Social distancing. Self-isolate. Prescribed quarantine. These phrases, now commonplace in our daily lexicon amid the novel COVID-19 pandemic, are necessary to heed to successfully mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus. However, these acts—while essential—present a challenge to businesses as they pursue workplace strategies to protect their employees and customers from illness.

Moving your business to a fully remote model—even if temporary—requires creating a culture of accountability, utilizing reliable systems while maintaining a required level of security. This will allow your team to stay connected and productive while working remotely.

Yardstick Services has followed a successful remote work model for over a decade, which not only allows the company to function profitably, but also has helped to create job opportunities that allow our team to work from anywhere in the world.

So, we’d like to help anyone that is struggling by sharing some of our best-practices. This should apply to a wide range of small-to medium-sized businesses looking for ideas and tips on how to operate within a remote work environment. Larger corporations will use ERPs and will be leveraging different tools…but will still need to consider culture and security in the same light.

Creating a Culture of Shared Accountability

In order to lead a productive remote team requires you to change the way you think about managing people. You won’t be able to do a quick attendance check when you walk in the office. You will no longer have the ability to walk into your colleagues’ office and ask a quick question. You won’t bump into someone from another department to hear about what they are up to. And you’ll be lacking in the team building and unity that comes with standing around in the lunchroom talking about pop culture and current events. But, all of those things can still take place while working remotely as long as you adopt a few new norms:

  1. Encourage Openness: Working remotely means that your team is more likely to feel isolated. They will be lacking the ability to get a read on the pulse of a business. As leaders, we need to take the time to be even more open and transparent about our goals, intentions and plans for the business. Managers need to take a bit more time to do one-on-one check-ins (ideally via video conference) to make sure the team is clear on the shared goals.
  2. Employ Mature People: A remote team is appropriate for employees that are mature. Not old. Mature. Maturity means “team members that understand how to create a good work-life balance while still hitting deadlines and achieving goals”. You need team members that can create a space in their home to work and are self-motivated and able to complete tasks/duties without having a manager looking over their shoulder. Not everyone can work from home. So, we often ask team members that we are hiring if they have ever worked remotely before. How do they stay focused and avoid distractions? Do they have a dedicated work space in their home? How do they deal with feeling isolated or alone?
  3. Review Compensation Structures: Salaries may not be the best compensation model for certain remote workers such as technicians and administrators. You may want to switch your team to be paid hourly based on logged time to complete tasks (both new and recurring). This is a big shift and isn’t something you can do overnight. And it will require input from an employment lawyer (Kent Employment Law has provided some great advice for BC employers). The upside for employers is it tightly controls the costs in the business and ensures you are only paying for productive time (which includes meetings). It forces team members to think “I need to be productive in order to get paid.” The downside is it requires systems to support your team so they always know what is expected of them and they aren’t sitting idle waiting for work and not getting paid. We’ll get to that later.
