Remote-first in the Time of Corona

Adam Niedzielski · 06 Jul 2020

Coming back from a sabbatical

I was on a sabbatical when the lockdown started. My first day back at work was 1st April. During the sabbatical I cut off all the communication channels - I didn’t check my work email, I didn’t look into Slack, I didn’t message my colleagues. When the 1st April was approaching I started thinking “well… I hope that they’re all working from home by now”. I still didn’t know for sure, though.

On 1st April I decided to stay at home, opened my laptop, turned on Slack and shared with my colleagues the most important news ever - I got an earring during the sabbatical!

My colleagues were indeed all working from home. Uff… no bad surprises here! Any other option just didn’t make sense to me. Our processes were already optimized for remote work, thanks to our remote-first approach. If any team was “ready for Corona” then it was us.

Team processes

And indeed, when it comes to team processes, I don’t have much new to share. They work really well, surprisingly well. You can just read the previous blog post, because it describes them and the motivation in depth.

What I’d like to focus on instead are the other aspects of completely switching to home office and the impact of the pandemic on the team members.

What I learned in my 1-on-1’s

After I came back from the sabbatical I had many 1-on-1’s with other people in the IT department - my regular 1-on-1’s with team members, hand-over 1-on-1’s, 1-on-1’s with people leaving, 1-on-1’s with people joining my team. During these conversations I slowly realized that how people approach the situation and social distancing is extremely individual and my own perception may be completely different from the perception of another team member.

On the team we have people who live in shared flats and have the company of their flat mates. We have people who take care of children and arrange this around work. We have people who live alone and were happy for the social contacts work gave them during the time of the most strict lockdown. We have people who live with their partner and were happy, because they could spend more time with them. We have people with the perfect office setup at home, and people who don’t have a desk in their room or apartment. We have people who could visit their family and work from the countryside, and people who still can’t travel, because of the travel restrictions.

These are all extremely different situations and I learned that in the conversations I shouldn’t make any assumptions and just ask “how are you feeling in the current situation?”

Social part of work

As efficient as our remote work-related communication may be, there’s another part of working together in a team - the social part. This is the aspect where meeting in the office was helping the most. All of these small conversations not related to work specifically, eating lunches together, interpreting emotions easily, because of the physical closeness. This is the part which is the hardest for me to replace, or find a solution for.

From early on we were aware that we need to at least try to find a replacement. We created a Slack channel for having video calls over lunch and chatting about random stuff. We also switched our team events to remote board game nights and even increased their frequency to every second week.

Remote fatigue

I personally found it hard to motivate myself to join a call during lunch after the morning spent on other calls or to join a remote board game session after a whole day spent at home in front of my laptop. What I wanted instead was to be outside, enjoy the nice weather, run in the park. And I observed it not only in the context of my colleagues, but also my friends. At some point I just got weary of social interactions in video calls.

That said, any time I motivated myself to join the lunch call or the board game night, I got reminded that we have an amazing bunch of human beings in the team, with a certain shared vibe and sense of humor. What was obvious to me when working in the office, I forgot after switching to full remote work and needed a reminder.

Ergonomics in the home office

Another important topic to me during that time was work place ergonomics. My CTO asked me about it in our 1-on-1 and then I followed up with my team members. What’s a relatively easy topic in the office environment, becomes harder to tackle in the home office situation.

For example, in an office building there are certain work safety regulations that determine the required amount of space per person. It’s easier to provide standard equipment to the employees - standing desk, additional screen, mouse-pad and so on. In the context of home office it also has to fit the rest of the apartment.

The discussion about ergonomics between the company and the employee becomes much more subtle, because the private sphere and the work sphere are not physically separated anymore. It’s more about reminding about the importance of the work place for the health and nudging in the good direction rather than enforcing any regulations.

My own bad example

My own work place situation was terrible at the beginning. I didn’t have a regular desk in my room and I also didn’t really have a space for it. Right from the start I knew that working from the bed or from an armchair is not an option for me - my back tells me this pretty quickly.

In the end I settled on a standing desk (or rather a standing pillar) which doesn’t take too much space and can be moved around when needed. Since my flat mate started going to a “real office” again, I could use his room to keep the separation between my private and professional life more clearly defined. I also started going for short walks before and after work to better switch into the work mode and switch off afterwards.

July 2020

We’re starting July 2020 working fully remotely without visiting the office at all. There are some early plans about going back to the office, but we’re probably the last department at Liefery to push for that.

After some of the contact restrictions got lifted we organized the first in-person team event since February. We met in a park for a nice little distanced picnic - to play frisbee and to say goodbye to Roman who was leaving the team. Below you can see how funny it looks when you try to take a group photo, without being too close to each other.

Team photo Another photo that includes your truly