March 12, 2020
At RedCarpet, we were one of the first companies in India to switch to full work from home across the company - ops, customer service, finance, engineering and C-suite.
We are now in our second week and running at 100% throughput.
I get asked about learnings and how to build a playbook around it. Here are some of my learnings.
Let's get one thing out of the way - remote/WFH is hard. Much harder than working from multiple offices. We chose to enable a remote work culture long back for many other reasons - culture being one of them. We wanted to build a work culture centred around personal freedom and accountability. However, doing this is hard.
For the corona response, the first in-depth conversations about policy/response began Sunday, March 01. One of the important things we noted was the rate of growth of the infection. Clearly it was DDOS-ing public health infrastructure. Over the next few days, it became clear that the situation was going to get much worse very fast.
We knew that we needed to take a decision and quickly - so we decided to switch to full remote. One of the big reasons to do so was not innate knowledge about the virus itself, but simply that we still had time to make mistakes.
From March 01 to March 04 - the entire team started structuring dry runs for the teams that would struggle the most: customer service, collections and finance. Particularly because of the second reason.
One of the mistaken beliefs about remote work is that the operators stop doing work - the actual developers, call centre workers, etc. The truth is that the first to falter is middle management - because feedback loops are generally in-person. So the entire chain of command collapses middle to up. This needs time to stabilize. But most important is the awareness that the responsibility will be carried by management and not operators. The secondary repercussion of not understanding this is that operators get crushed under additional micro-management - i have seen people create hourly checkins, etc suddenly. If you were never doing this in the first place..then doing it now will crush morale. Dont do it. Realize that the break down is at management level - ask them to create new reports, read code checkins proactively, etc. Anything but try and shift the onus down the line.
The single biggest contributor to an effective remote work system is a culture of writing. Enough has been written on this - call it the Bezos memo or 6-page memo ..originally outlined in a 2004 email. We are a bit more scientific - at RedCarpet we base it on the Minto-pyramid or the SCQA style of writing. There are many other formats of writing - the most recent is Gokul Rajaram's SPADE toolkit .. choose your own.
The important thing is to commit to this all the way from the top and make it extremely low effort to do something like this.
For example, at RedCarpet we have a slack channel called #memo where we publish our SCQA style memos. It ensures extremely low cognitive load and high searchability - im pretty sure there are nice tools for this... but we wanted the culture of writing to exist with the culture of asynchronous collaboration. Slack worked well for this.
The consequence of this is that decision making moves away from meetings to memos. Thoughts are captured in memos rather than discussions. This is a massive cultural shift - and is not easy. But one of the most important steps to a remote working culture.
The hardest for the last - figure out how to have fun. I see in all the playbooks, nobody talks about this. All the talk about "culture" gets ignored when push comes to shove ? Culture is people and relationships. And remote/wfh makes this super hard. And most teams do not dedicate time for this.
As soon as RedCarpet moved to full remote, one of our biggest focus was to preserve our culture, relationships and have lots of fun. Mental health was a big focus as people would be self-quarantined in their homes. One the eve of our going remote, various teams spun up different channels on telegram/whatsapp/slack and began to swarm to handle the big changes. Our HR teams lit up and switched to brainstorming a 6 week plan on having fun.
Fun schedules were made to overlap with the sense of being in office - there is a "Good Morning RedCarpet" everyday, followed by a "Lunchtime mini-contest" and a "chai pe charcha" . We use Swiggy to make sure we have a little sweet something for a winner each day within 60 minutes of it happening on chat channels.
And we have weekly fun friday plans - i honestly cant wait for this friday!
Going remote is tricky and challenging. Moreover when a large company has to do it in an emergency. However, it is the right thing to do - without prejudice or seniority. This is culture. Far more than tshirts ever will be.
One of the most important, yet easily forgotten aspects of WFH is rhythm and rituals - the sense of coming together to start a work day. And the most important part of this is having a clock. The importance of daily & weekly meetings cannot be overstated - one of the missed aspects of WFH is how weekends merge into weekdays. It is essential to have a Monday morning all hands. Or the sense of the start of a work week is entirely lost. If you have friday all hands - i would strongly advise to move to Monday morning. Its the signal of the start of something happening together.
Make video mandatory. For every call and every meeting. Remember WFH loses the sense of touch, sound and smell. Dont lose sight of each other. What you will notice is that everyone switches off video for office calls. Because most likely they are in pyjamas (who isnt). Now this works fine in normal office-working circumstances when you want to let go, but in extended WFH situations this results in serious isolation even without realising it. What we do additionally is have our HR do random 1:1 video calls with people - know that there is another human out there. This leads into another point;
As a leader (whether a small team or a C-suite), you need to do one on ones. You need to make sure that people know that you are there for them. This is a very important anti-isolation measure that was lost on me earlier. I have heard inane examples of some companies making it mandatory for employees to check in every hour as "attendance" - this is not it. A one-on-one is an outreach from a leader to individual team members. It is the exact opposite of "I'm watching you". In fact, I strongly advise against talking about work deliverables in this call, unless it is a point of concern for your team member. Work measurement should happen in your regular team meetings/retrospectives. As a CTO, I find remote one-on-ones very challenging. Because there is an aspect of body language that goes missing and I find myself blindsided. In fact, one-on-ones is one of the places where I can claim that WFH sucks scientifically.
And if you still havent gone full WFH..then you suck.
This was a very interesting observation from David Baga (COO LSVP and ex-Lyft CBO). You need to build a way to reflect the way communication happens in a workplace. What we often fail to realise is that Slack is always additive to real world conversations. So typical usage of Slack ends up being broadcast based messages. But when you entirely switch to Slack WFH, you need to build breakout rooms for people who are working on any small project. Learning from David & Lyft - we make short lived slack channels where even people involved in small decisions discuss. Now this may seem wasteful and too confusing - but it might make it easier to digest if i say that im replacing email threads with slack rooms or for hackers out here we are bringing git's cheap branching model to slack. Earlier we had broader rooms like #android or #api, now we have bunch of rooms like #rbi-moratorium-fixes. Remember that you should archive these rooms after done with the feature/experiment/idea - dont keep them lying around. Tying to my previous point about a writing culture, each slack channel basically corresponds to a memo.
Funnily enough, its a great jugaad hack to make slack more thoughtful and reduce those pesky Zoom calls! DHH would be proud.
Be conscious of the fact that your team will be undergoing varying degrees of anxiety. Even if they dont show it or are brave about it. Drop in productivity is one of the clues here.. but also general silence. Reluctance to talk about anything interesting, etc. Be also mindful of the fact that you yourself will be going through similar anxiety. How do you deal with it ? with vulnerability. People feel safe around families ..not because the other person can swim oceans, but because you sink together. The simple notion of shared fear is far far more comforting than fake laughter.
There is one another way....
Working out is a brilliant way to reduce anxiety and loneliness. The Shaolin monks were onto something. And shared workouts are an even better way. Make it simple. We have done "100 pushup days" here ..among other stuff. For leaders, it is a great way to annoy people. I love irritating people with pushup videos set to gopro action music. Protip : use a cool app like GoPro Quik to make these videos. Feel free to ping people for pushup status updates every half hour. Micromanage much ?
This blog was authored by Sandeep Srinivasa