At AQUAOSO, supporting remote workers is nothing new. As a cloud Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider in Folsom, California, we all work remote from time to time. Half of us work remote a few days per week; the other half are in other locales and full-time remote. As a result of our mixed-remote culture, support for remote work is integrated into everything we do. This approach also allowed us to implement our company-wide pandemic mitigation strategy (work from home) with no disruptions. Below is a brief overview of how we operate. We hope it helps your team adopt remote strategies.

 

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The Tools

Let’s start with the tools we use at AQUAOSO to support remote work.

Team Chat

We have a company-wide chat system in place that all employees log into every morning and stay on throughout the day – with the exception of customer calls or deep work. The application we use is Slack, which is the dominant player in this space. Slack can be used in the browser, and also has a mobile and desktop apps. It’s easy to create chat groups (Slack calls these channels), and control which users have visibility into each of these. In addition to group chat, Slack also supports person-to-person chat. Chat history is limited to 10,000 messages for the free tier, but that is sufficient for many professional teams. Just don’t expect your chat history to be persistent if you’re using this tier!

Here’s what the Slack interface looks like in the browser. You navigate Channels (chat groups) in the left panel. There’s a lot of optional customization you can do, such as audible notifications when you receive new messages, color schemes and more, but it works great with the default settings. Many team members mute certain channels unless they are mentioned directly. This helps keep Slack from being too distracting.

We use Slack to replace most of the brief discussions that you’d make if you were sitting in the same office space. In fact, even our employees who typically work in the office communicate through Slack for the benefit of the remote employees. It’s also handy to have discussions written down for reference for those that weren’t part of the discussion when it was happening. For in-person meetings, we make an effort to take meeting notes that can be shared with team members who were not present.

There are a number of other excellent tools to consider for team chat, such as Chanty and Flock, but in our opinion Slack is the industry standard for a reason. Slack has invested considerably in security compliance, which is a must for our business.

Virtual Meetings

Audio (with or without video) and screensharing virtual meetings are indispensable for remote work. We use virtual meetings to replace in-person meetings – the one’s you’d typically reserve a conference room for in an office environment. Even before the pandemic, every meeting had a screenshare for the benefit of our full-time remote employees. Virtual meetings also replace one-on-one meetings where you’d want to be able to look at the same computer screen.

For these virtual remote meetings we currently use Zoom. Zoom has been extremely reliable in terms of audio quality. The ease with which you can share your computer desktop for presentations makes it an easy solution to recommend.

We seldom use video the entire meeting because it consumes additional bandwidth and CPU. If you have a lot of users in a conference call it can impact the overall call quality. (Plus, we don’t want our co-workers to see when our home is a bit messy! Not everyone has a dedicated home office.) Zoom also has a mobile app, and supports calling in via their phone (which is useful when someone is driving).

Not to say there isn’t a place for video. Live, face-to-face video has qualitative value on a remote team. It is much harder to “get to know someone” via audio. Things like facial cues (“interesting!” “I’m bored, move on”) smiling, and talking flow is often lost on audio-only calls. You can see when a person has paused or is about to speak, reducing people talking over one another. Thus, some teammates enable video at the beginning of the call, say their hellos, tell a bad joke, then disable video for screensharing. Being the person who enables video can encourage others to do so. However, automatically enabling video for everyone can be unexpected or jarring! Don’t do that!

There are other options, including built-in video call support in Slack (at a higher price). For our small business we chose Zoom because it was a professional platform with limited support for free calls (40 minutes). Uberconference is another service that has a free tier (with limitations). Amazon Chime is an inexpensive option for low usage. Gotomeeting is a longtime player in the space as well.

In their paid tiers, all of the above providers let you include people outside the company – without forcing them to create an account. We host sales calls, trainings, and webinars for our customers, so this feature is required.

Email, Team Calendar, and File Sharing

You most certainly already have email and a company calendar system. These are still important! Chat is an augmentation to email, not a replacement. At AQUAOSO, we use the Outlook app of Office 365 (online) for our email service and company calendar. Mobile apps make these even more efficient, as they provide notifications on your mobile devices to remind you of meeting times and important email.

