Going Virtual: Ensuring Business Success During a Pandemic

Neil Tardella
May 7, 2020 7:47:37 AM

The worldwide Coronavirus pandemic is forcing companies to adopt broad work-from-home policies. For many of us, remote work is nothing new, but such an abrupt, radical shift can be disruptive to organizations.

This article describes lessons learned over the past 15 years while building and growing a work-from-home engineering company. When Energid started, we had no physical office—everyone was remote. This was more out of necessity (we were a small, self-funded startup and office space was expensive) than any lofty ideal, but we quickly saw the benefits of working from home. Our employees were very productive and worked hard to help us build a product that was unlike anything that existed at the time. Additionally, many of the employees from these early days are still with the company. That retention has been invaluable and helped create the company culture we’re so proud of.

Studies have confirmed what we witnessed—remote workers are happier, work longer hours, and remain at companies longer than their commuting counterparts. Recruiting talent is easier since you are no longer restricted by geographic location, and meetings and development can be much more productive with proper tools and processes.

Though we now have a physical location, over 50% of the company still works remotely. Creating a successful work-from-home organization takes some work and attention. Below are a few pointers that helped us be successful.

Choose the right virtual teams

Your team is the most important aspect of your business. The right team will propel an organization to new heights while the wrong one will doom even the best business plan to failure. The good news is that with virtual teams you are no longer geographically limited in your talent search. This greatly increases the available talent pool and allows you to be much more selective.

When looking for team members to work virtually it’s important to look for qualities that are well suited to distributed development. The best virtual office employees tend to be self-starters. They understand high-level requirements and are capable of finding solutions without much hand holding. They also tend to be good communicators. Since human bandwidth is necessarily lower when an employee is remote, clear, concise communication becomes a necessity. Importantly, remote employees must be willing and able to communicate problems up. This is one of the dangers of a virtual office. It can be costly and demoralizing to have a remote employee spinning their wheels on a problem for hours, days, or weeks, without raising an alarm.

You should also seek out employees that really like the idea of working from home. Not all do. And some prospects that think they’d like it find that they don’t. I realize this is tricky, especially now since so many employees are being forced into this lifestyle. Try to identify which employees are having trouble with remote work early and pair them with others that aren't. Through close, frequent contact and adherence to process, they can continue to be productive while working remotely. They may even come to enjoy it.

Focus on productivity versus punching the clock

Make it clear to your employees that they are being measured on productivity, not hours worked. If you’re measuring productivity well, you’ll know when someone is not effective. Frequent check-ins and weekly status meetings will keep teams on track. Engineering managers should be technical enough to assess work quality and output. Doing this right is a time and resource commitment since you’ll need a fair amount of a senior technical person’s time to manage more junior remote employees. This investment will pay for itself quickly.

The software engineering community has developed metrics to measure productivity, such as velocity in Agile Scrum teams. I would encourage you to be creative in how you develop metrics for your remote teams.

Leverage existing tools

Today several tools facilitate distributed groups. I’ll go through a few classes of tools that we have found useful at Energid.

Configuration management tools. Software teams are highly equipped to work virtually thanks to the multitude of configuration management software that makes distributed development a breeze. Good configuration management tools allow multiple developers to work on a common codebase (or document) at the same time. A history of changes is recorded so they can easily be reviewed, accepted, rejected or rolled back. Energid started many years ago using a program called CVS for software configuration management. We have since moved to Gitlab as our software CM of choice. Though CM tools are rooted in software development, they have gotten more sophisticated over the years and now support every type of document, allowing distributed development of documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Both Microsoft (Office 365) and Google (GSuite) have tools allowing cloud-based distributed development, review, and editing of documents.

Chat/Conferencing tools. It’s important to have access to your colleagues so you can chat/talk at any time. Energid adopted Skype way back when it was a young, independent company. We’ve since moved to Google chat/Hangouts through GSuite, but WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams are all solid and something we’ve used. Zoom is a relative newcomer that is focused primarily on the consumer market. Its ease of use is excellent, but there are some security issues to work out before broad adoption by industry.

Status tools. Since you’re not physically in the same office as your colleagues, you can’t tell when they’re talking with someone else, on a sales call, or away for a lunch break. There are several useful tools that can make your colleagues aware of your current status. In the early days (starting in 2008) Energid used Twitter to share team members’ status (I personally have over 26K private tweets). We implemented a policy where tweeting multiple times a day was required. Twitter has nice tools that let you monitor your colleagues’ streams. These days there are some good alternatives. We are currently using Google Chat private rooms for publishing status. Other alternatives, like Slack, also work well.

Scheduling tools. Nowadays, most productivity tools are in the cloud. This makes distributed planning and management easier than it’s ever been. For many years we used Basecamp, which provides a nice interface that customers can access to track deliveries/schedules. Since then we’ve added a few different tools depending needs, including Wrike, which has a nice dynamic Gantt chart view, Pivotal Tracker which is an intuitive tool for Agile teams, and Jira, which we’ve used for product development and roadmap planning, and even simple GSuite Sheets (which is essentially Google’s cloud-based, simplified version of Excel).

Virtual phone tools. In our industry, you don’t see the use of phones much anymore. But if you want an 800 number that routes calls to computer or cell there are several options. We’ve used VirtualPBX for many years. If you don’t need an 800 number you can get a standard number through Google Voice. There are now many other options.

Create policies conducive to success

Tools are only as good as the policies you implement to make use of them. Here are a few very useful policies we implemented with our virtual teams.

Require each team member to maintain a separate space for work. I realize it’s not always easy to do, but it’s very important to have a partitioned off space that can be used as a home office. This gives needed privacy for conference calls and focused concentration. It also provides a natural partition from work and home—something that is psychologically important to do. A colleague once told me: “The best thing about working from home is that you're always at home. The worst thing about working from home is that you're always at work.” Having a separate space makes it clear when you are at ‘work’ and when you’re at ‘home’.

Encourage consistent hours. Have remote employees use their online calendars to let colleagues know their core working hours. This will set expectations, so employees don’t drive themselves crazy working all hours of the night. Balance this, however, with flexibility, as one of the greatest benefits of working from home is the flexibility in affords employees. The intent of the core hours, which may be less than eight, incidentally, is to communicate availability for meetings.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. This may seem counterintuitive, but I find that successful virtual teams don’t talk less than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they actually talk more. Early on at Energid, there were days when we never took our headsets off. We would leave the line open and communicate with each other when needed as if we were all sitting together in the same office. If we weren’t actively on a call we would always be available for a call. A typical protocol would be a simple text message in chat asking to talk.

Hopefully this information can help you and your organization become productive while working remotely. I realize this new way of working can be unsettling at first, but my personal view is that our collective Coronavirus-forced shift in how we interact will have some positive long-term repercussions on how we work.

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