Here are tips and tricks from feds who are pros at working remotely so you can work remotely well
The White House’s expansion of telework flexibilities means some of you will soon be working from home, if you’re not already. But this is business as usual for other government folks, such as Robin Carnahan, Former Director of State and Local Practice at 18F, and Leah Bannon, VA.gov Product Manager at the Veterans Affairs Department’s U.S. Digital Service.
“At 18F, we always talked about a ‘remote-first’ mindset,” Carnahan said.
Carnahan and Bannon recently took part in Code for America’s webinar, “Successful Remote and Distributed Work in Uncertain Times,” where they talked about how they adjusted to the challenges that come with trying to manage a team effectively while working from home. They were joined by Laura Lanford, Vice President of Engineering at Nava Public Benefit Corporation and Mark Ferlatte, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Truss. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How can I keep people engaged?
Carnahan: Keep your meetings short. Have an agenda and stick to it. And then, ask for people to be engaged. Say upfront, “Hey I’m going to keep this short, and honor and respect your time. Please do the same thing for your teammates.” Being intentional about that is really important.
Make sure there are notes being taken. Ask someone in the meeting to volunteer to do that, so it’s not the same person stuck taking notes all the time. It also is a terrific reference for folks who can’t make the meeting.
Ferlatte: A technique that we found to be effective for notetaking is using collaborative notetaking tools so multiple people can be taking notes at the same time and trading off throughout the meeting. So whoever is taking notes can stop when they have something to contribute to the conversation.
For larger meetings, like all-hands meetings, we actually actively encourage what we call “the back channel.” We’ll have a channel in our Slack where people will be able to comment on what we’re talking about and make jokes and post a funny picture that’s relevant. It helps keep everybody focused on what we’re actually saying, kind of counterintuitively.
Carnahan: Another thing we do is we try to encourage casual conversations. One of the things that we all love about being in an office is being around our colleagues. So we had virtual coffee bots that make it really easy to set up 30-minute coffees with folks, or do happy hours.
Q: How can I hold successful meetings virtually?
Lanford: It can be tempting to call more meetings when you can’t see people every day. To counteract unproductive meetings, we’re very deliberate about both providing as much asynchronous communication as we can, both before and in place of meetings, and being very deliberate about using that meeting time well. We ask people to provide an agenda and expected outcomes of a given meeting, so when we do get together, it’s as valuable as possible.
Q: I’ve worked mostly in an office setting. How can I shift well to working at home?
Lanford: When people can’t see you, because you’re not in the same room, you have to overcommunicate. When casual water cooler talk doesn’t happen, you have to be more deliberate.
Ferlatte: Fundamentally, this requires practice. Everybody has to practice how to be good at working in an office. For most people, that’s their entire career. So when you’re working not from an office with each other, you have to practice it.
Bannon: Approach it like any other technical thing that needs to work for humans. Test it out, work through all the little kinks ahead of time. We don’t do big launches anymore, right? We test everything out slowly and iteratively first. It’s the same thing when we do a call like this [at Code for America]. We [the panelists] all gathered the day before to work through it. It’s a process you have to prioritize any time you’re doing something new that involves technology.
Q: How can we support people in situations where remote-working isn’t easy? How can we support employees with roommates or kids at home due to closed schools?
Bannon: Be patient and compassionate. You’re getting a new window into someone’s life, and that can be amazing, but that can also lead to a little bit more disruption. A lot of times you have to roll with it.
Think about how you might be making comments or little jokes about how there’s some noise in the background from a kid or something. That can add up to making someone feel self-conscious about their role and their contributions on the call.
Things will be a little messy while you sort things out, but people will remember when you handle something with grace and patience. I think supporting your team is always far more important than having the most productive meeting at this very moment.
Q: How should I approach my or other colleagues’ working-from-home buddies who are in the room when I’m in a meeting?
Ferlatte: What we do to help with this kind of stuff is normalize that yeah, if you’re working from home, there are going to be other people that are not in the company that you are going to see, including children — and that’s okay.
