Best Practices in HR

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  July 8, 2018

Working remotely: Being present when you’re not here.

Last summer we said goodbye to our office in Chicago because we simply didn’t need a physical space anymore. It’s taken a few years to learn the ropes of remote work but moving out of a physical space seemed more a formality than anything else, given we’ve been ‘mostly remote’ for a several years now. Given that we’ve grown, shrunk, succeeded and failed all while transitioning to remote, I figured I’m the right guy to discuss a few of the challenges of running a distributed company which might not get much airtime otherwise.

Attendance is mandatory?

Working remotely isn’t flex working, and more than a few people don’t understand that. Flex time, generally speaking, implies doing work whenever from wherever. Remote work, for us, means you show up every day during normal business hours just like you would if there was an office to go to. Given we have people in all four U.S. timezones (we’re 100% US based currently), we observe one simple rule to ensure our workdays: everyone needs to be online for the majority of our core business hours of 10 AM to 4 PM Central time. It ensures everybody sees, hears, and is available to speak to everyone else in the company during core hours.

Another challenge in remote work is internet latency (can you hear me now?). If you’ve seen A conference call in real life you’ll know exactly what I mean. Just because you’re present doesn’t mean your internet connection is. We use no fewer than three video conferencing tools, phones, email, messaging, and product management tools to mitigate the all-too-common occurrence of “hey … can you hear… hello?”

Generally speaking, we get our discussions taken care of. We’re not overwrought with meetings anyways, and Slack fills in for most of our team-based asynchronous conversations anyways. However, one thing our internet connection doesn’t deliver even on a good day is good old fashioned face time. There is no substitute for getting the team together, when feasible, for the 2-3% of the time when we need everyone focused on the strategy, and not the work at hand. That said, remote working is really well tuned for our industry where flow time is mission critical.

Diction matters

There’s nothing in the world that pushes my old ornery man button more than someone’s poor written communication. A pattern I see with nearly all people online, let alone our own team members, is the tendency to communicate differently online than they do in person. Someone who’s warm and charismatic in person may be mistaken for a chimpanzee with an iPhone in written form. Given that a vast majority of a remote team’s communication happens in written form (email, messaging, etc.), writing abilities can make or break someone’s tenure with the company. It takes time and practice to develop a voice when writing, but simple rigor like proofreading and being aware that another human is going to have to dissect your writing truly do help. Every professional whose livelihood depends on digital presence needs to practice communicating well in written format. Full stop.

Where’s the water cooler?

The last challenge to share is what I describe as a lack of “digital presence.” Since we don’t walk into the office each morning whistling a tune, or head to lunch with our coworkers, we have to go out of the way to be present in the only way we can: digitally. That means having our cameras on during meetings, being proactively verbal on a call (tough for introverts!), and staying responsive with the numerous, asynchronous conversations we have going on nearly all the time. In other words, “being at work” isn’t as easy as if we were sitting in an office together.

Our team’s former office in Chicago, circa 2011.

At Kin, we do daily stand ups, rain or shine. We go around the digital room to talk about our work – what’s done, what we’re working on, what our blockers are. It feels mundane at times to do this day in and out, but it’s an opportunity to get a bead on how thing are going for folks. If someone seems off-kilter, it’s a cue to check in to see if they need a hand. Likewise, once a week we spend a extra time sharing what’s going on outside of work. Maybe someone’s kid is sick, or there’s a 5k someone is running this weekend. Whatever the case is, our coworkers are a constant in our otherwise hectic life. It’s good to share, and even vent, with the people we spend half of our waking-day with.

Be kind, be aware, be together

There’s a quote that comes mind when I think about working remotely: “Be kind; You never know what someone is going through.” There’s so much meaning people look for at work that goes beyond the day to day drudgery of work itself: the camaraderie, character development, the learning, failing, and succeeding as a team rather than as individuals.

There’s no way to be a perfect workplace for everyone, but amongst the best gifts a successful remote workplace offers is the lesson in what it truly takes to work as a team on a mission when we don’t have the luxury of being right next to one another.

It gets us back to the basics: be kind, be aware, be together.

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