Given the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a lot of unplanned home and remote working, I wanted to share a few ideas for managers who have found themselves with a sudden need to manage their teams remotely. While this article talks specifically about using the Slack messaging system, the general principles apply to Microsoft Teams and other platforms too.
One of the first things people who aren’t used to working at home miss is the face to face interaction. The banter with colleagues. That background chitchat and hubbub that makes an office feel alive. You can never completely replicate this online (and it’s one of the reasons working from home isn’t for everyone), but you can give people a place to talk freely.
For the longest time, the heading of our main messaging channel has been this:
The water cooler without water, or a cooler
Because that’s what it’s meant to be – a place for people to gather around the virtual water cooler, talk about what they are working on, catch up with each other, and have a general chat. As a company that has always been based from home, we have designed our communication systems around being a replacement for the office, and that’s what you should aim for too.
Depending on the size and structure of your organisation, you might be best having one ‘free for all’ channel, or you might be better suited with one per team. You may also want to keep senior management out of this channel because people should feel comfortable chatting here and not feel watched.
As a manager it’s your role to make sure your teams are working effectively, either in the office or at home. A good communications system can allow you to do this with home workers, but be careful not to read the wrong thing into someone who seems to be chatting about a lot of non-work topics. Working from home doesn’t suit everyone, and that person who’s constantly in your ‘water cooler’ channel might be the one who is missing the human contact the most. Instead of chastising them, reach out to them and have a conversation about how they’re feeling, whether they are struggling to focus, and whether there’s anything you can do to help them stay on track and feel in touch with their colleagues.
One challenge of not seeing people in the office is that it’s much harder to ascertain their workload and general well-being. It’s really important to keep on top of this, particularly when your teams have been thrown into a new work environment and are feeling the pressures and worries of what’s happening in the outside world.
Slack has a great feature to help you with this called Workflow Builder. This lets you create forms and actions, and is a great way to get quick and easy status updates from your team members.
To use it, click on your workspace name and select Workflow Builder, then click Create, and follow the guide to set up a new workflow. If you can’t see this feature then talk to your Slack administrator about getting access. I personally use a workflow with my team that is triggered from the Actions menu and loads a short form with four questions. The completed forms are then delivered directly to me via Slackbot.
What you should ask in your form will be determined by your specific needs, but I recommend asking about work-related and general well-being and needs. I have also found that giving people a set of answers to choose from can cause people to be more honest with their responses than if they are asked to put something in their own words. People don’t like to admit they are struggling, but giving them an easy way to say so helps.
Here are some ideas on what you might include in your status update form:
Everyone’s busy, and the last thing your teams want is you chasing them to complete a status update. So how do you make sure your teams keep you up to date? The best solution is to make it a routine action so it becomes habit (a sense of routine is very important if you are new to working from home). You could put a reminder in people’s calendars, but why not leverage Slack here too so that people stay in a single application?
Slack has a useful reminder feature which can be used as simply as:
/remind me to send a status update at 10am every day
There is some documentation on the reminder feature here, or you can just type /remind in Slack and it will show you how to use it.
As long as your status update workflow only takes a few seconds for your teams to complete, then I would recommend getting them at least twice a week so that you can keep an eye on people’s workload and well-being. Depending on your organisation and management style, more of less frequently may suit you better.
Let’s not forget that while Slack is designed around the typey-typey messaging functionality, it also offers voice and video calls. These are an important way to add a more human element to working from home. Hearing a voice or seeing a face is really valuable to anyone feeling isolated, and a video call helps you as a manager gauge how someone is feeling.
Set time aside for regular one-to-one calls to catch up with team members, but also be ready to make ad hoc calls if you think someone is struggling. These should replace the ‘pop into my office and let’s have a catch-up’ meetings, or people sticking their head round your door which happens naturally in the office but needs a bit more thought when working from home.
Slack has some great tie-ins with popular applications and productivity tools. You can make it a more effective virtual office for your teams by hooking into the other tools they regularly use. Don’t forget about the Giphy app to add some fun.
I have worked from home exclusively for the last seven years with Cutter Group. Right now I’m feeling very grateful to be working for a company that had the foresight to make working from home the default. While many people are rushing to adapt to this new way of working, my working hours have remained the most normal part of my day, and this has offered a sense of normality during very uncertain times.
While there are very clearly many organisations, jobs and roles where working from home is not practical or possible, there are many jobs that can and should be work from home. More people at home and not in the office means less traffic, less pollution, less time commuting, less load on public transport at peak times, and more time spent with friends and family. In the long run it can also lead to less crowded cities, more green spaces, improved access to housing and better health. I truly believe that working from home is the way forward, and I encourage all organisations to take this opportunity to look at whether they can enable more of their staff to work from home, either fully or partly. We may have been thrust into this situation for the wrong reasons, but that does not mean we can’t create something positive from it.
Chris Barker – Support Manager