The past few weeks have been a whirlwind: no one expected the shift to remote work to be this swift. My company, Reaktor, is a Finnish technology agency with more than 20 years of experience in agile ways of working. We made our name by embedding on-site with clients, which means we prize and prioritize in-person interaction-- or at least we used to. Now, just like everyone else, we've had to transform our business into a remote-only operation, virtually overnight.
What surprised me is how easy the transition has been. Reaktor is best known in Finland for adaptability and resilience, and true to our culture, we made the jump in just a few days, with few major issues. As a Finnish company, we've noticed there are cultural traits to our self-managing organization that lend themselves particularly well to remote working. There's the Nordic grit and resilience, sure. But most of our success boils down to what I see as the essential building block of all collaboration: establishing trust. It's what runs all of Finnish society. And if possible, it's even more critical online than in person.
We believe there to be four simple ways all teams and organizations can build and maintain trust when working remotely. Here's what's worked for us:
1. Create situational awareness.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Don't wait; share important information (even if it's incomplete) right away once you have it. This is especially true of company-wide matters: financials, strategic decisions, and forecasts. When people are kept in the dark in uncertain times it leads to needless anxiety and worry. We all work better when we're less stressed. Sharing clear and timely information across functions, from marketing to HR to sales, and giving everyone an effective overview, means people can take action to steer the company's future in the right direction.
Everyone will make smarter decisions if they understand what's going on. Do whatever it takes to get the message out there: start new Slack channels, encourage people to speak up, and create a culture where openly sharing problems and challenges and giving updates on current workloads becomes the norm, not just inside teams but also across the company.
2. Let people lead themselves.
Speedy sharing of information means employees can make faster, smarter choices. But they won't take action if they're waiting for a go-ahead or some form of permission. Let go of hierarchies and give people the freedom to make decisions about their own work (and remember, some of them, like me, are learning how to concentrate with small kids running around our Brooklyn apartment).
When working from home, everyone's managing themselves to an even greater degree as it is; it's important to give everyone the full autonomy to do that in order for them to do it well. This is where situational awareness comes in: sharing objectives and goals is crucial. At our company we made it clear to everyone that, now more than ever, focusing on great client work must be our No. 1 priority. That in turn has made it easy for people to manage themselves better in deciding what to focus on now and what to leave for later.
3. Coach each other.
Increased self-management means employees become more interested in learning how to do their work effectively. That means there's less need for a centralized function to retrain the entire staff or help everyone develop new methods for remote working. Instead, colleagues freely share tips and tools in what becomes a peer-to-peer network structure. Everyone is learning alongside one another.
For us that means CoPs or Communities of Practice, for things like project management, design, remote working, and so on. If someone is struggling with a new situation, it's likely that someone else somewhere in the firm has already had that same problem--and may have even solved it. The problems can range from finding an effective way to do remote pair work to locating the best standing desk at IKEA; the idea is that the network is always there to help.
Advice networks mean time is not wasted reinventing the wheel and, equally important, that everyone feels supported as they're managing their own work. Thus, a new, more effective way of working emerges.
4. Encourage socializing.
Those moments at the water cooler shouldn't disappear just because everyone's working remotely; understand the importance of casual conversation and social connections. Whether it's a 24/7 Google Meet room for coffee and lunch breaks and after-work drinks, or a communal Zoom conference that people can hang out in as they're going about their own work, there are myriad ways to foster community. You can even take it up a notch: Encourage people to come up with creative ways to build social bonds and see what happens.
At Reaktor we've seen musical performances and cooking shows and co-workers showing off their pets and apartments on Zoom. It's all a good time and keeps the socializing going. It's important to check up on people too. In a pandemic, people will feel more anxious than usual, and there's no way for HR to take care of everyone. When people know everyone's got each other's backs, there's less of a sense of isolation and more of a sense of trust: The feeling that, together, everyone will be able to continue to do great work and achieve big things--even if it's from the comfort of their own apartment.