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Remote Working – The Right Balance

Posted 28th March 2020

Let us help you embrace remote working and keep your sanity during this period!

The E-sign team have been ‘remote working’ since day 1.

Like many digital start-ups in 2012, this was borne out of necessity. However, we quickly learnt that operating as a business which maintains flexibility when it comes to home working, had its advantages;

  • Improved staff wellbeing and contentment
  • Ability to recruit the best talent
  • Improved business continuity and productivity
  • Less unexpected absences

This approach is not unique to us as a business and is extremely popular among a lot of modern software companies like ours.  Many organisations outside this industry are experiencing working from home for the first time, initially as a response and now a necessity due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

As a founder of a company that has been lucky to succeed at working this way, I wanted to share our experience and practical guidance gathered over many years, hoping it will be useful to the many companies that are approaching remote for the first time. I will address remote working both from an organisational view point and that of an individual.

Who are we??

Who are e-sign?

E-Sign provides thousands of customers worldwide with secure digital document transaction management services and identity verification. We have a great team, some of whom work together in our offices and some of whom work full time from home. Our team is spread throughout the UK, Isle of Man, Italy, Germany, Nepal and Slovenia.

Considerations for organisations

The right balance of office and remote working

In maintaining the above, it is important to ensure you have a remote working policy in place that is transparent and fair. It must distinguish those who decide to go to the office from those who work from home.

The right balance - office Vs remote working.

This is the balance we have arrived at:

  • Team members can freely request to work remotely or have a workstation in one of the offices but must give a predetermined notice period to do so, along with the number of days remote working. This does not apply to unexpected urgent matters such as childcare issues or unprecedented events such as the present climate.
  • The balance between those working remotely and within one of the offices must be fair and not cause issues within the team. Tasks must still be evenly distributed, and communications maintained at all times

How we organise our teams

Working arrangements of remote staff apply to those of a physical team, but often not vice versa…..

If your organisation has always operated on site then you may need to consider come changes to organisational arrangements and some policies.

Output counts more than hours on site. This is a true and simple statement, but is it the same in practice?

Moving from an organisation that focusses on the number of hours worked to one based on output will not be without issues.

We found it was always important to quantify the activities with a method in mind. Here are some of the key principles we adhere to at E-Sign:

  • The activities of most company functions (e.g development/support) are organised into tasks. Each task corresponds to an assignment. Teams must take ownership of all tasks, from inception to completion
  • Tasks are placed into the correct system and labelled accordingly (Maintenance tasks in Github for example)
  • Maintenance tasks concern recurring activities that take a fixed time in any given period.
  • The production tasks concern everything that is new.
  • Before being assigned, each task must be carefully documented with the creation of a specification (think of this as a detailed description stating precise requirements). For complex tasks, this is critical.
  • Once the specification has been defined, the task is assigned to the team member who will take care of it and the team member is asked to establish an “effort”, i.e., to give a measure in terms of days or fractions of a day of how long it will take to carry out the given task.
  • Once the task “effort” is added, the task is ready to be scheduled. Each task is programmed with a start date and an end date, allowing each team member to know what to do at all times, and allowing management to have a vision of who is doing what at any time. This approach also provides a means of extremely accurate short-medium term planning.

The advantages of this method:

  • Eliminates friction due to any discrepancy between team members’ expectations and management (in terms of task execution time).
  • Gives you a full view of tasks, at all times, enabling you and the entire team to plan dependant activities precisely.
  • The resulting empowerment of each team member created by this method — presence in the office as a form of “supervision” becomes unnecessary.

Key software tools for remote working

Remote working can only work if supported by software tools suitable for asynchronous communication (task management) and synchronous communication (calls and chat). We do not use emails as an internal communication tool, as more dynamic systems are adopted that completely absorb its function.

Important: asynchronous communication should always be privileged; chat, meetings, and calls interrupt workflow and concentration, reducing productivity. We really did learn this the hard way and it is easy for things to get missed in too much chat!!!!

The tools I mention below are all from providers I rate highly that have the same culture as E-Sign. All our products achieve the following:

·         Can be accessed securely anywhere

·         Can easily connect with any other software

·         Are highly collaborative

·         Promote cost efficiency and operational effectiveness

·         Are reliable and really simple to use

Team time tracking and activity reporting

It goes without saying that monitoring of your remote teams is important to maintain overall productivity and objectives.

Two simple tools are timeclock wizard and harvest,

Timeclock wizard allows your teams to clock in and out and provides you with real-time information. You can also set IP addresses and geo-location preferences that only allow team members to clock in and out at certain locations.

Harvest allows team members to record (hour by hour if needed) their activities and exactly what they have been working on. This data can be accessed anywhere and can be presented in a daily/weekly/monthly report for your organisation.

Time tracking and reporting software

Communication within the team

Slack - Communication within the Team

The all-encompassing system we use for internal communications is Slack. This is a great tool where you can have different channels for your teams and projects. These are opened up and retired with a click of a button. I am a huge fan of this tool, but again it is important to remember not to drown your teams in channels!

Communication with customers

The all-encompassing system we use for internal communications is Slack. This is a great tool where you can have different channels for your teams and projects. These are opened up and retired with a click of a button. I am a huge fan of this tool, but again it is important to remember not to drown your teams in channels!

Communications with customers

Our customer support teams use a great software called intercom. This allows your customers to live chat to the teams and get an instant response. All the communications are recorded and stored for ease of access. Customer queries are instantly assigned to a team member to take ownership of, and can be transferred to another if needed. The team can also use intercom to communicate privately and internally about each customer query. There are literally too many benefits of this software to mention but it also plugs into any other software (just like E-Sign!)

Development and software maintenance

GitHub, Development and software maintenance.

