Have you been working from home for a year now? Join the club. At first, it sounds like a great setup. Short commute. Casual dress options. Cheap coffee. Full fridge.
But, did you know that up to 1 in 6 homeworkers will report feeling demotivated as a result of discontent, disconnection, and lack of purpose? Writers, business leaders, and researchers have all written about these systemic themes for remote work and their detrimental impact on productivity and wellbeing. Microsoft also recently released a study looking at how we’ve changed our work patterns in the last 12 months and the impact working from home has had on us.
At August, we’ve been conscious and deliberate in maintaining a culture and systems that can stand up to the test of extended offsite work. We’ve had a bit of practice. The last twelve months were tough on all of us. While we were fortunate to work on some great opportunities, there were times that disconnection, lack of purpose, and feeling demotivated happened to us all. We reflected on what helped get us through, bounce forward (not bounce back), and made us stronger as a team and individuals.
Here are some of the ways in which we’ve modified existing systems or tools to ensure that our culture and connection is not compromised while working remotely. Because keeping everyone feeling on top form and maintaining high effectiveness is our priority here at August. And here’s a little insight into how we do it.
You won’t find any animal sacrifices to pagan gods or synchronised dancing to evoke the sun god. What we mean by rituals here is a set of practices that are performed with repetition and regularity, with a shared understanding of process, purpose, and values.
Let’s use our daily check-in as an example. This is a company-wide meeting that provides visibility of the tasks that people are tackling, provides a sense of accountability to the team, and also catalyses collaboration. When we first started these check-ins a number of years ago, they used to run anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour. As you can imagine, we were all frustrated. Fortunately, since then, and through shared goals, we’ve gradually experimented with cutting the time down on these check-ins. For the last two years, or thereabouts, we run a 25-minute check-in that doesn’t feel rushed, just effective. Of course, check-in time is largely dependent on headcount so while this timing works for us, you may want to experiment with different options.
In the vast expanse of time in a lockdown, where each day is barely delineated from another, and contact with other human beings can be limited to exclusively furry feline face, it’s also a nice reminder that other do people exist. If done right, check-ins can provide a sense of belonging and shared identity.
Attendance at these meetings is non-negotiable. There’s a clearly set expectation that everyone attends and participates. If there’s a sense of resistance to the idea of transparency, there’s an opportunity to work on creating a culture of trust and autonomy. In an article published by Harvard Business Review, Deborah Ancona and Kate Issacs offer some insightful tips on how to empower such autonomy within teams, so that everyone can feel engaged and inspired; no matter where they are.
Lights, camera, action!
Here at August, all of our online meetings are video calls. Cameras stay on for both internal and external meetings. It gets your mirror neurons firing, making you feel closer to the person you’re talking with, and adds an extra layer of information to your communications, which results in fewer misunderstandings.
It’s worth acknowledging that we’re a small, tight-knit company, so there are not many reservations when it comes to sharing the inside of our home offices (or bedrooms). In larger companies with bigger spreads in diversity and values, it’s understandable how this might be more difficult. That said, virtual backgrounds have become quite useful at times!
There’s a huge benefit in appreciating that we’re all people before we’re employees, and people have messy houses, noisy kids, and curious objects in view. Sometimes, we might have only woken up five minutes before the call started. There’s a level of vulnerability in sharing what the inside of your home looks like and vulnerability is an integral part of building trust and connection.
Arguably one of the best benefits is the comedic breaks that can happen. Whether it’s needing to mute yourself to reprimand the fighting children off-camera or the facial expressions that are frozen in time when your internet drops out just before you sneeze, there’s an opportunity to inject a little more humour and bring a little more happiness.
We’ve also implemented a practice of jumping into Zoom meetings a couple of minutes early just to say hi to each other before a client arrives so that we can feel relaxed and chat without feeling like we’re holding up the meeting to get started. This is a helpful mechanism as it enables people to speak early within what will be the meeting environment and not be in a position where they may not say anything for 30-40 minutes!
For larger team meetings, we make use of the chat function for additional banter so that we’re not speaking over each other or awkwardly entering mute-button stand-offs either.
Bring your presence to meetings
There’s an irony in that one of the most useful rules that has been ported from in-person to online meetings is ‘no technology’. As an expectation, when in a meeting, attendees are participants. This means, no phones and no checking emails on a laptop.
