Think about the last time you were on a conference call with someone in a different location. Did you run into any communication challenges — technical, or otherwise? Did you find yourself trying to speak up but failing to get a word in? If there were multiple people on that call, did you find that everyone was able to participate?
Remote meetings are becoming increasingly commonplace. Not everyone you work with is able to sit down in the same room with you. For many of us, most of our meetings now include remote employees or team members from across the globe.
That’s the trend we started to see at HubSpot. As we expand globally, more and more of our meetings and teams are spread out across our different offices. That doesn’t just mean waking up early or staying up late to have a call with colleagues in Sydney. It means learning to work with our colleagues in a completely different (and potentially challenging) way.
After talking to other companies with growing numbers of remote employees (including Zapier CEO Wade Foster), our marketing team decided to do “Remote Week.”
We had 3 goals for Remote Week:
- To work more effectively as a highly distributed team, and help pave the way for more effective collaboration across geographies for HubSpot as a whole.
- To cultivate empathy for full-time remote workers.
- To improve our communication with remote workers, and be at our best when working remotely.
And we had a couple of rules:
- Everyone on the team must be remote for the week. They could work from anywhere they wanted, but they could not be in a HubSpot office.
- Everyone must have an internet connection and be able to join meetings with video.
- No one should postpone or reschedule any meetings. They should try all different types of meetings while remote: 1:1s, team meetings, cross-functional meetings, etc.
After a week, we gathered feedback from everyone who participated, and discovered some common trends that will help us more effectively manage our remote employees moving forward.
Lessons From Remote Week
1. For larger meetings, you need a facilitator.
For meetings on the larger side, it can be a real challenge to ensure everyone’s voice gets heard. Everyone is talking, side conversations happen between people in different locations, and before you know it the meeting is over and you didn’t get the chance to weigh in on the discussion.
This is where the team facilitator comes in. The job of the facilitator is twofold: 1) Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk. 2) Recognize when side conversations happen so you can make sure these are shared with the full group.
To make sure everyone gets a chance to talk, it’s important to notice when someone is trying to get a word in and keeps getting overlooked. A good way to spot this is to have the facilitator keep a lookout for “the goldfish face”: the face someone makes when they keep opening and closing their mouth before they get the chance to actually say anything. By having a facilitator picking up on this and prompting participants to speak in turn, the issue can be eliminated.
Another issue with large remote meetings is side conversations that happen with people in the same location. For example, my team is spread out across Cambridge and Dublin. There are often side conversations that go on between the teams in Cambridge and Dublin by muting the call to say something to their colleague sitting next to them.
One effective way that we learned to solve this is making everyone go in a different room (even if they are in the same location) to give everyone a fair chance to speak and to make sure these side conversations derail the main discussion.
2. Take advantage of spontaneous discussions.
When you are physically in the same location as your colleagues, you have the opportunity for spontaneous conversations throughout the day. Whether it’s a morning recap of the latest Game of Thrones episode, or a quick chat to hash out the details of a problem that couldn’t be solved over email, these unplanned face-to-face meetings bring us closer to our colleagues and help us discover new perspectives.
During our remote week, we knew we needed a way to recreate the beauty of these spontaneous conversations. In practice, it takes a bit of effort. It means you have to be open to a quick, unplanned video call or an instant messenger chat to answer a question or clarify the details of an email.
“When working remotely I used Slack in a different way than I have before. When I’m in the office, I use the messaging software to get the info that I need to know to help me do my job. When I worked remotely for a week I used it to build rapport, check-in casually with people about how their week was going and connect with my co-workers in a very informal way,” says Andrea Attard, Senior Team Manager of Partner Acquisition Marketing.
“What I learned was Slack is just as good as in-person desk chat. At times even better because in person you can’t use funny GIFs,” Attard adds.
We also are big proponents of recording a quick video over Loom to communicate something when your team isn’t all available for a live call. In fact, I’ve woken up to many Loom recordings from my team in Dublin to explain a detailed analysis or the latest experiment they wanted to run.
Having regular, open communication like this is key to avoiding any miscommunications and making sure your team still feels like a unit even if they do not see each other face to face.
3. Find your ideal routine, and stick to it.
In the morning I wake up, shower, get dressed, walk my dog, and catch the bus. I get to work, make my tea, do some morning reading, respond to emails, and start my day. I have my morning routine, and I have another routine at the end of the day to wrap up.
We are creatures of habit — having a clear routine gives us structure and enables us to be productive. And that’s doubly true for remote workers.
At the beginning of Remote Week a lot of us found that our routine was just off. We woke up and were unsure what to do next. Do we start responding to emails? Do we work on that next experiment? Do we make breakfast? Workout? What do we do first? At the end of the day, we had the same conundrum. When do we stop working? Should we have dinner, and then go back to work?
During the week-long experiment, my colleague Henni Roini, a HubSpot marketing manager, focused on structuring her work in order to prevent running into the questions above.
“Creating structure is critical when working remotely,” Roini says. “I tend to block times in my calendar for work, lunch and personal activities, and then actually sticking to them to the best of my ability. Without structure, you end up losing your work-life balance.”
Even when you work remotely and don’t have to get into the office by a certain time, it’s still important to have a routine. Though it took us all a couple of days to figure out how to structure our time during Remote Week, we eventually all figured out our own individual rhythms to ensure we were getting our work done without burning out.
