Best practices when working from home at Wise
COVID-19 has forced us to all work from home since March and most of us will continue to be away from the office for the foreseeable future. To successfully adapt to these circumstances a few processes should be reviewed as we can no longer count on a lot of the benefits that face-to-face communication gives us.
In the Receive team, we’ve started to adopt some of these processes as early as May 2019 so we could start to be a remote-friendly team. At that time the team was mostly based in London while one engineer and our customer support and operations were located in Tallinn. Additionally, the team is formed by people from all over the world and it was common for someone to want to work remotely for a couple of weeks from their home country or to travel.
Following the best practices outlined below we were able to successfully work when different members of the team decided to go remote from other countries like Brazil, Spain, Hungary, Ukraine, Indonesia, N̶a̶r̶n̶i̶a̶,̶ and Thailand. These processes also allowed us to make a smooth transition to the fully remote working life that we now encounter ourselves in.
The processes and ideas below are by no means exhaustive and may not necessarily work for you or your team. The key is to have an experimental mindset to test and find out what works for you and your team.
🕑 Remember to take breaks
When you’re working from home your day blends into one single thing. You start to lack external cues to take a break and change your environment. Add times in your calendar to remind yourself to stand up and take a breather. Spending 8–10 hours a day (14 if you watch Netflix) looking at your screen is tiring. We can’t maintain focus on something for more than 2 hours, so make sure you take regular and periodic breaks to rest your eyes, your brain, and your energy levels.
Unfortunately, when you work from home you need to start being proactive about stopping work and (even more so) about taking care of yourself. It’s easy to get sucked in and stay on your computer until later hours of the night. And unless you’re watching Snowpiercer, don’t. Close your computer. Take a break. Come back tomorrow.
🚪 If you don’t feel it — call it a day
Odds are, you’re working more now than you were before quarantine. When you work from home, you lack the external cue to stop working. You also have less things to do outside, since (almost) everything is closed, so your natural tendency is to continue working.
But working more doesn’t translate to more getting done. It also makes you more tired in the long term. We are also, in general, not taking as many holidays as before. All of this can build up a lot of stress and fatigue, which can eventually lead to a burnout. If you’re sitting in front of your computer and you’re tired and unproductive, there’s no point in staying in front of the computer to clock in the hours. Stop, call it a day and take a break. Tomorrow you’ll be more productive and will be able to catch up on what you missed.
🏃🏽♀️ Have a routine, and disconnect after work
Our environment plays a major role in our day-to-day, our mood, motivation, habits and energy levels. Like I mentioned above, odds are you’re working more now than before. Your home has become your office and now you have no environmental separation between your work life and your personal life. You’ll need to make a (strong) effort to stop thinking about work, after work. The best ways to disconnect will be to have a routine where you have clear start and end times to stop working. Have an external cue to get you to stop. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you it’s time to close slack (and your computer). Then, change your environment. Change your clothes. Walk outside and breathe some fresh air. Maybe walk outside before and/or after work to mimic a commute. If your residence allows it, work from a specific “work” room. If you can’t, try to work from your living room rather than your bedroom. If you can’t, well, work from your bedroom. You’ll find it much easier to disconnect after work, to avoid fatigue and burnout if you are able to separate the places where you sleep and spend the majority of your non-working time from the place where you work.
For your team
📄 Document everything
Like pizza, documentation is generally a good idea, but when you work co-located, it’s easy to make decisions by turning to your teammate who is sitting beside you, have a quick conversation and make a decision. The problem with this is that for everyone that wasn’t a part of this conversation, this decision never happened. If you have team members in other offices or if the team is remote, then these decisions need to be documented, preferably in the wiki and not on Slack, to make it easier for other people to see and contribute with feedback.
Some team rituals, like retros, are also a good idea to document on the wiki. Not everyone will be able to attend all meetings, and some learnings and decisions are worth writing down to revisit in the future and to give those team members that were not present access to what was discussed.
Analogously, meeting notes are also a great thing to document in general and even more so when working remotely. One of the great benefits of remote work is that you don’t have the distractions that come with the open-office floor plan. If people don’t need to be in the meeting, let them focus on their jobs and share meeting notes afterwards.
