Everyone around the world is facing a tough time due to the Corona pandemic. Companies are facing a great challenge in this crisis as offices have been shut down and now they have to operate remotely.
It’s tough to manage remote teams, complete the goals and remain on the same page when everyone’s working remotely.
This is the time to learn from ‘Basecamp’, a top remote company that has been managing remote teams and has been running successfully for years now.
The first time companies are scrambling to figure out what to do, how to run a remote company, how to work from home, Basecamp has been doing this for 20 years so they thought that it would be good to be there to offer up some advice and help people out with this because people are struggling with manage remote teams and to run a remote company.
We are going to share with you some excerpts from the recent talk with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in which they have answered all the questions about how to run a remote company and how to handle this difficult situation going on around the world.
“Companies begin to simulate the office remotely which is not really the right way to do things. Although it’s the natural way to do things, it’s a wrong approach.
It reminds me a little bit of back in the mid-90s when the graphical web browser first hit, most websites started to look like cd-rom interfaces and DVD interfaces because it was basically like a direct port.
It’s like we don’t know what this new medium is so we are just going to port this design over from the way we interact with DVDs or CDs on to this other new medium.
And I feel like that’s kind of what’s happening now or what people are struggling with. Like they don’t know how to be working remotely so they’re trying to simulate what it was like to work in the office, which means people are having the same number of meetings.
A bunch of companies is turning on perpetual video streams on everyone’s computer where people are able to look at each other all day long while they’re working remotely or taking a picture of people every 10 seconds. The idea to simulate what it’s like being an office where you can see everybody at home is wrong.”
If you threw me a trombone and said go play something I’m like I don’t know what I’m doing I would suck at it and a lot of people are going to suck at working remotely for a while but there are huge advantages to working remotely.
One of these is that there’s a mindset shift it’s not just about working remotely and trying to simulate what it’s like to work locally it’s about actually giving people more time and attention to themselves it’s about being more asynchronous so not turning everything into a real-time situation.
Here are some of the practical questions answered about how to run a remote company, how to manage remote teams, how to work from home and all the related questions.
1. How to conduct real-time meetings while working remotely?
It’s really easy to pull people into an office or conference room at the office which is why people have meetings all day long. So when you’re managing remote teams, you don’t just throw people in a video chat all day long.
Have fewer of these things and write things up instead of disseminating information so people can absorb this information on their own schedule.
These are some of the ways you can begin to shift the way you work. This is actually an opportunity to rethink the way you work. It’s actually like being thrown a little bit and having to look around and think where we should go next.
These are these moments that we don’t often have at the office because most companies are pushed by momentum. They’re gonna keep working the way they’ve always worked and they never have a chance because everyone’s always so super busy.
2. How do you know what people are doing when they work from home? How do you know if people are actually working remotely?
The answer is you don’t need to know what people are doing all the time. You don’t need to know what people are working on. This is an opportunity to rethink the way you work and do some things in a new way that we think actually gonna pan out in a big way for you over the long term.
When you switch into this new mode where you have to run a remote company, it’s not about getting everyone together at the same time. Do the status meeting not as a meeting but as ‘write-up’ and do the pitch of something you want in the form of a write-up.
If you always have let’s say a ‘Monday morning stand up’, where everyone’s around a room, cut out that Monday morning stand up business meetings and instead just allow people to talk about what they did last weekend or what they are planning on doing this week. So substitute some of that work for some life.
That meeting that you probably have Monday morning you probably don’t need to actually have that meeting. What’s probably more valuable as a social component right now is to write those things up and disseminate those things so people have the information on their own schedule.
3. How to make people working from home remain connected and not feel disconnected?
The whole reason we’re managing remote teams is social distancing. Let’s say like six months from now hopefully nine whatever it is when we can finally get back to normal, I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a hybrid shift now.
Some people are going to be working remotely even after this because people find out that it works pretty well. Some people who work from the office are gonna have more physical interactions and are gonna be together more.
They’re gonna do some things that you can’t do working remotely that’s gonna happen.
However, there are some techniques that we use at Basecamp, a feature called ‘automatic check-ins’ and this is a feature that automatically asks people questions on a given schedule automatically so.
For example, every Monday morning, Basecamp asks our entire company automatically like what’d you do this weekend.
Now, this is a totally optional question, you’re free to share or not. But the point is, it prompts people to share some of what they’ve been doing outside of work with everybody else.