  4. Flexible Working Hours: A good compensation model allows you to think about “when” people have to work. Most of the tasks in businesses are not critically time-sensitive. In other words, if a task can be done tomorrow or later in the week…perhaps it could also be done in the evening or on the weekend. Giving your team members the option to work when they want means they have the flexibility to take a loved one to the doctor, walk the dog, care for children, etc. We are finding that this is highly valued by our entire team (including our owners and managers). The only caveat is that we require team members to record their time and attend scheduled video meetings internally and with clients, which ARE during working hours.
  5. SMART Goals/Tasks: When a manager assigns something to a remote worker, you need to make sure you’ve set goals that are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. Adding this to the tasks within your Project Management System (more on that shortly) gives both the manager and team member in question a clear point of reference as you all bounce around between tasks/duties…while working remotely.
  6. Meetings and Scrums: First, you will need to get comfortable with video conferencing technology. We’ll mention a couple good solutions later. Then, each of your departments need to adopt a regular meeting time for all of their team members to get together and follow a set meeting agenda. The agenda for scrums should be short and sweet. The goal here is to just review goals, allow team members to talk about any issues/barriers they have that are preventing them from doing their work. And then go about your day. Some teams meet daily, others meet weekly. We recommend at least once a week for the scrum. It is sometimes good to have a larger team meeting for everyone in the company to talk about goals, wins, challenges, etc. Once a month is normal for a team meeting, but some businesses may need to rally the troops more frequently during this period of uncertainty.
  7. Create a Virtual Water Cooler: This is important. You need to give people the time to chat idly, share jokes, talk about current events, etc. It’s what people normally do in the office. Embrace it. We have a channel in Slack that we call “#water-cooler where anyone can post anything. As long as it doesn’t infringe on any human rights issues or company policies, it’s cool.
  8. Track Everyone’s Time: This is important. Even if your staff is salaried, you want to have a clear record of what everyone did each day. We use Harvest for this. Time is tracked against assigned tasks for project work and campaigns. Time is tracked against some high-level internal expense categories for time spent on things like “meetings,” “R&D,” etc. Carry this through to your leadership and have the executive/management team also log their time for things like “business development” and “sales.” And then if you’re brave enough to make all of the timelogs public (so everyone can see everyone else’s timelog), you can create a true culture of shared accountability.
  9. Communication Norms: Working remotely means you’ll be employing a lot more written communication. So, you first need to make sure that your remote workers are literate enough to communicate on their tasks/duties in writing. Second, you will inevitably create some short-forms for communicating more efficiently. Our norms includes some agreed upon abbreviations for certain client names, we use the “thumbs up” or “OK” icons in our systems to acknowledge that we’re read something someone else has posted. We have norms for how we communicate and sign-off on tasks. These will likely be discovered organically as you proceed. But, don’t be afraid to identify these norms early on and communicate them to the entire team – “when you’ve read something, give it a thumbs up”.
  10. Announce Wins: This last point is really important. Your team members are going to have successes. They might make a sale or save a key account; however, they are sitting at home and can’t immediately celebrate that win with their colleagues. As leaders, we need to ensure we first take the time to ensure we are capturing/recording those wins. Secondly, we need to publicly recognize the champions within our organization. This is something that can be done during scrums and also posted on Slack for everyone in the company to see. This, above all else, will keep your team focused on positive outcomes.