We’ll introduce people. If we’re in a meeting, and someone’s in there with their roommate or their kid or their family, they’ll stop and take the time to introduce them to the other people in the meeting sometimes. We’ll do that as a way to make it okay. As Leah said, you’re getting this view into people’s lives, which is amazing, and it needs to be respected and treated not just as people behind a pane of glass.
Carnahan: At the end of our all-hands [meetings], we do a thing called “Pets and Kids,” where everybody either has them show up on camera or show a picture of a kid. And it’s always the favorite part of all the meetings.
Q: What about those who would prefer to keep their home life private, or those who are more introverted? How can we set boundaries to avoid burnout?
Lanford: Physically changing your environment in any way when you switch from work time to home time can be very powerful. To the question of “What do I do if I don’t want to share my home life?” — you can do something as easy as draping a sheet over something and putting it behind you, and then at the end of your workday taking that down and making it your home again. That can help you with that emotional transition from the life that is your work and the life that is your life.
For people who prefer working in an office but are being forced to work remotely right now, it can feel like an intrusion in your home. One of the things that Leah talked a little bit about was flexibility, and that’s absolutely critical. For those who don’t do this as a matter of course, saying that you’re respecting flexibility and then actually respecting it, saying that explicitly to your people will help employees manage their time more confidently, as they’re working around kids or their partner at home.
Q: As a manager, how can I ensure our remote working environment that has good boundaries?
Lanford: Depending on how long this [quarantine] is, remember that a day off when somebody’s getting burnt out can prevent weeks and months of real burnout if it goes too far.
Also, when you can’t see people face to face, you have to be more diligent about checking in with people’s mental health, especially when you do your one-on-ones. For people who don’t do regular check-ins right now, it would be a good time to start that. And for people who do have regular one-on-ones already, you should focus on how people are doing today rather than the normal — for example, talking about a project and their future career — and actively listen to what they are saying. That will go a long way to keeping your people happy and healthy.
Ferlatte: One of the best boundaries that we’ve set is we enforce a strict 40-hour workweek. When people are working from home, it’s really easy, especially at the beginning, to just keep working. It’s right there. You don’t have that transition, that — hopefully — short commute to shake it off. And it takes some coaching. We generally have to be like, “No, we really mean it. We need you here and focused for 40 hours a week, and then we don’t want you here for the rest of the time.”
Lanford: Also, if you offer an employee assistance program, some kind of EAP, remind people of that and encourage them to use it, in the same way of saying explicitly, “These are hard times. Please utilize the tools that are at your disposal to normalize it.”
One additional tip is getting up to do a physical break when you’re done with your day. Get up, walk around your block to have a clear delineation, in addition to changing your physical environment.
Q: How can I help remote employees feel connected to agency culture?
Bannon: You have to be deliberate of all the times in the day that you might have been available by the water cooler or walking around, or times you would have been willing to randomly get a coffee with someone, and plan those out ahead of time. Have random channels that have nothing to do with work that are about affinities, such as having kids.
Carnahan: I was shocked when I got to 18F and saw all the non-project related channels. It’s funny, but it does change the culture of an organization because it lets you have these groups of people have conversations about things you care about, whether it’s about cats or dogs or horses or learning Spanish. I think that’s a really great thing.
Q: How can management balance trust and accountability during remote work?
Lanford: Make sure that you’re measuring the right things when you’re determining what people are doing. And it’s not the number of hours they’re working.
Bannon: That’s an awesome point. If you can’t trust your employees to do work, then that’s not a remote work problem. That’s a larger problem.
Q: How do we make sure those who aren’t as digitally savvy are included during remote work so they feel part of the team?
Carnahan: First, make sure folks know how to use stuff and are comfortable and aren’t embarrassed to ask. The other thing is if you’re on a call, it’s the job of the person leading the meeting to get information out of people and to get everybody to speak. The way I do that is [by] paying attention to who’s doing the speaking, and if folks haven’t spoken up, to specifically say, “I’d like your opinion about this. Can you give us some thoughts?” Sometimes people don’t speak because they don’t think anybody wants to hear their voice. So making sure that you want to hear from everyone is important.