regular meetings for everyone to discuss what’s on their plate, juggle priorities, bring up questions and plan for what’s coming. Weekly is a good place to start. Be sure you’re proactively discussing and managing workloads. Your team members might be really stressed about projects and you wouldn’t know it unless you asked. If you’re in the office together, you might see the stress on their face or notice changes in their overall attitude, but that can be harder to notice when working remotely. Hosting these meetings on a videoconference platform where you can see one another helps you gauge things better and makes people feel more connected too.
All in all, when the team operates from so many different locations, managers have to be a lot more intentional about setting expectations and making sure the team is communicating frequently.
Boundaries? What boundaries?
Another thing to consider when it comes to establishing your remote work culture is boundaries. Businesses in general have been blurring the line between work time and non-work time for quite a while anyway, but boundaries can get even more fuzzy when you have people working from home. We’ve chatted with lots of people who’ve recently transitioned to remote work, and many struggle with working too much because it’s harder to step away. Without the clear line of demarcation you get when you leave a physical office to go home for the day, many find themselves frantically responding to work emails at all hours of the day and night.
Talk with your team about the importance of work/life balance and creating a work schedule, whether fixed or more fluid, that works for the team member, the company and your clients. Then make sure everyone is aware of others’ availability. If you’re the type to send emails on Saturday afternoon or at 9 p.m. at night (guilty!), make sure your team knows you’re not expecting a response during non-business hours.
Identify the right tools
There are many tools out there to help remote teams communicate and function at their best. When you’re not all physically in the same space, you can’t get quick project updates in the break room or drop into someone’s office to ask a question. When it comes to choosing tools to help keep everyone on the same page, you have to find ones that work for your team specifically. We’ve tried a few different tools over the years, and these are the ones that stick for us:
Face-to-face meetings: Zoom
Zoom is our go-to option for videoconferencing. It’s quick and easy to set up one-time and recurring meetings, plus we can use the personal meeting room option if we need to jump on a quick screen share to troubleshoot a technical issue for a client. It’s pretty seamless for all of our clients to use, and most people are familiar with the platform. There are several other options for videoconferencing like GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams, but for us Zoom has been the clear winner for ease of use, call/video quality and ability to share screens.
File sharing: Box
Box is our team’s choice for file sharing. It syncs well on both Macs and PCs (we have both on our team), and we store an extensive number of files. We set up a consistent folder structure and file naming/versioning system for all of our client and internal projects. With this kind of detailed structure built in, any one of us could check a project folder and pick up where another teammate left off. We also have the ability to invite clients and partners to collaborate in specific folders and even on single documents. Other file sharing options include Dropbox (which we used at one time) and Google Drive (which we use to share projects with some clients). Choose the file sharing tool that has the storage, permission level and security needed for your business.
Project management/collaboration: ClickUp
ClickUp is a relatively new addition to our toolbox, and our entire team absolutely loves it. It’s a project management tool for keeping track of all the moving pieces and next steps of projects. It’s an incredibly important tool for a busy email marketing agency! There are plenty of project management systems out there (Monday.com, Asana, Trello, Airtable, etc.), and it’s important to find the one that works best for your team. Do they want a visual layout with tiles or a list? Is seeing things move through phases important as projects progress? Do you need a tool that can handle complex timelines with multiple dependencies? Can you share with client contacts outside the organization? How many hours will it take to get things configured the way you want them? Start your research with the end goals in mind, and it will be easier to choose the right tool for your team.
Focus on relationships
At Katey Charles Communications, we have worked with staff, partners and clients from all over the country (and a few other countries) for 17+ years now. Some people are fine with communicating primarily by email and phone, while others much prefer getting together in person. Either way, periodic in-person opportunities are key to building relationships among team members. We try to do a core team dinner out or happy hour a few times a year, and when we schedule on-sites with clients, that’s a good opportunity for team members to connect and socialize as well. Of course, it may be a while before we can plan these in-person meet-ups again, so we have to make do with Zoom for now.
Ultimately, as with so many things in life and business, whether you are trying to keep up a face-to-face or a long-distance relationship, success comes down to the extra effort you put into building strong connections and keeping the lines of communication open. That was true for businesses before, and it’s certainly true now as more teams continue to work remotely.