How to manage a distributed team remotely from home Management in a crisis era

A. Mikhaylishin, S. Zhdanov

About the team, project, and six years of remote work experience

Andrey Mikhaylishin - co-founder and CEO:

  • Joys is an alternative payment systems with our own payment infrastructure, and within the framework of the already working payment service Joys Digital we give the opportunity to use cryptocurrencies and tokens to pay for goods and services in regular and online stores.
  • Dinect is a platform for creating loyalty programs and promotions for retail based on our white-label solutions.

In addition, I’m a member of the Financial services working group of the BRICS Business Council, a partner in the creation of the BRICS Pay International payment system. Expert of the Business incubator of Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, etc.

Sergey Zhdanov is the head of the RnD department in the Joys payment service, a blockchain developer. He is engaged in new projects and in potentially promising technologies for the service. He began conducting surveys with tools for remote work 15 years ago and created one of the first remote technical support services. In Dinect, he held the CTO position, applied his achievements and organized one of the first remote development offices.

The story of the transition to distributed and home office work begins in 2009, when the authors of the article began working together on the DiscountMobile project. The first thoughts about a distributed team and remote work appeared in 2012. For almost two years, we have been preparing business processes for the transition to this mode of operation. There was no urgent need and haste, so we could do it in a comfortable mode. The transition occurred in the Dinect project in 2014, when Andrey had to go to Moscow and set up the sales office there. At that time, 15 people worked in the project.

From initially, Joys was created as a project with a distributed team, some of us work from home. Today our team is 36 people. Cities where employees live and work: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Novgorod, Kirov, Chelyabinsk, Kemerovo, Paris. Tallinn is also constantly in touch: there is remote accounting and lawyers (today it is outsourcing for our Estonian company).

Psychology of Remote work

The transition to remote home office work is a change of consciousness, in the first place, of the leader, and employees - in the second.

For the leader, there are three main psychological problems:

  1. Lack of self-esteem: there is no longer a place where I managed all processes and people, and felt like a boss.
  2. Lack of trust: instead of working, employees will do household chores, sleep, watch movies and be distracted in every possible way.
  3. Lack of knowledge/understanding/experience/tools: how to build internal and external business processes now.

For employees:

  1. A breakdown of the usual working atmosphere: there is no rite of “coming to work”, there are no gatherings for tea/coffee/snacks, there is no common smoking room, there is no feeling of an elbow, there are no common dinners, there are no developed habits, there is no workplace/office at home.
  2. The need to improve self-discipline: earlier control was the task of the boss and/or team.
  3. Lack of knowledge/understanding/experience/tools: how to follow internal and external business processes now.

Common problem:

Time for a change. Change is seen as the source of problems that need solutions. This idea often makes people feel tense and stressed.

Solutions of psychological problems

  1. Introduce Protocol, Regulations, and Reporting Plans binding on everyone (about what should be in them - hereinafter).
    1. Solve the problems of the leader:
      1. Self-esteem - you define Regulations, you control their implementation. Information is one of the sources of power, so the information system should be changed. If the necessary data is not available, employees will not be able to properly perform their duties, and the authority of the leader will be zero.
      2. Lack of trust - monitoring compliance with the work plan, we control not the person, but the results of his work.
    2. Solve employee problems:
      1. A break in the usual working atmosphere - you need to perform the “rite of going to work” - put on a shirt, suit; ladies - do makeup. Create a common information space and take care of the place and time of informal communication of employees.
      2. The need to improve self-discipline - strictly follow the rules, this process forms the discipline.
  2. Education and self-education, participation in webinars, conducting webinars with the team. Encouragement of justified experiments and initiatives.
  3. Changes. Changes are the normal state of the universe and our nature. They always happened, for billions of years. Changes has been happening to each of us all our lives. Changes = opportunities.

Remote Work Rules

The main rule of a successful remote team is the availability of approved and explicitly accepted by all team members Remote Work Rules (Regulations). Pay attention to every word: “approved and explicitly accepted by all members”.

Remember: when working remotely, the words that you use when communicating are of utmost importance, attentiveness to what is said and/or written is of the same importance.