This is very sector specific but if you are in tech, Github is a lifesaver! It allows you to securely secure, collaborate and compartmentalise success to your code work. It also allows you to set and assign development projects, issues, and monitor the work being carried out by the development team.

Outbound sales and deal flow monitoring

Outbound sales and deal flow monitoring.

Over the years we have tried a lot of varied software for this element of our business. Each promised the earth in productivity and returns (we’ve all had that sell). We finally arrived at a great and inexpensive software called pipedrive. This again is highly collaborative and by far the easiest sales software I have ever used! You can construct your own phases of the deal pipeline or use their own standard template. This allows you to check on the sales team activities, and also provides real-time data on deal close rates, the strongest team members and the value of deals assigned to each team member. Again it also allows team members to communicate internally and assign tasks, schedule calls/demos etc.

Project management project management provides really easy to use tools (based on gant charts) that allow for easy project collaboration. You can have an overall project objective and break it down to smaller tasks with assignments and deadlines

The importance of written guidelines and training

Formalising, in writing, what has been said so far may seem obvious for companies of a certain size, but this process can often be overlooked in small companies. Creating a set of written documents to clarify internal policies on remote working, organization, and use of the use of tools is essential regardless of team size and should be combined with appropriate training.

Why we find remote working beneficial

The economic benefits of working remotely are significant for both team members and the company. Here are a few of its benefits.

Savings on workstations

Considering the average cost of a workstation, each team member working remotely can save up to £2,500 and decrease the need for office space. This budget can be reinvested in activities for the team.

The ability to source talent without geographical limits

Our team is geographically spread, working remotely allows us access to a pool of possible candidates that is significantly larger than when a physical presence is required in a specific location.

In addition to the recruitment advantages, this also allows you to enrich your team from a cultural point of view.

Increase the well-being of team members and thus their productivity and loyalty to the company

Working remotely allows team members to:

  • Live in a city of their choice, with no restrictions, or even travel and move periodically
  • Live in places with a favourable cost of living
  • Save on transport costs
  • Manage their family commitments or your children more flexibly

This increases overall productivity and loyalty, thus lowering the turnover rate and associated costs.

Also, remote working allows you to…

  • Reduce the environmental impact of your company in terms of carbon emissions, as employees do not need to commute to go to work, and land consumption caused by offices.
  • Minimize the need for time offor leave for household issues such as “opening for the plumber”.
  • Provide flexibility in case of illness (team members have the flexibility to simply work through mild illness or apply “sick leave” when truly needed.)

The equipment

In order to facilitate remote working, it is necessary to have an internal policy that allows everyone to equip themselves with appropriate equipment, in our case, mainly a laptop computer.

We give each team member an equipment budget depending on role and function (Software developers always cry for more performance and power!). In cases where someone may want to purchase more expensive equipment, they can use up to 3 years of their budget from the first day of joining the company.

The overall economic benefits of allowing remote work contributes to the ability to provide in this regard.

How to keep the team together

Although remote working brings many advantages, nothing can replace the value of direct, face to face contact. For this reason, we create opportunities for all team members to interact, including those who work in different offices.

Weekly Stand-ups

Every week, at fixed intervals, each team meets on call. During this call, each team member explains what they worked on in the previous week and what they will work on in the following week. Stand-ups are very useful both to familiarise all members of the team with each other and to give everyone a sense of what the entire team is working on.

If you find yourself working remotely for the first time

If it’s your first time, working remotely can feel a little disorientating and it can sometimes be a challenge to focus and be productive — especially if you live with others. In this section, we’ll cover some useful tips to make the transition to remote as smooth as possible, as well as some useful resources to help you along.

Create a dedicated workspace

Pick a spot (not your bed!) where you do all your work — it creates a routine and necessary boundaries. Also, avoid sleepwear or sweatpants. This helps you to get into the right frame of mind and to create a clear distinction between work and relax mode.

Schedule breaks

Being productive and getting work done often requires medium to long blocks of focus — with focus often being easier to sustain than to initiate.

While it’s incredibly important to take regular breaks, intermittent interruption (as can often occur at home, trust me, I have three young and not so quiet boys!!!) can harm your ability to be truly productive. This is where scheduled breaks come in. These breaks don’t need to be spaced as far apart as is common in most workplaces (e.g lunch once a day) but they should give you some time to build momentum and focus.

Avoid videos as “background noise”

Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, audiobooks — we all love them. The problem is that they’re also distracting. Avoid things with visuals and words going on in the background (even some kind of music), and you’ll get your work done faster.

Eat well

When working at home, it’s easy to over-snack. Often work-stations are set up in the kitchen in smaller apartments, and food is often within easy reach. It’s important to avoid junk foods and quick snacks, and fill your kitchen with healthy options instead, like fruits, veggies, lean meats, cheeses, and whole grains. While food might not seem obviously related to remote working and productivity, it is, as healthy food choices provide focus-improving brainpower. Also, be sure to drink lots of water (and don’t overdo it with coffee).

Maintain a healthy work-life balance

When working at home, the temptation to merge your job into your daily life can be great. Slipping in a report after dinner can seem like a convenience but over time blurs the line between home/family time and work mode for both you and your team. Set and stick to working hours to keep your personal life healthy, set proper expectations with your team (they’ll know when you’re truly available and when not) and avoid burnout.

In conclusion

Given the emergency situation caused by COVID-19, thousands of companies are forced to have their teams work from home. The hope of this article is that our experience can help companies and individuals to be productive in these difficult times. We’ve also hopefully provided some food for thought when it comes to  adopting remote work as ‘business as usual’ following this current period of emergency.

I hope this is useful to some but please feel free to get in touch for any further tips and advice on anything mentioned in this article.

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