Best practices, tips, and tools for quickly and effectively adapting to working from home and managing work-life balance during COVID-19
By Dr Andrea Olguin
The spread of COVID-19 has urged companies all around the globe to work from home with very short notice. At AI tech startup Intellegens (Cambridge, UK), it was decided that we should all work from home to safeguard our community’s health. From one day to the next, the company swiftly transitioned from an office environment to a home setup.
Now we know that such efforts will need to be sustained for weeks or months— or at least until we have a clearer idea of how the pandemic evolves. Essential meetings will either be cancelled or become video conferences and the non-essential ones will become emails.
In light of COVID-19, enforced remote working will enlighten companies — both managers and employees — on a few key things:
- Meetings that could’ve been emails
- Flexible working — not everyone is productive from 9 to 5
- Change in mindset — work is not a place, it’s something you do
- A shift from a time-driven or presence-driven to a trust-only work environment
Is remote work the future of employment?
The short answer is yes. Teams are becoming more dynamic and work is more distributed every day. Employers are recognizing the benefits of hiring globally — some of these include cost reductions, hiring top talent, higher employee retention, and environmental sustainability.
Flexible schedules contribute to work-life balance and an increase in productivity. Being able to work remotely also influences loyalty towards the employer — boosting employee satisfaction and retention.
Technology now enables most companies to go remote — especially tech companies. Modern teams use a combination of messengers such as Slack, email, video conferencing, cloud documents and project management software to efficiently stay in touch and continue working collaboratively.
A recent report on remote working published by GitLab, debunked some remote working myths. Findings show that 38% of remote workers saw the absence of commute as a top benefit and used that time instead for a variety of different things including family, resting, exercising and working. Moreover, 52% of employees found themselves to be more productive and 48% to be more efficient when working remotely.
A guide to remote working for tech startups
Even though enforced remote working due to coronavirus is different, some aspects are still the same. Below are some tips that have worked for the team while working for AI tech startup Intellegens.
1. Daily standups in the morning
Every morning we do daily standups at 9.30 am via Google Hangouts. Each member of our team (11 of us) gets the opportunity to tell the rest of us what she or he wants to accomplish on that day.
This gives us the chance to ask questions and get the ball rolling early on. The face-to-face also allows us to address everyone at the same time and gives us a good overview of what’s happening at the company level.
If any issues are raised — these are resolved immediately by either setting up additional meetings with the relevant team members for later in the day or staying on the call with those you want to talk to.
A virtual agile working environment ensures daily goals are set and met, and issues are raised early rather than later.
On Friday afternoons we also have a “Retrospective” video call with the team. We look at the achievements and pitfalls of the week and reflect on what could be done better.
As employees, this also gives us a chance to showcase everything that we have achieved and raise any issues that we have spotted in hindsight.
2. Set up a work environment and an “office” time
The top concern for many managers about having employees working remotely is productivity. Are remote workers just watching movies or doing laundry while pretending to be online? For tech startups, that is rarely the case. Employees working for small companies are pretty much independent, and daily tasks go beyond the scope of their role. There is no time to waste!
It is important to set up a good working space — which ideally includes an ergonomic chair. Free yourself from distractions, and assume that anything that can interupt you, will.
At Intellegens, some colleagues follow the Pomodoro technique, while others self-manage and do what works best for them. After an adjustment period, you will know what environment and schedule works best for your productivity.
Communication is key — and possibly the hardest part of running a company. It is important for everyone to know the company’s vision and mission, how things are going, and what their impact should be.
At Intellegens, we schedule 1:1 meetings on a weekly basis to connect with goals, upcoming projects and daily tasks. We use tools like Jira and Trello for agile project management, and Slack for daily communications.
Our team members often change their statuses on Slack — this is useful notify others of what they are up to, when they are around, or when they are not available. We aim to respond to emails and calls promptly —because we are no longer bumping into each other at work, we don’t have the same opportunity for the occasional chat and human interaction. Make sure to talk to your colleagues about something other than work and check up on their wellbeing.
