On Friday, Donald Trump declared a State of Emergency in response to growing concerns about COVID-19. This declaration follows formal emergency classifications by nearly 30 states, including California, Washington, New York, North Carolina, and Arkansas, which many of the nation’s largest tech, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing/supply chain enterprises call home.
In order to maintain operations while protecting employees, and preventing the continued spread of COVID-19, many large companies, including Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, Spotify, and Airbnb, are asking employees to work remotely for the time being.
This has posed a number of problems for companies that are not equipped to maintain remote operations on a large scale for extended periods of time. Smaller companies that may not have the infrastructure needed to support fully remote operations, and lack the budget needed to make these rapid changes, will be most impacted by these challenges. And this anxiety may be amplified by the possibility that employees in enterprises both small and large may continue working this way indefinitely.
As someone who has managed remote teams for the past few years, I understand many of the challenges that remote workers face, as well as the policies and procedures needed to ensure that remote work remains manageable for employees, and efficient for businesses.
I believe the misconception that any work done exclusively on the computer can transition seamlessly from on to offsite belies the reality that remote structures radically change the culture and management style of businesses.
It is my hope that companies will not only continue to encourage their employees to remain at home for their health and safety, but will also invest in improving their emergency operational procedures. In doing so, they will be able to maintain efficiency, and implement an infrastructure that supports reactionary, company-wide remote work in a way that suits both employee and employer.
If you are familiar with the change management work that I and Rob Ocel, an architect at This Dot have been doing over the past year, you may have already heard of the PAM Stack.
For those who haven’t heard of it, we generally define it as a modern architecture for building sustainable, inclusive development teams. Now, this system wasn’t exclusively built for remote teams, but applying the three guiding principles of the PAM Stack could significantly help leaders building management systems for employees who have recently transitioned to working off-site.
Its three guiding principles are: Process, Abstraction, and Mentorship.
When transitioning to temporary remote work, especially in response to national and international emergencies, company goals are bound to change. And these changes will trickle into every department.
If a company expects its employees to continue working under a drastically different operational culture, it is important that leadership establishes clear expectations and goals for their direct reports, and promotes transparency about those expectations to an appropriate degree. This can be supported by building out physical documentation that outlines departmental and even employee specific responsibilities.
Of course, these procedures will have to be tailored to accommodate each unique circumstance, but should be guided by documentation written ahead of emergencies, without the pressure imposed by reactionary operational changes.
Procedural documentation should also identify common points of error specific to the type of work being carried out, with consideration for what unique error points might arise due to the abrupt change from onsite to remote-only work. The inclusion of regular reviews, checklists, and metric keeping are all essential to maintaining better communication between employees within the same department, as well as positive interdepartmental communication.
When managing a remote team, it is crucial to keep your tech stack as simple as possible. Development teams should only work with as diverse a tech stack as absolutely necessary in order to build and maintain their products, services, and proprietary internal tools.
Companies should also be careful to prevent the use of redundant operational assets, and ensure that all employees are sharing as many technologies as possible. This means sales and marketing teams across a company should use the same suite of products; documents, passwords, and databases should all be accessible through the same interfaces, respectively, and communication should be conducted over as limited a number of channels as possible.
Additionally, by using modern frameworks such as Vue, Angular, or React, teams equip their developers with powerful force-multipliers that abstract away irrelevant complexities, and will reduce the need for peer-to-peer reference due to the support of abundant educational resources, and documentation.
According to a 2018 Spherion study, 35% of developers who do not receive mentorship look for new jobs within twelve months. Oftentimes, this is due to a feeling of isolation and immobility that may be exacerbated by an abrupt transition to remote-only work.
This is a significant problem for leadership, since the cost of recruiting and training a new hire cost as much as double that developer’s annual salary. Unmanageable attrition will slow your team down, increase stress, and trigger panic hiring. All of these problems are tough enough for companies operating within their preferred work cultures, but may be even more difficult if encountered while a company is operating under an emergency procedure.
Despite the additional communicative challenges presented by remote work, companies should maintain strong mentorship programs in order to maintain employee engagement and reduce the feeling of isolation common among even remote workers who elect to work remotely, and may be worse for employees compelled into full time offsite work.
Of course this mentorship can be unstructured and organic- taking the form of natural conversations and friendships between developers on the same team. But teams should also incorporate an intentional program that includes pair programming, code reviews, and lunch & learns, all of which are still maintainable within remote work cultures.
It is my sincere hope that the threat presented by COVID-19 is managed as soon as possible, and I applaud any company that shoulders responsibility for combatting its spread through radically changing their operational structures.
However, I believe that companies not only need to prepare for the possibility that workers may be unable to return to their offices any time soon, but need to implement procedures that encourage a more seamless transition from onsite to offsite work in instances of natural disasters, pandemics, or other states of emergency in the future.
By adopting PAM Stack principles, companies are better able to maintain the health and wellbeing of not only their businesses, but more importantly, the human lives that depend on large, multinational companies being able to radically transform their operations without hesitation.
If there is any way that I or Rob could help you in this transition, please do not hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.