Self-Management and the Remote Workforce at Phrase

Remote work has become the new normal as we practice physical distancing amid the current pandemic. Phrase would like to share its collective experience in this new situation in the hope that it may be useful to colleagues, customers, vendors, and fellow start-up community members.

Here at Phrase, like most workplaces on the planet, remote has become a new normal as we practice physical distancing. Though the duration of this unprecedented pandemic is unknown, remote working is not. We were able to build upon several learnings from the past, but (like most companies) we have never been 100% remote before. We’d like to share our collective experience in the hope that it may be useful to our colleagues, customers, vendors, and fellow start-up community members.

Learnings From Our “Daily Checkout” Poll

One of the techniques we’re using to manage the new challenges of working in a remote environment is through a daily poll created by our HR circle. The goal is to gain insights on everyone’s remote learning curves, as well as the overall home office morale, and to share experiences and discoveries that help us function as a team, regardless of location. Let’s look at some of this feedback.

First Impressions After the First Two Weeks of Working From Home

We’re only a few weeks into this change but certain feedback was consistent across the board, including how people were feeling about this big adjustment:

  • Individual productivity is perceived as high, rated 6.0 out of 7;
  • Morale in home office is positive, rated 5.9 out of 7.

Considering the amount of uncertainty everyone is facing right now, the fact that we as a company seem to be adapting to changes easily without major obstacles is considered especially positive. It can be difficult to cope when everything is turned upside down. It helps to know work is stable to keep up the morale.

Motivation (Put Your Pants On)

When you are working solo, after being in a collaborative face-to-face office environment, self-motivation becomes far more critical. Going into the office automatically puts you in work mode, but at home, you have to shift gears. There was a lot of feedback and tips on making this shift:

  • Getting started was important. Entering ‘work mode’, getting dressed and creating a morning routine.
  • Creating a structure was also important. Many responses were about setting up a proper workspace, scheduling the day, and generally creating a work-focused atmosphere.
  • A lot of responses were also sharing personal rituals. E.g. music playlists dedicated to working hours, making coffee to take into your home office every day at the same time, moving around with specific rooms for different tasks.

It all adds up to setting a stage, physically and mentally, for being at ‘the office’.

Communication

When you can’t walk down the hall or into a coworker’s office to ask a quick question or for help with an issue, your ability to work efficiently is different. The good news is the communication tools and processes we use at the office were already optimized for remote work:

  • Slack provides an ‘always on’ channel that helps us feel connected in real-time. It also serves as an excellent way to share files and to manage various team activities by organizing threads by subject.
  • Email is primarily a communication medium for more complex messages and for connecting with customers, vendors, and other outside resources.
  • Conferencing software like Google Hangouts is the meeting medium, and the tools it provides for screen-sharing, timing meetings and preserving a record are invaluable. It was also mentioned a lot to help with isolation and keeping up with coworkers socially while working together.

Remote communication offers both challenges and benefits. When you are communicating via technology, keeping things brief and to the point becomes more important. This seems to make meetings more productive. At the same time, lots of writing and Slack messages leave room for interpretation and misunderstanding and sometimes can get lost in workload. To us, talking always beats writing when troubleshooting, resolving personnel issues, doing one-on-ones, and working through more strategic considerations.

Social Interaction

We’ve become more aware of the amount of time spent in an office that is not focused on the task at hand. While working at home has its own set of interruptions and distractions to handle, many people miss ‘the distractions’ of the office. Those ‘distractions’, such as colleagues sharing stories from the weekend or discussing a difficult situation with a customer, can create a team mindset. By far, the most mentioned aspects of the workdays at home revolved around interactions with the team and experiencing a newly created team spirit of being in this together. New ways to interact were created through dedicated slack channels, sharing of photos, virtual coffee or lunch dates and other initiatives from the team.

We also always love to hear and read about other company’s experiences and experiments with new ways to keep up the morale and feeling of belonging. Let us all continue to share ideas and inspire each other.

Work Setup

Our polling also identified some areas that need improvement. The majority of comments about necessary improvements were linked to:

  • Hardware issues: There have been some transition issues with equipment like headsets and monitors.
  • Ergonomics: Home offices are not as ergonomic as at work; getting things like decent desks, chairs, and lighting is important to productivity and staying healthy.

After the first days, we offered to take home office hardware, which solved most of the hardware issues. Nevertheless, we are considering what kind of equipment and office supply support we can add. A lot of this depends on the duration of the crisis and our plans for a post-coronavirus world. Taking care of ergonomics and staying healthy these days is more difficult, but it is very cool to see how necessity really is the mother of invention. Several team members reported self- built stand-up desks, timers to remember regular movement and taking breaks to exercise.

Scattered Teams Require Autonomous Decision Making: Introducing Holacracy

Along with these learnings on an individual level, the current situation really invites us to also create new understandings on an organizational level (#newwork). Working remotely and independently magnifies the need for greater self-direction since mechanisms of instruction and control become less important and less efficient. Following Holacracy, we have developed what we believe to be a unique perspective on how our self-management system is helping us to manage these necessary transitions.

Holacracy is a management system that seeks to empower our team members to make their own decisions when facing problems. It encourages everyone in the organization to take charge. It also provides an ideal framework for working remotely, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities as well as useful communication protocols in order to keep meetings concise and useful.

Self-management, which Holacracy requires a high degree of, is based on the idea that each person in an organization is responsible to fill their roles and strive to reach the best results in the frame the organization has defined for the role. As its creator, Brian Robertson, puts it, this changes the primary functions of the team managers in a self-managed business:

  • Keeping things moving – by monitoring work, inspiring motivation, and removing obstacles.
  • Creating clarity – by defining who does what, who has the authority to make which decisions, and what priorities the team should focus on.
  • Improving alignment – by making sure team members are all pulling in the same direction.
  • Inviting trust – by creating a space in which people feel emotionally and psychologically safe to express their creativity.
  • Liberating and empowering – by giving people space and freedom to get work done and the authority to do so.

Contrary to classical hierarchical structures, roles, responsibilities, and even team structures are all but static. Every team member has the power to change the system, change the rules for their domains and communicate obstacles as well as improvements freely across the organization. In order for this to not end up in anarchy, there are clarified discussion and integration rules for these changes with a focus on enabling change, reducing discussion and moving things forward.

We’ve been working with Holacracy since 2016, which proves to be a valuable asset these days. Our teams at Phrase work to follow the mentioned principles and it enables us to quickly adjust to changing circumstances.

Of course, no framework is perfect, and it all comes with a price. To just share one learning here, we quickly realized that for us following Holacracy lacked transparent cross-team alignment. We, therefore, added a quarterly OKR (objectives and key results) process to align forces and reflect our shared responsibility across teams towards reaching our common goals.

The Longer Term: Work in Progress

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, but there is also opportunity in crisis, as the Chinese saying goes. We’ll certainly be looking to learn from this situation and take it as an experiment to prepare for future disruptions. We’re also refining our self-management protocols to support this new remote working world. It’s a work in progress, but it’s progress.

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