Remote work should not be stressful in 2020

4 minute read

It’s been a rough year for most people. Natural disasters, pandemic, unemployment and political upheaval have affected nearly everyone I know in some way.

For those of us privileged enough to keep working in 2020, it has become critical that we ensure the way we “do remote” does not add aditional stress on our co-workers.

This has required a shift in working culture for nearly everyone I know, myself included. The top 3 most significant changes we made at work included:

  1. Clearly defined deliverables and timelines
  2. Severely limit time spent in video calls
  3. Default to async communication - in writing or recording

Define clear deliverables and timelines

This is a change that starts at the top. The best thing a team lead / manager / CEO etc can do to ensure everyone’s wellbeing is to shift toward async workflows with broad agreement on deliverables and timelines.

If building a remote working culture is like building a house, then this is probaly the foundation.

Nearly everyone’s day-to-day responsibilities have grown dramatically. I’ve got co-workers who are living alone and struggling with loneliness, others who are trying to manage 2-3 homeschool workloads, and some who are sheltering completely because their loved ones work with COVID patients.

We need to allow people to work on things as they fit into their schedules. Yes, also hold everyone accountable to delivering what’s been agreed - but ignore the implementation details, ignore the voice in your head that requires everyone to be “present” at the same time, and focus on the end goal.

Meetings are for making decisions

This is critical - I personally know people whose entire job for the last 5-6 months has been to sit in video calls for 8 hours a day. It’s exhausting, perfomative, and actually makes it impossible to get any real work done.

If a meeting doesn’t have a clear set of decision points then it’s probably not worth getting everyone together.

Meeting notes that start with “hey I just need to catch you up on something” or “we want to present our new strategy” are usually a tip-off to me that this meeting is unecessary. When I receive one of those I usually fire back a quick DM that says “Hey I noticed we’ve scheduled a meeting without any clear structure - is there a faster way of sharing this information?”

More often that not this has resulted in the meeting being cancelled and the information being shared a different way.

This has the additional benefits of ensuring everyone gets to see the same info (not just those who managed to attend), and it gives people time to digest, consider and even refer back to past presentations.

Use longform writing for sharing information

Note that I do not mean instant messaging - I’m talking about things like email, Basecamp, internal messaging platforms, blogs, etc. When you diseminate information via longform writing it has some incredible compounding benefits:

  1. It gives people space to think about what you’re saying.
  2. It allows people time to respond to specific points you’re raising.
  3. It levels the playing field - everyone gets the same information at the same time.
  4. It leaves you with a searchable archive of notes.

Yes, I know that writing is not something everyone is comfortable with - some people actively hate it. But there’s good news: Writing is a skill like any other, and you get better with practice. And you don’t need to be an excellent writer to clearly communicate your ideas - being mediocre at it is perfectly acceptable.

Shifting to long-form written communication as the primary means for sharing information is the single biggest adjustment we can all make towards being more remote friendly. All we need is the will to make the shift.

Make screencasts for more immediate concerns like training

Sometimes I find writing isn’t appropriate - for example when I want to show someone how an internal tool works, when I want to demo a new feature, or even when I want to make an old-school presentation with Powerpoint slides.

In those cases - where I know the flow of information will be mostly unidirectional - I will make a 5-10 minute screencast.

Now hear me out on this because it’s actually ridiculously easy to do. There’s lots of commercial software out there to handle this, but I actually really like using OBS Studio which is a free open source tool for Windows, Mac and Linux.

Install some software, set up your mic, ensure you’re in a quiet space and then just hit record. You get the same benefits as sending a written message, without the need to impinge on everyone’s schedule at the same time.

Have meetings when you need to

I love meetings with clearly defined agendas - you can rattle through them and tick off the items you need to make decisions on.

If everyone in the meeting has done their homework (i.e. used async communication to get each other up to speed), then a sync meeting can be a great place to trash out and final disagreements and make decisions.

Remote meetings can also be a great space for people to talk about their feelings or just generally chat and crack jokes. Retros, watercooler chats, and remote debugging sessions can all be great spaces for relationship building. Even a 15 minute “hows everyone feeling today” session can go a long way, provided attendance is optional.

Just be nice to each other

It’s been a rough year. The fact that many of us are continuing to work effectively is a minor miracle - let’s keep finding ways to support each other through what will likely continue to be a rather trying 2021 and beyond.