Before Covid-19, Flow Communications was a traditional company like so many others, based in offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Our offices were funky and fun, and were places our staff liked to work and our clients loved to visit. So remote working was a big change for us, but once we’d realised we could work remotely (we’d always toyed with the idea but had been too afraid to try it), we decided to do our best to embrace and surf that wave. Not long after the first lockdown in South Africa began, we got rid of our physical offices and dived into working remotely permanently.
The results have been overwhelmingly beneficial to our business and culture: yes, there are a few cons (the biggest not being able to connect in person), but the pros far outweigh these. We’ve experienced greater engagement, better staff retention, closer teams who interact more than ever, unprecedented growth of international work in particular (because our mindset is now more global and not tied to a location), and the ability to employ anyone anywhere (we’ve hired people in Paarl, Durban and Stanger in the past few months, which would never have been possible before). We have become more agile, more successful and have a culture that is stronger than ever.
So if you, like us, are considering or have chosen to work online or in a hybrid model, here are 14 tips we’ve notched up from our experience to help.
1. Don’t be afraid of remote working
Say goodbye to the control freak in you and let go of your fears of needing to see people in an office to ensure they are working hard. Yes, remote working is not the same as working together physically, but embrace what it can give: flexibility, responsibility and enhanced teamwork.
Overall, we’ve found most staff enjoy remote working more than working in an office. When asked why our staff like working remotely, one wrote:
“How I love remote working. Let me count the ways …
- I can go for a lunchtime run and be all sweaty and smelly the rest of the afternoon and there is no one to care or comment
- I can listen to Richard Wagner or Henryk Górecki the whole day and it only drives my neighbour nuts
- The Spar across the road makes pancakes the whole day. I can eat them warm from the frying pan
- Everyone has the opportunity to lead the morning check-in meeting. There is always something fresh and fascinating to learn”
2. Ensure your technology stack is right
At Flow, we use Google Workspace as the basis of our internal communications. Google Docs, Sheets and Slides allow as many people as you like to contribute to a single document, allowing for efficient collaboration. Google Chat allows you to instantly chat with anyone in your team, and to easily create a quick breakout chat on a particular topic, such as a project or client. Feedback sessions and reverts are easier to get across in a chat than in a message or email and are more personal. We also have a random chat room for people to let off steam by posting fun GIFs, commentary on current events and links to interesting articles, and which also serves as a place to crowdsource ideas (including for this article). Google Meet is similar to Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and is quick and easy to use, particularly if the whole company is on the same system.
Apart from Google Workspace, we’ve created our own online platform called Timesponge, which allows us to easily record our time and activity in detail on an hourly basis, allowing for transparency for our clients and useful data sets on our own productivity for ourselves. Timesponge also provides useful tools like a sales leads and quotes system, a dashboard of up-to-the-minute data including which projects are running over or under, a company-wide view of leave, and financial data including debtors and revenue. (We have released a free version of Timesponge to companies of up to three individuals, while larger companies pay modest monthly fees. Feel free to check it out on www.timesponge.net.)
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Internal communication is always key to a healthy business, and even more so in the case of a remote one. It’s not only about the daily grind – ensure that you give regular updates on the bigger company strategy, objectives and progress made, so everyone knows what they are working towards and why they are doing it. Use different channels of communication including email, chat, newsletters, virtual town halls, staff and ad hoc meetings. Just because you wrote something in one email doesn’t mean your team will have read it or absorbed it. Repeat important information using different mechanisms and channels for reinforcement.
4. Have a daily check-in
It’s more difficult to engage with people online than in person, so you need to work harder at creating engagement in a remote setting. At Flow, we have a 15-minute morning meeting every day at 9am to welcome people to the virtual office. This is run by a different team member each day, who can choose any topic they like, so it’s never predictable. Sometimes it’s serious and thought-provoking (we’ve had meetings on organ donation and managing personal finances, for example); sometimes inspiring (meetings on dream destinations and forming good new habits); sometimes relaxing (how to practise meditation and stretch at your desk); and sometimes just plain out there (weird allergies people have, where to buy the best vegan food, why electronic voting isn’t reliable). Every member of staff has an opportunity to take the floor, and showcase what matters to him/her/them. This practice serves as a good glue and a great dividend against minimal time invested.
Once a week, on “camera-on Wednesdays”, we insist everyone turns on their cameras. During the morning meeting, we randomly put two or three staff members in a breakout room together for five minutes. These sessions allow people to check in with their colleagues on a personal level, and learn about those we wouldn’t normally engage with on a day-to-day or project basis, so serve as a chat at the virtual water cooler. They’re very popular, with staff often begging for more time in the breakouts.
5. Create rituals
Lots of research has been done on the power of made-up rituals to calm in times of loss and uncertainty and to build togetherness (listen, for example, to this excellent podcast by Dr Laurie Santos of Yale University on this topic: https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-2-episodes/episode-3-the-power-of-a-made-up-ritual)
At Flow, we’ve created small rituals to give people certainty, including often starting our morning meeting with a song, always having someone tell a joke and nominate another person for the next day, and calling every day for shout-outs – small mentions of appreciation from one staff member to others who have helped them. Not being in the office means you don’t see what others are doing and who is working hard. The shout-outs acknowledge good work, but they also tell everyone else what is happening in the company, and because they come from your peers, there’s no greater praise.
