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Coronavirus and remote working: a practical guide 10 years in the making

Smart working

In iubenda we have adopted “remote working” or “smart working” ever since the company was founded in 2011. What was initially a necessity dictated by the startup phase, has, over time, become part of our DNA, so much so that today more than half of our team members work from home.

Although working remotely is extremely popular among software companies like ours, many companies outside this industry are experiencing it for the first time as a response to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

The idea of this article is to share our experience and practical guidance gathered over many years, hoping it will be useful to the many companies that are approaching remote working only now or have been practicing it all along. The post is separated into two sections, the first mostly relevant to companies on an organizational level, and the other targeted to the individual.

Context: who we are and how our team is composed

iubenda provides more than 60,000 customers worldwide with software solutions for compliance with online regulations, such as the GDPR and cookie regulations.

Our team consists of 55 people of 14 different nationalities, working from 10 countries. Of these, 54% work remotely, while the rest prefer to work from one of our offices – one in the heart of Milan and the other in the center of Bologna.

For Companies

Remote working and offices: how to make them coexist

In regulating company life, two elements are fundamental: transparency and fairness. That’s why the first step to introducing remote working is to create a clear policy that distinguishes those who decide to go to the office from those who work permanently from home. This is the balance we have arrived at:

  • Anyone can freely decide whether to work remotely or have a workstation in one of the offices.
  • Those who choose to work in the office, will have the advantage of a dedicated workstation and will still have access to 52 days a year to work remotely, which can be used at their discretion.

This allows everyone to choose their preferred way of working, not forcing anyone one way or the other.

How to organize your team: our method

While the organizational arrangements of a remote team also apply to those of a physical team, the opposite is not true. Therefore, if your company has always operated physically, organizational changes should be considered.

Goals count, not hours. Beautiful words… but in practice?

We often hear talk of moving from an organization based on the number of hours worked to one based on objectives. The key lies in always quantifying the activities with a method in mind. At iubenda we have structured according to these principles:

  • The activities of most company functions (e.g development) are organized into tasks. Each task corresponds to an assignment.
  • There are two types of “tasks”: production tasks and maintenance tasks.
    • Maintenance tasks concern recurring activities that take a fixed time in any given period.
    • The production tasks concern everything that is new.
  • Before being assigned, each task must be carefully documented with the creation of a specification (think of this as a detailed description stating precise requirements). For complex tasks, this is critical.
  • Once the specification has been defined, the task is assigned to the team member who will take care of it and the team member is asked to establish an “effort”, i.e., to give a measure in terms of days or fractions of a day of how long it will take to carry out the given task.
    • This is a fundamental step – the fact that the performer of the task provides the estimate of time is a powerful tool of responsibility. It also eliminates the friction that is created when the expectation of timing is defined by management and is not realistic.
  • Once the task “effort” is added, the task is ready to be scheduled. Each task is programmed with a start date and an end date, allowing each team member to know what to do at all times, and allowing management to have a vision of who is doing what at any time. This approach also provides a means of extremely accurate short-medium term planning.

The advantages of this method:

  • Eliminates friction due to any discrepancy between team members’ expectations and management (in terms of task execution time).
  • Gives you a full view of tasks, at all times, enabling you and the entire team to plan dependant activities precisely.
  • The resulting empowerment of each team member created by this method – presence in the office as a form of “supervision” becomes unnecessary.

It goes without saying that the above method, however flexible, must be adapted to your company’s individual circumstances and functions. In the case, for example, of customer care, indicators (e.g of how well the method is working) will be directly quantifiable by the number of responses and in the customer satisfaction rate.

The software tools for remote working

Comunicazione e remote working

Remote working can only work if supported by software tools suitable for asynchronous communication (task management) and synchronous communication (calls and chat). You may notice that email is missing from the list. This is because we do not use it as a form of internal communication, as our chat systems completely absorb its function.

Important: asynchronous communication should always be privileged; chat, meetings, and calls interrupt workflow and concentration, reducing productivity.

Asynchronous communication within the team

To organize tasks and schedule them, our team uses Asana. There are many alternatives, but this is the one we find most suitable for our method.

Synchronous communication within the team

For chat, meetings and calls the most used options are Microsoft Teams and Slack. Our team uses Microsoft Teams for a number of reasons, including:

  • The fact that Microsoft Office and OneDrive package is included in the subscription
  • Better management of notifications (in our opinion) and channel conversations than Slack

The importance of written guidelines and training

Formalizing, in writing, what has been said so far may seem obvious for companies of a certain size, but it can often be overlooked in small companies. Creating a set of written documents to clarify internal policies on remote working, organization, and use of the use of tools is essential regardless of team size and should be combined with appropriate training.

Why remote working is economically (and otherwise) convenient

The economic benefits of working remotely are significant for both team members and the company. Here are a few of its benefits.

Savings on workstations

Considering the average cost of a workstation, each team member working remotely can save up to €3000 (approx. $3300) per year in office space. This budget can be reinvested in activities for the team, as we will see later.

The ability to source talent without geographical limits

Our team works from 10 different countries, and working remotely allows us access to a pool of possible candidates that is enormously larger than what you can have when a physical presence is required. This is made even easier if the internal language of the company is English, as it is in our case.

In addition to the recruitment advantages, this also allows you to enrich your team from a cultural point of view.

