Remote Work Best Practices Implemented by Lean Startup Methodology

Recently promoted to remote work?  Finally got your corner office with a view.  Only the view is of your yard and/or your neighbor’s car parked in front of your place.  Sure.  Promoted.

Maybe not ideal but pausing for gratitude acknowledges that you’re grateful to still be working during this time (a lot of people can’t say the same).  Still though it’s a different reality.  Shaking off your glazed over eyes while staring at a house plant or pillow on the floor is a thing, a real thing…. several times a day.  Going to the office, not so sexy anymore!

While engagement in politics and race relations might be at all-time highs, engagement with work, more specifically remote work, is entering unchartered territory too.  Facebook recently announced its projections – at least 50% of its 45,000+ workforce will start to work remotely in the next 5 to 10 years.   Want to work from home forever?  Twitter already has a career path for you.  In fact, experts project the remote workforce could soar as high as 20% to 30% over the next decade.

In a previous blog, Lean Startup Methodology Applied to Remote Work, I outlined a Lean approach to support the remote work transition.   This blog will dig much deeper applying the same approach to a compiled interdisciplinary list of remote work best practices.  To review, the Lean approach first calls for a startup like mindset adopting Agile principles that embrace uncertainty, change, adaptability, constant feedback, incremental growth, and continuous improvement.  Translating principles into practices is the adoption of a specific Lean methodology, Build-Measure-Learn, that is iterative, incremental, and Agile in nature.  Rebranding the approach, this Lean Remote Work Optimization methodology has one primary goal:  continuous improvement for how remote work is done.  This means exchanging waste, redundancy, risk, and uncertainty for optimized value, peak performance, and a thriving work culture.

So how do you transform your organization into your own Lean Remote Startup?  You’ve got to think like a startup – stay true to your vision and company values, but adhere to innovation, creativity, failing fast, and pivoting to growth and customer (remote worker) demand.  By applying the Lean Remote Work Optimization methodology in short iterative increments, similar to Agile Sprints, you can break down your organization into six bite size pieces.  These six organizational components are listed below along with a sample of guiding questions and best practices to help you understand the role and inter-dependency of each:

  1. Structural Policies – Given the current overall company structures, values, and goals, determine and document the foundational policies for remote work
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • What type and/or percentage of work can be done remotely?
      • What are the required “business hours,” if any that you need to be online?
      • How do you manage employee issued devices (i.e. laptops), security, passwords, and data storage/loss?
    • Best Practices
      • Work Output Storage – Provide a secure centralized repository for work output and hold teams accountable for uniform folder organization and file version controls.
      • Train Managers – Provide managers with specific remote work management training and tools that optimize communication, accountability, productivity, and intrinsic motivation. Sounds obvious but often over-looked, don’t assume anything, otherwise you’ll be misaligned and piecemealing everything.
      • Scale Remote Work – Develop a remote first type of office environment mindset in every policy and decision you make allowing for your business to hire and grow beyond the geographical limitations.
  1. Behavioral Norms – Determine and document the human behavioral norms that drive productivity and accountability – communication, sharing, collaboration, how you show up – from basic meeting guidelines to expected response time to emails/texts
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • How often and what types of meetings should be standing meetings?
      • How is progress tracked, wins shared, challenges addressed each day/week?
      • How do you manage personal time during “business hours”?
    • Best Practices
      • Video Conferencing – Use video conferencing more than conference calling to improve communication, especially since most studies show non-verbal communication is 70% to 90% of communication. Video also helps get people out of their pajamas and into their new designated office space.  Lighten up the first few minutes of a video conference with a best background competition, I Spy…something in the background show and tell, themed best dressed, etc.  Just don’t waste the opportunity to turn dry and dull into the best rendition of Hollywood Squares.  People are feigning for human connection.
      • Paint Done – Agile Scrum practices call for asking the customer “What does done look like?” so that the development team gets its deliverable done right. Courageous leadership author, Brené Brown, takes it a step further asking her team to “Paint done for me.”  This allows for a deeper dialogue between requestor and workers, tying the deliverable to the purpose, “fostering curiosity, learning, collaboration, reality-checking, and ultimately success.”  At the office there are hundreds of opportunities to stop by, overhear, or clarify done, but with remote work it’s all too easy to get a request and go to your cave to complete.  Paint done every time.  Call a 5-minute video conference for checks and balances that could save dollars and days.
      • Separate Out Regular Check-ins and 1:1 Meetings – Managers checking in with direct reports should be two-fold. Think of the frequent standing check-ins as Agile Scrum stand-up meetings, a short 15 minutes, to address:  what did, what doing, how feeling, and impediment mitigation.  The less frequent 1:1s should be designed to allow for deeper dives about critical issues.  Once again, it’s about staying connected.  Don’t blow off the 15-minute meeting, Agile research has have proven more gets done in the long run with short iterations.
  1. Cultural Continuity – Be purposeful about building trust, the glue that holds everything together, determine and document cultural practices that bring everyone together to maximize performance and growth in a way that showcases diversity and autonomy while at the same time cohesiveness and continuity up and down the organization
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • How do we engage everyone and prevent people from feeling lonely, siloed, and/or under-valued?
      • How do you structure timely feedback from your manager?
      • How do you encourage and reward innovative continuous improvements to workflow processes and culture?
    • Best Practices
      • Implement Company Wide Chats – Eliminates emails, maintains historical threads; have several chat groups dedicated to specific needs and interests, formal and informal. At minimum have a chat for #CompanyWide announcements, another for #WorkingOn to post wins, questions, comments about current work for everyone to comment on, and another for informalities/leisure such as #SideBar.  Be creative, make responses asynchronous, and set standards for use as needed.
      • Increase the Positivity Ratio – Create a Teams/Slack channel that is dedicated to giving shout-outs to each other showing gratitude and appreciation; high performing organizations have shown to have the higher positive to negative ratios. Stack the positive, agree on a get one, give two shout-outs in return policy.  Highlight this channel in other meetings/calls for more wrap-around positive feedback.
      • Daily Coffee Break – Establish a daily standing video conference check-in as a team(s) and/or across departments, should be informal, yet structured in a way that drives the expectation that everyone has a chance to talk and share something important to them– work related or not.  Rotating a social chair or conversation starter can help drive interesting/fun facts and questions for engagement and ceremoniously open and close the meeting.  The “coffee break” is really an exercise in building trust – which hinges on building reliability and likeability, thus in time strengthening morale, connection, and commitment.   Keep it short, 15 minutes, AM or PM, and distribute talk time to everyone evenly.
  1. Tech Tools – Adopt tech tools that are intuitive and easy to use, reliable, improve productivity, simplify workflows, and encourage participation by all
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • How can tech tools bring more clarity and transparency to work being done to reduce the number of meetings required?
