The Largest Remote Work Experiment in History: Learnings from Taro

Unexpected fallout from the #covid-19 crises

The new Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced the largest remote work experiment in the world. While there have been clear trends of work moving towards becoming more distributed and remote, perhaps this forced experiment will make a whole new population comfortable with it prove to be a catalyst for wider adoption.

I ran a fully remote engineering and product team at Taro, and I wanted to write about some of our learnings. While this experiment is not accurate - fully distributed teams have to think about hiring, setting up the culture, getting to know all co-workers, and everything else remotely, but in this scenario, hopefully, most people will be back at their beloved desks in a few weeks and get some face time. However, delivering high quality in a distributed setup is not something everybody is comfortable with, and it will be an interesting test for many people.

Invest in your Home Office Setup

In many cases, one of the biggest challenges people is being unable to switch into "work mode" - it really helps to have a clearly demarcated "office area" set up so that people are not slouching on their couches. If you are like me, your "Home Office Desk" is likely filled with junk, so you might want to clean that up ;-) Whether it means having a clean desk, monitors, keyboard and mice, and high-speed internet, it's a good idea to get it set up and mentally designate as your "work area" and once you enter your "Home Office" you truly stay in work mode.

It's also important to make sure that you get breaks and maybe take a short walk every once in a while. It comes naturally in an "office" setting, but when working from home, a lot of people may not feel as comfortable with breaks as they jump from one meeting to another.

For some though, it might even be a blessing since they get more time to do "focused" work. Office work today is sometimes full of a lot of distractions, and getting some quiet "coding" period may boost productivity dramatically.

Tools for Remote Work

We are lucky to live in times where a lot of tools used for remote work are de rigeur for most companies, esp in engineering. In the world of Slack, Zoom, Trello, Asana, and Jira, we don't need to look far. Most employers also have tools like a Corporate VPN, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure for programming since people work at home late in the night. Perhaps what we miss the most is an easy to use whiteboard and meeting rooms that let people huddle together and collaborate effectively.

I will not get into more details since there are many great articles out there and most companies would already have invested in such tools already. (I'm not linking to any since most of these articles are by vendors!)

Moving Processes Online

Most engineering teams have a bunch of sacrosanct processes — daily stand-ups, scrum ceremonies et al, and they are easily translated in a fully remote setting. While the tools exist, adoption varies a lot between teams, which is what makes fully remote execution harder when you are not used to it. Some teams already have a few remote members and are far better at maintaining their workflows online, while others depend more on tangible interaction. One of the best things we can do is take teams that are better at "distributed" execution and have them share their best practices with others and get people over the fear of staying on top of their productivity metrics.

However, what the tools don't replace is the ability to have a quick whiteboard session, catching people in the hallway for a quick discussion, and cutting cycle time in case of critical escalations by getting everybody involved in a (literally) physical war room. Most teams will need to learn to be deliberate about planning for these escalations and find easy ways to re-create these experiences that we take for granted in an online-only setting.

Based on what we learned at Taro, here are some other simple tips:

  1. Make sure you take #random as seriously as #general, and ensure great dialog there. Water cooler serves a purpose beyond hydration

  2. Encourage people to turn on their video during Zoom calls. There's nothing like looking at somebody in the eye while talking

  3. Maybe a great time to experiment with some non-traditional tools (like Discord "push to talk" or always-on videos)

  4. Create easy to use lightweight processes for getting people together quickly in case of escalations - to get people on the same page. Virtual "war rooms" and Long-running Zoom/Hangout calls work great

  5. At least early into this shock transition, doing more sync-ups and huddles might be helpful. Some people are very comfortable working remotely, others less so and it helps them feel more comfortable

  6. Non-work talk and human connection/community are some of the strongest feelings an office setting provides - people get isolated and disconnected in a remote environment. Include some elements of fun in meetings - so its not all "business"

  7. Encourage people to get out a little bit (all the covid-19 fears notwithstanding — maybe just in their backyard!)

  8. For people with families keeping kids busy while doing this experiment is much harder since keeping kids occupied is a full-time job. I will let you know once I get through it this time ;-)

If you have other remote work hacks, I would love to hear. Now, where can I buy some $WORK, $ZM, and $TEAM real quickly before you finish reading this.