Choosing the Tools to Support Your Team

Once you’ve considered all of your cultural norms, you are now in a position to look at some software and tools to support your vision. At Yardstick, we leverage some great tools and software to support our remote team. The end result is we have adequate managerial oversight while also giving our team the autonomy to work when then want and from wherever they want. Here, we’ve culled together some of the software and applications that help us work together…remotely:

  1. Slack: An instant messaging platform where users work in organized spaces, i.e. dedicated channels for conversations on topics/projects/clients, to keep the team informed, organized and focused in one central place. We have channels setup in Slack for all of our clients so that conversations about a given client/project are contained. We also have internal channels for management, R&D, sales, etc. We even have a #water cooler where anyone can post anything including family pictures, cat jokes, etc.
  2. Flow: Flexible project and task management software allows users to work together to quickly and thoroughly complete projects. Flow is the hub of our operations. We (including myself, the CEO) all reference Flow to look at our priority list of tasks and due dates. It’s a vital system that allows us to bounce around between multiple projects and campaigns and assign tasks to multiple team members.
  3. Harvest: A user-friendly cloud-based time-tracking app. Its main characteristics include: time and expense management, team management, project management, scheduling and invoicing. Harvest integrates with Flow so that our team can track time on tasks simply by clicking a little clock icon (start/stop) within a given task. This is essential as it allows us to track our labour and expenses to the minute. We have years of history in Harvest, which allows us to estimate future projects very precisely. Harvest also has a feature that allows us to map out our team’s commitments to projects relative to their availability and time commitments. Some of our team members are only available on certain days or for a certain amount of time each month. This makes it easier for us to see how that availability will impact our project timelines and deadlines.
  4. G Suite: A suite of cloud computing, productivity and collaboration tools, software and products developed by Google. We use G Suite for our corporate email, shared documents and calendars. There are more features you can explore within G Suite if you’re interested. But, this is what we use it for.
  5. Dropbox: A reliable file syncing and online file storage management service with no file-size limit for files uploaded via the desktop application or mobile apps. We tend to use Google docs these days but still share some files via Dropbox where appropriate.
  6. Whereby (formerly Appear.in): Personal and team rooms for reliable video and audio meetings, presentations, online training, etc., from your browser. In short, this is our video conferencing solution. We prefer Whereby.com only because it’s a bit less expensive and easier to use than some other solutions. Zoom is another great widely adopted product. and is worth looking into if you require increased security for sensitive discussions (such as people in health care or the financial sector). There has been a lot of discussion recently about Zoom’s security. So, we’ve also tried out Google Meet and GoToMeeting.
  7. Calendly: Easy online appointment scheduling software. Calendly allows us to sync our calendars with some pre-set meeting rules in Calendly. These presets then allow me to share a link with people that want to book a meeting with me. They can view my schedule and book a meeting, which saves me countless hours going back-and-forth with a given client whose own schedule is in turmoil. They can cancel or reschedule meetings according to the rules I have laid out in Calendly. This is a HUGE time saver for anyone on your team that is booking meetings and also makes it easy to book meetings. I haven’t quite figured out how to sync Calendly with shared resources such as a video chat room. But, so far, we’ve gotten by with few issues.
  8. RingCentral: A flexible and secure business phone system and so much more, for less. This is our phone system. It’s affordable and gives us all of the features of a fully functional phone system without all of the hardware and headaches of an actual phone system. We can create different phone numbers, rules, groups, and call lists, you name it. Their admin user interface takes a bit of getting used to, but RingCentral does WAY more than we’ll ever need and their support has been outstanding.
  9. Confluence: A content collaboration software program for collaboration and knowledge sharing. We’ve been using Confluence for a number of years to document all of our systems and processes. It’s a fantastic program and allows us to get new team members up to speed on “how” we do things much faster. It also allows us to maintain a consistent process for complicated things like website development which (for us) has a handful of milestones and hundreds of steps therein.
  10. HelloSign: Get work done faster with legally binding eSignatures. You won’t be able to meet people in-person to sign contracts. So, you may need to adopt an e-signature solution. We’ve been using HelloSign successfully for over a year. Another good solution is DocuSign. There are others. Just make sure you pick one that allows for “legally binding” signatures and you’re good to go. Once set up, you may use it indefinitely as it really is faster and more efficient than paper, regardless of the public mandate for “social distancing.”
  11. FreshBooks/QuickBooks Online: If you’re not already sending your invoices electronically, then you’ll need to consider this. We’ve been using FreshBooks for years to send invoices. Most of our clients pay online. We also use QuickBooks Online as our general ledger. Both are good. We may drop one for the other in the near future. Credit card processing fees seem to vary enough that keeping both makes sense for the time being.
  12. Online Banking: We use Vancity and benefit from the features that they offer that allow us to do most of our banking remotely. We don’t have any cash transactions. But, we do receive cheques. With Vancity, we have the ability to take pictures of the cheques we receive by mail and make deposits without having to go to the bank. The Vancity app is a great little tool that I’m sure isn’t utilized to its fullest potential by most members. Other banks like CIBC, Scotiabank and RBC have similar applications. We also pay our entire team by direct deposit or e-transfers which saves on the need to print, sign and mail cheques.
  13. LastPass: Extremely secure online password manager/storage, which supports multi-factor authentication, fills forms, and has a strong password generator. It can also save login usernames, credit cards, bank account details, etc., virtually any piece of data you need to keep secure. Hackers cannot access your passwords without your master password, and all passwords you store in LastPass stay encrypted. We use LastPass religiously to service hundreds of clients with thousands of passwords. Our team members only see ****** when they are logging in. And we have 2-factor authentication (2FA) or 2-step verification (2SV) set up on all of our team’s accounts.

