Tips for working remotely during COVID-19 (or anytime) from a team of telecommuters

By Kathleen Williams, March 6, 2020.
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The DPLA team has been working remotely since about 2017. We work together daily from our homes and offices across the country–South Carolina, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, Montana, Massachusetts, Michigan–and for us, this distributed work environment makes sense, as our work involves bringing together the riches of America’s library into one central, but completely virtual, repository. A distributed work environment allows us to source the best people for the job–no matter where they live–while our staff gets to enjoy a greater degree of work-life balance, and we all feel good about a greener lifestyle (no commuting-related carbon emissions!). So, for all of you out there who may be experiencing sustained remote work for the first time while we try to stem the spread of COVID-19, here are a few things our team has learned along the way: 

Slack is your friend (usually).

Like many teams out there, remote or not, we rely on Slack. It’s how we communicate with each other on a minute-by-minute basis about all of our projects, and also how we ask each other questions, share files, track new ideas, and celebrate good news. But, even with a small team, Slack conversations can quickly get out of control. So, some tips:

  • For newbies. If you’re new to Slack, make sure to download the app version for your phone and manage your notifications. Slack will remind you to do this and thanks to their “magic links,” you don’t even have to remember your password (though we always recommend setting up two-factor authentication!). The app makes going from desktop to phone seamless and keeps you connected (for better or worse) wherever you are. That’s why it’s important to manage your notifications (set which kinds of notifications you receive and mute them when you’re not working). 
  • Use threads. Even within a Slack channel on a specific topic, conversations can quickly grow difficult to follow. Taking the extra half-second to start a thread makes it much more likely your question or answer won’t get lost in the shuffle. Similarly, using “@” mentions helps make sure everyone knows who you’re directing a question at. Using “@channel” alerts everyone subscribed to your channel about your message.
  • Get to know the slash, pins, and stars. Using slash commands makes Slack even faster. Type “ /dnd” to set yourself to “do not disturb” while you finish writing a last-minute article about Slack commands or “/invite” to invite someone to a channel. Here is a handy list of /commands that are standard to every Slack. There are also commands specific to apps you integrate into your team’s Slack–for instance, we use /zoom to pull up our Zoom conference info when Slack just won’t cut it and we need to jump on the phone. “Pins” help you hold on to important messages within a channel and “stars” can help you create a to-do list. The more you use Slack, the more important it is to keep yourself organized within it, and getting to know these three features is a good start. 
  • Staying in the loop. Slack is a great way to keep up to speed on what’s going on across a conversation. At DPLA, all of our Slack channels are open to everyone. That means if one of us is curious about what’s going on in another line of business, we can check out the Slack channel to get the latest. We also keep a few general channels open to share library-related news, or send congratulations to a co-worker who has done something great. Many teams use a “watercooler” channel for friendly conversation. Be sure to archive channels when they’ve outlived their usefulness to avoid clutter. 
  • Know when NOT to use Slack. Slack isn’t and shouldn’t be a substitute for face-to-face conversations. And yes, “face-to-face” is still a thing in remote work. Sometimes a phone call or quick video conference online is the best way to work through a thorny issue; explain a complicated situation; have a brainstorm; or just get to see a friendly face during the day. Also, don’t rely on Slack for truly important messages that demand undivided attention. Sometimes, those are still best delivered via email, with perhaps a Slack “heads up” to let the recipient know it’s coming. 

Rules of the video conference.

We hold nearly all of our meetings via video conference. (We use Zoom, though there’s a ton of free and easy options to choose from.) Here are a few rules of the road:

  • Embrace it. In these days of text, phone calls can, at first, seem like an intrusion, but when you work remotely, and can’t stop by someone’s office or run into them in the elevator or communal kitchen, talking on the phone is your only way to actually talk. So, just embrace that old-fashioned concept of talking on the phone. And don’t worry, you’ll soon stop worrying about what you look like, though Zoom does have a feature that helps with that (Settings / “Touch up my appearance).
  • They don’t have to be formal. Many times, we’ll find ourselves starting a conversation on Slack only to switch to video conference halfway through. Using the /zoom command on Slack, it takes only a second and it can be a much easier way to talk through something more complicated or use visuals via screen share.
  • Virtual lunch. The truth is that remote work can sometimes get a little lonely, as many of us are working from home, where we don’t have that community you’d have at a traditional office. And if you’re new to remote work, that may be the first thing you miss. But you can still have lunch with a co-worker to chat about that great book you both read or that Netflix show you binged last night–just via video conference. It might take a bit to get used to, but it’s a nice way to bond and get to know each other on a personal level the way you would in a physical office–or in this case, cure a case of COVID-inspired isolation without spreading any germs. 

Finding the balance.

There are probably still a few people out there who think “remote work” is code for “not working.” But, we’ve found that more often than not, the opposite is true. Remote work means you’re always working–as soon as you wake up, during lunch “breaks,” in the pick-up line at school, well, pretty much all the time. Some people might see that as a good thing, but we’ve found that when you don’t have that traditional geographical divide between work and home, it’s even more important to make sure you’re setting some boundaries. Our team recommends creating a dedicated workspace, wherever it is, to create your own divide between work and home. When you leave that space, work should be (mostly!) over for the day. Taking that time away from work–when you’re not constantly checking email and Slack–makes for a more productive, energized, creative worker when you’re back on the job. And like with many things about remote work–trust is the key here. Instead of constantly checking Slack status updates and stalking each other’s Google calendars so that you know when your employees are at all times, trust that your co-workers and employees will get their work done in a timely manner, from wherever they happen to be working. Be happy, instead of stressed, when you’re taking that lunch break or going for a walk around the block to clear your head. It’s better for you, and for the team.

No more commute.

So, what should one do with that time that used to be spent sitting on a crowded train or in traffic? Yes, there will be days when it will go right into work, but that shouldn’t be the norm. Folks on our team have re-invested that time into lots of positive things: more regular exercise, cooking healthier food, spending more time with our children, volunteering and continuing our education.