Contacts of team members

This is a constantly updated shared access table. Contents:

Full name, position, areas of responsibility, corporate email, personal email, cell phone, location address, time zone (option), social networks (option), messenger accounts (option), specific fields (option: account in the project management system, CRM/ERP, etc.)

Working day schedule

  1. The start and the end of the working day depends on the degree of distribution of the team: how many time zones it covers. The Joys team has 6 time zones from UTC+1 to UTC+7. It should strive for the maximum overlap of working time. If the team is divided into more than 2 time zones, then it’s not impossible to comfortably set a single working time for all. It is also important to minimize the number of working time zones. There are two of them in our project now: from 05:00 to 14:00 and from 8:00 to 17:00, Moscow time (UTC+3). Saving time on the road sometimes allows meetings outside of normal working hours.
  2. We recommend to introduce the concept of Predictable availability - this is the time of guaranteed presence of the employee at the workplace and the predictable response time to a message or question. If at some point you will not be able to attend during business hours, let everyone know (if necessary, then more than once), write to the chat (for example, "I will be at the doctor within an hour"). There is nothing more harmful to the productivity of the team than messages in the chat like "Does anyone know where Valentin is now?", "When will Nick go online?" or "Can someone else address this issue? Stan doesn't answer.". It is important to organize your work in long sessions with a small number of significant breaks (for example, lunch, dog walking, gym, etc.). There is a recommended lunch time (1 hour) with a fairly wide range when it can be done (3 hours). For some employees, two additional time intervals are allocated: "Available, computer at hand" and "Available by phone (messengers)".

The employee can shift the working time by several hours with the obligatory preliminary coordination with the leader and then enter the time of presence and absence in the calendar, if it is necessary, not on a regular basis.

Workplace

  1. Computer for work. The required software for work should be installed on the computer, and remote access or VPN should be configured if necessary. Not all internet connections or routers are the same and the VPN may not work. It is good if you have a spare computer at home in case of breakdown.
  2. Fast and stable internet. Download bandwidth is usually not a problem. The possibility of participating in a video conference means the speed of the outgoing channel is more than 1 megabit. Many cheap Internet providers provide only 1 megabit per outbound channel. Critical to voice communication is the delay parameter. In practice, a delay of more than 200 ms (to the server providing the connection) makes voice communication almost impossible.
  3. A quality headset is a must. Built-in speakers and a microphone on a laptop are usually not suitable. A bad sound can lead to the fact that your colleagues do not want to invite you to the conference, and you can not participate in a meeting that you would normally attend.
  4. A dedicated room with a lockable door or a separate workspace. In the office, it is usually possible to gather for a meeting in a separate room, and colleagues are trained not to distract during meetings or calls. Relatives and pets are unlikely to comply with such rules, so you need a clear barrier.
  5. A working telephone, if applicable, is dedicated to the role and responsibilities of the employee. If the role involves a significant amount of time on the phone, there should be no difficulty with the ability to reach the employee. To do this, you may need to configure call routing and SIP telephony. If the work involves an emergency response to situations, make sure that everyone knows a personal cell phone, as well as alternative means of communication.

Communication tools

Set the list of corporate communication tools in the Regulation. They can be different: e-mail, personal communication, task trackers, conf call tools, CRM, public and private messengers. Let's figure out when to use which one.

