The art of the remote
By Keith Bortoluzzi, CEO, Thread
It’s been almost a year since most of us packed up our laptops and left the office to work from home. Since that time, there have been changes to restrictions allowing us to come together with our teams in a socially distanced way, but for the most part, we have been forced to work remotely and connect with colleagues digitally.
At Thread, we are no exception. As a technology provider, we were used to operating in a digital environment, but as the rest of the world moved online, we thought it would be useful to put some guidelines in place to ensure we were working as collaboratively as possible. After all, creating collaborative workflows for asset managers is what we do every day.
Driving these guidelines was the fundamental belief that while working remotely has its challenges, there are also many opportunities to be gained.
The challenges of remote working
Needless to say, we’ve come across a number of difficulties around remote working, some which have been common across most organisations and others which were not anticipated. As the Thread team looked for solutions to these challenges, we found many of our own partners and customers were facing similar problems:
- Misalignment: getting a team aligned to a common goal is difficult in normal circumstances and even more so when you can’t come together and share ideas. We had to communicate a new vision for the company and get internal endorsement by colleagues.
- Miscommunication: non-verbal communication represents around two-thirds of human interaction. Reading the subtleties of body language is always going to be a challenge in remote meetings, but it is important in making sure everyone has bought into decisions. We also quickly realized that different team members expressed themselves in different ways. Our Lead Designer, for example, likes to show and draw things, which is extremely difficult when communicating through a screen.
- Misunderstanding: remote working deprives us of a key element of communication – context. For example, when our CTO and PM are in the middle of a sprint, they have limited time to respond to emails and messages. If other team members aren’t aware of their situation, they could easily take offense to shorter or abrupt replies to questions.
- Dealing with emotions: remote working can strip us of one of the main benefits of coming together as a team, that of providing emotional support to colleagues. During lockdown, we have encouraged everyone on our team to share how they are feeling, whether it is excited and joyful or angry and frustrated. Humans are social animals and so the impact of lockdown on mental health is unsurprising. At Thread, we were very conscious to promote the importance of belonging to a team, and encourage colleagues to talk about their emotional wellbeing.
- Lack of face-to-face interactions: At Thread, we believe a great workplace is an environment which succeeds in setting the right balance between autonomy and management intervention. Remote working tends to support the former but reduce the latter which can be a challenge. Equally, it is more difficult to learn from each other whist we are all sitting in home offices or working off kitchen tables.
- Distractions: without the option of speaking to colleagues face-to-face, we have all had to rely on messaging tools and email. If not used properly, these can become a distraction and limit productivity. Similarly, within our home environment, there can be a multitude of distractions, whether you have children who are home schooling to the temptation to do a few jobs around the house during the working day, which can hinder concentration.
- Increased work-family stress and conflict: although many of us will have occasionally worked from home before the pandemic, this prolonged period of being at home can place a lot of strain upon our private lives. Studies show that remote working can intensify work-family conflicts and increase stress as it blurs the lines between home and work.
Creating opportunities with digital working
Staying safe and well is clearly the most important benefit of remote working, but we have definitely seen other plus points. In terms of recruitment and working with the best talent, wherever it is located, remote working opens up multiple opportunities. It also allows greater flexibility for our team in terms of where and when they work. Needless to say, we intend to maintain remote working regardless of changes to lockdown and the welcome rollout of the vaccine.
Here’s what we have learned so far about making remote learning work well at Thread:
- Have weekly team days: we have set a regular ‘team day’ on Fridays. After a busy working week, we are all keen to see each other and share our achievements. We set this on Friday so it is close to the weekend and lunch is provided by the company. During these sessions we aim to achieve three things: maintain alignment on goals, inform the rest of the team on what individuals are working on, and see how our team members are coping.
- Opening up the discussion: while we’ve been remote working, we’ve made a point of encouraging questions, concerns, crazy ideas, and anything our colleagues wanted to put on the agenda. In order to recapture some of the lost benefits of serendipity, we hold an open discussion during our Friday team meetings. We ask the team to submit questions and vote on which we discuss during the day.
- Transparency as a core principle: we believe full transparency in all aspects of our work, and in particular communication, is one of the key enablers of a truly successful remote team. To this end, we make sure all channels and documents on the online tools we use – in our case Notion and Slack – are open to everyone. Because everything is open, we stay informed, aligned and motivated.
- Defining remote working principles: having clear rules of engagement is absolutely fundamental to ensure that collaboration remains smooth, communication is easy, and work does not intrude on your private life. At Thread, we have developed these principles gradually and organically. We know they are the right norms for us because we work on a trial-and-error basis: we throw something on the wall, and if it sticks, we keep it. However, these principles are not set in stone and may evolve over time as our team and our needs change.
- Defining how we communicate: in a remote team, people constantly send and receive messages and notifications via numerous collaborative tools. This can be overwhelming, time-consuming, or just outright annoying. In any case, it makes it harder for you to complete tasks that require concentration. Here at Thread, we made a decision early on that we would use email when discussing something that started on email, Slack for real-time discussions and conversations, calls for matters of urgency and Notion for sharing information and commenting on our deliverables.
- Fixed working hours: we recognise that some members of the team need clear separation between their private and work lives. Determine a weekly schedule that makes sense for you and the team is vital. We also encourage our colleagues at Thread to switch off their communications tools when they need, as well as turning off any notifications at certain times of the day when you need to be more productive.
- Keep meeting clear, focused and transparent: when a meeting is needed, we follow some consistent principles. Clarify the purpose of the meeting and circulate an agenda to keep participants aligned, pre-warn those who will need to contribute, put microphones on mute when you aren’t talking and ensure every meeting has a clear outcome which is summarised at the end.
Over the last year, following these simple but effective rules has enabled our Thread team to work efficiently and productively. As we move forward in 2021, we are excited to embrace all of the learnings gained since we first embraced remote working last year while enjoying the benefits of coming together as a team as soon as we can.
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