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Like many companies, we find ourselves suddenly working fully remotely. I have found some of the guidance we've received seems to differ from articles I've read from people in my profession (software engineering) whose companies have always been fully remote. The always-remoters seem to emphasize thorough, asynchronous written communication, whereas we are being encouraged instead to do things like have multiple group video chats per day to "stay synchronized."

My question is should we be pushing back against this guidance, and encouraging a model closer to the always-remoters, or is being a covid-remote company fundamentally different in some way, and we should be trying to hold onto as much of the synchronous face-to-face model as possible? Or am I just misunderstanding how always-remote companies communicate, and their articles describe more of an ideal than what actually goes on day to day?

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I have been working remotely for the last five years. And I can say that the last week was totally different from any week before.

First of all, personally: Although I am an experienced remote worker, I was hardly able to focus on my work and I did very little progress during the last week. There are way more chats going on, because of uncertainty, people are stressed and worried. Video-conferencing tools do not work as reliable as usual. This is not normal!

When you started working remotely last week for the first time, do not think that this is how remote work actually is. It is not. When you feel unproductive then it is not because of working remotely, it is because of the current situation.

Second, culture: It highly depends on various factors if remote works for your company and if the employees are productive in a remote setup. Some things can be controlled by the company (providing tools, how to communicate) others depend on the employee and their environment (their home office setup).

Usually, it takes several months to build a great, effective remote work environment. Because you need to figure out a lot of things: Tools to use (video conferencing, file sharing), how and when to communicate, to read between the line when you are not in the same room and cannot come together easily at a whiteboard or at the watercooler.

And then there are the obvious troubles:

  • Usually, I am alone when working remotely. Now my child and my wife are around too. They are stressed and worried too and need attention.
  • I have a dedicated office in my home that is well equipped and it took years to come up with its setup. I am pretty sure people starting to work remote out of a sudden do not have such a room in their home.
  • I tried and learn about many different tools during the years. Not all tools work for all environments. There is – for example – not the best tool for conference calls. You need to find the tool that works best for your team size, your internet connection, your type of communication. I use different tools for one-on-ones than for planing sessions or for pair programming. Finding the right tools, to set them up and to learn how to use them takes a lot of time.

To answer your question: Covid-remote and always-remote are totally different because covid-remote workers had no time to prepare, to learn and to adapt. IMO it is still a good idea to look into articles on how always-remote companies work and what tools they use. But not to change your whole process but to get ideas about what to try.

My advice is to start wherever you are. And work in very small steps forward, communicate a lot with your co-workers. And when you notice something that is not working for you and your team then try to change that – for example, try a different tool the next time or change a process. Then observe if that changed something for the better and repeat. Do not change too much at the same time.

Do not try to go full asynchronously from day one. At the moment communication is very important because we are human and we are worried. Take your time.

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    So much good content in this answer, clearly coming from experience. Couldn't agree more. – Alex M Mar 20 at 18:04
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    Wait. What? I usually work from office. And this week I was a few times more productive than at the office (just like when I work from home when I need it). And that despite the suboptimal arrangements - the room, the chair, the desk, etc. – Grzegorz Oledzki Mar 20 at 20:30
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    Another thing making it unusually hard even for many experienced work-from-homers is the lack of any kind of childcare. Even if you don't have children yourself, you can easily find yourself having to deal with your interactions being punctuated by other people's children. Vidconfs are super important for some folks to maintain human connection during this time, but asynchronous communication is needed to help people with unschedulable home responsibilities. – kojiro Mar 20 at 23:30
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    Great answer. I've been in virtual teams for nearly a decade, and I'm generally a big fan of async communication. I still use it, but I've now added a lot of video check-ins for the sort of reasons that you describe - lots of staff who are not used to teleworking and maybe not suited to it, now going to it suddenly under difficult circumstances. – Geoffrey Brent Mar 21 at 0:35
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    @user7761803: It's not just human interaction, it's communication styles. Some people - I'm perhaps an extreme case - communicate much better in writing than they do verbally, others are just the opposite. – jamesqf Mar 21 at 17:37
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Guidance is guidance. It's not a rulebook.

If leadership at the company was inclined to follow guidelines regarding always-remote practices, that would have happened before COVID-19.

COVID-19 provides a challenging environment where many companies are operating in ways they haven't previously. Systems and structures are tailored for a particular model of operating, and remote work may not be conducive to that.

What most companies don't need are people "pushing back" against changes in process, and instead need their people to work with them to find a way through this.

Every company right now is trying to find a way forward that makes sense for them. It's not helpful to lump them into two buckets "always-remote" and "COVID-remote", and instead treat each company as having particular needs.

Also, you need to consider that for many people they didn't "sign up" for remote work. Some people are used to human interaction. Many managers are used to working with their people in a certain way.

If there is a cultural shift in a company, it will take time. No point in adding to the stress of the situation by trying to follow guidelines for the sake of them. But there is a lot of worth in looking at the guidelines and working with the company to help identify why they exist, and why they MAY be useful.

