Tips for Managing a Remote Workforce During Coronavirus — and Beyond
March 11, 2020
Many companies are asking their employees to work remotely in an effort to slow down the spread of coronavirus and preserve the health and safety of their people. This change creates a new set of challenges for managers to support and stay connected with their newly remote workforce, so LinkedIn and the community are here to help.
Recently we spoke with GitLab, a company with the largest all-remote workforce in the world, about how they manage 1,100 people spread over 65 countries. The insights from this conversation with Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, can help companies manage new work-from-home teams and know what to focus on right now to maximize stability.
In addition, Brendan Browne, LinkedIn’s global head of talent acquisition, recently sat down with Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab’s co-founder and CEO, who shared more long-term strategies companies can use to build a remote workforce, as flexible work options will become increasingly important in the future.
Short-term: How to successfully transition to a temporary remote workforce
1. Establish a remote leadership team
“Shifting an entire division or company to remote can trigger a shockwave of change,” says Darren. “To help mitigate this, start by evaluating current managers and rally a team of experts who have remote work experience. These people should be able to communicate nuances and serve as resources to those who will inevitably have questions.”
A core part of this team's role will be to document challenges in real time, transparently prioritize those challenges, and assign DRIs (directly responsible individuals) to find solutions.
Executive assistants may also take on a more significant role in the transition, says Darren. They can function as documentarians in meetings and help with internal communications.
2. Create a “source of truth” handbook to keep everyone in the loop
This can be rudimentary to start, but will serve as a single source of truth for the pressing questions. You’ll need to communicate this company-wide, says Darren, and update it continually with DRIs for common questions around tools and access. This can start as a single company webpage or repository in Notion or Ask Almanac, and will serve you well even after the current crisis subsides.
“One of the most sizable challenges when going remote is keeping everyone in the loop in an efficient way,” says Darren. “Put concerted effort around systematically documenting important process changes in a central place to minimize confusion and dysfunction.”
3. Set up a formal (and informal) communication plan
Depending on team size, consider creating an always-on video conference room per team, where team members can linger, or come and go as they please. “This simulation helps acclimation, enabling team members to embrace the shift to remote in a less jarring way,” says Darren. “It also shows intentionality around informal communication — an important element that occurs spontaneously in an office and needs an immediate replacement in a remote setting.”
Whatever your current view on transparency, Darren says leaders should not hold back during this time. “It's vital to maintain perspective through this shift,” he says. “Everyone reacts to remote work differently, and not all homes are ideal workspaces. This can (and likely will) feel jarring, and team members will expect frequent updates as leaders iterate on their communication plan in real time.”
For a fast-boot on this front, consider replicating GitLab's public communication guide.
4. Minimize your tool stack
While functioning remotely, your company should strip the tool stack down to a minimum. Google Docs; a company-wide chat tool (like Microsoft Teams or Slack); and Zoom or another video conferencing platform are all you need to start. If your team needs access to internal systems through a VPN, ensure that everyone has easy access and instructions on usage are clear.
“Working well remotely requires writing things down,” says Darren. “For companies who do not have an existing culture of documentation, this will prove to be the most difficult shift. So aim to funnel communication into as few places as possible to reduce silos and fragmentation.” You'll want to proactively solve for mass confusion when it comes to finding things — policies, protocols, outreach mechanisms, messaging, etc.
5. Drive cultural change
“Humans are naturally resistant to change — particularly change that is forced during times of uncertainty or crisis,” says Darren. Leaders will have to meet this reality head-on. An all-hands approach to recognizing the new reality is vital to empowering everyone to contribute to the success of a remote model.
Particularly for companies with strong "in-office cultures," it is vital for leadership to recognize that the remote transition is a process, not a binary switch to be flipped. “Leaders are responsible for embracing iteration, being open about what is and is not working, and messaging this to all employees,” says Darren.
“Managing a remote company is much like managing any company,” he adds. “It comes down to trust, communication, and company-wide support of shared goals.”
Long-term: How to become a 100% remote company for the long haul
Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab’s cofounder and CEO, is a big believer in the power of going fully remote, long-term. Not only can you reduce overhead costs, but you can dramatically expand your talent pool, since you’ll no longer be limited by candidates’ physical proximity to your facilities. For Sid, though, the real benefit is the impact on your employees.
“It's great for the team member,” he says. “They save on commuting time, they get that time back, and most of all they get flexibility. If the kids are sick, you're already working from home. You're able to be there for them. And it shows up in retention. We have 85% retention, which is almost twice as good as the industry average.”
This was the topic of our latest Talent on Tap episode, which was filmed before the coronavirus outbreak. In it, Sid shares five steps he recommends taking to smooth the transition to a completely remote workforce:
1. Get leadership buy-in and ensure they lead by example
If your company is considering going remote, chances are you won’t go from zero to a hundred overnight. But if you’re planning to test the water and gradually phase out your physical locations, it’s essential to get employees on board early. And one of the best ways to do this is to encourage your leaders to kick-start your remote work program.
