Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and its rapid development, we are all being called to take protective and preventative measures, including avoiding social contact as much as possible. Events are canceled, trips are postponed, and companies are asking their employees to work from home. It's an exceptional situation for everyone, as remote work cultures with distributed teams are being introduced overnight. Many companies are being challenged to quickly organize a team that works completely remotely.
Many articles and recommendations on remote work, home offices, and teleworking are circulating. For example, GitLab, a pioneer in remote work, has recently published a detailed manual on remote working. I highly recommend it to anyone who is facing the challenge of setting up and managing a remote team. At OpenProject, we have been working in distributed teams for over 10 years.
In the current critical situation, I would like to share our experiences and tips on remote work.
How does working from home work?
Working from home requires a certain amount of discipline. But, with a few tips, it can be put into practice relatively easily.
1. Maintain data security and privacy, especially at home
Data protection and the security and privacy of customer and company data are top priorities whether you're working in the office or from home. Make sure your employees and colleagues are aware of and maintaining data protection and security.
- Ensure that all employees' hard drives are encrypted and that data or passwords are not externally stored (or written down) somewhere.
- Access to external applications should always be secured by a second factor. Most services offer two-factor authentication via SMS or an app.
- Make sure that emails with sensitive data are always sent encrypted (e.g., we use GPG).
- Access to sensitive services must be secured, and access outside the company network should only be possible via a VPN.
- Never leave your workspace without locking your computer.
2. Establish a fixed workplace, good hardware, and fast internet
The basic requirements for remote working are excellent hardware and a fast internet connection at home.
- Don't skimp on a high-quality and high-resolution external monitor, a very good headset, and a camera.
- If other family members are in the house or apartment and there is not a separate room available, try to set up your workspace a little further away from the main activities.
- Communicate clearly to the people in your home what times you need to be undisturbed for work.
3. Establish processes and meetings
Communication is especially important in distributed teams, and collaboration processes will need to be implemented quickly and easily. Of course, personal meetings are important, but with some discipline, they can be kept to a minimum.
Five years ago, OpenProject implemented fixed processes and routines with meetings running according to the Scaling Up methodology. We hold two types of meetings: a daily standup and a weekly meeting.
Daily coordination meetings with the team
Once a day, five days a week, we have a fixed team meeting ("daily standup"). Important: Don't forget to send a meeting invite to all participants. The standup enables a close and direct exchange within the team (despite distributed workplaces) and serves to keep everyone up to date. Important topics are addressed, but there are no discussions during this meeting. If necessary, follow-up meetings are scheduled.
The meeting always follows the same brief and concise agenda. We take turns quickly briefing everyone on the team about:
- What's new? What is relevant for the team? Are there changes, progress, new decisions, important dates, etc.? Only focus on the news; this is not about everyone telling what they are working on at the moment.
- What's my core priority? What is the most important thing you want to achieve today?
- Where do I need support? Are you stuck somewhere? Do you need input or support from the team?
- Where are we on key performance indicators (KPIs)? Briefly report the current status of KPIs.
Once a week, we have a more detailed meeting. We always do it on Friday and use the same agenda:
- Good news (5 minutes): What's the good news this week? New customers? Progress in the projects? Exciting developments? The team shares all the good news in five minutes.
- Project status and key priorities for the quarter (10 minutes): Everyone briefly reports the status of their core priorities or quarterly target and gives an outlook for the coming week. What progress has been made this week? Where do you want to be next week?
- Feedback from customers and colleagues (5 minutes): What do your customers report? What positive and negative experiences have you made this week? What can you learn from your customers? Share mutual appreciation within the team: What have individual employees done particularly well this week? Who do you want to thank? Especially highlight if someone has made a special effort related to your corporate values.
- What bothers me? ("culture of argument") (5 minutes): Is something bothering you? Maybe a colleague's "coming in late," a snotty answer to a question, or still-missing feedback from a customer. Everyone is allowed to unload everything. It's also very important to have discussions and make suggestions until everyone can say: "Yes, we are all fine now."
- Discussion of a topic (30–60 minutes): This is optional and only happens if the team agrees (in advance) about a common topic to discuss. For us, this is often based on our quarterly targets—presentation of interim results or development status, coordination of requirements, prioritization of new topics, overall process topics, etc.
- WWW (Who, What, When)—clarification of responsibilities (5 minutes): Very simple: Who does what by when? We make sure to create tasks in tickets for tracking these responsibilities.
- A final sentence ("One-phrase close"): A motivating sentence at the end. Your motto for today. What moves you?
Make sure to arrange further coordination meetings as required. It's important to try to keep the number of participants at meetings as small as possible.
4. Choose your tools
There are many open source tools available to support remote and distributed teams.
Web-based project management and team collaboration
We use OpenProject for task and project management. It's free and open source software for project management and team collaboration. By working with our own software, we can see what we need to improve every day.
OpenProject supports us significantly in remote work. It gives secure access to important information from anywhere: projects, schedules, requirements, milestones, tasks, deadlines, protocols, documentation, and overviews of the current status and priorities, all in one system. Here is a brief overview of what we do in OpenProject:
- Planning the development roadmap
- Defining, estimating, and prioritizing requirements (epics, features)
- Creating, assigning, and tracking tasks
- Prioritizing topics in agile kanban boards
- Exchanging files (as an attachment of work packages)
- Creating and documenting schedules (agendas and protocols)
- Providing a forum for exchange with customers and community members
- Running a wiki for process documentation
- Tracking time on individual work packages for billing customers for custom development
- Doing project management, including project planning and project status
We use GitHub, and GitLab is a good and open source alternative. Plus, OpenProject has a GitHub integration for creating a pull request in GitHub and linking it directly to a work package.
Nextcloud is a great option and what we currently use.
Team chat is helpful for remote teams. We use Rocket.Chat. I recommend creating different channels for different topics, so everyone gets only the information they need. Find many more best practices for chat in this article.
We use Whereby, which is not open source, for digital meeting rooms and screen sharing. It runs directly in the browser without installing any additional software. But, I'd like to hear what open source alternatives are out there if you can share that in the comments.
5. Set rules
Remote work requires more discipline than in-office work.
On the one hand, there are more distractions, but you may also be more tempted to be available without interruption. Set up rules that apply to everyone on your team: Are there fixed working hours, or do you allow flexible time management? Should everyone enter their availability into the shared calendar, so others are aware of their availability? Must appointments always be accepted or canceled?
I hope these suggestions help you set up a remote team easily. Please share additional tips and recommendations in the comments.