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Below is an article originally written by Rosalind Lutsky, Copywriter at PowerToFly Partner CircleCI, and published on March 19, 2020. Go to CircleCI's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
Remote work is top of mind right now for many employees, teams, families, and companies suddenly faced with a very new work situation. For many people, this is the first experience they've had working from home for an extended period while also trying to figure out how to establish a new normal.
On top of the standard challenges involved with switching to a fully-remote setup, many people are also dealing with a host of unexpected changes – kids who need to continue learning while schools are closed, pets jumping in to join meetings, partners and roommates talking from the next room. We're also worrying about the safety and health of our friends and families. It's a lot to deal with.
CircleCI has a fairly distributed workforce – about 40 percent of our company works remotely and several of our teams are completely remote – but we still work collaboratively every day, regardless of location. Over the years, many of our remote folks have come up with a host of useful tips on how to stay productive and happy as a fully remote employee.
These tips aren't meant to solve all of the new and challenging issues associated with working from home, but we do think that the strategies that our more experienced colleagues have developed can inform us as we quickly adjust to this completely new reality.
Here are the best reads by our employees about working from home:
- How to communicate on a remote team: tools and templates for engineers - Communication is hard, communication on a remote team is harder. Fortunately, it can be as effective on a distributed team as it is on a colocated one, if not more so. This post delves into ways our team has learned to counter the two biggest challenges of remote communication: understanding tone and upholding a collaboration framework.
- Maslow's hierarchy of remote worker needs - Remote work is an art and a science - it's iterative, and not necessarily something that can be perfected overnight. That being said, there are certain areas of focus that can help you figure out what works best for you more easily, which is exactly what Customer Engineering Operations Analyst, Liene Verzemnieks breaks down in this post.
- How my distributed team communicates so no context is left behind - A number of our engineering teams at CircleCI are mostly or fully distributed. One such team, led by Engineering Team Lead, Marek Nowak, has consolidated their four main tips for keeping their team productive and successful: overcommunication, pairing/collaborating, Slack usage, and meetings. This post describes how they've learned to use these tips to thrive as a fully distributed team.
- Tools for effective remote pairing - The Plans and Pricing team at CircleCI is 100% remote and pairs almost 100% of the time. While this might seem like a challenge, the team has developed a number of strategies that make them consistently successful at pair programming. In this post, we break down some of our best tips for remote pairing that other engineering teams trying this for the first time might find particularly useful.
- What it means to be remote-first vs. remote-friendly - There are tools and strategies that teams can use to keep everyone feeling supported, connected, and empowered - even at a distance. In this post, Product Manager, Rose Jen, details how CircleCI works to create a culture that puts remote employees first.
- What to expect as a remote CircleCI employee - We often get asked in interviews what it's like to work for a distributed team. In this post, we asked engineers from across the organization to describe their experience, and share some tips for working as a fully remote employee.
Below is an article originally written by Rose Jen, Product Manager at PowerToFly Partner CircleCI, and published on July 26, 2019. Go to CircleCI's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
Hi! I'm Rose Jen, a product manager at CircleCI. I've run a number of interviews here at CircleCI, and the #1 question I get asked is "What is your experience with the distributed culture at CircleCI?"
I have worked before in companies that allowed remote work. They've offered their teams access to tools to make remote working possible. I've also worked on teams which start out as colocated, but have become distributed by necessity as team members move. Often in these cases, the folks working remotely become increasingly left out and distanced from the rest of the team. Given those experiences, I was initially hesitant about working on a distributed team, specifically with concerns that communication could be difficult, or worse, that I might feel disconnected from my team. However, during my time here at CircleCI, I've noticed that the company's deliberate work on building an inclusive distributed culture put many of my fears at ease. And through this experience, I've seen the difference these efforts make, and learned that merely allowing employees to work remotely isn't enough.
While CircleCI has been a distributed team since the beginning, we do have an official headquarters in San Francisco. To support our teammates all over the globe feeling fully connected, included, and empowered, we work hard everyday toward building a "remote-first" culture. The difference between a team which allows remote work, and one which strives to be remote-first may sound like a technicality, but in practice makes a world of difference to our team members, regardless of where they are. Remote-first means that remote employees are not an afterthought. Being remote-first means being intentional about not just the tools that are used, but also how we plan a company culture to be as inclusive as possible of remote workers while allowing everyone to be the most productive.
