Liam Martin is the co-organizer of Running Remote, the world’s largest remote work conference. He is also the co-founder and CMO of Time Doctor, a multi-functional productivity tool that empowers remote teams to work better.
TOA: At the moment, many companies are facing this challenge for the first time. What first steps should a company take once a whole team is forced to work from home?
LM: It’s essential that you break down your tool setup and finances. Assess your profit and loss statement. What can you cut right now? Ideally, it should be everything but people. Look at company leases and, if you can, get out of that right now, because those costs mean that you could probably hire or keep an extra 20 percent of your workforce that you may otherwise be forced to cut.
In terms of the actual tools you deploy, it boils down to communication and process documentation. Make sure your team has all the tools they need: reliable internet, appropriate hardware, siphoned passwords, collaboration tools like G Suite, instant messaging apps like Slack and Twist, video communication apps like Skype and Zoom, and project management apps like Basecamp and Trello.
You also need to figure out what kind of sacred knowledge exists inside of your company and put together process documentation. What do individual employees know that’s absolutely critical to your business? Get everyone to document it, put it on a cloud-based repository, then take that information and communicate it to everyone inside of the company.
TOA: Do you have advice for being productive, especially for those who are now working in a setup they’re not used to?
LM: The best thing to do is to maintain a routine, meaning, how can I make sure that I have a focused place to work where I’m not being distracted by others? I have an office which is great for me. Once I close that door, everyone understands that I am at work. If you don’t have an office, find a desk that you can work at, or even a seat on your couch. Tell everyone inside of your home: when I’m in this place, I am working. You can’t just ask for a minute of my time because I’m not here. I’m somewhere else.
There’s a debate inside of remote work, which is synchronous versus asynchronous communication. Right now, it seems that most teams are running very synchronously, meaning they’re doing Zoom calls three or four times a day with everyone else. They’re basically trying to have communication happen as quickly as humanly possible, but I think this will actually create a lot of stress for people in the long term. You need to be able to take more of an asynchronous approach to remote work, which allows people to do deep work. That means not being not being grabbed away for just a one minute conversation. Every time you’re pulled out of your work state, it’s not just one to two minutes. It usually takes about 16 minutes to be able to get back into flow state, so it’s important that you accomplish that work efficiently.
TOA: For teams that rely heavily on creativity, how can they find ways to continue to effectively brainstorm and engage in the creative process?
LM: We have whiteboards that are shared with our whole team, which allows everyone to collaborate on the same document at the same time. Having an online collaboration space and tools like Stormborad, Mural, and InVision (for designers) can help provide that energy.
In general, it’s important to make sure you have good, disciplined environments for both work and non-work activities. I think it’s actually going to make you a lot more creative.
If you’re always inundated with messages from work at 2 a.m. in the morning, you’re not going to give your mind the ability to reset itself and process things subconsciously. A lot of people have their best ideas when at the gym or when they’re in the shower, because it allows their brain to process that information. Try to create those moments as much as possible.
TOA: What is your advice for keeping your team engaged, from a human perspective?
LM: Work discipline is my number one piece of advice. Keep everyone on a routine, keep them productive, keep them doing something. You want to keep their minds off of what’s happening outside and focus them on what’s happening inside.
The second piece of advice is to focus on mental health. Check in on a regular basis through video calls. You need to be able to be as synchronous as possible, when talking about people’s mental health. Analyze what’s happening on those video calls. A lot of the times people will not tell you that they’re freaking out, but they very well might be, and you need to be able to detect that as quickly as possible so that you can take appropriate action.
The third piece of advice is paying people and helping solve small problems in their lives. For example, we bought and shipped groceries to a team member who was concerned about venturing out. You need to keep your workforce functional and mentally solid. You may not detect it over the next week, but I would expect some very serious mental health situations to develop in the next few months. So as the employer and the H.R. manager, you need to be able to get out in front of that.