      • How can you reduce the “tech stack” of Apps so you reduce the number of Apps you have to go between to do your work each day?
      • Which of the dozens of tech tools out there would be best for my company?
    • Best Practices
      • Asynchronous Chat Groups, Less Email – Shift bulk email to chat groups for project teams that maintain a thread of project specific conversation to avoid getting lost in emails. These are governed by an asynchronous standardized culture with defined response times that are more recipient driven instead of immediate response and obligatory.  Asynchronous allows for convenience and helps avoid disruption.  And if drafting an email, Carnegie Melon research has shown that the shorter more concise call to action emails get answered faster.  No one reads the long emails, stop wordsmithing them.
      • Stay Organized, More Productive, Automate – Invest in a project management tool like Basecamp, Trello, Asana, ProofHub, or Zoho to name a few, to centralize everything you need to get projects done – message boards, to-do lists, schedules, document repository, Gantt charts, etc.
      • Decrease Interruptions – Tech should offer ability to silent notifications and block working hours for long stretches of deep work; studies have shown that countless interruptions increase stress and lower productivity
  1. Employee Wellness – Support a work-life balance that encourages activities and norms to restore energy and well-being and avoid burnout
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • How do you support differentiating between the workday and personal time?
      • What personal and organizational activities can be incorporated on a daily/weekly basis that breaks up and re-energize work?
      • How do you ensure Wellness doesn’t become a low priority after-thought?
    • Best Practices
      • Turn Off “Always On” – Multiple studies have indicated that the number one con for remote work is that people feel they need to be “always on”, so establish clear parameters for being on and off to avoid burnout and having to keep that green Microsoft Teams light on at all times.
      • Flexible Schedules – Develop workplace policies that allow for flexible workday schedules as needed if work being done does not require specific hour of the day schedules to be completed.
      • Avoid Burn-out – A recent 2018 Gallup poll showed that about 66% of workers experienced burnout. Add burnout as a topic of discussion for regular check-ins or between peer groups to “de-glorify” working too much and rebalance the workload before sick days or attrition set in.  This requires some courage to discuss, it’s not as simple as “Are you burnt out?”.  Daring leadership gets at the core of burn out which is grounded in shame and fear of not doing enough or even worse, not being enough.  Help individuals understand their worth and value, what they contribute, and how everyone can help one another grow.  At the end of the day, each remote worker is not a street performer hustling for a dollar, he/she should feel like a member of a world class symphony orchestra.
  1. Performance Metrics – What gets monitored gets improved. Write it on your forehead.  Fail to measure your Lean Remote Startup impact and you’re nothing more than a boat drifting at sea with no rudder, no compass, no nothing.
    • Sample Guiding Questions
      • How often and to what extent do you use certain workflow tech tool features?
      • How would you rate your level of engagement, interest, and overall job satisfaction?
      • How would you rate the effectiveness, utility, efficiency of XYZ meetings?
    • Best Practices
      • Establish a Baseline – Put together a team to assess your current state along each of the six organizational components. This should come in the form of survey(s) and/or interviews of the intended population.  According to SoGoSurvey, your surveying should also help create actionable items.  Instead of just asking to rate one’s job satisfaction, ask recipients to rank which of the following changes would likely increase your job satisfaction the most?  This will help determine where you want to go, carving out your future state.
      • Establish KPIs – With an understanding of your current state, put forth your future state SMART goals using the Lean Remote Work Optimization methodology – Build-Measure-Learn. Build out your plan.  Determine how you’re going to measure success using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and then implement, learning from success and failure for continuous improvement.  Remember, the methodology is intentionally iterative and incremental, get your MVP – minimal viable product out the door – meaning the simplest working model.  Don’t know where to start?  A strong foundation in Structural Policies, Behavioral Norms, and Cultural Continuity must be firmly rooted to support the other three components.
      • Smoke Test – This is an old school marketing technique that asks customers if they’re interested in trying a product before its built. Explain your value driven rationale and ask for a quick show of virtual hands if trying a meditation technique to start a meeting is worth trying.  Not designed to squash creativity, but instead this technique can help serve as your sanity check, sidestep wasted time on outliers, and/or build a baseline metric to look at satisfaction/feelings toward a practice before and after implemented.

Final Thoughts

Best practices are all relative.  What works for one, might not work for another.  Adoption isn’t as important as rapid adaptation, agility is key.  Approaching remote work as a Lean Remote Startup embraces principles of continuous growth built off the backbone of an iterative Lean Remote Work Optimization methodology.  Regardless of best practice, keep building, measuring and learning until you get it right, make it better, rinse and repeat.

And here’s an epiphany, this is a golden opportunity for you and your organization to hit the office culture reset button and build out the ideal working environment.  Remote work can actually bring people closer together (figuratively), you just have to bring sexy back.

Aaron Williamson, Senior Consultant