​Leaders everywhere have had to adapt to a remote world. So, what lessons can we take beyond the crisis? La Fosse hosted a virtual panel event to discuss.
A massive thank you to our speakers Jack Wall, former VP of Engineering at Lenny; Michele Sollecito, Head of Engineering, Architecture and Delivery at Index Labs, and Cyrille Quemin, Director of Technology and So Energy.

Here are a few of the ideas from the discussion:

Physical and mental well-being support

“Some businesses handle the practicalities of remote working – the Zoom calls, the messaging tools – better than others. But one thing that affects every business is the mental well-being of their team.”

In many ways, an employer’s duty to look after their employees has been re-emphasised by Covid-19. They have an obligation to create a working environment for their employees which allows them to be successful, irrespective of whether they’re in the office or at home. This isn’t just limited to WiFi Dongles and extra screens: the pandemic has brought conversations about mental health to the forefront.

The current crisis is taking a severe toll on mental health nationally, with nearly half of all adults suffering from related anxiety problems. Unfortunately, this coincides with a time when it is much harder for employers to keep tabs on how the team are feeling, having lost access to physical cues that denote someone is struggling.

Supporting people to create an environment they can perform well in is key, with certain companies setting aside budget not just for comfortable chairs but also for treats like Netflix and Disney+ subscriptions. The range of online events designed to support well-being stretches from online Yoga, to counselling, to non-working lunches to try and mitigate the social loss of the office.

One potential positive is how much of this new understanding we could take forward out of the pandemic to keep up the focus on well-being. As one attendee raised: “People will always face stress and difficulty in their lives which we should be attentive to. But this conversation has happened to be fast-tracked as right now we’re all facing the same one.”

Embracing disruption and freeing up headspace

“We’ve got to the point where, if someone’s kid comes onto a camera, we try and get them to join in the stand-up. They normally run off at that point.”

Most companies are currently embroiled in a debate about whether you can really mandate people to switch their cameras on in an online meeting. Whilst some simply see the webcam as an intrusion, many are embarrassed about the comings and goings of their home life happening behind them, particularly if they don’t have a private room to work in.

It’s important for leaders to let their teams know that these are ok: as strange as it is, having your meeting regularly interrupted by a six-year-old has become the new normal. It’s key to communicate that what might have been unprofessional before is no longer an issue. The goal is to free up team headspace by taking away these “little” worries, at a time when many are pre-occupied by much bigger ones.

Some leaders also see this as an opportunity to express their own vulnerability: whilst it’s crucial to acknowledge that everyone is facing different challenges, many difficulties about working at home – like someone making lunch in the background of your meeting – are shared experiences. Being able to share these with your team can be an equalising force.

Productivity and burnout

“What we should be looking for always is sustainable productivity, not burst productivity.”

Many companies are reporting a rise in productivity since lockdown, with several high-profile businesses suggesting that they might make the move permanently. However, these increases might be a false economy.

Some people are clearly responding to the lockdown by doubling down on work, perhaps as a technique to keep busy, a response to employment anxieties or in an effort to prove that they’re “really” doing work at home. Whatever the reason, this kind of “burst productivity” isn’t sustainable, and could ultimately lead to burnout. It’s notoriously hard to measure the productivity of engineering teams in any case, and given how different the environment we’re operating in at the moment is, established metrics are unlikely to transfer perfectly across.

If anything, the best way to respond to rises in productivity is to make sure people are having enough time off. Without a physical separation, many people are struggling to separate life and work, one manifestation of which is not taking breaks and working past the end of the working day. With holidays out of the question, many people are also unmotivated to take days off.

In response, some companies are trialling cues to signal the end of the working day: one leader said his team had five-minute “stand-downs” at 5pm, the main function of which is to stop people going back to their laptops. Others are encouraging people to take shorter, more frequent breaks if they don’t feel comfortable taking their full lunch hour, or incentivising people to take days off for mental health every three or four weeks.

The future of remote working?

“We did a survey and over 90% of my 400 employees want to continue working from home either the full week or some of the week.”

Notwithstanding reservations around productivity metrics, undoubtedly remote working has worked out well for some companies. Many employees have been only too happy to lose their commute and spend more time with their families. So how likely are we to see a permanent shift towards distributed teams?

Ultimately, only time will tell, though our panel tended to advise caution. Whatever successes companies may be having now, we mustn’t forget that we’re living in exceptional circumstances: a global pandemic is not necessarily a good litmus test for remote working. For one thing, most companies will maintain some kind of physical office, even if they try and cut costs by switching to a smaller one.

One of the biggest challenges of remote working is integrating remote and in-person employees, which isn’t a bridge most are having to cross at the moment. What’s more, at the moment people have very little to do, and so are tending to throw themselves into work – this is likely to change once normal life resumes.

However, certainly the whole situation has facilitated significant learning about what’s possible. As well as the mass-scale adoption of Zoom or Teams, common challenges around fluidity of communication have been tackled with new tools, like Miro and JamBoard, which facilitate virtual brainstorming. Important lessons have also been learnt around how important laptops and a cloud-native approach are to facilitate flexibility.

Even if companies intend most of their workers to go back to the office as soon as possible, most will have a newfound understanding of the experiences of their remote workers and better protocols in place for engaging them, having walked a mile in virtual shoes. These learnings, as well as those around well-being, mental health and employer duty, will hopefully give us all something positive to take out of this experience.

​If you found these insights beneficial, check out:

Leading in Lockdown

Top 5 Tips for Managing Remote Teams Effectively