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So You’re Suddenly Working Remotely

Jordan Hirsch | Director of Training and Facilitation

March 13, 2020

Or, Saying "Yes, And" to the Coronavirus

NB: This is a long post, so think of it as a resource to revisit rather than something to ingest in one sitting. I mean, who has the attention span for that??

As you no doubt know, public health leaders are urging people to practice "social distancing" right now and to work from home if that's possible for them to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. That option is of course a privileged one, accessible only by people with certain types of jobs, certain types of employers, and certain types of tools available at home (not to mention a quiet space to work from and having childcare if you need it!). That said, those of us who are able to should start doing it immediately — not just to protect ourselves and our coworkers, but avoid spreading it to the most vulnerable populations among us.

If you’ve read any of my recent posts, you know that I’m obsessed with the concept of “yes, and.” Well, working remotely due to Coronoavirus is truly a "yes, and" situation: yes, there is a virus rapidly spreading around the world, and many of us are fortunate enough to have access to tools and jobs that can help us protect ourselves and others during this dangerous time. I hope that some of the tools and ideas in this post will help you get started. 

Working remotely not only will help us through this phase, it can help force an organization into a culture change that they may have been putting off for a while now. Increasingly, employees are choosing remote working lifestyles, and they've become a differentiator in some job markets. So now is a great time to get good at it. I've been working remotely for 11 years now, and I'm fortunate enough to work for Phase2, a digital experience agency with a strong remote culture. I want to share some tips with you to help you adjust to working remotely, and to get the most out of it. I hope this helps.

Tools and Technology

Let’s start with some common tools you might end up using when working remotely. All of these tools have free tiers (or free trial periods) you can use to get started.

Video calls

  • Zoom - Zoom lets you host scheduled and ad hoc video calls. It includes features such as written chat, screen-sharing, google calendar integration, contact list integration, and more. Zoom also features the ability to create breakout rooms within a larger meeting for smaller group work.
  • Google Meet - Formerly known as Google Hangouts, Meet is a full-fledged video conferencing system, with a feature set similar to Zoom. Meet has a really cool built-in closed captioning system, which can be really valuable for people who don’t have a great audio setup or have accessibility needs. I’ve found both Meet and Zoom to be much simpler and generally to work better than Skype or WebEx.
  • Otter - Otter is an automated transcription service. It integrates with Zoom and a few other systems, and automatically transcribes your meetings for you, saving you a large note-taking burden. It’s not perfect but it’s really helpful if you find yourself trying to listen and transcribe at the same time.

Written communication

If you don’t already, it’s time to start using an online chat tool to communicate with your team. These tools will get you started.

  • Slack - Slack is currently the industry standard when it comes to online chat systems. It makes it simple to create named chat rooms, ad hoc group chats, and 1:1 chats with your coworkers. It has a robust notification system which you can fine-tune to get pinged about just the important things, instead of everything. It also has integrations with Google Calendar, bitbucket, github, Jira, and a ton of other things.
  • Flowdock - A competitor to Slack, Flowdock has a ton of features and is easy to use. You can’t fine-tune the notifications or create ad hoc groups as easily as you can in Slack, but I found the learning curve to be a bit quicker.
  • Good ol’ email! Email gets a (deservedly) bad rap these days, but now is a good time to come back to it for its original purpose: asynchronous written communication.


These tools will help your team collaborate together more effectively during and outside of calls.

  • MURAL - An online whiteboard and so much more. MURAL lets groups of people create several types of sticky notes and share them on a common space, but it also does a ton more than that. It features a timer, a voting system, and other features that really make it a powerhouse of a collaboration tool.
  • Miro - Formerly named RealtimeBoard, Miro is another full-fledged online whiteboard/collaboration tool. I don’t know its feature set as well as MURAL’s, but I do know that it has a presentation mode which is really cool, in addition to a ton of other features.
  • Google Docs - An online word processor that allows for seamless and simple collaboration. Features include the ability for multiple people to type in a document at the same time, comment and tag people in comments, assign tasks to people, track changes, make suggestions, control sharing, and much, much more.

All of these tools will take some time to get used to. They all have decent documentation and intro videos, so take a look and see what might be best for your team. It’s a hurdle to get over, but it will save you a ton of time in the long run.

Getting the Most Out of Video Calls

A video call has its own set of challenges, benefits, and etiquette considerations. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to get the most out of them.

