Book: No Office » Part 2 - What if there was no office? » Chapter 24 - Remain connected |

Chapter 24 - Remain connected

Working remotely doesn't have to be lonely. Talk to each other regularly.

Loneliness when working from home doesn’t have to be a thing!

Back in 2013, I hired Rafal1 to Nozbe. He was coming from a traditional office environment, and getting a job at my company was his first true work-from-home experience. I was curious how he’d adapt. After all, working from an office full of people is completely different than working from an empty home. After a few months, I asked him how he felt about the switch and if he felt lonely. He responded:

Are you kidding, Michael? I feel more connected to people at Nozbe then I was to people in my previous company. I feel I know people better here already, and I’m not seeing them every day!

I was happy to hear this. After all, there are several things we do in our all-remote company to make people more connected with each other.

Home alone but not lonely in a virtual office

One of the main downsides of working remotely can be isolation. As human beings, we like to be surrounded by people. Even the biggest introverts need others every now and then. Nobody likes to be left alone for too long. That’s why it is up to everyone on the team to make sure nobody we work with feels abandoned or left out.

In a traditional office, there are many ways to stay in touch with others. People who never worked remotely very often make it an argument that their serendipitous meetings in the cafeteria are so much superior than anything a remote work has to offer.

They’re not completely wrong, but they aren’t necessarily right either.

Let’s make serendipity and spontaneity a regular part of work!

The idea is to set up your remote work environment for these kinds of encounters. To which haters will react with this:

If you’re planning this, you’re not being spontaneous! It takes away all the fun from life!

Not true.

Let me give you an example: a date with your spouse. When you have kids, a job and other obligations, you can’t really spontaneously go out on a date. You have to plan it: get a nanny for the kids, make a reservation at a restaurant and get lots of things at home organized.

However, if you don’t do the boring planning part, you’ll never manage to go on a date with your spouse. And when you’ve done all the prep work, only then you have a few hours where both of you don’t have to worry about the kids, the house or any of that day-to-day stuff. You finally have space to be spontaneous and do whatever you want.

Similarly, creating these spontaneous moments with your team members is possible if you put some thought into it.

Connection One – regular meetings!

In Chapter 7, we discussed the three basic rules of meetings in a modern company. Meetings must be regular, optional and well-prepared.

To make sure we have lots of time for deep and meaningful work, as a team we decided to have only a handful of these regular meetings weekly. This way, we can secure the minimum threshold of contact between team members. We know that we’ll usually meet once a week to discuss something. Of course, meetings are optional, so sometimes they get cancelled, but due to their regularity, we know that if the team doesn’t meet one week, they’ll meet the following one.

As always, meetings have to be well-prepared with an agenda and documents ready beforehand to ensure these meetings are efficient and meaningful. Nobody feels like they’re wasting each other’s time.

Connection Two – regular catch-up meetings

Some meetings serve a clear purpose. Sometimes it’s about designing something, just like our Design Fight meeting as described in Chapter 8. Sometimes it’s about improving a process, just like our Quality Support meeting described at the end of Chapter 12.

However, it’s good to also have shorter catch-up meetings between members of some groups at the company. We decided to start our week with such meetings.

A meeting for each team

At 10am every Monday, we have a meeting with our engineering team. It typically lasts around half an hour. This meeting is all about the team bonding. Everyone shares what’s going on in their life, what they’re planning to work on this week and not much more. It’s just a moment to see each other. Our programmers don’t have any other regular meetings in a week, just this one. They communicate everything else in our shared projects and tasks.

In some teams, programmers follow Agile methodologies like Scrum, and as a part of it, they have a daily Scrum stand up meeting. It’s when they share what they’ve been working on the previous day, what they plan to work on tomorrow and if they have any challenges along the way. We tried to have such meetings virtually every day, but it was too much of an interruption in our work and nobody was looking forward to it. So one engineering meeting it is.

We also have similar meetings for our Marketing and Customer Support Teams. The former meets at 3pm each Monday and the latter at 9am each Tuesday. Again, these meetings are not supposed to be very long. After all, we have everything written in our tasks and projects, so there’s not much to communicate. It’s all about team connection and feeling like you’re a part of something bigger. And it’s a reminder that you’re not alone.

A meeting for the leadership

At 1pm every Monday, we have a Directors meeting where I meet with my partners in crime: CTO and VPs of Support, Product, Finance and Engineering. This meeting usually doesn’t last longer than one hour.