So, we’re all not all together physically but this is a way to share those moments with one another so we get to see a little bit of each other’s humanity.
4. In a workplace with a mix of local and remote workers, what are some good strategies for making remote workers feel more connected and not left out of office events?
Don’t have five people sitting around a conference desk and then one person dialing in from the outside.
This is how a lot of people get a bad impression of what it is to work remotely because they get this experience where those five people around the desk are all connected, there’s no lag and then someone is calling in from the outside and it seems like they are just from another planet and it makes them feel disconnected and left out of office events.
So even if you have the set up where some people are at the office and some people are work from home, level the playing field.
When you do a call that requires remote workers to do it all remotely, get into your own offices, sit at your own desk or whatever and use a video chat system instead.
The absolute worst way is these conference phones where you mix people in the office with people working remotely.
The better way is becoming better writers, becoming more frequent writers and making that the default and then occasionally leveling up to having a call when you actually need to debate something.
Leveling the playing field is important. It makes everyone feel the same.
It also helps in reducing complexity because if you give them one message to one group, one way and another message to another group another way, inevitably the messages are gonna be slightly different and you might leave out some information to one or add something to the other and you’re gonna wonder why didn’t those people know about this. Well, you told two different things so by writing things up, there’s a central source of truth.
5. How do you qualify employees and gain trust if you don’t meet in person?
You don’t hire someone you don’t trust and then wonder how to trust them. We’re very careful about the hiring process, we spend months and months hiring an individual person.
We go through many rounds of interviews. Trust is something you feel about somebody and you get there by asking different kinds of questions and seeing how responsive they are and seeing how good they are giving feedback and talking to people who they’ve worked within the past.
Those are the kinds of things that you do but once you hire someone you must trust them.
You can’t figure that out later so my bigger point here is that you’ve got to suss that out during the hiring process and then once you have someone on board you must trust them.
By the time someone is hired, if you extend trust to them, they’ll give trust back to you. But if you start out not trusting them then the natural response from them is not to return the trust.
6. How do I know someone’s working remotely if I can’t see them well?
What is seeing somebody have to do with judging the work, looking at someone pound away in a keyboard tells you nothing.
All it tells you is someone’s pounding away on a keyboard, looking at someone playing with Photoshop or sketch or whatever they’re using doesn’t tell you that they’re designing anything, it just tells you that they’re using a tool.
You have to look at the work itself and the work can be looked at from 6,000 miles away.
It doesn’t really matter where you are so this idea of trust being a physical quality is also not true. You don’t trust someone more because you can see them than someone who you can’t see.
Lack of trust is a projection of someone’s own insecurities as a manager that you’re incapable of evaluating the work on the basis of the quality of the work because maybe you don’t know the work maybe you just don’t have the capacity or the insight to sort of that’s whether the work is good or not or it’s done in a reasonable time or not.
If these things are true, you’re unqualified to be a manager.
If you cannot assess the quality of the work that’s being done on your behalf or in your direction, you’re unqualified to be a manager.
The hard truth is there are a lot of unqualified managers and they help breed this idea of trust when they can’t see someone working physically.
7. How do you suggest we handle the situation where we haven’t ever been a remote company till now?
You’re dropped into a bit of a new world and you have to learn some new habits, learn some new skills. Everyone can work remotely like it’s not rocket science in that sense.
There is a new set of skills and there is a new set of habits you have to develop but everyone is totally capable of learning those things. We wrote a whole book about it called ‘Remote office’.
There’s a set of skills that you just gotta try doing. First couple write-ups, the first pitch is gonna be a little bad. but the thing here is that we’re gonna be here for a while.
So better start learning now and just get better at it and at the end of it you’re gonna be pretty good.
8. How can we help teams transition through this and what are the best training practices that can we provide?
To help teams transition through this, Leadership needs to have a certain degree of empathy here and we recognize that people are gonna suck at this for a while.
One thing I would encourage you to do is just simply write as you talk sometimes actually not even sometimes most of the time.
Businesses need to curb their ambition a little bit right now and recognize that people have to adjust, they have to adjust at home, they have to adjust at work, there’s a lot of adjustment that’s going to happen and you can’t pile that in and have the same expectations of work getting done as you did three weeks ago so maybe 20% of the time right now is spent on learning how to work remotely.