📹 Record important meetings
Similar to the above, if a team member can’t join an important meeting, they may be open to rewatching it later. Save it, along with the meeting notes, and post it on confluence.
➖ Consider decreasing meetings when possible
One of the many benefits of not being in the office is that people can’t come over to you and tap you on the shoulder to ask a question and interrupt your flow. What you’ll find is that a lot of meetings could have been avoided with Slack, email, or confluence discussions done asynchronously. By reducing the number of meetings you also become more flexible with those in other time-zones who, due to time, may not be able to join a specific discussion.
Experiment moving to async-first decision making. Decisions may be slower, but they may be better. Asynchronous decisions allow people to have time to think and feedback before making a rash decision. Not all decisions require the whole team to be in a meeting. Write a doc with your thoughts and share that around. People will have time to think and give proper feedback.
🔁 Iterate on processes
Things change all the time. A process you have in place today may stop working next quarter. Be open to changing the way the team works to be able to accommodate the changing environment.
One of the things we did in Receive was test three formats for stand-ups: physically in the office (with Tallinn members via video call), everyone via video (even when in the office), and via Slack. We took a temperature check after each one to see which worked best for the team. Slack won, in 2019.
After COVID-19 c̶o̶n̶f̶i̶n̶e̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ quarantine started, we decided to revisit video stand-ups to increase face-to-face time, but in the end, the team still preferred to do stand-ups on Slack.
🕹 Make sure to continue connecting with your team
Interacting with your team is even more important now than it was before. Working from home makes it much easier for people to burn out and to lose motivation. Keep the team spirit alive. Make sure to have fun together with game nights, virtual happy hours, or even just socialising meeting times.
In the Receive team, since we opted for Slack stand-ups, we decided to add face-to-face time with what we call “Cafézinho” time. It’s a 30-minute window a few times a week, which is optional, where we can go on and talk about life and personal matters not pertaining to work. Game nights every so often is also a lot of fun.
🧘🏼♂️ Be flexible with time
When people are remote it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will be working 100% of the time at the same time. But, if you have changed locations from your normal working location, it is your responsibility to ensure the team doesn’t slow down because of you. It becomes your responsibility to ensure there are sufficient overlapping work hours so that you are not blocking other people in the team (to make decisions, give feedback, review code, etc).
I am currently in Brazil for the last 3 months and to ensure my decision to be close to my family doesn’t hamper the team’s productivity I today start work at 6am (10am UK), which is the same time I was starting work while in the office.
We’ve had a team member work remotely for two months in Indonesia and Thailand. What he did was split his work day in two, working mornings and nights while taking the afternoon off. This guaranteed that the team had at least a 4h overlap and that he could still join important meetings (and watch recordings when he missed them).
Another important thing to keep in mind is: don’t expect people to be on Slack all the time.
🗣 Don’t skip 1–1s and check in on your team
You shouldn’t skip 1on1s in a normal time, but especially now, make sure to have face-to-face time with your teammates. If you’re not a lead, consider having 1–1s with your colleagues and teammates. We’re all suffering from the isolation, so the 1–1s will help increase contact with your peers.
🎧 When you’re on a Zoom meeting, pay attention
It’s easy, especially now, to turn off your cameras, mute yourself and continue doing what you were doing before the meeting started. For engineers, that clearly means writing tests. Either you shouldn’t be a part of the meeting in the first place, or you should close slack and pay attention to the meeting.
💭 Final thoughts
Working from home has its challenges. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be productive. As in every new circumstance in life, we need to adapt to our new reality. I’ve worked from home in the past and now we’re all forced to do it. Fortunately in the Receive team we adopted some processes that helped us transition to this new reality. I hope some of these tips described in this blog can be helpful for others too.
The bottom line is to make sure to take care of yourself. It’s natural to work more now than when you were in the office, and unfortunately, you now need to exert effort to stop working, rather than to work. Stay positive and try to maintain a life as close to normality as you can. If you see someone else struggling, help them out. Cheer them up. We’re all in this together.
If you’re interested, while working from home is very different from working remotely, there are loads of resources from companies that are remote-first. I have linked some of the best resources I’ve found below.