It’s like a virtual coffee. We share what’s up with our teams and which goals we’re pursuing or challenges we’re facing. We basically hang out together to get some good energy from each other for the upcoming week. After all, these are the leaders of my company, and without them, I wouldn’t be able to run the business. We’re in this together, and this meeting helps to remind us of our mission. It’s no longer lonely at the top.

Connection Three – individual quarterly meetings

As described in Chapter 16, we are big fans of doing a quarterly review. In our team, everyone does it at the end of each quarter, usually on a Friday, as this is our review day.

After everyone’s done their quarterly review, all of the directors in my company schedule one-on-one video calls with each member of their respective teams. It gives them a chance to slow down, catch up and just talk about work and life.

This is not a formal review. There are no measurements, no values, no judgements. It’s about reconnecting with each other. It’s about giving each and every one of our team members the chance to talk candidly with their leader. To have their leader’s full attention.

After all my directors have finished their one-on-one calls, it’s now my turn to talk to each and every one of them individually. Even though we regularly meet every Monday as a leadership team, this is our time to go deeper, as it’s one-on-one.

Connection Four – individual meetings with the CEO

I have a small team of 20+ people, and I like it that way. I’m sure that what I’m going to explain here doesn’t scale in a large remote-only company like Automattic (the makers of Wordpress) with more than 1,000 employees or Shopify with close to 10,000. But I’m sure it’s doable for up to 100 team members, so I’ll keep doing it.

I meet with everyone on a one-on-one call at least once a year.

In Nozbe, I have a dedicated project for this, where I have a task for every team member. For each of them, I set up a due date and choose a date of some Friday in the future, and I set the task to repeat every six months.

I know. It sounds cold that everyone on my team is a task to me, but hear me out. This way, when I’m due to meet with a person on the team, I get notified about this. I then go ahead and contact them and schedule a one-hour one-on-one video call with them. Because it’s a task, I check out my past comments about this person. This is where I review what we’ve spoken about in the past and add any new facts I learn about them, as well as info on what we discussed. This way, I’m much more prepared for our conversation.

I give heads up to my team that whenever I ask for this call, it means I just want to chat. Nothing more. It’s not about their evaluation; it’s about our virtual relationship together.

I’m trying to make it a friendly conversation. I do ask about their life, their family or their hobbies – and I share mine as well. Because we are an all-remote team, very often some of them are about to move to a new place, so we talk about that. I also want to know if there is anything I can do to make their life easier at work and beyond.

After the meeting, I immediately take notes. I paste them as a new comment to this very same task so that when we talk again, I will have remembered this conversation better.

This is my way of bonding individually with people on my team. It’s my way of meeting them in the corridor or having a coffee with the boss situation. And it works. Ask anyone on my team.

Connection Five – a vlog to everyone every month

As described in Chapter 9, I record a simple 10-minute vlog every month and share it with the team. I talk about the big picture – what’s going on in the company, where we’re at, which challenges we’re facing. Instead of doing an all-hands meeting, very popular in companies these days, I take my iPhone and record a short message, edit it for brevity and let everyone watch at their own pace and comment below the video if they feel like it. This vlog is yet another way of connecting with my team members and an opportunity for them to see me at least once a month and realize that I’m here and I’m taking good care of the business.

Video or audio? Which is better?

Definitely video. As we have very few weekly meetings and very rare one-on-one conversation, we ask everyone involved to have their video on. It’s a question of maintaining a good relationship.

From our side, we promise not to overwhelm them with too many meetings and not to make these meetings too long. Our longest meetings last for two hours tops because everything longer than that becomes just too tiring. That’s why we expect everyone to be present with video on so we can really enjoy each other’s company and a deep, meaningful conversation.

You cannot force people to turn their video on if you’re not mindful of their time!

This is where many companies switching to working remotely make a mistake. They schedule too many meetings or let the meetings drag on for much too long. That’s why people are getting tired. They don’t want to turn on their camera. They’re fed up. They need to work and you don’t let them by making them attend meetings all of the time.2

Don’t do that.

Check out Chapter 10 and the concept of the Pyramid of Communication for a good guideline on how much of everyone’s work time should be spent in meetings.

The one thing: make an effort to connect with your team!

Cultivate one-on-one relationships with people and be vigilant if some of them start feeling lonely. As much as I encourage you to avoid having too many meetings, some are just necessary to keep the spirits of the team going. Especially with people working remotely, you must have a system of interacting with them regularly to make them feel included and accepted.

  1. Rafal is the VP of Product at Nozbe and he’s a co-host of our “No Office FM podcast”: 

  2. Seth Godin posted a very short but good “Zoom etiquette” post: NoOffice.Link/seth-zoom 

Next: Chapter 25 - Meet your customers

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