I think that this is going to be a sea-change shift in working from home. A lot of companies are going to allow people to continue to work from home and so this is a new skill to develop and a new opportunity here.
9. How to handle video meetings with more than 20 people, what are good rules and how to moderate this?
The reason people have a lot of people involved in meetings at businesses is that they have large conference rooms and large conference tables and around those large conference tables are a lot of chairs and empty chairs aren’t a good look so you fill up rooms with more people.
We don’t have to have twelve empty talking headboxes in your video chat thing if there’s only three people or four people that are required to jump in.
Let’s say you only need five and you had twenty before, 15 people just got freed up to do some other things that are really important.
“Having 20 people and having 20 people’s opinions present doesn’t lead anywhere good, it actually leads to indecision.”
We have used video chat systems in the past and the way we use it is everyone is there on it but a very small number of people actually interact and everyone else just sees.
It’s almost like a theater-based operating room. You have a spectator group of perhaps another 20 or in some of our cases we’ve had forty people who watch that surgical group does the remediation on the problem and others are taking that information and learning from it.
10. How do you prioritize your tasks that need to be done or in general what is your productivity system?
We wrote an entire ebook called ‘Shape up’. It details how we prioritize work at Basecamp as a software company. The idea is of not using estimates.
A lot of companies think accountability means asking someone to guess about the future and then if that guess is wrong then they’re bad people. That’s sort of a summary of accountability.
A lot of firms seem to run on it. It’s a really poor version of accountability.
A lot of especially creative endeavors cannot be estimated to any reasonable extent because you don’t know really what you’re building.
So inevitably what happens is that the estimate gets wrong and then someone gets sucked in to working overtime or doing other things.
What we do at Basecamp is we instead do budgets, so we say this general concept let’s say we’re working on a new feature it’s worth three weeks.
Make the best version of what you can of this general fuzzy concept that’s just outline sketched in three weeks and we will trust you to come up with the best version within that time, if it’s gonna take six weeks, it’s not worth it.
Say this is worth three weeks, make the best damn version you can within that and then down the ship. So that is basically the idea of keeping the scope flexible.
It’s easy to get lost in these individuals ‘To Do’s’. Rather than this, thinking what am I trying to get done this week is the right approach. Plan major projects which you need to move forward.
A lot of people end up trying to track things into doing this or otherwise and then at the end of the week they’re like wait what did I get done, what did I actually move forward.
“Instead of looking back that you checked off 122 dues, I’d much rather look at 12 peek picture of things I’m trying to move forward and that that’s enough.”
A big automatic check-ins feature in base camp asks everybody at base camp what are you planning on working on this week and people write up with a plan I’m working on and usually, it’s a few bullet points four or five or six bullet points and some big picture ideas.
11. Not everyone can do remote work, it’s not job-related but person-related. What do you think?
I believe everybody can work remotely. Of course not if you work in the retail industry and you need to be on the floor or you work in a restaurant.
But if you do information work and the examples here developer, designer, product manager, whatever these are all informational
work. If work can be done on a computer it can be done anywhere. Everything I do lives on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, I can do that in the person sitting next to someone, I can do it 4,000 miles, the work is happening on the computer so it doesn’t matter where I am.
There are certain people who feel like they need to thrive around people and I understand that especially during this time it’s going to be harder for some of those people to not have the human connections that they’re used to having. Everyone has to make some sacrifices.
12. How would you host a brainstorming meeting? We’ve done this in person, therefore, how do we do that same thing remotely?
Brainstorming should actually be done individually and then you bring those ideas to the group and then you can discuss them versus coming into a room with a blank slate.
In brainstorming, you got a bunch of people together in real-time and they start shooting from the hip and sometimes good things come out of that.
But what I think is even better things can come out once you plant a seed, you post a pitch and you give it a day or two days for people to let it marinate in their brain maybe even sleep on it and then they’ll either present their own ideas back.
13. What do you think are the key things I can do as a manager of a small team to make remote working a great experience?
Empathy is required and also pausing expectations is required.
You need to cut back your ambitions a little bit you need to have some time for people to adjust, you need to get let people get used to things, you need to let people get their home office setup, you need to let people get the equipment if they don’t have any.