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  • Or to evaluate them, work what does not work for you and establish other guidelines... – Solar Mike Mar 20 at 5:02
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It is not the one or the other.

Each channel has its own merits and should be used appropriate.

This is what I learned in 2001 when I was supporting an expense reimbursement application for all European employees of HP and what I apply now as a covid remote worker.

Hearing (and seeing) each other is the best way to create connection, especially for people that have limited experience with remote working, but when you hang up, you already forgot the details.

Asynchronous communication is the best way to be specific when giving details or orders, but it is very difficult to estimate whether you have buy in.

Chat is very productive to collaborate if you need to lookup or try out things during the conversation. You don't need to give attention to the other when (s)he is working alone and the history can be saved (and is saved by default in some tools).

Looking at the same window is essential to discuss screen layouts or spread sheets and can be combined both with voice or chat.

Showing a presentation is a powerful tool to take the lead and explain your view/perception on the matter.

Presentations are great, but or either cluttered or incomplete. To launch ideas, it is sufficient to explain them, but if people need to remember the details, write them down in a mail, a document or as comment under the slides.

Often, your communication has persistent value. An idea you share with your pears becomes a proposal towards management, becomes a plan. If you work remotely, you probably have the infrastructure to organise your documentation accordingly (Wiki, Confluence, Lotus Notes, Sharepoint, ...).

Choose the one that is fit for purpose

If you need to give much details and you know the receiver of the message well enough to know what (s)he understands, write a mail. If buy in is not evident, propose to chat or call about it afterwards.

If you have no idea how the message Wil be perceived or how the other can help you, choose an interactive channel, preferably none which allows non verbal communication.

If you have a meeting with more the 2 participants, you either need to see who is speaking or have the discipline to start each interaction by calling your name. Above 5 participants, someone must assertively lead the meeting.

Especially if you are working in different time zones or your company culture allows working when it suites you: share as much as possible in well-structured online tools (Wiki, ...)

Have a balanced mix.

You better hear each other sometimes if you have to be creative together or to build consensus.

Multiple Skype meetings a day will discourage you to write clear, well-structured instructions and requests. For that you need asynchronous communication.

You need to share visual information, but first ask yourself if you will complement it with a well-structured explanation or an interactive discovery.

Often, the right solution is to communicate the details that matter in a mail before you Skype.

It is also good to summarize what is agreed upon orally in a mail. Who sends the mail should depends on the situation, not on the leadership style.

  • A to-do list is best sent by the person doing the request.
  • A complex engagement is best sent by the person fulfilling the request, so you can verify the request is well understood and the solution will be effective.

Covid Vs always remote

There should not be a difference, but there is.

  • People are reluctant to change their habits because they didn't choose to, because they are not convinced it will work anyway or because they know it is temporary. Therefore they either let go and accept inefficiency or mimic the old situation with an overdose of online meetings.
  • If you are working always remote, you are probably used to well structured online documentation (Wiki, ...). If you work remote for Covid, you might have physical files, waiting to be completed once you are back. However, you probably have online documentation tools implemented, but not used consequently. Then Covid is an opportunity to improve your team habits.

Good luck.

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    This. You have multiple tools at your disposal, use the best one for each requirement, as before -- you'd visit people at their desks, call them or write memos that are put into binders, depending on what the goal is. Same for remote work -- you'd use a wiki instead of a binder, but "things everyone needs to refer to" is basically the same requirement as before. – Simon Richter Mar 22 at 13:13
  • Thanks for mentioning wiki's, or more general: electronic documentation. I will edit my answer to mention it. – Dirk Horsten Mar 23 at 10:30
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Most articles on full-time remote that are shared by the always-remoters are completely employee oriented and the freedom it gives to employees. In my observations as a developer, it takes a significant amount of organisational effort and support to structure work in a manner that supports asynchronous working style professed by the always-remoters.

The current remote/work from home is not organisational driven per se, but by an externality of virus beyond the control of anyone which is forcing everyone to go remote. My personal opinion is that most companies as of today will not appreciate the value of always-remote and will want to revert to workplace settings. This could be further accentuated by factors such as nature of the work itself, confidentiality, how the organisation has historically operated, cultural practices etc.

For example, many agile practitioners advocate against geographically distributed scrum teams, and similarly, it is hard to find WFH policies in major banks, defence etc.

My question is should we be pushing back against this guidance

My suggestion would be: Don't push back, let it evolve and keep providing constructive feedback along the way. Making remote a first-class citizen can require a huge effort on behalf of the management team, and may not be an immediate goal.

When the wins of remote are more apparent to those in leadership positions (which takes time), you can expect the culture to steadily shift towards supporting such practices in general.

Also, strong communication is the key to any effective workplace, and while multiple group chats might seem an exhausting situation initially, you can expect the group chats to normalise slowly. If you still feel exhausted, try group video calls for syncing up faster.

