Unito was not a remote-first organization. All of us had flexible schedules to account for the occasional doctor’s appointment or subway shutdown. We’ve occasionally had to conference call certain team members because they were working from home during a weekly meeting. But, like many other companies, we suddenly had to shift to remote work in mid-March in response to COVID-19.
We weren’t prepared for it, but we’ve made the most of it. Many of us have thrived in this new remote reality, while others are just holding on, white-knuckled, until the eventual return to the office. Here’s what we’ve learned from this strange new reality.
This is not a normal remote situation
We didn’t go fully-remote by choice. If that was the case, we’d have had the time to prepare. We could have drafted up “best practices” documents, assigned people coffee buddies, and done a host of other things to prepare our employees.
This was done with everyone’s safety in mind. It’s important to acknowledge that this forced remote work experience isn’t normal. Many of the challenges inherent to remote work — social isolation, working too much, interruptions — are made much worse by the global response to COVID-19. Not only do we have to suddenly re-invent the way we work, but many of the things we once took for granted, like going out to eat and hanging out after work, have become incredibly difficult or impossible. Schools are still shut down in some places, which means parents have to juggle childcare and their usual workload. How many video calls have you had where someone’s child ran in?
The world at large has slowed down. That doesn’t mean these challenges can’t be overcome.
Your productivity will not be the same (and that’s okay)
Depending on who you ask, remote work can be a blessing or a curse. For some, the ability to work in a setting that they choose and customize to their needs means noticeable gains in productivity. For others, constant interruptions and a lack of interaction with coworkers can make a normal workday feel like a Herculean task.
When asked about remote challenges, Jordan Burrows, our Support Developer, said: “A higher variance in productivity. At the office, I’d be at roughly the same rate of productivity every day, for the most part. Remote, there are some days where I’m extremely productive, and then others where I feel like I’ve done next to nothing. The overall output is similar, but the rate of production is very much more variable.”
The most important thing to remember when it comes to this challenge is that these shifts in productivity are normal. We need to be understanding of how people work. For some, the most productive time in the day is early in the morning, whereas for others it’s long after the sun’s gone down. Giving employees flexible hours means everyone can be productive. Just make sure there’s overlap for meetings and the occasional check-in conversation.
We’ve also created a Slack channel specifically for sharing remote productivity tips. Because so many companies have had to go remote at once, there’s a lot of knowledge out there. By creating a space where we can share it, we’re not only giving everyone the tools they need to do their best work, we’re implicitly saying that changes in productivity are normal.
Your home isn’t your office
Because this is such a strange, scary situation, some people left the office pretty quickly. No one really knew how long this situation was going to last, and not all of us could really prepare for it. This meant some of us had less-than-ideal home office setups. Some have had to deal with back pain after working from a kitchen table. Others have to coordinate meetings with their partner so they’re not talking over each other. Some of our employees are parents, and they’ve had to try and work around the fact that their children were home with them.
Then there are a few of us who left the city and are staying with family, meaning we have no dedicated workspace.
We’ve been able to do a few things to remedy this. Early in the remote shift, Alexandre Rimthong, our Platform Lead, volunteered to drive to the office and pick up monitors, chairs, and anything else his developers needed to work from home comfortably. Others have gone to the office themselves, picking up what they needed bit by bit as they settled into the new normal.
Creating a place where you can work from isn’t about recreating your office work area exactly. While we don’t all have a dedicated room that can be turned into an office, there are some things that, if gotten right, make a huge difference. First, kitchen chairs are bad for your back — trust me. If you can get your chair from the office, do that. Otherwise, invest in a comfortable chair. If you’re a standing desk person, and you’re itching to replicate that setup, you can stack cardboard boxes on your existing desk. It’s not ideal, but it works.
Most of all, we’ve all had to be a little more understanding. Whether it’s a cat jumping onto someone’s lap during a meeting or a sudden family emergency, we’re all doing our best. Having each others’ back is what matters most.
Meetings can be a mixed bag
Some of us have far fewer meetings (guilty), and some have many more. Staying in the loop and getting the right information to the right person are a lot more challenging when you can’t walk over to someone’s desk. As much as we love asynchronous communication, we’re still hungry for face-to-face contact.
Running meetings remotely can be a bit of a gamble. Sometimes, someone’s internet doesn’t work quite right, and you have to piece what they’re saying together from every second word. Other times, you spend half the meeting catching up and struggle to stick to the agenda. And there’s always the chance someone’s cat pops in and becomes the only thing anyone can talk about.
