Surviving Remote Work: Coronavirus Edition

Jonn Mostovoy
Article by Jonn Mostovoy
Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

No doubt, by now you have read many posts talking about how to deal with the coronavirus: do’s and don’ts, the importance of social distancing, backseat epidemiology, etc.

But many of you have probably been thrown in a situation where you have to work remotely or manage remote work.

Serokell has been fully remote since it was founded over five years ago. Therefore, while we will briefly mention all the critical aspects that have already been talked about elsewhere, we will also try to give a unique perspective. Since we’ve been doing this for some time, we have had the luxury to think a little bit more about some of the less obvious things.

The article is split into two parts: personal recommendations to winter this period and recommendations to businesses that will inescapably have to move to remote for some time.

The game can never be played the same way again.

So, Europe is on lockdown, same goes for the States. There are pretty much universal suggestions for living around the world. Some governments push it arguably too far with tracking citizens (Israel, Iran, China), but overall, the message is clear – the situation is serious, the virus is dangerous, we should practice social distancing whether we like the governments’ intrusion in our lives or not.

We suggest you get the necessary health information from trusted sources – the World Health Organization and your government public information sources.

Let’s talk about the situation from a personal standpoint. Thing is, that if you or your employees are in distress or suffering, no business can be conducted. In these tough times you have to put mental and physical health of yourself and your employees before optimizing your budgets, running tallies, etc. Even if your business is on the ruthless, misanthropic side, you will lose it if you don’t consider your employees.

Social distancing

First off, social distancing is not a choice, but a moral duty that is mostly imposed by the government to make sure that bad actors don’t behave antisocially.

But social distancing is not the same as isolation. Isolation causes depression and, as it seems, physiological symptoms. If your city does wet-cleaning and you can follow social distancing guidelines, we strongly suggest going out for a walk once in a while. Parks or squares are great if there is a way for you to get into one without breaking the social distance. If you’re living with someone and neither of you had contact with objects/people outside, it is reasonably safe to go out together as long as you’re confident that you can maintain distance from others. Remember to always check what doctors in your locality suggest before plotting your route. Due to your climate, population density, or both, it might be ill-advised to leave the house.

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Proper exercise

Having physical exercise is important, so stuff like power walking outdoors and yoga can not only help you maintain an adequate lifestyle, but also could help you combat the mental health toll of increased isolation. Isolation makes us sadder, exercise and trees make us happier. Let’s hope these things balance out!

Economics of epidemics

From an economic perspective: no matter how prepared you and your employer were for these interesting times, many-many others weren’t, and many more couldn’t. There will be issues with more expensive imports across the board (including raw materials), more halts of factories, etc. That’s why we suggest you take really good care of your items, especially electronics. Make sure to not drink close to computers.

For the professions that typically require presence, it makes sense to work with the employer to figure out remote options. If you have recently moved to working remotely, consult our blog-post on surviving remote work. There we list tips and tricks for picking up remote work and getting to be productive.

Consider using your skills to freelance via websites such as Fiverr, especially if you feel like your employer might have problems adjusting.

Also, despite market fluctuations, money is not going anywhere, so probably increasing the rate at which you do savings is a good idea, especially since cooking at home is suggested these days anyway. Don’t forget to balance out your diet, though! There are many materials online, but here’s an OK article that lists good suggestions.

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Support the loved ones

Finally, if you’re alone, do some video-messaging with your relatives and friends. And don’t forget about the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Now that you can’t visit them anymore, calling them is very important for them to suffer less.

Vulnerable people infographic

React. Adapt. Re-adapt. Act.

Now let’s talk about our suggestions for business to cope with the situation.

React: Send everyone home. Sanitize your supply chain.

Most of the business, with some adjustment of processes, can operate remotely. Supply chains are possible to manage while complying with the norms of social distancing, and manufacture—albeit with severe losses in production—will be able to adjust.

You’ll have to learn how to organize your work remotely. But first things first – make sure that people who work for you are safe. You will lose less in the long run by ensuring the safety of your employees. React swiftly, if you haven’t yet, figure out the processes later. Speaking of which…

Adapt: Take care. Motivate. Reason about what’s happening at a distance.

