Is the home office a success model?
The home office was still playing an exotic role in Germany. Then came Corona, and with the virus came the restrictions on movements. In the first weeks of the Corona crisis, I still thought that it was a huge chance for the general acceptance of the home office.
But is this experience positive? For one thing, it’s overshadowed by a very unusual overall situation. I’ve been working in the home office for 3 years, but so far I’ve rarely had weeks in which I haven’t spent a day out of the house on a business trip. Those who live alone and work from the home office currently have very few real social contacts. If you live with your family, you currently have an unusually high level of contact with them. Both can be very stressful.
My impression is that many companies that have involuntarily become remote employers recently are already lucky if they get it halfway technically. They don’t get to what I consider to be the essential part of remote work: the company organization and culture.
In the following, I’m going to describe what exactly this lack consists of from my experience.
Many employers currently consider themselves lucky if they get the home office implemented technically. Organizational, communicative, or even cultural requirements fall by the wayside.
Corporate organization for remote companies
Let’s start with the simpler part: the organization of the company, more precisely, communication and work organization.
I know of only a few companies that have properly regulated what expectations there are, for example, with regard to response times. Of course, these depend very much on the activity in question. But a big advantage of the home office is that it’s easier to work on topics in a focused manner. In the office, depending on the culture, there’s a very high probability that a nice colleague will stumble in at every opportunity and get you out of your flow with a question. Obviously, there are also positions whose purpose is to answer questions non-stop but I’m not talking about them here.
I don’t know many companies that have a clear policy on how long it takes to respond to a Slack message — should it be handled like a phone call or more like an email?
Knowledge work needs focus
But if you have knowledge work to do, you need focus. Here it’s very important to make it clear that no answers to questions can be expected during these focus periods. The morning is largely devoted to focus work — communication takes place only asynchronously. For this reason, we’ve made the morning stand-up meeting asynchronous: in the form of a Slack bot. (GeekBot).
In this way, we’re much better able to respond to the different lifestyles of our employees without having to forego this — regained — important exchange.
Our communication rules state that it’s completely OK to answer a personal question in Slack after 2 or even 4 hours. If someone needs a quicker answer, they have to pick up the phone. This form of clear rules relaxes all employees very much.
We have all blocked from 11 AM-12 PM (CET) as a time slot for internal meetings. Every employee should try to make sure that this time is free from external appointments as much as possible. We’re currently trying out a tool that helps us to use this daily hour efficiently (Remeet). Instead of scheduling meetings with specific people, the tool is only given the information on who should attend and what priority the topic has. The allocation is then automatic and dynamic. In addition, it’s possible to save the minutes and a video recording including transcription directly in the corresponding Slack channel, so that other employees can access it later — asynchronously. Up to now, the working days of many employees were always heavily fragmented by internal meetings and it was often difficult to find time for larger groups of people (3-4 employees). This seems to improve with the use of Remeet.
In the evening, a Slack bot runs again, asking us if there were any highlights or lowlights that we would like to share with our colleagues and how the day went overall on a scale of 1-5. In the end, you have the opportunity to explain this with a short statement. This again is asynchronous. The idea is that you write here what you would answer a colleague in the evening in the elevator to the question “How was your day, anything special?”
Both the morning stand-up as well as the evening end-of-day-bot is written and read intensively.
In summary, we attach great importance to giving our employees as much freedom as possible for their personal work on the one hand, and also to living their own personal daily routine without restricting teamwork on the other.
That was — as I said — the easier part.
At Frontastic, we attach great importance to giving our employees as much freedom as possible for their personal work and their own daily routine, without restricting teamwork.
Corporate culture in the remote company
It becomes more difficult when it comes to corporate culture. In my perception, the classic company does very little to promote it: Classically, one thinks in categories like the summer party, the Christmas party, and — depending on the age of the company — the high-quality coffee machine or the table tennis table. The premium employer offers both and another kicker: When there’s an annual employee appraisal, the company feels that it’s already way ahead.
The rest often develops automatically. By the fact that the employees work together every day, see each other and maybe even take a break together. The coffee kitchen is a good place for non-smokers to exchange information across departmental boundaries. Smokers, who are rarely seen nowadays, are often the best-informed people in a company.
Summer party, Christmas party, high-quality coffee machine, and the annual staff meeting — many people already feel like premium employers (and the start-up company puts a table football or a table tennis table on top of it).
Virtual not distant
If all employees are now remotely distributed, these means of social exchange are no longer necessary. If you run your company remotely, you have to organize these things to be successful. Because all research has shown that remote teams are at least as successful as teams that are physically located together, if social exchange is given — but only then!