You cannot just assume the business is gonna continue as usual you have to dial back ambitions. I think it’s all it’s incumbent upon leadership to slow down, to chill out for a little bit to relax to give people some space to figure this
out amongst themselves. David said it’s not that challenging it’s just different and anything that’s different takes some time to break some habits and get used to some new ones so that’s the advice I would give.
If you pile four or five different tools in front of people and try to onboard them in four or five different tools and there’s no system in place. People are gonna go where I put the information.
I would encourage you to use Basecamp but you can use whatever tool you want.
“Pause your expectations and dial back your ambitions for a little while.”
14. How do you get aligned with coworkers without interrupting them through chat, phone calls and respecting their time?
You don’t need to be aligned all the time. First of all, you should be able to slide past one another. When you need something from someone else, ask but don’t have an expectation of an immediate response.
When you have expectations of immediate response, you end up driving other people crazy and it’s actually quite arrogant to ask something of someone and expect them to get right back to you right away.
It’s like saying that whatever you’re working on is far more important than what they’re working on. So the idea here is to relax your expectations of one rather, build a little bit more self-reliance.
On Basecamp we have all the tools right like that there are direct messages and the pings and there’s a chat and it always seems like that’s the easiest way to do right.
It’s valuable to protect your time. The entire day is not for team collaboration, you trying to be kind and responding to everyone will end up at the end of the week and have not gotten things done you want to do and that’s not a good place.
Both the self-care and the collaborative care are that you take time away from yourself and you reserve hours where the main thing you focus on is your solo deep work and it’s only emergencies that should really burst that membrane.
Most people don’t even have control of their own day and so you can’t expect people to get work done if they don’t even have control of their own day.
So at Basecamp, we prevent people from taking each other’s time systematically if you want someone’s time you simply ask for it. It’s a negotiation, it’s valuable.
“If you want to put something on your calendar, you should put it there even if someone asked you for your time, you should put it there, you should not let anyone else put anything on your calendar.”
15. How would you encourage leaders to prepare? What if we have a deadline to launch a product?
You must relax your expectations. We have this product called hey coming out in April well it’s not going to come out in April anymore, it’s going to come out later than April.
We have to slow down a little bit right now. We have to let people spend some more time at home especially people with kids at home who are now in charge of the health of childcare.
Launching a new product in the middle of the pandemic is probably not a very thoughtful thing to do. Do not make your team feel anxious about hitting that deadline.
It’s very important to just be very clear and to be very understanding and show that as a leader, as an owner to your team that you understand the reality on the ground and it’s not about we need to buck up.
There are certain industries where like people probably have to put in more time now like people who are researching a vaccine, people who are creating masks. Understand that it’s a national and a global emergency.
I’d say the number one thing to remember here for all product companies is that all deadlines are made up there by us. We invented them, we could reinvent them and we can change them now.
When you set the deadline, there was a reality and now there’s a new reality you have to also adjust the deadline given a new reality.
You cannot ask people to do more work in these kinds of times unless the work is critical life-and-death work.
“Deadlines are very useful important tools but if the ground shifts you’ve got to shift the deadlines as well or or eliminate the deadlines.”
16. Our company is not realizing the gravity of the situation and not allowing people to work from home. How can I best nudge our bosses in the right direction with this stuff?
Call that out and publicly leak it and get it out to journalists.
I talked to a ton of investigative journalists who are thankfully working on stories right now calling companies to account for their shitty practices if they’re forcing people who could work from home to come into an office.
You would lose your job if you work at a place where they have still not gotten the memo despite everything that you should not be working from an office if you could work from home.
You should take your precautions accordingly now. There’s a lot of information out right now, there’s a lot of great write-ups of what happens with social distancing.
So part of this calling out of companies that are not allowing people to work from home who could work from home is I set up this email address called Corona- reports at Hakam where people are essentially leaking bad places of employment and they’re sending in these announcements.
17. How do you set up a culture and understand cultural fit when building a fully remote Organization?
Culture is not something that’s created, culture is something that exists.
I’ve seen a lot of companies with long lists of missions and statements and who we are and what we are and if you secretly pulled every employee into a room and said is that who they are they would go no that’s not how it is here let me tell you how it actually is and how they tell you it actually is the culture that’s what culture actually is.
Seeing people in person doesn’t create a culture either. Culture is how you treat people, how you work with people how patient you are with one another.
These are the things that you actually do, how you ask for feedback, how you give feedback, how understanding you are when people have to be out for a few days or whatever it might be. It’s the things that you actually do and that is independent of location.
