Remote Working at ISC

Tips on Remote Working

At ISC we have been working remotely for years. We have staff in Australia, Poland, the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Brasil, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Alaska, California, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Carolina, California, Virginia and Washington State.

We have a few key tools and practices that make this work for us. Some of these may be useful for others who are working remotely for the first time to slow the spread of Covid19.

  1. Video conferencing. it is so much better than audio-only. We use Zoom. We wait until everyone expected is present, and that is easier to see with faces on screen. I think people pay more attention to the discussion when their faces are visible too. There will always be a few people who don’t want to use video, but as long as most people use it, you get the benefit. While we are waiting for the laggards to join us, we do what people usually do when waiting in a conference room - remark on each other’s hair, the weather, etc.

  2. We use Doodle polls to determine available meeting times. We have a lot of timezones to consider. It is impossible to have meetings that span this many time zones without inconveniencing some people. So, we use Doodle Polls to determine not only what are convenient times, but what other times are possible. Also, as individuals, we appreciate the flexibility of working from home, so many of us do participate in meetings late in the evening and early in the morning. A few of our meetings alternate times every week so everyone can be included at least half of the time.

  3. Meeting agenda. We use Etherpad. We prepare an agenda ahead of time for every meeting. Typically whoever runs the meeting prepares the agenda. This is not a burden because we start by pasting in the contents of the Etherpad from the prior meeting, and then updating the issues, and status.
    Everyone signs in on the pad at the start of the meeting. That gets them participating, ensures that they have the pad up, and makes a record of who attended.

  4. Meeting Notes. We take notes during the meeting on the Etherpad. Anyone can make comments or notes. This particularly helps people like me, who are habitual interrupters. If I can’t restrain myself from making some comment, I can type it onto the pad, and avoid interrupting the speaker or the flow of conversation. Then when we get to that issue on the agenda, my comments can be discussed. We record decisions and action items on the pad. We never delete old Etherpads, and because we name them consistently with the meeting name followed by the date we can easily find the old Etherpads if we need to recall a decision or action item. This system isn’t perfect, because recording an action item on an Etherpad does not automatically create a task in any reminder system, but it works reasonably well for us.

  5. We have an internal-only chat system. We use Mattermost. We migrated to Mattermost from Jabber because Mattermost preserves all the prior chat history, even if you were not logged in at the time. If you log on, say 6 hours after a conversation has concluded, you can still read the discussion. Considering that our staff is located in a lot of different time zones, it can feel like you ‘missed out’ on a conversation you wanted to be in, but at least you don’t have to be logged in all the time. Many of us are monitoring Mattermost all the time. This can be a distraction, and even addicting, but you can just shut the window or even log out if you need to concentrate on something, and the conversation will be there when you return. We have regular meeting Zoom links and Etherpad names pinned in each channel so they are easily found in a hurry.

  6. We have separate channels for separate projects, and have a few channels for non-work-related stuff, like sharing photos. (Another reason for migrating to Mattermost was, you can share pictures.) I understand that ‘watercooler chat’ has become something of a legal hot potato in some organizations, because what were previously casual asides made in the hallway are now written down, and if some of them are insensitive or offensive, they can be more so when preserved and widely shared. It may be helpful to have an internal code of conduct, and assigned moderators for chat channels to ensure this doesn’t get out of hand.

  7. We have a single weekly News email to all staff summarizing the main news in each department. This way, everyone can feel up to date without having to see a bulletin board. This is not particularly specific to a remote work environment, but it is another thing that helps when people are not co-located.

How do you know people are working, if you can’t see them in the office?

Sigh. I know some of you have much more restrictive work environments, but at ISC we don’t sweat about whether everyone is working enough hours. (We have a bigger problem with people not resting or taking time off, actually.) We have a system for recording our hours every week, but nobody is monitoring to see if you are online at any given time. I know some employers monitor chat as a proxy for determining if remote workers are on-line. That is … demeaning and insulting and I feel sad for people who have to work in that kind of environment. We do have on-call rota, of course, because we are providing 7x24 SLA-based support, but that is the exception. I know trusting that people are actually working can be a management hurdle for implementing remote working, but it really is not a problem if you focus on results rather than activity.

Don’t you miss meeting in person?

We do get together in person at least once or twice a year. We have an annual All-Hands meeting, and we meet up in smaller groups at conferences or project summits. We do actually share a lot of personal information in our group chat channels. People post pictures of food, kids and grandkids, pets, eagles, skiing and boat repairs. It is probably hard on new employees to have to come up to speed remotely but we generally hire people with a lot of experience, so that hasn’t been a big problem at ISC. You do have to make your own coffee, and snacking constantly while working can be a real health issue. However, remote working can be very family-friendly. Many of us are interleaving child care responsibilities with work time. Personally, I love not having to commute hours every day in heavy traffic. I can spread my working hours out from 7 AM to midnight, with breaks when I need them to run errands or take a walk. ISC’s remote work system works well for us, and it probably helps us recruit and retain some very effective staff. We are saving a few carbon emissions, not passing along viruses and getting work done. It might work for you.

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