  1. Task tracker. Reaction time ~ 1 hour. The standard tool for solving working issues on tasks. One of the cheapest tools from the point of view of communication, since a person can answer when it is convenient for him, weigh and think over the answer, see and request the necessary information.
  2. E-mail. The reaction time is ~ 1 day, it is assumed that you will receive a response within a day or the next day. One of the cheapest tools from the point of view of communication, since a person can answer when it is convenient for him, weigh and think over the answer, see and request the necessary information, but less operational than the Task tracker.
  3. Approved corporate messenger. The reaction time is less than 1 hour, in the regulation it makes sense to indicate the maximum value of the reaction time during which you need to count on the answer. It involves an interactive and operational solution to the question (many question-answer cycles or a time limit for decision-making). This tool is more expensive than e-mail and a task tracker in terms of communication, since it involves interrupting and distracting a person from current goals, increases the number of context changes, which degrades performance.
  4. Target groups in a corporate messenger. As a rule, an approved corporate messenger is used for this. The reaction time is less than 1 hour and they are used for thematic communications, for example, on projects. It is important to subscribe to the necessary groups and leave the rest, so as not to waste time and attention. Thanks to this, the manager can control work on tasks more efficiently than in the office. Various automation and integration tools allow you to park in such groups or channels also external communications with customers (users).
  5. Personal voice or video chat. In real time. The most expensive tool, since it completely takes the person’s time, at this time he will not be able to do anything else and tear the employee away from the current task. It is worth using it wisely to solve complex or really urgent issues or when psychological issues are important. Good manners require for the first to ask about the opportunity to talk.

Calendar and scheduling

  1. All employees should maintain a personal calendar. This is one of the most effective ways to organize, control and self-control work on a remote site.
  2. A daily work plan, caucus and meetings - all this should be recorded in the calendar.
  3. Give colleagues access to your calendar. This is extremely convenient: employees will be able to see the hours when a colleague is busy, and when free. You can specify in the privacy settings to show the names of tasks, to make changes, etc.
  4. Fill a calendar on a daily basis and make any changes there. According to experience, it makes sense to add events to the calendar if the estimated or spent time on them exceeds 15 minutes. The habit of keeping a calendar will help to improve the time management of the whole team and everyone personally.

Meetings

  1. Enter all meetings in the calendar. The event must be well thought out and planned at least one day in advance. If you need to call an urgent meeting, use the recommendations in the communications section to agree on a convenient time.
  2. Invite colleagues to the event - this will allow them to plan their time and be aware of all changes (postponement, cancellation, agenda) in real time. Remember that attention is more diffused when communicating remotely. If more than seven people participate in a meeting, this will negatively affect the effectiveness of such a meeting. Therefore, think about who really needs and is important to be at the meeting.
  3. The meeting agenda should be thought out in advance and attached to the event. If you need to review documents, attach them in advance so that your colleagues can read them in advance.
  4. Introduce periodic meetings. To increase efficiency and maintain a unified information field, determine the composition, days, and times when you will meet to discuss operational issues. It also makes sense to periodically hold meetings of the entire team.
  5. Video communication will be appropriate, it disciplines. Define in advance in the rules of work about the need to turn on the camera.
  6. Do a follow up after the meeting. Enter the minutes of the meeting or fill out the results of the meeting in the form of abstracts (decisions) and send to all participants in the meeting.

Reports

  1. Daily reports. An extremely important tool that allows a team to maintain a high level of self-organization and high efficiency. Each morning, everyone should answer three simple questions: What did you do yesterday? What do you plan to do today? What difficulties have you encountered? This should be a very short report in the form of abstracts and in the language of the results. Using a calendar greatly simplifies the formation of such a report - copy-paste.
  2. Create a daily reporting publishing channel. This will make the work of all employees conscious, effective, public and understandable to others.
  3. Make integral reports of the whole team. This can be weekly reports, sprint reports (who uses agile) or monthly reports in the formation of which the heads of directions take part. In the formation of such reports help daily. Share such reports with the whole team - this helps to see successes, victories and shortcomings.

Thanks to a properly built reporting system, everyone in the team will see the progress of each individual and all together in solving assigned tasks and achieving goals. Hide inaction will become much more difficult. This is one of the most effective mechanisms for managing a distributed, remote team.

Tools for remote work

Documents

If two or more people are working on documents at the same time, you must use Google Docs, Office 365, or similar tools. Otherwise, either the time spent working on the document will be greatly extended - you can work only sequentially with sending the document, or working with different versions and synchronization will turn into a nightmare for you.

Data store

Created documents must be stored somewhere. Use any cloud storage for this. It will be correct to create an account for the company. Also use a single infrastructure: if you have opted for Google Docs, then use Google Drive, Office 365 - Microsoft OneDrive. This approach will allow you to feel free from being tied to one computer and will allow you to work from anywhere where the Internet and computer are.