Maintaining Security

And with that we transition to talking about security. I provide this section with a caveat that I am not an IT expert. We know WordPress Security via our sister-company, WordZite.com. But we rely on qualified and experienced IT people when it comes to email, servers, storage of personal information and so on. Regardless, adopting cybersecurity measures for your employees working remotely are vital. Here are a few tips but by no means an exhaustive list:

  1. Use a Password Storage Solution: Again, we use LastPass to store all of our company and client logins and share them with our team. Our team only sees ******** when they login. It’s brilliant. And we’ve set up “groups” of users so we can easily add a new team member to a group and give them access to everything they need in minutes.
  2. Set up 2FA/2SV/Dual Auth: Two-Factor Authentication, Two-Step Verification and Dual Authentication are basically all the same thing. Your entire team should be set up so that they login to LastPass (or another password sharing solution) and then they have verified the login via a text message, an app on their phone, a USB key or another method. This just ensures a third party can’t login even if they happen to know one of your team members’ passwords.
  3. MORE 2FA/2SV/Dual Auth: I’m saying it again because once you’ve got your team on LastPass (or another solution), you need to ensure that the key systems your team logs into ALSO have 2FA. We use Google Authenticator for this. For example, we set up a given application (such as a shared email inbox) with 2FA. Our administrator logs in to LastPass. And then they use LastPass to login to that mailbox. Our Admin doesn’t see the mailbox login. She just sees ******** autofilled. And when she logs in, she gets asked to verify the login via Google Authenticator. We provide a 16-character key to our admin, which she sets up in Google Authenticator (only once). Henceforth, Google Authenticator will then generate the 6-digit verification code the administrator needs to login to that shared mailbox. It’s an extra step when logging in and some initial setup. But it’s well worth the time for increased security. An IT person may have a more elegant solution…I’m all ears.
  4. Educate Your Team About Phishing and Malware: Be especially mindful of COVID-19 phishing attacks currently circulating (scams and emails asking you to check your passwords or login credentials). Do not click on suspicious links or open any attachments.
  5. Require Updated Antivirus and Malware Scans: Require that your team uses devices that have up-to-date anti-virus software and/or malware scans. If they don’t have it, consider providing it or reimbursing them for a license.
  6. Use Latest Browsers: The latest browsers will ensure that connections are as secure as can be. Older browser versions are full of security holes and performance issues. Smart companies will actually require their systems to do a “browser check” and will reject users trying to log in with older browsers.
  7. Secure Wi-Fi and VPN: Nobody in your company should be allowed to connect using an open or unsecured Wi-Fi connection. If a team member needs to work from such a location (say an apartment that is stealing Wi-Fi from the coffee shop downstairs) you need to provide them with a secure VPN connection. This protects your company from having data/information intercepted via an open Wi-Fi network. Beyond this, we would defer to IT professionals to provide advice on devices, Wi-Fi, ISPs and VPN connections.

If in doubt, ask your IT professional for some advice. We can refer you to some great IT companies if you need help.