“If the leadership doesn't come to the office, people will mimic that,” Sid explains. “If you have the senior leadership in the same location every day, people are going to mimic that too.”
Make sure your leaders and managers understand the role they play in promoting top-down change. Simply telling employees that they’re allowed to work remotely may not be enough to break old habits and overcome anxieties around not being present. But when they see their leaders working from home or from a coffee shop, this can strongly signal permission in a way that makes employees feel comfortable following suit.
2. Boost transparency and communication across the organization
According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, communication and collaboration are among the biggest challenges of working remotely. Issues that would have been solved at the drop of a hat when your coworker was 10 feet away can become drawn out if someone isn’t looking at their email or has muted notifications.
To combat this, GitLab has fostered a culture of communication in which employees are encouraged to have frequent conversations and share information transparently.
“Because there are fewer informal communication channels,” Sid says, “you have to be more transparent as a company. You cannot assume that information will disseminate, so you communicate more than you'd normally do.”
Give your employees all the tools, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, they need to stay in constant communication and schedule plenty of virtual meetings with the whole team to disseminate key information that might get buried in an email chain. To encourage a mindset shift and avoid people working in silos, make sure managers know to touch base with employees regularly — and don’t be afraid to give people a little nudge if they’ve gone silent.
3. Allow people to provide input but designate an empowered decision-maker
One benefit of a fully remote workforce is the ability to hire the best and the brightest from all around the world to work on the same team and help solve the same problems for your company. But disparate teams can often span multiple time zones, making it harder to consult everyone on a decision before pulling the trigger.
To prevent team productivity from slowing to a crawl while employees wait for their coworkers on the other side of the world to wake up and weigh in, GitLab designates one person on the team as the DRI — directly responsible individual. That person is encouraged to gather input from others, but ultimately, the final decision is theirs to make. They don’t have to convince anyone or explain their decision, they just have to act in the best interests of the company.
“We want to combine the best things about a consensus and a hierarchical culture,” Sid explains. “Consensus culture is great because you get input from everyone. That's super valuable. Hierarchical culture is great because you can make a decision quickly. … We get the best of both worlds.”
To adopt a similar approach successfully, the DRI on your team must feel empowered to make decisions without facing negative repercussions. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a discussion with them about what went wrong if things don’t work out as they’d hoped. But if they don’t feel confident making decisions without fear of punishment, they may hesitate to take action until a consensus is reached — causing unnecessary delays.
4. Work in short, fast increments and iterate regularly
Another step GitLab takes to mitigate the challenges thrown up by time zones is to break projects into many smaller steps. This allows teams to work on something for a short period, send it for approval, then work on something else while they wait for feedback and insight from necessary stakeholders — rather than plowing ahead and potentially wasting their own time.
“We have a value of iteration,” Sid says. “We ship very small things and that allows everyone to see the current state. . . . If you're doing something small and it's not the right direction, you can adjust your next step.”
This approach can take a little getting used to, so be sure to clearly communicate the reasoning and benefits to your team. Offer help in identifying the specific stop points throughout each project, as this may be less obvious for some projects than for others, and put it in writing so people have something to refer back to if they’re unsure.
5. Create a robust handbook and live by it
Similar to the “source of truth” handbook you would create during emergencies, Gitlab promotes a handbook-first approach at all times, encouraging employees to look for an answer in its incredibly comprehensive handbook before turning to a coworker for help. This could save employees countless hours, since the person who holds the answer could be in another time zone, whereas the handbook is accessible around the clock.
To date, GitLab’s handbook is over 2,000 pages long — and counting.
“Anytime we implement something, [we put it] in the handbook,” Sid says. “And then you communicate that.”
This is the reverse of what some companies do, where decisions are made, communicated, and then, theoretically, documented. The trouble with that approach, Sid points out, is that in many cases people never actually get around to the documenting part. By writing things down first and then sharing those learnings, there’s less of a chance of vital information getting lost in the shuffle.
The world of work has changed in the last couple of weeks, and companies are navigating new challenges, one of which is how to adapt and manage remote work. Some organizations are offering limited work from home for the first time, while others have gone 100% remote for the first time. Nearly everyone, it seems, is embracing — or at least testing — the future of work.
Flexible and remote work arrangements are becoming increasingly important tools for attracting and retaining talent — and strategic levers with which companies can control costs.
So, if you’re not offering remote work options now, it’s a good time to consider them; if you’re offering them only until the coronavirus outbreak is brought under control, it’s time to consider making them permanent. And if your company does have to make a sudden shift for one reason or another, it helps to have processes in place already to keep things on track.
Talent on Tap is a video series in which Brendan Browne breaks down the hottest topics, biggest challenges, and most enticing opportunities in the world of talent. Talent on Tap will also give you an opportunity to hear from other organizational leaders, subject matter experts, and thought leaders in the space. Stay tuned for the latest.
To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.