On Monday, 23 March our President announced a nationwide lockdown, commencing on Thursday, 26 March 2020, for a period of 21 days! All South Africans will be house-bound for the duration and will only be allowed out for essential activities, like purchasing groceries, or getting medical attention.
Government has made it very clear that this is not a 21-day paid holiday, and everyone who is able to work remotely must do so.
We’re a creative and design team, and some of the work we do occasionally permits us to work from home, so working remotely is not an entirely unfamiliar situation for us. We took the following steps to transition to full-time remote work and to remain operational during this unusual time.
We had time to run an experiment
Within days of the first reported cases turning up in our country, we thought it prudent to practice social distancing in its ultimate form – working from home. Before things got too hectic, we thought we’d do an experiment to see if working remotely was possible and sustainable. As stated, although nothing was ‘for sure’, it was reasonable to anticipate that something like a lockdown was inevitable, and even if it wasn’t, it would be good to know if we could indeed work remotely and for extended periods.
The first thing we considered was our people
Our team members aren’t drones. Just as there are different player types, there are obviously different personality types. Currently the internet abounds with memes about how the poor extroverts are going to suffer and how all the introverts are quietly chuckling to themselves. It’s funny because it’s true. We are lucky as we know each other well and are a cohesive team.
Another thing we needed to consider is that some folks really need order and structure in their lives – these are the folks that under normal circumstances, if given the opportunity to work from home, would rather opt for coming into the office. Some folk’s houses are just too … interesting … to be conducive to working from home. While many of us cleared out of the office, a few stayed behind and kept a safe social distance from one another. Now that we’re in lockdown, the office is not an option. Order and structure will become a personal challenge.
Personal circumstances are also a vital consideration
Not every team member had a laptop or computer at home and we didn’t know if all the necessary software was installed. We needed to help each other get equipped. Similarly, not everyone has uncapped, high speed internet and the price of data in South Africa is very high. One of our team needed to connect via a ‘pay as you go’ mobile data subscription and we had to share ideas and implement strategies to reduce data consumption. We turned off automatic updates and set her browser to ignore rich media, like images and videos, and to only download the text content of a webpage.
Communication was key
Again, we were lucky in that we had time and were able to play with more than one communications channel at the outset of our experiment. Our team already had their preferred methods of communication and some did need a bit of coaxing to shift to a new one. We established that we needed to keep in contact with the world at large and with each other. For communicating with the world out there, we found that email is sufficient. Thanks to webmail, anyone at a remote terminal can access the server and receive all their emails right on their desktop. However, email isn’t the most ‘immediate’ form of communication and it is less than ideal for having conversations.
For rapid and direct messaging, we already had an office WhatsApp group in place – which was great for communicating all things office related, but again it necessitated that we keep our phones handy … and charged. WhatsApp works in a pinch, but it’s not ideal for intensive collaboration. Sending files, for example, is not so easy to do because files first need to be transferred to phones and it gets very complicated very quickly. What we needed was a collaborative communication tool that integrated with the desktop and made tasks like sending files and notifying other collaborators a simple process. We opted for Slack.
We maintained the routine
Every morning at 9:00 AM we used to have a stand-up meeting in the office where everyone checked in and answered three simple questions. “What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? Do you foresee any blockages?”. This simple exercise served to ground us and give us direction for the day. We now use the Slack platform to do our daily check-ins. Under lockdown conditions, we recommend the additional question of “How are you doing today?”… Taking a minute to listen to everyone and acknowledging their basic humanity is essential.
What we like about the Slack platform is that it allows you to set up specific channels for specific topics or even specific departments. We have a #General channel, for all things relating to general operations; we have department-specific channels, so that the design team isn’t spammed with messages that only affect the traffic department; and we even have a #Random channel, because sometimes people just need to spout something random in order to feel human again.
We built our toolkit
First we got our basic communication channels sorted out – we decided to start with a few and see which worked best, and under which circumstances. We’d used Zoom on previous occasions for its video conferencing and screen sharing capabilities, and it has the added option to disable video to reduce data usage for those with limited bandwidth. By initially providing some options, like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, we hope to mitigate stress and let individuals find their own best practices – so we weren’t too prescriptive at first.
We realised communication was clearly important but recognised that it is just as important to keep an eye on the big picture. For this we use a management board – Trello (JIRA is used by our development teams). These applications provide a complete overview of what is in backlog, what is in progress, and what is in review. We’ve made it part of our daily routine to check the board and manage everyone’s expectations for that day, and the weeks ahead.
We kept the channels open
By monitoring feedback, both user- and computer-generated, we’ve been able to maintain an overview, not only of the progress of work but also of the mood of our team. We always remember that there’s a human at the other end of the conversation and that the written word lacks some of the nuances of a face-to-face conversation. We’re learning that the recipients of our message may not read it in the same tone that we wrote it in. Tone doesn’t come across, so we’ve started annotating our comments with emojis or bracketed comments [grin].
And we are purposefully bearing the following in mind:
- Use email for long format, primary communication
- Use a communication and collaboration platform for task-specific communications
- Don’t be afraid to ‘fail’ and try a different application
- Remember we all have different personalities, give people time to adjust
- Remember we all have different personal circumstances, offer help where you can
- Don’t be afraid to inject some fun
- Feedback, feedback, feedback!
Lastly, we didn’t forget the fun
We are also not underestimating how stressed we’re all going to be. We are taking time to lighten the mood by providing some light-hearted and fun diversions. We’ve included quick surveys as a daily ‘dip-stick’ to bring a smile to people’s faces and to engage with each other as individual human beings outside the sphere of work. For example, one of our surveys was “Which of the following songs best describes your mood right now” – it was good for a laugh and an informal chat around not only taste in music, but general state of sanity, too.
Finally, be prepared to be amazed because people will surprise you. There’s nothing like a tough situation to bring out the best in people, and we’re all in this together.
“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all”
– Disney’s Mulan