While not technically the same (as we’re all on computers), utilising a similar approach means the time we spend together online is more likely to be positive.
Similarly, everyone in meetings is expected to contribute. Have you ever been on a call with someone, heard a particularly odd noise, and wondered what exactly they’re doing in the background? We’ve seen it all, from folding the laundry to online shopping. It can leave us feeling unimportant and unappreciated. We avoid these misfires by being present in meetings and shutting out the distractions.
With Zoom’s algorithm for highlighting speakers, it’s also useful to utilise non-verbal gestures to communicate understanding. A thumbs-up as acknowledgment is worlds better than blank stares.
Another point of difference we strive for in meeting etiquette is leveling the playing field and only going as fast as the slowest. Keeping one conversation (only having one person speak and avoiding any side conversations) isn’t just useful to stop people talking over each other, it’s also handy when it comes to accommodating mixed participation (in-person and online).
If you want someone to leave a conversation frustrated, make them the only online participant and have everyone talk around a boardroom table. A key meeting principle at August is if one person is online, we are all online. Yep, that means if one person is online and some of us are working from the office, then we all dial into the meeting individually. We also apply this principle in our client meetings wherever possible. It helps to level the field across the call and ensures we can focus on the content of the meeting, not missing a side conversation.
So far, our tips above have been mainly focused on video calls and meetings. We’re conscious that during 2020 the number of meetings we had each day dramatically increased. Back-to-back zoom meetings, while sometimes unavoidable, are ultimately unsustainable.
There is a very high level of respect and trust within the team at August. We do a lot to maintain this aspect of our culture. When someone is in the office and is working at their desk, there is a general rule that you cannot walk up to their desk and just talk to them. You need to suss out whether they can (or want) to be interrupted. If in any doubt, catch them when they next stand up for a break.
During 2020, we adjusted this behaviour. Increasing the number of meetings each week was somewhat unavoidable. But, we wanted to balance that with having people feel comfortable to block out ‘no meeting time’ in their diaries so that they could maintain focus time. To achieve this, we needed to normalise the behaviour of being left alone to work and blocking out time to avoid interruptions. Normalising the behaviour meant openly encouraging and talking about it as a team, suggesting it when someone said they were struggling to complete a piece of work, even talking to clients and letting them know that a team member is focused on something right now they’ll be in touch as soon as they are on a break.
This was not a difficult behaviour to shift, but it did require diligence and repetition. It also required leaders in the team to demonstrate and encourage the behavioural shift.
With Zoom meetings, sometimes being the only human contact some of us would have during a day, it was essential to create an environment where those meetings are still interesting and exciting – not always exhausting.
In 2021, the team continues to maintain our adjusted principles and it’s refreshing to see the team working in ways that suit them best, while also being able to contribute meaningfully.
When someone joins the team at August, one of the systems we add their name to is the Wins Machine. It’s a tool that has been a pillar of August for a number of years. It is a system based on our values and allows us to show appreciation and gratitude to our fellow team members each week. It’s also a way to hear about goings-on within the team that you might not have been a part of, or celebrate someone’s effort that only you know about.
When working as a distributed team, the Wins Machine has become more important than ever before. It’s a way to help people feel seen and acknowledged, it’s a way to make someone’s day by giving them a win, and during stressful times in the world it’s a refreshing lightness.
Our Wins are read out at our Team Meeting every Friday afternoon. Through 2020, they were one of the most wonderful ways we could end our work week. Other companies we’ve heard of run Slack channels for shout-outs, Whatsapp groups, and similar messenger groups that encourage celebrating and acknowledging your teammates. If you don’t already do this, we suggest giving it a go. The insights you learn from it might surprise you.
So, if you’re a leader wondering how to make your team more effective as we continue wading through a pandemic, or you’ve noticed an employee struggling to find the motivation to get through the workday, there are a bunch of different actions you can take to feel more connected and fulfilled in your work. They range from small things that take seconds (how was your weekend?) to larger projects like shifting company culture to include more recognition and more understanding. It’s important to remember that we’re people before we’re professionals. Our work culture needs to deliberately recognise our emotional, amorphous, imperfect human nature to be successful and sustainable. Take the opportunity today to nudge your workplace environment towards one that empowers everyone to be fulfilled and connected.