4. Take time for self-care
Don’t forget to schedule a lunch break and rest breaks. It is important to stand up every once in a while to stretch your legs and get the blood flowing.
During COVID-19, many of our usual leisure activities will be innaccessible, therefore it is important to replace them or adopt a version of that activity at home.
There are countless of online workout videos, ranging from yoga to HIIT that you can follow with the click of a mouse. It is important to involve other types of leisure activities, such as video chatting with friends and family, reading, watching movies or series, or just resting.
At Intellegens, we have a dedicated Slack #channel for non-work stuff, where we share random news, play games, and talk to each other about anything we want.
Social isolation does not equal social deprivation. Make sure to get your dose of human contact, albeit virtually, and check up on your colleagues to make sure they’re coping well in the new setup.
5. Know when to “log-off”
Not being able to separate the home environment from the work environment can make it harder for people to know when to stop. It is important to get into a habit of officially “logging off” for the evening.
The best part about working remotely is having the flexibility of working when you feel you are most productive — just be careful about setting the standard that you are available non-stop, 24/7.
6. It’s all about trust
If managers can’t trust their team to do what they should be doing without them standing over their shoulder, they’ve hired the wrong team. That’s not a process problem, it’s a people problem.
This ties back to point #3: Over-communicate. Work is about conversation — teams are working together towards a common goal. Set expectations clearly and avoid monitoring your team every step of the way.
As a manager, make sure to ask your team if they need of anything. As an employee — communicate your needs to your manager early rather than later.
Problems for the R&D sector
As a tech company, everything we do is software related. But it’s not as easy for everyone out there. For many companies, sending employees home is not an option —with the Research and Development sector facing a particular challenge. Labs are being closed down, making it increasingly difficult for scientists and engineers to carry out their planned physical experiments.
Technology has come a long way — there is available software that can enable remote working for those in R&D.
At Intellegens, we are seeking to support those organizations that are struggling with their experiments. By enabling ‘virtual experiments’ through our machine learning software tool, we are supporting the R&D sector in different industries including but not limited to advanced materials, chemicals, and drug discovery.
The unique algorithm embedded in this tool is able to predict property-property correlations in very sparse and noisy datasets. It provides you with a good understanding of the landscape and guides you to the experiments that will yield the best results.
At Intellegens, our mission is to facilitate remote working for everyone, even those who don’t think that remote work is possible.
As any founder knows, the success of a startup is critically dependent on having a skilled and motivated team. At Intellegens we have been lucky enough to find a group of talented and driven individuals that can work together to help us deliver on our vision. Whilst the current situation is both worrying and unclear, a team with the right mindset, attitude and support should easily be able to adapt and deliver wherever they are working.
— Ben Pellegrini, CEO @ Intellegens
COVID-19 is bound to change how we perceive what it means to be ‘at work’. Companies that weren’t already adopting a remote or hybrid-remote setup have been taken by surprise and have been quickly forced to adapt to new circumstances. With the right tools in place, most sectors will be able to embrace a fully functional remote setup.
Take home message
Everyone is having or will have a tough time working remotely while they self-isolate. Not being able to have the necessary work-life balance due to restrictions on social contact and leisure might affect teams in different ways. Make sure to communicate effectively, listen to your everyone’s needs, and set clear expectations from the start.
Managers are worried — how will they be able to maintain staff productivity and motivated at home? Employees are also concerned — how will they manage work-life balance if leisure activities are cut-off?
For many, the act of “going to work” is an important way to separate home from work life. Bringing work to the home environment might not be as easy as some people think.
At Intellegens, we believe that employees don’t need to be in the same location to produce their best work together. Like it or not, remote work is here to stay — and the quicker organizations adapt to this new way of life, the brighter their future.
By adopting some of these and other remote working tips, you can make the best out of the current situation with your team. Be sure to implement all the necessary software tools that are readily available for productive and collaborative work at home.
Want to learn more about how our software can support R&D? Click here.
For a more detailed overview of remote work, check out this report published by GitLab: https://about.gitlab.com/remote-work-report/
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