For anyone considering joining us, or for those who are looking to foster a remote-first culture in their own organization, here are 5 ways of making it work:
Videoconferencing by default
We rely heavily on videoconferencing at CircleCI – it's quite impossible to go through a workday here without some sort of videoconferencing (we use Zoom). To be maximally inclusive, we are very specific about how we use videoconference tools. First, as a company we invest heavily in hardware and software that makes our reliance on vidoeconferencing work. Every single conference room at our office is fully video-enabled. On the flip side, we expect our employees to have access to high speed internet connections, and to work from a location where they can be clearly heard and seen – being unable to hear someone on a call won't cut it. The success of this tactic relies on everyone's participation. We also made the choice early on to grant every employee full access Zoom accounts – so every team member feels empowered to call meetings, whether large brainstorms or ad-hoc chats.
Additionally, we have practices about how we disseminate information from video meetings. We include a Zoom link with every event invite, so that no matter where the participants are, they can join. At CircleCI, we have a general rule that if there are team members in various time zones who won't be able to attend a meeting, we record the meeting and make it available for viewing at a later time. This gives folks in all time zones the flexibility to manage their day the way that best suits them.
Accessible, structured, and documented team meetings
At CircleCI, most product development teams have a variety of weekly get-togethers: planning meetings, daily standups, brainstorms, design reviews, and retros. These are all done via videoconferencing. Depending on the type of meeting, we also utilize digital tools (Google Docs, for example) that everyone has access to in realtime, through which we facilitate discussions and document decisions as they're made. For example, we use Google Docs to outline brainstorming or retro discussion topics. For planning meetings and standups, we go to our shared Jira board that shows our deliverables and progress, so that everyone is following along in realtime while the discussion is happening. For design reviews, we use Invision, a design prototype tool, that allows designs to be shared across the team and allows team members to provide comments. These have helped us have productive meetings anywhere the team is. I personally don't miss cramming an entire team into the same meeting room, and I'm certainly glad to be freed of the struggle to find available meeting rooms.
Document, document, document
Who doesn't love good documentation? In a remote-first environment, pay special attention to physical artifacts that may disadvantage team members who are not colocated with you. There will always be things that occur in realtime (quick sketches, Post-its) when a few folks are in the same room, but we take efforts to document and share the results of those IRL brainstorms with the team at large and take lots of pictures of any diagrams, roadmaps, and other outcomes, so that everyone can access them afterwards. Find ways to ensure that remote team members aren't just listening in, and look for ways they can participate in realtime. Zoom offers collaborative whiteboarding that you can do from inside a conference call. Even with the best tools, this process will often still be imperfect, and therefore requires mindfulness and some creativity from everyone involved.
No hallway conversations
This doesn't mean that you can't talk to your coworkers face-to-face or around the watercooler. But it does mean that if you have work-relevant conversations that are not digitally recorded, they should somehow get recorded after the fact: put a summary in chat, write up a short document, or find another way to make sure that information can be referred to by remote team members. We also encourage our team members to have impromptu "hallway" conversations over video, whether it's to ask a question or to quickly get the team aligned on a specific topic. Regardless of location, there are some things only a quick 1-on-1 chat can clear up.
Plan together time
Whenever possible, bring your distributed teams together! There's something really nice about being able to spend time with your far-away coworkers in real life. At CircleCI, we plan for teams to meet at a location together at least once a year. Departments do the same as well. It'll require serious logistical planning and a monetary budget, but it will be well worth it as a team-building investment.
What I've shared isn't a definitive guide to operating a distributed company – just some things I've noticed at CircleCI that have made a difference for me and my colleagues while working on a distributed team. It's important to mention: we are always re-evaluating our processes, and looking for places to refine. Things will change. For example, now that we are expanding more globally, it has changed the landscape of what being distributed really means (for example, getting a team together whose members are 1 hour apart vs. 8 hours may mean folks in San Francisco scheduling meetings earlier in the day to accommodate the schedules of team members across North/South America and Europe). These changes have pushed us to change the way we use our tools, and given us opportunities to continue to iterate and improve. Overall, if you're in an organization looking to become more remote-friendly, we encourage you to keep an open mind and experiment to find what will work best for you.
