Working remotely because of COVID-19 doesn’t have to be difficult

Ross Mayfield, is a serial entrepreneur who ran one of the first Silicon Valley startups to fully integrate what he calls “distributed teams” over 18 years ago. Now, remote work has suddenly become the new normal. Mayfield provides valuable insights into how companies can best operate until public health officials deem it safe to be back in offices and COVID-19 has dissipated. 

Mayfield’s experience with distributed teams began back in 2002 with the startup SocialText. The company was akin to an internal LinkedIn with messaging capabilities similar to Slack. Mayfield said having worked with these distributed teams for so long, he has tested several methods of operation and come up with some clear strategies for companies of all kinds to implement. 

Mayfield’s professional experience also includes being the founder of startup PingPad, collaboration software for product development teams. His CV also includes experience at LinkedIn, where he ran business development for SlideShare. He is a graduate of UCLA’s Management Development for Entrepreneurs Program.

Accept this is the new normal 

“The world has changed, says Mayfield. “Some of that change is temporary, but a lot of it is permanent.” He noted there was already this trend towards remote teams, especially for companies in Silicon Valley given the high costs of living and office space in the Bay area. What was once seen as a negative has become expected, especially for sales and engineering teams. 

“I think it would be a disservice to your own business people to try to say this is an exercise we have to run for two or three weeks. To prepare people for a long term change, it’s going to take months, if not years, for things to return back to anything close to what it was.”

“Here in Silicon Valley, we were more ready for it given the nature of the kind of work we do, the way that we were already using a lot of the tools.” But, companies elsewhere have the same opportunity to operate effectively in this distributed environment. 

“Being more human is going to be a very big part of all this,” said Mayfield.

Work-life balance is more important now than ever before

Understanding that employees and managers working from home during the COVID-19 crisis, they are also dealing with partners’ or spouses’ work schedules, lack of space, children being home because schools and daycares are closed, and possibly taking care of elderly parents is key right now. They may also be dealing with symptoms of the disease as well and need the time and space to manage their health. 

“You know, we in America, we’ve had very firm boundaries between work and actual life. And that’s actually not been necessarily a healthy thing,” Mayfield said, adding, “the thing that’s happening now is, you know, you have to be conscious of things that you wouldn’t.” 

Mayfield called for a “different kind of sensitivity training for people” because the world is and will continue to be in a period of high stress economically, physically, mentally, and emotionally for the foreseeable future. 

“You almost have a different kind of responsibility as a leader of a distributed team to look after the mental health and well being of your employees. Coming into an office and checking in with people provided some assurance of people’s well being. But now your employees are less visible and picking up the soft signals someone needs help will be more difficult,” Mayfield warned.

Having a checklist for employees to be more comfortable with working from home helps. He applauded Shopify, for instance, for providing workers with $1000 stipend to spend on whatever they need to make life and work a little easier during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Find your organization’s boundaries

Time more than place will be the boundary for most companies forced to go remote so quickly. It is an advantage to have team members in roughly the same time zone, but Mayfield noted even if they are not there are ways to make this work well for everyone. “One convention that helped is every team member wrote an End of Day note describing what they did, what was next and what help they needed,” he said. 

This status reporting is essential overhead, to help bridge across the distance. You need people to take a moment to be reflective and share towards collaborative goals, Mayfield recommends. 

Taking advantage of real-time technologies like Zoom and Slack is also important because it makes status reporting a shorter activity, but an essential one that can augment the rest with much-needed structure. “ The flow of work is more flexible, and more discoverable” when done in tandem, Mayfield said.

Be conscious that knowledge comes in both stocks and flows

He considers Slack a “flow” of knowledge. The real-time nature becomes “chatty” and easily solves the concern about employee engagement at a time like this. But Mayfield warned that sometimes people can be “glued to it with less direct purpose than with prior modalities.” The End of Day note is a stock of knowledge. “It is a pool people can draw from to act with the insight of the organization,” Mayfield said.

Keep meetings hyper-focused

Mayfield also recommended keeping meetings hyper-focused and use tools that help you capture the exchange of information “During the meeting, I take advantage of recordings, take advantage of transcripts, take advantage of taking notes.” Over time, this will help managers track agenda items and make sure there is little meeting creep. If workers are in Zoom meetings and phone calls all day to compensate for not being in an office, it may leave little time to actually get those items done. That inefficiency can spill over into scheduling even more meetings.

If you would like a consultation with Ross Mayfield, learn more about his experience at our COVID-19 Help Desk, or contact our team to connect with him directly if you don’t currently have an account with OnFrontiers.