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  • "Don't push back, let it evolve", indeed, but mention in your online meetings, the other, more written, more persistent communication you had and why it was effective, so the others can learn from it. – Dirk Horsten Apr 9 at 7:43
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While I agree with some answers, I think one crucial aspect is still missing:

Always remote companies that appear in such articles chose to be always remote. They not only chose to do so, they survived and likely flourished. Full on asynchronous remote work works well for them. That does not mean it works the same for others with potentially totally different business models and challenges.

Likely those always-remote companies chose that work model precisely because it matches well with their business model. Now these other companies for whom this may well not match so well need to find a way to work remote without sacrificing their important abilities. Which may be reliant on fast and frequent synchronisation. So when you point out that some approach worked for another company, you need to look exactly at how they used it and what they wanted to achieve with it. Maybe for some parts you can argue to do it their ways but for others another way is necessary.

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or is being a covid-remote company fundamentally different in some way

Yes, it's only a temporary measure, quite often one that hasn't been done before.

My question is should we be pushing back against this guidance, and encouraging a model closer to the always-remoters, or is being a covid-remote company fundamentally different in some way

It's fundamentally different. So, no, there is no reason to push back based on a totally different scenario.

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should we be pushing back against this guidance, and encouraging a model closer to the always-remoters

There is no one model that works for all companies, in all circumstances. Each company's culture is different, expectations are different, needs are different.

Right now you don't have any data to back up a push against your company's guidance.

So go with whatever it is your company suggests. Try not to be skeptical. Give it your best efforts to make it work.

If it doesn't work out, only then push back for changes to the model.

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There are many answers already but perhaps my experience is still helpful, as I am working from home at least some days too.

The main difference between video and chat is when and how you and others are distracted.

Video/Audio conference is exciting to do for the first time.
To do a remote team meeting once a day it's great. You hear and see others, you can discuss subjects live, everyone knows what you say without a written protocol.
Then you probably see there is no real benefit in seeing everyone sitting on a chair, listening and sometimes speaking. Depending on your internet connection you might want to spend bandwidth for good audio only instead.
You will also notice establishing a conference (video/audio) for every little question or information is time consuming and kicks everyone out of what they are doing. A couple of such interrupts each day and noone would get work done.

In chat you write your question when you feel like, the other one can finish work to a good moment to interrupt, answer your question and go back to work.
Written responses normally are better quality because the author can take time to explain or describe. The reader can read again, without having to ask once more.

That means, no rules - do what you need

Perhaps you will find yourself suggesting a conference or a one-to-one phone call.

Perhaps you will deny a request for a conference because you can write see document x, then do y and z faster than even plugging in your headset.

And I'd bet you will find yourself even not reading a chat message immediately, because you experience that too much synchronizing with others doesn't leave time to get your actual work done.
Don't underestimate that.
The always-remoters know why they appreciate asynchroneous communication.

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I cannot talk much about always remote as I have never done it. In fact, until last week, remote work was something that only very few at my company did at all (and those only occasionally). Going from basically full n-site to full remote in a single day, we ran into some issues that for sure would be different if we were doing remote work more planned.

  • You would have your machine with you. Sounds obvious, but we are having those huge desktop PCs at work. At the moment we are all remote desktoping on them. I am still waiting for the first power outage, bringing everything to a halt.
  • We need to remote desktop on it because while we technically have a VPN into our network, it turned out that being on VPN and being on intranet is not the same thing. Some servers simply were not accessible with my machine at home. Of course, with everyone working remote, nobody wants to change firewall rules and break something really hard.
  • The whole setup of the workplace. Not everybody has a webcam and I find it really hard to follow a a phone conference while staring at a picture of someone. If you have webcams, they are often not placed well with regards to light and angle. My desk only at home is smaller than that at work and I am still struggling to fit everything onto it in a way that I do not dump my coffee onto anything. My desk at work is height-adjustable while the one at home is not. Internet connections for some people are rather slow for the way we work.
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  • I hope your company has a good (or any) UPS in place ;-) – seventyeightist Mar 21 at 19:25
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    @seventyeightist they couldn't configure a VPN properly, I doubt their UPSes are any better ;-( – Aaron F Mar 21 at 19:53
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    @AaronF I wonder which is more complicated/complex to set up actually? – seventyeightist Mar 21 at 20:17
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    Well, we have a UPS but I think it is only for the internal servers not for the workstations. If the power is out, somebody will have to go to the office and start all machines. Fortunately most of the company lives nearby. And on the VPN issue... Sometimes you only notice issues when you actually have the first machine working externally. It is definitely on the list of things to be fixed once everything is normal again – Manziel Mar 21 at 20:25
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    @seventyeightist for me it's definitely the UPS - I would really mess that up I'm sure! Manziel, I completely understand - I've misconfigured remote access myself a lot of times. Regarding that, you could set up a reverse SSH connection from an office machine to a home machine on a timer as a failsafe in case the firewall is misconfigured while trying to fix the issue. – Aaron F Mar 21 at 21:06

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