In addition to the 4 physical meetings at Frontastic (3 2-day retrospectives and a 5-day retreat), we’re constantly working to promote social exchange between employees. This starts with the fact that we never tire of emphasizing how important we consider this exchange of trivialities to business success. But that alone is of course not enough.
Again, there are technical aids that support you: the Donut Bot, for example, initiates random one-on-one conversations. We have other bots running, which asks on Monday, for example, if there’s anything special to share from the weekend or if you want to post a few photos. Every 2 weeks, the same bot asks employees about personal trivialities: What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen? What’s your next holiday destination? What’s your best skill that many in the company don’t know yet? And so on. The answers are all posted right away on our #social channel and very good discussions often arise here. As a leader, you have to set a good example and show that exchange is desired by taking the time to initiate discussions and ask questions.
Once a week there’s a company-wide, asynchronous retrospective, also triggered by a bot. Same rule here: Only if all leaders take the tool seriously can the same be expected of the employees.
Regular social exchange is a necessary condition for a functioning remote team.
Personal beer after work by video
With my Co-founder Thomas, I often meet for a beer (or rum, whisky, …) after work. Also, as a company, we do things like a monthly after-work hang-out. We also have the rule that you should be in meetings 5 minutes earlier if possible, to use this time for small talk.
As COO and Integrator, I arrange personal casual talks with each employee. Currently, with 30 employees, I have the rhythm of talking to each one for 30 minutes once a quarter. With further growth, it’ll certainly become less or shorter. These talks are particularly important to me in order to keep a feeling for the company, “feel the pulse” and to have a direct exchange with as many people as possible. The conversations have no business content, it’s a purely personal exchange. Of course, we also talk about topics from the company — but the goal is not to.
Employees discuss the specialist topics with their People Lead, with whom they also have regular one-on-ones: depending on preferences, the interval here is between 2-8 weeks. the aim of these discussions is to understand the employee’s specific sensitivities and how the People Lead can better support the employee in achieving their personal goals, the goals of the team, and the company. We don’t have a model of superiors, so people to whom reports are made, but the People Leads are intended to help employees develop in the best possible way. Consequently, the area where classic C-level management and other central departments are located is called the Empowerment Area.
When it comes to corporate culture, we mustn’t forget the appropriate and lived corporate values: here I would like to highlight in particular the Transparency first approach and a culture of mutual help. For a remote company, it’s very important that conversations aren’t conducted in private Slack channels. Transferring private Slack channels to a classic company would mean that all conversations would only be conducted by 2 people behind closed doors. Spontaneous, open communication is an essential part of any corporate communication and is especially important for a remote company. Therefore: don’t use private but open Slack channels if possible.
It’s important to point out here that we don’t expect to read everything that others write in Slack. You can only read messages in the team channel and if you’re mentioned personally. Everything else is to be considered like a newspaper: You read what catches your eye, one day more, the next day less.
Spontaneous, open communication is an essential part of any corporate communication and is particularly important for remote companies. So, “Transparency first” is 1 of our 5 core corporate values.
Is the home office a success model?
To get back to the headline: No, the home office isn’t a success model for every person or company. But it can take away a lot of pain for both companies and people (lack of skilled workers, long journeys). However, this only works if you do it right — as so often. Otherwise, it can happen that the home office becomes a very negative experience for many companies and employees.
My urgent request is therefore not to leave it at the technical aids (electronic files/paperless office, video meetings, forum/chat software), but to pay special attention to communication rules and above all to social exchange.
I would be very pleased if many people and companies have a positive experience of working from home and in this way take a positive impulse from this unusual time.
My urgent request: Pay special attention to communication rules and especially to social exchange. Technology can help here. But nothing more.
After one of my presentations about our remote organization, a development manager approached me: He said that he thought that was great and that he had thought it through for his department. It would work — for the most part. The only thing that wouldn’t work, and that would be a real showstopper for him, is working together on the whiteboard. I could only agree with him at this point. The digital whiteboards are actually not as good and can’t offer the same working experience as the real ones. When asked how often he would work on the whiteboard with his employees, he replied at most once a week, rather less often.
So I invited him to accompany me mentally into a world where there’s only the home office. In this world, one then confronts an employee with the idea of setting up a shared office where each employee travels an average of 30 minutes each way every day — in order to participate in the ingenious experience of the classic whiteboard. Several times a day? No, only occasionally, maximum once a week. But nothing could really replace that.
My listener began to smile. He had understood the message. Beaten paths must be questioned regularly. I hope that the home office spread caused by the Corona crisis will help.
Henning is a Software Expert with strong enterprise skills. He’s worked in many management positions like Product Management, Marketing, Business Development, and Digitalization. He’s one of the Co-founders of Frontastic and works as Integrator and COO.