“Culture is the byproduct of consistent behavior. It is what you simply do that’s what culture is.”
We typically do something once a month called the 5 by 12. 5 meaning 5 people and 12 meaning one month per year. We pull in five random people and they get an invitation about an hour or something before this even.
We do a video chat once a month with five random people across the company and it’s about a one-hour chat and it’s it can’t we cannot talk about work.
There’s no work discussion whatsoever and this is about mixing people who often don’t work together because people are pulled from different departments.
Since these people don’t often work together, they get to know each other by talking about life and whatever that’s there on their minds.
We also ask people what they have been reading and people share book reviews and topics that they’re interested in. So people can get to know each other in a way that maybe you might get to know each other around lunch if you are physically in the office.
These are the sort of conversations you might be talking about in physical proximity which you might not talk about working remotely but we kind of encourage people to do that so we do that once a month and we transcribe that call and then everybody in the company gets a copy of that transcription so the five or seven people that are in the call get to have the real-life experience.
People can read up on it later if they choose so they’re part of it as well.
A number of employees who never work remotely before who work here now who say they know their co-workers far better than they did at the other job even though they barely see anybody.
So you can really make sure people know one another even if they don’t see each other. We have also written a book called ‘Rework’ which better describes our culture and how we work.
18. How do you help first time work from home employees to ensure we are getting the most out of them?
It sounds like you’re trying to extract or squeeze and I’m not a fan of that method of management.
I think what you want to do is to get the best out of somebody and the best is not the most. So what you want to create is an environment where people can do the best work of their lives.
This is not work from home versus local this is just what is your environment, like how much autonomy do people have, how much trust today do they feel, what size is your team.
Having too many people involved in a project that makes it really hard.
For people to do the best work of their lives, you need to take care of them by paying them well. If someone needs time off or needs something to deal with, help them in the best way possible.
“Create an environment where people can give their best and want to give you their best.”
If you don’t have an hour or two, a beautiful 3 or 4 hours a day to yourself it’s gonna be very hard to do your best work.
And I think most people, if they pull their calendar up right now they’d go like, “It’s like Tetris, there are boxes everywhere and no time for myself. Oh, there’s a little small gap so maybe I can fill that with something.”
That’s not an environment where you can do your best work.
19. How do you manage boredom and anxiety while working remotely?
While working remotely, this is a real thing for a number of people. First of all, talking about it is the first thing you need to do if you feel isolated or lonely.
Tell your teammates, your manager or your team lead. People are very accommodating and understand these situations because a lot of them would have dealt with that.
Using chat for the social connection is really nice, just that don’t have it necessarily open all day long, that’s not great but you can just check in on it a few times during the day and feel like you are part of something even when working remotely.
We’re in an extreme situation right now where we shouldn’t be outside of our homes or talking to anyone in person. In normal times what I would encourage people to do is to get out of the house and take a walk, do something else for a while.
But right now, Social distancing is going on and you need not go out.
We need to support the economy right now.
“Break your day up a little bit, just make sure your team is in the loop.”
To get rid of boredom and anxiety, break up your days. That means just watch some TV or do whatever else that makes you feel comfortable.
Maybe making a hot pot of tea or making yourself lunch. If the feeling of working remotely is what’s isolating then you want to break up the feeling of working alone by not just working alone. You need to do something else for a while.
“Empathize with one another, sympathize with one another and share art.”
20. Should companies notch up on surveillance right now? I want to take a picture of everyone every 10 minutes to make sure they’re at their desk. I want to turn on presents so everyone knows like this person’s available or away or a yellow dot or red dot or green dot.
I would really encourage you not to go that route. Do not implement things where you’re watching people all day.
Do not expect people to be available all the time, you don’t want people to feel like they’re being watched, you don’t want people to feel like someone’s looking over their shoulder virtually.
You’re not gonna get the best out of people if someone’s thinking they’re looking over their shoulder all the time.
It’s especially awkward for people who are working at home who might be working out of their bedroom because they don’t have any other space to work and now the camera is shooting their family photos or the stuff on the bed or whatever.
Don’t try and simulate the physical experience of the office at home. Take advantage of the remote work which means distance, time, space, attention, autonomy and trust.
These are the things to invest in now and when you get back to working in an office perhaps these are the things which pay off.