Increase the well-being of team members and thus their productivity and loyalty to the company

Working remotely allows team members to:

  • Live in a city of their choice, with no restrictions, or even travel and move periodically
  • Live in places with a favorable cost of living
  • Save on transport costs
  • Manage their family commitments or your children more flexibly

This increases overall productivity and loyalty, thus lowering the turnover rate and associated costs.

Also, remote working allows you to…

  • Reduce the environmental impact of your company in terms of carbon emissions, as employees do not need to commute to go to work, and land consumption caused by offices.
  • Minimize the need for time off or leave for household issues such as “opening for the plumber”.
  • Provide flexibility in case of illness (team members have the flexibility to simply work through mild illness or apply “sick leave” when truly needed.)

The equipment

In order to facilitate remote working, it is necessary to have an internal policy that allows everyone to equip themselves with appropriate equipment, in our case, mainly a laptop computer.

Our set-up is as follows: we give each team member an equipment budget ranging from € 600 to € 1300 (approx. $670-$1430)per year (depending on the company function, with the highest budget reserved for those who are involved in software development and need a high-performance computer). In cases where someone may want to purchase more expensive equipment, they can use up to 3 years of their budget, thus allowing a purchase between €1800 and € 3900 (roughly $2000-$4200) from the first day of joining the company.

The overall economic benefits of allowing remote work contributes to the ability to provide in this regard.

How to keep the team together

Although remote working brings many advantages, nothing can replace the value of direct, face to face contact. For this reason, we create opportunities for all team members to interact, including those who work in different offices.

Weekly Standups

Every week, at fixed intervals, each team meets on call. During this call, each team member explains what they worked on in the previous week and what they will work on in the following week. Standups are very useful both to familiarize all members of the team with each other and to give everyone a sense of what the entire team is working on.

Annual Retreats

iubenda - Retreat a Scopello

Twice a year, we organize a retreat where we gather all team members, from wherever they’re based, for a week of work and fun. It’s an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other and congregate in a deconstructed and informal way while also working on planning.

The most recent retreats we had were in the relaxing environments of Tonnara di Scopello in Sicily, Canazei in the Dolomites, and on the island of Capri.

If you find yourself working remotely for the first time

If it’s your first time, working remotely can feel a little disorientating and it can sometimes be a challenge to focus and be productive – especially if you live with others. In this section, we’ll cover some useful tips to make the transition to remote as smooth as possible, as well as some useful resources to help you along.

Create a dedicated workspace

Pick a spot (not your bed) where you do all your work – it creates a routine and necessary boundaries. Also, avoid sleepwear or sweatpants. This helps you to get into the right frame of mind and to create a clear distinction between work and relax mode.

Schedule breaks

Being productive and getting work done often requires medium to long blocks of focus – with focus often being easier to sustain than to initiate.

While it’s incredibly important to pause ever so often, intermittent interruption (as can often occur at home) can harm your ability to be truly productive. This is where scheduled breaks come in. The breaks don’t need to be spaced as far apart as is common in most workplaces (e.g lunch once a day) but they should give you some time to build momentum and focus. One popular approach is Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro time management technique, however, it’s up to you to determine what works best for your situation.

Another important issue worth a mention is eye fatigue. If you’re working remotely for the first time, you’re likely spending more time than ever in front of your computer screen. This can lead to eye strain, causing headaches and making tasks doubly difficult. To avoid this problem, follow this simple 20–20–20 rule: take your eyes off your screen every 20 minutes and stare at a focal point at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. These eye exercises can, of course, factor into your scheduled break structure.

Avoid videos as “background noise”

Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, audiobooks – we all love them. The problem is that they’re also distracting. Avoid things with visuals and words going on in the background (even some kind of music), and you’ll get your work done faster.

Eat well

When working at home, it’s easy to over-snack. Often work-stations are set up in the kitchen in smaller apartments, and food is often within easy reach. It’s important to avoid junk foods and quick snacks, and fill your kitchen with healthy options instead, like fruits, veggies, lean meats, cheeses, and whole grains. While food might not seem obviously related to remote working and productivity, it is, as healthy food choices provide focus-improving brainpower. Also, be sure to drink lots of water (and don’t overdo it with coffee).

Maintain a healthy work-life balance

When working at home, the temptation to merge your job into your daily life can be great. Slipping in a report after dinner can seem like a convenience but over time blurs the line between home/family time and work mode for both you and your team. Set and stick to working hours to keep your personal life healthy, set proper expectations with your team (they’ll know when you’re truly available and when not) and avoid burnout.

In conclusion

Given the emergency situation caused by COVID-19, thousands of companies are forced to have their teamwork from home. The hope of this article is that our experience can help companies and individuals to be productive in these difficult times, and possibly provide to give some tips for adopting remote work as a working structure even after the end of the emergency.

If you think this article might be useful to others, share it on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter.


Some (mostly-free) resources

Time management

  • Tomato timer (lets you schedule pomodoro-style breaks, long breaks or short breaks)
  • Momentum dash (stunning personal productivity dashboard extension that integrates with your new-tab page on Chrome, Firefox and Edge)
  • Timezone.io (keep track of what time it is where your teammates are)

Communication

Free in response to Covid-19 demands

Project Management


This post is also available in Italian.