The issue with this is so many conversations that could once be held informally now have to be scheduled meetings. Some of them are easier, but not all: “Worksession meetings are more difficult to handle. It’s difficult to keep everybody’s attention. Once there’s more than a certain number of participants, the conversation isn’t as fluid,” said Morgane, our UX Designer.
When this situation first started, many of us booked more meetings to maintain visibility. That gave us full schedules with little time to do any of our actual work. As we settled into this new remote reality, we prioritized asynchronous communication and scaled back on the meetings.
For the meetings we do keep, agendas and other tricks become that much more important. If meeting remotely is inherently difficult, you have to give yourself every chance to succeed. That said, we’ve had to accept the fact that remote meetings aren’t a great replacement for the real thing, and that’s fine.
Remote work makes culture a priority
We’ve always worked hard to build and maintain strong culture at Unito. We want everyone to feel heard, to know that their work matters, and to treat their fellows like family. In the office, that meant a beer fridge stuffed with microbrews for Friday nights, a legendary Christmas party, and transparent processes from everyone in the company.
Remote work has made this challenging. It would have been easy to throw up our hands and can our cultural and social initiatives. Chalk it up to how difficult remote work is. It’s making people feel isolated. Not only that, but being on lockdown means there’s more — not less — of an incentive to get some well-needed social time at work.
People across the company have made efforts to keep things light and get that much-needed social time. Evan LePage, our Senior Content Manager, ran a trivia night. Andrew, our UX designer, has had a lot of fun making Zoom backgrounds with our CEO’s face. We’ve organized gaming nights, social distancing meetups at the park, and more.
Some of the initiatives we used to foster inclusion and culture in the office are still alive today, albeit someone modified. We still have our weekly all hands on Mondays at lunch, but our CEO Marc gives special attention to reinforcing our values. We used to go out to lunch in groups every Friday; now we just do it remotely. Last week, some of us met up in the park — making sure to stay six feet apart at all times — for a barbecue.
We encourage people to book 1:1 meetings with people they might usually get lunch with or sit with at the office. We’ve also implemented Donut, an app that randomly pairs people for remote coffee. This encourages us to chat with someone we might not reach out to on our own, and it can help new hires integrate the company. Now we’re looking for every opportunity to help each other kick social isolation in the face.
At first, this was difficult for us, so we had to double down on maintaining those relationships between teams. From Marie-Rose, head of our BizOps department: “This event made me realize that we can change and adapt very quickly as a company.”
Onboarding new employees takes extra care
Unito has been lucky in that we’ve been able to grow through these difficult times. We’ve filled out some key roles. Our usual hiring process includes a pilot project, in which potential candidates work within the company for a few days. This gives them a sense of what Unito is like and how they would fit within the company. We also get to test their skills and make sure they can perform well within the role. Running a pilot project remotely is a bit trickier. You can’t always get a good read on a person from video calls and chat, but we still do them. They’re a crucial part of our process.
Once a candidate is hired, we usually have an extensive onboarding process so they’ll feel welcome. That includes thorough training on our product and process, but more important is getting our culture across. We want every new candidate to feel welcome, like they’re joining a new family. It’s not uncommon for someone who’s piloting to be asked “how’s your pilot going?” by a dozen people. After the pilot project is over, people are genuinely interested to know how it went.
When someone goes from pilotee to new hire, everyone in the company is excited to meet them. They’ll go out of their way to introduce themselves and learn more about our newest hire. Replicating this now has been challenging, but we’ve been trying our hardest to make people feel welcome and help them integrate the company. Andrea Ramirez, from our BizOps department, has been hand-delivering equipment and company swag to new hires: “It’s been really appreciated. It’s the first in-person contact they have with someone from the company.”
We assign every new hire a “buddy,” someone in the company they can go to with questions about culture, process, or anything else they can think of. Usually, buddies will meet up for coffee out of the office to answer these questions. While we’ve had to do it remotely, it’s something we’ve kept to foster inclusion. Team leads have also introduced something new to help everyone get to know new hires. They’ll ask about that person’s interests, get a couple fun facts about them, then post a rundown in Slack. That way, everyone can get a sense for what this new person is about, and people with common interests are encouraged to reach out.
Flexibility is more than a buzzword
Above all, this strange period in our history has forced us to be flexible. We’ve always wanted people to feel like we would accommodate their needs, and not the other way around. This new reality has put that to the test. We’re still figuring out how to make the best of it, but we’ve come together through it, and we’re doing pretty good. How about you?