You work remotely and you need your software to support that. You've already got Slack and Zoom for communication, Asana and Trello for project management, Toggl and Monday for time management, Google Docs and Dropbox for file sharing...
An article about tools and programs for remote work that only included those core applications wouldn't tell you anything you don't already know. But what else is out there?
Sourced from me (hi, I'm a remote worker) + dozens of people in my (our!) remote-work community, here are 6 programs to download if you work remotely:
OmmWriter. Whether you're a writer (hi, me again) or not, you probably have to use words at some point in your day — you know, crafting social media posts, drafting a project plan, coming up with an email response that says "you suck" without actually saying "you suck" to the client / coworker / human who is driving you up a wall on any given day. This program provides a beautiful, distraction-free screen for you to write in, with clicky-clacky keyboard sounds and soothing background music included. Price: They have a pay-what-you-think-it's-worth system, with a minimum price of $6.92.
For Collaborating Across Countries:
Timeanddate.com. Their website is basic but their value-add is huge, and if you have teammates or clients scattered all over the globe, their World Clock Meeting Planner, which lets you plug in multiple locations and time zones and shows you color-coded time slots, can't be beat. You're in Las Vegas trying to plan a sync with collaborators in Lagos and Luxembourg? Turns out your Monday 8 a.m., their Monday 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively, is your best bet. Price: Free!
The obviously-named SelfControl, or if you don't use a Mac and/or don't like the idea of downloading an application that can take control of your computer, the Chrome extension Productivity Owl. These programs come in handy when you have work to do, but the siren song of your internet drug of choice — Twitter, PostSecret, Gilt, Reddit, things that aren't appropriate to write about here — is calling. You can set them up to block you from whatever websites you find most distracting or give you only a certain amount of time on selected sites. True story: one night, when I had SelfControl enabled to help me focus on a project, Beyoncé dropped a new album. I'd blocked myself from Twitter, YouTube, and most of my favorite celebrity news sites, so I was left in the dark until my timer ran out (and I finished my project). It was good for my productivity, but terrible for my ability to immediately follow music news. Keep that in mind. Price: Free!
For Working While You Travel:
TripMode. If you're a digital nomad type who works from wherever you are at any given moment, you're probably an expert in navigating the minefields of public wifi, mobile hotspots, and shoddy internet connections. TripMode lets you give individual apps or programs access to the internet, allowing you to use your single bar of connection to upload and send your final project, not to backup your latest scuba photos or download unnecessary updates. Price: $8.90.
For Managing Passwords:
Dashlane. You have all of these programs to make your life easier, and they usually do, except for when you forget your password to one of them and find yourself locked out of your account, fuming at your keyboard. Dashlane helps you avoid that by managing up to 50 passwords (or unlimited passwords, in their paid version) for you. Their free version even offers their Password Changer, which can update all of your passwords in one click (something you've been meaning to do for years, since your go-to of "steven123" was probably never very secure and certainly isn't in this day and age). Price: free for a basic account, or $4.99/month for a premium account that comes with a VPN.
For Basically Everything Else:
IFTTT. I don't know why more people don't use this service. Probably because they just don't know about it, I suppose, which is why I'm happy to be writing about it here. Its name is short for If This, Then That. I've had an account with them for years, and it's like having a free, very efficient virtual assistant. Basically, its service lets you program automatic actions for any of your smart devices, triggered by certain events or schedules. A very simple one is for IFTTT to text you "Bring an umbrella!" if it's scheduled to rain that day. You can also have any Google Calendar invites show up on your iCalendar—if you find yourself stuck between the two operating systems, or track your hours at work based on your location. (This works better if you go to an office/co-working space versus work from home.) My favorite fun one (more here): get a notification when the International Space Station passes over your house. Price: Free!
I hope these programs make your life better and your work easier.
I also hope you don't miss Beyoncé's next surprise drop because you're using SelfControl, because I wouldn't wish that on anybody. Have I missed any must-have programs that get you through the day? Let me know in the comments!