We also have a bigger monthly staff meeting where people vote for the best employee of the month and all nominations are read out (it’s a great honour to win the “Flowstar Award”). Another award recognises the best client of the month, to keep reminding us all of the importance of our customers. We also feature different projects and campaigns in this meeting, presented by those who are working on them. This is a good way to showcase a campaign or client to the whole company and not just those working on it. The whole team has a chance to see Flow's range, capabilities, clients and who works on what.
On a more granular level, each team in the company has its own weekly online get-together. As one member of our team put it, “We have weekly Thursday PR team meetings where we each get to share something, anything, that we feel like, and I enjoy our subsequent discussions around the topic of the week. I feel that these really allow us to remember who each other is as an individual and help us to connect as a team.” Another person said, “The same can be said for our weekly content meetings – we tell each other about our weekends and also about work coming up in the week and our capacity.”
At Flow, we updated all our employment contracts so that staff members take responsibility for ensuring they have a good online connection and a stable electricity connection at all times. We also give a small company-wide monthly “work from home allowance”, to provide for any computer peripherals, internet costs or work expenses an employee might have.
7. Create a learning culture
Organisations are either learning and growing, or dying; there is no middle ground. Employees who are learning are more engaged and help their organisations grow and prosper, so consciously creating a culture of learning is key.
At Flow, we have long held seasons of “Flow School” – before Covid-19 these were hour-long, in-person classes for our staff delivered over about three six-week seasons a year on topics relating to the marketing and communications industry, such as animation, virtual reality and social media trends. After going remote, we stepped up the frequency of Flow School to be an hour every single week, which all staff are encouraged to join. We also broadened the subject matter to include not only industry-related topics, but also practical sessions, such as how to use the company’s new password system (remote working made us interrogate and upgrade our digital security systems) and more general topics like top tips for investing on the stock market.
These sessions are almost always presented by our own staff to each other and are well attended. As one Flowstar says: “Flow School underlines a culture of learning, and makes you realise that your colleagues have skills and interests that you might not know about.”
8. Show appreciation
Just as in the real world, we have found that staff working remotely love notes of appreciation (which can be amplified by thanking someone in public, for example, on an internal chat group or in a morning meeting). Saying thank you, and being polite, kind, courteous and respectful all help to build a positive culture.
9. Produce cool company apparel and other goodies
Consider producing cool company apparel like hoodies and shirts that people enjoy wearing “at work”. Not only will they look smart and professional, but the gear will also create a sense of inclusion in those who wear it and will provide brand reinforcement to those who see it in online meetings. Think, too, about other branded items that have a long shelf life and provide visual reinforcement of your brand in people’s homes. These need to be desirable or people will simply throw them away or not use them. We’ve also sent our staff pink notebooks (pink is our corporate colour) and plants in pink pots, to engender a sense of belonging.
10. Organise fun online events
You have to work hard at having fun; creating fun memories takes careful planning and organisation. We try to use days in the calendar to make work extra fun for our staff, for example on Valentine’s Day, Spring Day and Halloween. We often organise special deliveries and ask staff to dress up (and, of course, pose for screengrabs to record the moment). For our last end-of-year event, we hired a world-class magician. Everyone received a small pack of cards in their party pack and one of his most effective tricks was getting more than 60 people to simultaneously pull the same card out of their pack!
11. Distribute internal newsletters
Quarterly internal mailers help remind us of who we work with, who the new faces are, what staff enjoy doing in their free time and what music they enjoy. The newsletters contain interviews with staff, fun quizzes related to staff and work, a Spotify playlist crowdsourced from our staff’s favourite songs, appreciative notes from clients, and case studies of the best work recently completed.
12. Create a company playbook
We created a digital “company playbook”, which centralises key information required on a regular basis, reduces inefficiency by giving play-by-play instructions on how to perform common tasks, and helps new Flowstars with common processes and to learn about Flow culture. Content includes links to our website and social media platforms; our vision, mission and values; links to custom virtual backgrounds; contact details and pictures of staff; links to personal productivity tools; templates for briefing in work; corporate information like our tax and B-BBEE certificates; how-to guides (e.g. how to create an online form to collect information or how to create a QR code); an overview of common IT problems and how to solve them; and an explanation of our sales philosophy and process.
Any staff member can create an article for the playbook, but we have designated editors. It’s an evolving guide to our culture and processes.
13. Improve induction and orientation
It’s harder to adapt to a new culture when working online, so you’ll need to put even more effort into bringing new staff on board. We set up several new sessions during a new team member’s first day and week, to explain our values and culture, who’s who, where to get help, IT and leave processes and other essential information. A new team member will meet with their manager daily for the first month or two of their employment, and will get a “buddy” – someone who has been at the company for some time – to help support them and make them feel welcome and comfortable at Flow.
14. Hire for values and culture
Just as it is for companies with physical offices, company culture starts with hiring with a culture fit in mind. It’s crucial to hire people who share the company’s values and outlook on life and work. People can learn skills, but values are instilled from an early age. As the adage goes, hire slowly and fire fast if someone is clearly not a good fit. We also check on people’s internet connections in interviews and ask them about their coping mechanisms for working at home. Not everyone is ideal for remote working, but we’ve found at Flow that with the right online culture, you can make anyone feel welcome and supported.