4. Remain visible within your team even if you aren’t actually visible.
If you are one of the only remote workers on your team, it can be easy to get heads down on your work and lose out on the regular communication that goes on with the rest of the team. Something that our team became very aware of during Remote Week was finding a way to remain available and visible to our colleagues even when we weren’t directly in touch.
There are a couple of key you can stay on your team’s radar, even when you’re not in sight. One of them is through participation in team meetings. When you’re remote, it’s extremely important to speak up and share your thoughts during big discussions.
Another way to remain visible is to participate in group discussions over chat. At HubSpot we use Slack for our communications, and have cross-team channels devoted to everything from work-related projects to out-of-office interests, like yoga and dogs. It’s easy to not participate in those discussions, but it’s way more rewarding and valuable to share your ideas, the latest interesting article you read, or even what you did that weekend.
Even if you can’t be physically visible in the office, it’s important to stay visible within the organization.
5. Ensure that you have a working internet connection.
I saved the best, and arguably most important, for last. Ensuring you have the proper technology to do your job and stay in touch with colleagues is absolutely essential. It can be frustrating for everyone involved if all of a sudden your computer freezes, or your internet crashes and your call is disconnected. And you know that always happens when its least convenient.
Before you plan to work remotely (even if it’s just for a day), test out the locations you plan to call in from. If you are working from home, make sure that you have a strong WiFi connection. Test it out with a friend or colleague ahead of time to make sure you’ll be able to get your job done effectively and stay in touch with the necessary people.
If you think you might want to journey to an alternative location during your remote work week, test that out as well. I encourage my team to test out new coffee shops they want to work from during lower-stakes meetings — like 1:1s with their manager — instead of waiting until a larger team meeting. This reduces the danger of your technical difficulties impacting more people.
As you’re getting your remote setup ready, figure out if you need other tech besides WiFi. Having a second monitor at home for example can help increase your efficiency. Having a standing desk is another way to make sure you get to move around during the day.
5. Ensure you’re working in a productive workspace.
While many might think that it’s relaxing or easier to work from home, many of our in-office teammates discovered how hard it can be to work remotely without distractions.
For this reason, many of our teammates suggest putting together a productive remote work space if you plan to make working from home a regular habit.
“Be deliberate about the work you need to do and what’s the most conducive setup for it,” says Connor Cirillo, a senior conversational marketing manager.
“On days where you’re doing solo projects, heading to a cafe and popping on headphones might work well. But when you have five hours of back-to-back calls, being in public may not be an option,” Cirillo adds. “If you’re working remote, give your calendar a read-through before each day gets going. Bucket the work you need to do and then ask yourself the best place to be to do it.”
While people who work remote full-time might already have a dedicated work area or office in a quiet space of their home, some of our in-office team members have realized how hard it can be to find the perfect spot for work.
“When I occasionally working remotely when my role began at HubSpot, I had to try a few different setups before I found one that worked for me,” says Pam Bump, the HubSpot Blog’s Audience Growth Manager. “One area of my apartment had a low internet signal, the couch was too close to a window that looked out to a noisy street, and working in my kitchen just reminded me of all the chores I needed to do.”
“Ultimately, I placed a desk in my quiet bedroom,” Bump says. “Then, after hearing that some of my full-time in-office colleagues ran into this exact problem during their remote work week, I was so happy that I was able to facilitate a workspace before the experiment began.”
6. If you’re a manager, plan inclusive team activities.
One thing some of us found when working remotely was that you can feel quite isolated, lonely, or out of the loop really quickly. As a team member, or team manager, it can be helpful to come up with activities or icebreakers that help your team bond virtually while still including everyone.
“We often remind managers that it truly is the little things that can make a difference in allowing a remote employee to feel included,” says Siobhán McGinty, a Principle Marketing Manager.
“That feeling of inclusion can make such a difference to employee retention, happiness, and performance — so the little things actually matter quite a lot,” McGinty adds. “During remote week, we heard lots of examples of how managers and teams go above and beyond in ensuring the that their remote counterparts are included in the day-to-day.”
Here are some examples that McGinty shares:
- Sending e-birthday cards with messages from everyone on the team included on them.
- If there’s a team meeting where everyone is going to be eating food that’s been ordered to the office, encourage remote employees to order. Then, expense the food delivery if you can. Similarly, you can also offer to expense food if your remote employees have to attend a meeting that’s late in their time-zone but during office-hours in your own.
- Organizing a virtual or physical gift exchange that’s planned ahead so remote employees can send items through the mail.
- Sending flowers to employees who are sick or going through a tough time, while encouraging them to silence work notifications to focus on themselves. This is because mentally stepping away from work can be especially challenging when you already work remote.
- Celebrating life events — including baby showers, birthdays, and wedding announcements — in conference rooms that remote teammates can call into.
Lastly, if you’re a manager, McGinty says you should, “ensure that you’re inclusive when it comes to in-office initiatives.”
“For example, we celebrated HEART week recently at HubSpot and rolled out a number of exciting events that our remote workforce could dial into. We also sent them a HEART pack with some little gifts,” McGinty explains.
Taking Remote Week Back to the Office
Remote Week was a fantastic experience for the team. It gave us a unique opportunity to put ourselves in our teammates’ shoes and truly understand the pros and cons of remote work.
Since this experience, we’ve learned to be more collaborative with our remote counterparts, make sure everyone has a voice in team meetings, and be more flexible when hoping on a quick video chat with a remote colleague. The next time you interact with a remote colleague, remember these lessons to ensure you build a productive and collaborative environment for your team and co-workers, no matter where they work.
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