  • Get dressed. It’s tempting (and fun!) to work from your PJs, but it also sends a message to your brain that you’re supposed to be in bed. Getting dressed can help you put you in the right mindset for a day at work, and it communicates to your coworkers that you’re actually at work.
  • Turn on your camera. It feels really weird to be on camera if you’re not used to it, but you lose a ton of communication cues when you can’t see each other. Having your cameras on also serves to humanize everyone and remind us that we’re talking to real people at the other end of a fiber optic line. This is probably the most important tip on here.
  • Be transparent. Life happens. You might need to step away for a minute because your child is home from school (like mine is!) and you need to help them with something. Or you get an important email and you need to respond. Or you just got distracted and tuned out for a minute. This is OK and expected. The key is to tell other people about it so they don’t have to waste mental energy wondering if you’re still engaged or not. This is a great thing to use the group chat feature for in your video call tool of choice.
  • Mute yourself. You may find yourself working from a noisy environment like a coffee shop (pick one that’s sparsely populated, please), or your own home (particularly if you have children at home). Most of the video conferencing tools have built-in muting features, but I prefer to use a third-party tool to get more control over when I’m intentionally transmitting sound to the group. Shush for Mac and Push-to-talk for Windows are great options.
  • Be forgiving and flexible. It’s going to take a while to get used to this if it’s new to you and your team. If you get distracted on a call and miss something, say “yes, and” to yourself (yes, I got distracted, and I am still a good person and team member deserving of forgiveness) and set an example by quickly owning up to it and asking someone to repeat if needed. Taking turns speaking on a video call is a skill that takes practice, so be forgiving of your teammates and try to approach it together with a learning mindset.

Working Separately, Together

You may be spending more time than usual in meetings, because now any time you want to talk to a coworker, it’s going to be in a more structured environment than stopping by their desk or catching up in the break room. Slack and other chat tools are a good place for some of those conversations, but if you’re missing human interaction, it’s totally OK to schedule time with someone for a video call just to catch up. It feels weird to put that sort of thing on someone’s calendar with a Zoom link, but it’s time that you were going to spend anyway during your day, and it’s a really important part of maintaining connections with your coworkers and avoiding the isolation that can come from working remotely.

For bigger group meetings, a well-designed meeting experience is more important than ever, now that everyone has not only the entire internet, but also a whole physical space to distract them from the matter at hand. Follow good meeting practices, and think about how to get the most out of your new tools. I’d highly recommend investing some time in learning how to facilitate a remote meeting if you’re new to this. Facilitation guru Daniel Stillman is teaching an online facilitation master class soon specifically about facilitating remote meetings. The good folks over at MURAL also have a “Suddenly Remote” webinar series to help you adjust and learn how to use online collaboration tools like MURAL to get more value out of your online time together.

When you’re not in meetings, practice over-communicating your status to let other people know when you are and aren’t available. Learn how to set your status in Slack (for example) and how to manage your notifications. It may take some time to adjust to asynchronous chat, so be open with each other about your expectations around things like what warrants an immediate reply and what can wait. New ways of communicating require forging new patterns together, and this can be difficult. You may want to do a group exercise like ICBD (described in this blog post by innovation wizard Jay Melone) to help the group get on the same page about expectations. 

Keeping the Culture Alive

Making time for water cooler talk is key to keeping your organization’s culture alive by nurturing relationships that may otherwise wither when no one’s in the same place. Culture matters, and it’s important not to overlook it as you adjust to this new way of working. At Phase2, we are always finding ways to scale our culture and bring it into our ways of working remotely.

For example, we are a gif-heavy culture, so we make heavy use of Slack’s built-in GIPHY integration. It’s common for us to send or receive a gif in reaction to something, and it’s a small and easy way to bring our culture into the tool. Another example is emojis: Slack lets you “react” to a message using an emoji, which is a simple and light-hearted way to let someone know that you’ve received their message, and how you felt about it. This is also an example of good over-communicating; as my colleague Caroline Casals put it when explaining why she uses emojis to acknowledge messages: “In an office, context clues are there for free. When remote, I have to put in a tiny effort to make them exist.” An emoji can do digitally what a head-nod might do in a physical space.

We’ve also set up multiple types of Slack channels. Some are specifically for projects, some are for working groups, and some are just for fun. It’s a great way to hold space for culture-building conversations that might typically happen in a hallway or at a cubicle, without cluttering up a work-related channel where someone might need to find information quickly.

We’ve also put some work into making our group activities remote. Years ago, I started a remote movie night with some friends at work who were also really into horror movies. We all got on a google hangout and used a browser plugin that allowed us to start and stop a Netflix movie at the same time, so that we could all watch together, almost like we were in the same room. Movie night is still going strong and is an important part of our culture, and we leverage the same tools and technologies to make it work as we do for staying productive during a workday. It takes work (we still haven’t found a perfect way to all watch the same movie at the same time, and every month we try some new tool that fails), but we get a ton out of it, and it keeps us connected across multiple timezones.

It Will Take Time

Understand that all of this will feel weird at first (and maybe for a while). Go easy on yourself if you find yourself distracted by working in a new environment, or if having to learn new tools slows you down. It will take time to find your rhythm, especially if you're used to working in an office environment. Go easy on your coworkers, too, as this is new for everybody. Phase2 has had a remote work culture for over a decade, and we’re still learning and improving. It’s OK if it takes you some time to get comfortable. Even turning your camera on is a big step for people who have never done it before!

Have you found yourself suddenly working remotely? How does it feel? What’s hard? What’s easy? Tell me in the comments, and please feel free to ask me questions!

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