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How we have used culture to support remote working

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The Challenge

Social distancing creates isolation  

On Monday 16th March, after Boris Johnson announced his advice for companies to go remote, we invoked our Business Continuity plan (a term many of us had never heard before). Tuesday was our last day in the office and within less than 24 hours our entire company of 70+ staff went fully remote and the doors were shut. Like many groups across the world are experiencing as a result of social distancing, we have become isolated from each other physically.  

We help organisations to go further, faster. Primarily we do this through digital products and solutions, improving user experiences and enabling more effective collaboration, but being fully remote is uncharted territory for us as it is for many businesses. We have seen that by focusing on people first, we can do little things to help each other come together, provide some optimism and continue to work effectively. Here are some suggestions based on what we have been trying.

The approach

Principles for increased isolation and responding to the crisis

With offices across the globe, and flexible working hours, our team is somewhat remote-enabled by default. Many businesses operate fully distributed teams already, but for us we needed to change to everyone working remote overnight. And more drastically, people’s lives outside of work have changed overnight too. So the question was: how might we help people navigate this challenge?

1. Double-down on company values 

The first thing we did was to have a discussion as a whole team, where we focused on talking about this unique circumstance. The aim was to look at how we can try and live by our values during the crisis. In our case these values are selflessness, restlessness, audacity, and liberation. We found that focusing on what we value is energising and can be used as a compass for this new road ahead. 

2. Support the ecosystem 

We agreed not just to keep our entire network of suppliers and partners safe from exposure where possible, but to try to help one another, to thrive and not just survive during this time. Our response is to be even more innovative, collaborative and creative, and we anticipate that this challenging time will bring out some of our best work. 

3. Trust each other to do what’s best 

All of our staff and clients are heavily affected by the impact of this change. From the physical and mental health of ourselves and our loved ones, to childcare concerns and new working environments. We provided resources and clinics to help everyone work out what the best way for them to handle the situation would be, taking into account everyone's unique situations. 

What's working (so far)

Productivity tools 

When working remotely we have a few commonly-used tools. We find sometimes the ‘default’ setting might be a bit invasive and hungry for your attention; so play with the settings, you can even start from zero notifications and build up to what works for you.

  • Zoom for videocalls – tip: share your screen if you feel comfortable to increase non-verbal communication 
  • Slack for company messaging – if you can keep to one messaging platform that will help for focus. Try to keep to ‘threaded’ conversations and break out specific channels to reduce noise. Use “@here” and “@channel” with sensitivity. Use “Do not disturb” when you need to focus without distractions
  • Outlook/Calendar - block out your focusing time and activities with a calendar, then share calendars so that others can find times that work for you. Use tools like Calendly for sharing availability externally. 
  • MURAL a shared online space like an online whiteboard can help to leverage the ‘collective mind’ in meetings and run effective workshops. You can prepare custom templates and there is a large library of commonly used frameworks to choose from.  

Slack, our chat platform of choiceMURAL, one of the tools we use

Socialising at work 

Some of our team members naturally miss seeing each other face to face. Our staff are finding novel ways to interact. Here are some of the social activities we've started since social distancing began... 

  • Tristan's Quiz – in response to the isolation, our very own Tristan White started a daily online quiz. With a £10 food delivery voucher up for grabs, everyone is welcome. Please join us Mon to Fri at 1pm on Zoom to watch, and if you want to play, you will also need to visit myquiz.org and punch in the code 045611. Read more here 
  • The Virtual Watercooler – a Zoom video room exists which is open at all times for staff to join and chat to anyone else who happens to be in there. There is also a Slack channel, used to announce you intend to visit the watercooler, whether that's for a casual chat, or dance parties! 
  • Remote Film Screenings – we love a film at Etch and have a number of groups set up. Read how we’ve taken them remote here.
  • WhatsApp Support Groups - A number of WhatsApp support groups have been created, based roughly on geographical grouping of staff members, clients, collaborators and their friends, family and neighbours. The aim of these groups is to provide local support for people isolating and in need.
  • Remote Meals - for employees who'd like to chat on Zoom while making and/or eating lunch and/or dinner, we have a Slack channel for organising remote meals. Our resident vegetarians have also started hosting cookalongs during the day, showcasing their vegetable preparation skills. 

A photograph from one of our cooking sessionsA screenshot from Tristan's QuizAn image from one of our Zoom calls

Checking how we are feeling 

This is much harder than just going remote as a workplace; people’s lives are being affected personally and all these activities have the backdrop of a global crisis. We are finding that our team and clients are feeling a lot of compassion for one another in these times. Each week, we are checking in with a survey to gauge how all staff are feeling about work, general health and welfare, and to pick up common themes as we evolve our efforts.  

What's next?

We don’t know how long this situation will last, or how it will evolve. For our teams and our clients, the short to mid-term work that was planned has often changed completely or become more challenging. But while tackling the challenges we have had deeper conversations about what really matters, and how we can try to get through this and learn, with the recognition that some things may fundamentally change for the long term. 

We value the old stoic philosophy that "you can’t control what happens, but you can control how you respond". By focusing on what we can do now, we can help each other and the organisations we support to take actions to help us prosper in the future. 

We are hosting a number of remote coaching webinars  please do register and join in. If you are interested in learning more about remote working and collaboration techniques, or developing strategies for how your business can go further, faster, we’d love to hear from you.

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