How to set up your startup for remote work

Caution due to the Coronavirus is leading many tech companies, including Twitter, Google and Microsoft, to cut business travel and encourage their engineers to work remotely. Many will be working from home for the first time.

At Commit, engineering partners managed to successfully work remotely with a number of startups over the past year or so, and I wanted to share a few tips with anyone trying it out for the first time.

Communication

When you transition to remote work, the biggest change is in the way you communicate with your team and the rest of your company. The first tip I have is to get comfortable with asynchronous communication, or interactions that don’t involve immediate two-way responses. I have a full article on it here, but I’ll summarize the main points.

“Always over-communicate … ask the right questions, start threads and brain dump your thoughts.”

You need to communicate in a way that provides everything a colleague would need to answer your question or fulfill your task. Once you write your message, ask yourself, ‘if you were reading it,  would you have everything you need to answer the question?’
 

Mohit Gupta joined Commit early on as an engineering partner and was key in building our brand of reliable, trust-worthy engineers. He spent the last few months working for clients while travelling through Asia.

“Always over-communicate with Slack, ask the right questions, start threads and brain dump your thoughts with your teammates to ensure nothing slips between the cracks,” suggested  Gupta.

In addition to this, successful remote companies will often communicate more than non-remote counterparts. Let them know when you’ll be working, what you’re working on, or if you’re stuck on something.

Daily stand-up meetings can help with this, but also keeping a short write-up on what you’ve been working on each day can help your team and your managers out.

Work out loud. Even if you have a single task assigned to yourself, reach out to the team regularly so they know what you are doing. Sometimes they will even help you come up with a better solution to the problem you are working on.

Clara Tsang, a front-end specialist at Procurify and recent Commit graduate. Source Commit.

“When I first started working remotely I would often get distracted with wanting to do chores at home,” said Clara Tsang, a front-end specialist at Procurify and recent Commit graduate. “I started using a time-blocking app (Plan) to section out what I’d focus on work-wise and also including time blocks to do the chores I’d want to get done. Set regular work hours and find spaces to work in where you can really get into the zone.”

Being good at setting your Slack status (Away, Busy, In a Meeting, etc.) and setting expectations and guidelines on response time.

Make sure you have the flexibility to be able to video chat when you need to drill down into something critical. Having one five-minute chat can potentially save hours of back and forth on Slack.

Remote Meetings

Make sure all remote meetings have a video call, even if everyone is in the office. Setting this up early will help make it a habit and avoid having remote people be left out of important decisions.

This is a key part of being remote, making sure you are able to be seen and heard easily. Get a good quality microphone and headphones. It adds to your professionalism to be heard properly and goes a long way to provide peace of mind to employers that is so important in remote workers. Have a stable internet connection. If you can’t guarantee solid WiFi look into getting an Ethernet connection that’s stable enough for large video calls.

Shah Khan, engineering partner at Commit. Source Commit.

“Attend meetings a few minutes before they start and spend time learning the ins and outs of Zoom or Hangouts,” suggested Shah Khan, another engineering partner at Commit. “Learn how to screen share, and have configs set up to make sure your text size is legible.”

Don’t whiteboard things, it’s hard to read and requires manual work to type up later if you need to share with the rest of the team. Use collaboration tools like Google Docs or Trello to run your meetings. This allows everyone to have input, but also allows you to easily save it for looking back on later, and sharing with team members who couldn’t attend the meeting.

When making the transition to support remote workers, you may discover issues where things were available on the office network, but not from outside. Setting up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that all employees can log in through is a great way to ensure a consistent experience. Make sure it’s part of your onboarding and there’s a clear channel for people experiencing issues to solve them quickly so they can get back on task.

Work Life Separation

Getting out of the zone is as important as getting into the zone. It’s very easy with no physical boundary to over-work. Although this is fine, eventually it leads to burn out and lack of time for other aspects of your life.

Set an alarm if you have to, but make sure you can clock out. Create a space for yourself, or go somewhere outside. There are plenty of distractions at home, you need to create a workspace that you feel comfortable in, that’s free of distractions. This will differ from person to person.

You need to create a workspace that you feel comfortable in, that’s free of distractions.

Try to find your best regular working hours, and find spaces to work where you can maximize your productivity. For people with kids, it can be tough. Try to make sure you have at least one door between them and your working space. Discuss with your household when you need quiet time and when it’s okay to be interrupted.

Be available online or let your teammates know if you won’t be available for a certain amount of time during the workday. Some of the apprehension colleagues experience when transitioning to a remote way of working is due to a feeling that they may not be able to get immediate feedback when they reach out to you online.

As long as you’re able to manage expectations and let your coworkers know if you’ll be unavailable for a certain amount of time, a lot of that aforementioned apprehension can be alleviated.

Documentation

Partly due to necessity, as well as some of the points we mentioned earlier, documenting things for remote makes a lot of sense. Sure you can message someone to ask questions, but in a remote setting, this can be a little difficult, especially if your schedules don’t align.

Traditional workplaces heavily rely on an ‘I will drop by your desk to figure this out,’ approach, however, it’s hard to scale as your company grows. Well-written documentation can be consumed by anyone at their own pace (for some, reading is faster than listening) at any given hour of the day.

The latter is extremely valuable for remote workers spread across different time zones. I prefer not having to be physically available during odd hours or blocking colleagues working different hours.

This will ensure coworkers don’t need to reach out to you every time a question arises, answer it once, then document it to share with the rest of the team. Thorough documentation has more benefits than just fewer interruptions: shared accountability, alignment on requirements from clients and stakeholders, and a record to reference when future work is planned.

At Commit we are building a platform to connect world-class engineers with world-changing founders. If you are an experienced remote engineer, we would love to hear your tips in the comments.

Image source Unsplash. Photo by Thought Catalog

Shane Gearon

Shane Gearon

Shane Gearon is an Engineering Partner at Commit where he enables software companies to accelerate their development practices and deploy code efficiently and safely.