Bonus Tips

  1. Dress the Part: It may be more casual than usual. But, I still recommend that leaders wears clothes that they would normally wear to the office or maybe a slightly more casual version thereof. My team is used to seeing me in a golf shirt with a sweater over top if it’s cool out. Every company will have it’s own culture when it comes to attire. As leaders we set the tone. So, show up looking sharp for your video chat and your team will know that you mean business and that it’s not time to slack off.
  2. Dedicated Workspace: I’ve got a room in my house that is “the office”. I have a shower. I eat my breakfast. I kiss my wife. I hug my kids and then I “commute” upstairs and down the hall to my office. Psychologically, this allows me to separate my work life from my family life while also creating a physical barrier. Create your workspace and keep it separate from the family space(s).
  3. Family Rules of Engagement: My office door has a lock. My family understands that when I am “at work” I may as well be 30 min away at a real office. I’m not available for idle chit chat or to help remove that stuck piece of lego (my kids #1 request). Once you’ve created the space, you need to create the rules of engagement with your family that they all agree to and understand. This will avoid frustrations that come with being potentially distracted or interrupted by family members while “at work”.
  4. Enable Your Video: Communication is 60-80% nonverbal. Your team needs to see you. So, be prepared to go through a bit of pain and figure out how to get that camera and mic working on your laptop or device. In our company, we require that all managers have cams enabled. We allow “audio only” for some team members working in distant time-zones or with lower-quality internet connections.
  5. Measure What You Want to Manage: This ties into systems and tools. But, as leaders, we need to make sure we can still measure the important metrics in our business. Make sure you have some KPIs for your business and for each department in your business. Give you managers the responsibility of trying to figure out how you are still going to measure and report on those important metrics. Don’t waste time trying to make sure your employees logged in at 9am and logged out at 5pm. Focus on goals and outcomes. Make sure your team clearly understands those goals and how their role in the company helps to achieve shared success.
  6. Consider Implementing a Profit Share: Ironically, we just implemented a profit-sharing program during the very early stages of the Covid-19 crisis. It’ll be a challenge for us this year. Nonetheless, this can still create a shared incentive for your team. There are lots of articles out there on profit sharing. We recommend setting a pool and then calculating everyone’s share based on their tenure, role/impact in the company and salaries/hours works.
  7. Endorsements and Recommendations: Take 5 min of your day. Log into LinkedIn and provide endorsements or recommendations for your customers, suppliers, contractors, staff and colleagues. Joe Apfelbaum, CEO of Ajax Union has a great article on Getting Recommendations on LinkedIn. Not only is this good for everyone’s morale, it will create potential exposure and opportunities for you and all the people your business supports.
  8. Criminal Record Checks: They are called Police Information Checks (PIC) in Canada. I highly recommend you request that all new hires get these. And I also recommend that anyone touching critical systems in your company or in your clients’ businesses get one. The employee needs to go down to their local police station and request it. They will get a copy which they share with the employer. It costs about $80. We reimburse our employees for this cost. And while we’ve never had an issues with someone we’ve hired…I do know of a colleague that asked a new hire to get a PIC as the final step in the hiring process. That candidate didn’t get the PIC and never showed up for their first day of work. Hmm…
  9. Complete Your Profiles: In Slack, Flow and other systems, we insist that our team members have a headshot or a fun Bitmoji setup for their profile. This way we can easily see who is making each comment. Otherwise, ten Kevin’s could all be commenting on something and it gets confusing.
  10. Organize Your Shared Files: Remote teams get sloppy when it comes to creating and sharing files. So, you need to make sure someone in your company has taken on the role of organizing your shared files and folders into a structure that works for everyone. And then you need to make sure your team follows that agreed norm. For example, our designers always put their working copies of ads or websites in a separate folder within a project. Final copies are always filed in the same manner for all clients.

Conclusion

There is a certain amount of uncertainty in the world right now. But the good news is that we are all needed. You all do important things that provide products and services to other people. That’s not going to change. It is just being interrupted momentarily. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s struggles. We’re feeling this as well. We are a digital agency that designs websites and manages digital marketing campaigns — what most CFOs would qualify as “discretionary spending.” But that’s just today. That’s not forever.

So, my overarching advice to all businesses is to take this opportunity to consider making some long-term positive changes to how you do business. Allowing for more remote workers has benefits that will outlast this crisis. Remote workers are happier workers because they get more free time with their families and spend more time doing what they love. When done right, this translates into less sick days, more productivity and lower turnover of staff. Companies that embrace a culture of remote workers have lower overhead in terms of office leases and equipment. And perhaps most importantly, remote workers don’t need to commute. This has incredible benefits for our city’s infrastructure as well as our planet as a whole.

If you have any questions, or are looking for support and direction about working remotely, please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I’ll do my best to respond.