Lessons Learned from Abruptly Going Remote

Like many teams around the world, at Tamman we’ve had an unexpected introduction to fully remote work over the past two months. Since March 16th, all staff has worked from home as part of the effort to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re fortunate that we can continue working through a stay-at-home order, and that we already had most of the infrastructure and norms in place to support remote work — by mid-March, most of the staff in our Philly office were working remotely once a week.

person sitting using a mouse with a laptop as a small dog sits among soft blankets on their lap

As you might imagine, going from weekly WFH days to all-remote-all-the-time hasn’t been as easy as simply scaling up the VPN. It’s hard to replace impromptu conversations at the coffee machine or gathered around someone’s monitor. I miss jumping into lunchtime debates over the Sixers’ playoff chances and ending every Friday in the office with a round of Super Smash Bros.

But the shift to remote work has also been a useful, if unanticipated, learning opportunity, and a chance to refine our communication. As we’ve adjusted to our new normal, here’s what we’ve learned from working together virtually.

Video calls: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Back when, at most, one or two people were out of the office at a time, we typically didn’t turn on our webcams for meetings and relied on audio-only. When I was the only disembodied remote voice in a room full of others talking face to face, I sometimes struggled to participate. After enough times opening my mouth to say something, only for someone in the room to beat me to it, I could start to feel more like an observer than a participant.

Since going fully remote, we’ve changed our philosophy and now use video calls for just about every meeting. It’s noticeably easier to feel engaged when we can all see each other. But even as video helps bridge the gap, meetings have seemed more taxing, too. Mike, our CEO, cited “Zoom fatigue”: the mental exhaustion of trying to interpret body language, eye movements, and other social cues through a webcam — let alone several webcams at once.

Many of us seem to be feeling it. I come away from a day full of virtual meetings more zapped than I ever did in the office. Though we haven’t radically added more meetings to our calendar, it seems more common now, in the first few minutes of a video call, to commiserate about being “meeting’d out.”

Close up view of young business people putting their hands together. Stack of hands. Unity and teamwork concept.

For now, the benefits of video outweigh the costs. But the shift has already prompted some discussion in our weekly retros about shortening and reducing meetings, and we’ll likely need to keep having those conversations so long as we can’t meet face to face.

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New routine, who dis?

Working from home requires rethinking routines almost by definition. Some daily habits are sorely missed. Before going remote, I cherished my thirty-minute walks to and from the office each day — precious time to warm up my brain in the morning and decompress in the evening. Though I’m hesitant to go out for a daily walk in Center City nowadays, I try to at least give myself a half-hour after work to do nothing.

There are other changes that have been surprisingly refreshing too. I haven’t had a cup of coffee in eight weeks since I don’t have a coffee machine at home. I’ve switched to tea, and I can’t say I miss the extra caffeine.

For some, remote work has required new strategies for finding focus. Marty, our chief of staff, says it took him about three weeks to find a rhythm that worked, but now that he has, he sticks to his schedule more than he did in the office. The predictable set of tasks every day help him stay on track, as does a new habit of daily meditation — “I need the time to recenter and focus to keep me humming productively,” he explained. For others, the home office has offered more focus, not less. Jess, one of our full-stack developers and a veteran of remote work, says she’s been able to get more coding done without the interruptions and distractions of an office setting.

And as necessary and important as the routines are, working from home has also allowed for new spontaneity and impromptu time away from work. It’s been lovely to see team members post in Slack to say why they’ll be away for an hour or so: cooking with their families or driving their kids around the neighborhood for a socially distanced birthday celebration.

Connecting with coworkers

Lastly, remote work has, of course, forced us to rethink how we socialize and connect as a team. As I noted above, I’m missing the office chats and ambient conversations. But our connections haven’t disappeared — just changed. Jess noticed that she’s getting to know other team members better than ever because our interactions are more intentional now. And Carley, our team success coordinator, has worked tirelessly to create those opportunities for intentional connection with virtual coffee breaks, lunch tables, and Netflix Party sessions.

With about a week left in Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order, and likely longer in Philadelphia, I’m sure this list of lessons learned will grow. Our remote work practices are far from perfect, but we’ve made real improvements since mid-March.

If our takeaways have been helpful to you, or you have insights of your own to share, I’d love to hear it. Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

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