Calendar and scheduling

As with data, it is better to use the calendar built into the cloud system. We use Google Calendar.

Task planners

Collaboration of several employees often requires control over processes and tasks. For simple processes, cloud calendars such as Google Calendar are suitable. For more complex and multi-stage processes, it is better to use well-deserved monsters like Trello, Monday, Yandex Tracker, Jira or Redmine.

Messengers

And the most important subtlety in remote work is the choice of a communication tool. Yes, you can habitually use Skype, WhatsApp or Telegram, but the greatest convenience is provided by special team messengers: Slack, Microsoft Team or Rocket.chat. Their advantage is the ability to create “rooms” for a project, team or task and integrate with external services, such as calendars and document repositories.

Videoconferences

For many people, the ability to see the other person is the basis for communication. To close this need, you should use a video. Skype, Zoom, Jitsi Meet and Google Meet. The choice of the solution as a whole depends only on your preferences. It is convenient for us to use the solution from Google.

Features of communication and traps of consciousness

There are a number of important rules of communication when working from home in a team.

  1. For conversations outside of work, be sure to organize a separate group. A ban will only take the team underground, and you may miss something really important.
  2. Legalize the ability to distract from work on social networks, reading feeds and likes on Instagram during the working day, but regulate the time when and how much employees can do this.
  3. At the meeting, set aside 5-10 minutes for communication not at work, as many will have time to talk out, and the meeting will be more effective.
  4. Prevent off-topic communication in thematic groups and extinguish conflicts in public chats.
  5. Praise in public, criticize in person. This is an important rule, but not a commandment. There are situations that it is important to analyze publicly, but criticism must be constructive. Criticizing it is important to evaluate the action, situation, deed, and not the person.
  6. Give feedback. It is important to answer a question or tell when you can wait for an answer. In public chats, you can use emojis and reactions (available in some messengers) to express attitude to the message, it is more convenient than messages.

Mind traps that you can fall into when working at home office

  1. What was announced at the meeting is not a fact that will be heard and/or correctly interpreted. You reported an important decision and even agreed to implement it. But tomorrow your colleague may not remember about such an agreement, his attention was immediately switched to something else, more emotional. All important things must be duplicated in the text and make sure that they are understood correctly.
  2. You said in a personal conversation, but it seems that at a general meeting. The brain may not fix the situation in which something was said. For you, it does not change: always the same apartment and room, but you could communicate with different people in a row. Feel free to repeat again. It is better to say the same thing twice, than not to do it even once. The same can happen with a text message in a chat.

Benefits and costs of a distributed team on a remote work

Remote communication is the weakest link. The lack of personal chemistry, the inability to count emotions, to see body language impose restrictions and require increased attention to verbal interaction.

On a remote site, you save time on moving to the office and money on renting an office, but you need to invest time and resources in communications.

Think over each spoken word, speak as clearly and explicitly as possible. The most important thing is to repeat as the person understood.

It is vital to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. To make a company effective, united, active and creative, it is necessary to create and constantly strengthen a culture of mutual trust and respect.

Distributed work over time leads to disintegration, to decay. Less and less emotional connections remain in the team, so it is important to integrate. To do this both at the corporate level: discussing the company's vision, mission, values, priorities, and at the emotional level: collective greetings on holidays, distributed corporate parties, and at least annual team meetings in person.

Your secret weapon is trust. It can not be bought or grown in one day. Only if you trust the team and be honest in everything, the team will begin to trust you. Take practice at least once every six months in person to speak with everyone. Rarely does someone come up with problems and suggestions. People tend to endure and save for a long time. Talk frankly about work. In a conversation, it is important to hear answers to questions: What do you like most work about? What do not like? What would you change?

According to the experience of our team, the employees and I myself work on a remote site much more and more efficiently than in the office. The only exceptions are brainstorming and finding solutions. For these purposes, you need to meet in person.

Remote work requires investment in communication and team integration, but gives a lot of flexibility in the selection of personnel, reduces costs, increases productivity and resistance to crises during which it is not possible to get together.