My thoughts on Work from Home

As a software company, a lot of work and processes at collaboration Factory have always been enabled for seamless Work from Home (WFH) long before COVID. However, we still are kind of office focused in our general mindset. I think that right now is the best point in time to really think about shifting our mindset and treating both, WFH and office, as equal and allow everyone to choose freely. It’s not about going full remote (yet) – but read along to see my thoughts on the why and how.

My experience with full WFH so far has been positive in general. Of course, meetings and interviews are more exhausting but I’ve been able to get a lot more focus and quality time. Nevertheless, as experienced Remote Workers have pointed out countless times – this is different and not your normal WFH. Keeping this in mind while reading my thoughts. It’s a basically un-edited draft of my thoughts – so there definitely are things I missed.

Reach out in the comments or on Twitter to ask any questions or give me pointers on what I’d have to cover for sure. How’s your experience been so far?


COVID forced us to move to a Work from Home (WFH) first strategy over the last months. I propose to keep an equal WFH vs. Office strategy, i.e. everyone is free to choose her/his working model. Note: everyone is free to go to the Office and only work there as before.

Why?

Each employee can choose the working style fitting them best. It is personal preference, experience, and different working styles leading to either WFH or Office. Parents with kids may require WFH to better handle child care or choose the Office for focused work. Equally, non-parents may choose WFH to do focused work without frequent interruptions.

We are already a distributed company. The Engineering and Professional Services organization are distributed across our different locations. Engineering teams and even squads are not isolated to one location. This requires everyday engineering processes to work fully remote.

Enforces transparent communication and decentralization. Communication has to be transparent and involve every stakeholder for WFH to work. A lack of transparent communication leads to misalignment and unexpected outcomes. Word-of-mouth coffee kitchen syncs do not provide equal information to all stakeholders. Proper communication and alignment enables full decentralization. Observing the individuals work is micro management and prevents autonomy.

Providing an equal WFH strategy is a hiring advantage. It allows hiring top talent outside of our office locations, especially in the European Union. Defining maximum time zone differences guarantees required minimal overlap of working hours. Note: Whether or not the company can save money by paying lower rates for other regions is out of scope and would need to be discussed.

Did it work at all?

Yes. WFH during COVID did work so far.

Feedback in our internal leadership meetings did not reveal negative effects. In general the COVID situation itself caused issues and disturbances – but the switch from Office to WFH did not impact productivity. Working from home increased satisfaction and focused contributions for some. The rate of acceptance is very high as shown by the low return rate (the latter is probably also influenced by public transport situation, etc.). Focus time without interruptions did increase.

Feedback gathered by the Engineering Managers lead to the refinement of synchronization meetings and better structure (e.g. coffee meeting, improved weekly meetings).

Recruiting and hiring efforts continued without trouble. Numerous interviews have been completed with Zoom-only meetings. We have signed new hires with full remote interviews and already completed remote-only onboarding.

Why did it work?

As outlined in Why? we are already a distributed team. Collaborating across locations in the same squad forces remote work to be the de-facto working standard. The employees have remote collaboration as part of their mindset since the beginning.

The required tooling has already been available and fully setup (e.g. Slack, Zoom). The infrastructure is not centralized and does not need additional administration.

We do not think that “we have known each other for so long” is the correct reasoning.

Trust is the real underlying factor and precisely why the WFH model works.

Fully supporting an equal WFH strategy requires trusting your employees and hiring the right people.

How?

Align all processes to online / remote first. Our processes are largely aligned to online / remote first already. Company meetings, team syncs, dailys have been remote-enabled for years now (see distributed company above). COVID forced all other meetings fully remote (e.g. retrospectives or planning meetings). Remote meetings require better moderation and rules as team dynamics change. Making yourself noticeable to make a comment is more difficult remote hindering discussions. Note: Some meetings will remain in-person for higher efficiency (e.g. OKR Workshop per Quarter). There should not be more than a handful of meetings in-person.

Focus on written communication and documentation. All outcomes of meetings and discussions is written down in a centralized place. Everyone needs to have access to the information and must know where to find it. Spontaneous whiteboard discussions are not inclusive in an equal WFH strategy. Spontaneous discussions and 1-on-1s are great for initial ideation and brainstorming. Before committing to and planning work the scope has to be written down. Discussions focus on prior documented concepts.

Alignment on goals and outcomes must occur prior to work. Clear definition of the expectations (goals and outcomes) enables independent and autonomous work. This leads to a decentralized organization and prevents micro management.

Add explicit breaks to bring people together (remotely). Regular breaks provide space for interaction apart from task-focused exchange. The coffee meeting provides this opportunity for example. Team Leads / Scrum Masters must set up these formats.

Introduce rhythm to gather employees in person. Personal relationships remain at the heart of collaboration Factory culture. Design large meetings in regular intervals to bring people together and strengthen bonds (e.g. an all-hands meeting where all locations come together once or twice per month). Embed large meetings into extended programs including activities before / after the meeting to provide space for communication.

Why not?

Several arguments might speak against an equal WFH strategy.

Our culture is personal interaction and people knowing each other, this would get lost. Explicit breaks and rhythm described above are the countermeasures to this argument. Personal interaction and relationships remain the cultural basis.However, this argument does not apply to everyone even right now. Certain employees do not need really close personal relationships. For others this is an essential part of their work. Because of this WFH is free to choose.

It’s great to talk to anyone in the coffee kitchen and get insights into everything. This depends on personal preference. Not everyone wants to always have a chat in the coffee kitchen. “Coffee chats” work also in an equal WFH strategy – they are just made explicit and focused. Checking the “pulse” of the company remains possible by usage of appropriate tools (e.g. 15Five). This is in general solely a responsibility of HR. Coffee chats pose a risk to transparent communication. Information communicated there is not freely accessible to everyone. Coffee chats with C-Level may put unwanted pressure on peers. Detailed information on individuals’ tasks increases risk of micro management. Information exchange between peers, e.g. developers about new technology, can be accomplished in explicit breaks outlined above but it will be more difficult. Note: Additional formats like our Tech Day already provide explicit space for sharing this knowledge.

Writing everything down and only using explicit syncs affects is an overhead too large. Proper documentation and writing is more effort than talking in a meeting. We think that it largely increases quality. Writing takes more effort because of forcing more thought. As outlined above it is not for every step in the process but after a certain point. Focussing on written communication facilitates information sharing (“here is the link to the document”) and prevents misunderstandings (word of mouth vs. single source of truth).

Remember: WFH vs. Office Equality means free to choose – and people will be in the Office from time to time.

Conclusion

COVID has had a devastating effect on a lot of companies and people. At the same time, it accelerated the digitalization of our daily work drastically. In companies that never thought about allowing WFH it suddenly became possible. I think that we all should keep this up as it allows people to contribute in their ideal way. It’s a great opportunity but also a huge challenge to get right. Just blindly sending people to WFH will not lead to the desired result. So let’s make sure we don’t mess that up! 🙂

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