As a business going remote, your first shock will be that people go missing in action. There are a lot of different reasons for that:

  • People can’t mentally match home with work. If so, point them to the “How to Survive Working Remotely” guide that we have linked previously. From the author’s first-hand experience, even when two people live on 20m² of effective space, it is possible to organize completely separate workplaces. Perhaps with less efficiency, but still.
  • People get distracted, procrastinate, get shy about not pushing enough, and go hide under a blanket. Just like business-owners have to train themselves to think differently about the way they conduct their business as they go remote, employees have to train themselves. It’s okay to hit a slump, as long as the employees are open about it and search for a resolution of the productivity drop. You have to reassure them.
  • Workers are used to get work items during the meetings. But now there is no way to approach a colleague after a meeting or in a breakroom and ask for clarifications. So people get confused.
  • Managers are used to perform on-site oversight. But now there is no site, so it is confusing to reason about what the hell is going on.

In Serokell, we have finely-tuned processes that we have been improving for years. Every task is accounted for, and no effort goes unnoticed. We are using the YouTrack issue tracker to do that, and have processes for describing the tasks, planning, and tracking the effort. A free alternative to that would be to create per-project Trello boards.

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For brief discussions, coordination. and watercooler talk, we’re using Slack, which is paid for. For a free alternative, you can have a look at Discord. Both allow for the creation of chat channels, voice comms, and screen sharing. Slack does a significantly better job with managing textual data, making it searchable, while Discord makes a better job with screen sharing and voice comms. Discord also has persistent voice channels, while Slack only allows for calls. In addition, some kind of meeting application is beneficial. At our company, we use Google Meet, and it is amazingly stable, allowing us to hold big meetings with Google Calendar integration. It works perfectly in Chrome and as a mobile app.

You most likely won’t be able to come up with effective automated processes overnight. It’s okay, we didn’t get there right away either. You can achieve a lot with a little.

Instill some sort of manual reporting routine and encourage your employees to follow it. This is necessary for management to understand what is going on. Please, be positive with your employees, talk to every single one of them about why reporting is so important if it is needed.

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Re-adapt. Control and restructure your company accordingly.

Your line of business might not be too friendly for remote work. Maybe you have a complex supply chain, or perhaps you do manufacturing. The good news is that retail can go remote thanks to e-commerce solutions, storage management can be done in a reasonable way if you sanitize storages and make sure that employees are transporting themselves to the warehouses and there is nobody in the warehouse that is not essential.

As you go remote, you have to look at what’s getting accomplished in your company and see if you can improve it somehow. Remote work lends itself to flatter management hierarchies, which makes it so that your managers should be able to focus on more creative tasks than oversight.

Remember that to ensure a smooth transition to remote work, you will inevitably have to tweak and evolve your business model.

Summing up, here’s a checklist for you:

  1. Send everyone home.
  2. Take an organizational chart of your organization (or make one).
  3. Mark departments and groups in the organizational chart who are absolutely required to be on site.
  4. Make sure that on-site workers can work in sanitary conditions, complying with the social distancing normatives.
  5. Read our how to survive remote work blog post and make sure that employees who work remotely have a reasonable environment to conduct work in.
  6. Pick a task tracker for employees who can work remotely.
  7. Motivate your employees to use task tracker, educate them how to use it.
  8. Instill a reporting system to generate information about what’s done for your managers.
  9. Educate managers on reading and using task tracker to reason about what is going on.
  10. See what works and what doesn’t, fine-tune the processes.

Act. Find your way.

Every business has its nuances. Suggestions mentioned in this post are necessary to implement, but what is sufficient might vary. In the end, even when the lockdowns are over, digitizing your business and pushing as many processes as you can to full remote will end up cutting costs and diversifying the hiring pool. If you need help and continued support in going remote, digitalization, and business analysis, reach out to us, or to me personally. We’ll try our best to provide pro bono consultations, within reason.

Remember, we’re humans, the most adaptable species barring, perhaps, only tardigrades. Somehow we’ll manage. We always do.

Surviving Remote Work: Coronavirus Edition
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