As a matter of practice, we try to avoid having critical business information locked in silos such as Word documents and spreadsheets. But a certain amount of document management will always be a part of business. For file sharing we use Microsoft OneDrive to store and internally share important documents such as contracts and power point presentations. For contract signing, we use DocuSign.

Team Wikis

A wiki is a collaboratively built website that every person in the company can edit. This is our preferred method of capturing business information that needs to be shared throughout the company. Each of our teams has a wiki where important notes (designs, process definitions, strategy discussions, corporate policies) reside. A wiki is a great way to ensure all your key business functions are defined in a way that every employee can access them. It also includes modification history for key company processes and guidance. An added benefit is that on-boarding new employees is streamlined when business practices and procedures are searchable and easy to get to.

We use Atlassian’s Confluence wiki service. All of our wiki content is currently private to employees, but some companies have public-facing wikis as well. Confluence is hosted by Atlassian, and all of our employees have found it simple to create and edit content in. Confluence also has a host of plug-ins to add things like charts/diagrams (like draw.io) to wiki pages that really make things efficient as well as clean looking. While Atlassian offers mobile apps, most of our employees prefer the intuitive web interface.

Software Development Tools

We won’t go into a lot of detail here, since most businesses aren’t software companies. But just for thoroughness, our software developers use Atlassian tools for performing configuration management of our source code, code reviews, and project management. Bitbucket is the hosted source code repository, where changes to our software are managed with a peer review process and automated test integration. Jira is the hosted project management tool, where our product and project managers define the work to be done, and developers chart their progress. Atlassian has an outstanding track record on security, but since we’re cautious, we run batch jobs to backup all of our programming code from Bitbucket to Amazon Web Services Simple Storage Service (AWS S3).

The Important Stuff

Now that we’ve gone over the mechanics, let’s touch on the practical. Note that we’re not doctors or ergonomics specialists; the thoughts below are personal anecdotes from decades of remote experience across our team working remote.

Define your “place for work”

Set up something akin to a home office. It doesn’t even have to be a separate room. Try to carve out an area that is your defined work space. This will help you get into a work mindset when you’re in that space, and help remind family members that when you’re there, you’re “at work.”

Keep Regular Hours

To keep life sane, try to keep fairly regular business hours. There are advantages to working from home: no time lost to driving in, less time getting ready – but it can become tempting and stress inducing to feel that you’re always at work when your home is your workplace.

Contrary to what you might think, most people who work remotely report that it’s harder to stop work each day than to start. If you typically work in a corporate office, you’re probably used to that feeling of “it will have to wait until tomorrow.” You switch off work and drive home at a predictable time. A short commute can even be therapeutic, and shut off the work mindset. However when a home workplace is always a few feet away, the pressures of deadlines can easily lead to forgoing personal time to the detriment of health.

For anyone new to working remote, a new discipline is required: turn off work at the end of the day, then turn it back on the next morning.

Take Breaks

When nobody else is around the office to interrupt you or invite you to lunch, it can become easy to forget to take care of yourself. There is some evidence that breaking up the workday can increase productivity [1]. This of course must be balanced from being in a deep flow state [2] as well as scheduled meetings.

We’ve found that it is easy to underestimate the likelihood of developing shoulder and back pain simply from not moving and having poor posture. Think you’re too young for that? People in their 20s and 30s are still susceptible to repetitive strain injuries, sore muscles, and posture problems. [3]

Other Tips

  • Stand up frequently! Go outside. Get sunlight [4]. Do a load of laundry. Increase your heart rate.
  • Warm up your shoulders doing arm circles or other exercises
  • Look away from the screen using the 20-20-20 Rule. (Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds).
  • Put away your work for lunch. Step away and focus on cooking something. Call a friend or family member and talk to them during lunch.

Thanks to Jeff Parrish for early edits to this article!


[1] https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/productivity-workday-52-minutes-work-17-minutes-break-travis-bradberry-pomodoro-technique.html
[2] https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Work-Focused-Success-Distracted-ebook/dp/B00X47ZVXM
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repetitive_strain_injury
[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nomanazish/2018/02/28/why-sunlight-is-actually-good-for-you/#4ba6ce9b5cd9


Featured photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

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