70 Atoms Share What Most Helped Them Transition to Remote Work

Last Wednesday afternoon, we got the email you might have, too. We’d be closing the office and working from home to protect ourselves and our communities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Friday, we had transitioned to an all-remote company. After a quick and smooth transition, I wondered what could we share with other organizations that would help them do the same, if they needed to. So I asked everyone at the company what enabled their transition.

Before we get into the details, working remotely has its challenges — but even grappling with these challenges is a blessing. We lift up and respect the work of those who do not have this option, especially those responding to this pandemic on the front lines.

Survey Says…

I asked 70 Atoms what things the company, their colleagues, or they themselves have done that most supported their transition to social — and professional — distancing.

Even though I asked an open-ended question, it was interesting how many people shared the same answers. Below, I’ll explore the most actionable ideas with as many links, screenshots, and quotes as I could provide to help you steal any practices you’d like to try in your organization.

Hack 1: Set up a Discord Server for Your Company

At Atomic, we value co-location because it helps cross-pollinate good ideas and practices across teams. In the silence of working remotely, we lose some of that. Here’s what one developer told me:

“Losing the shared open space with the team — where problems and ideas quickly bounce around — has been hard. The ability is gone for other team members to overhear my conversations about a problem, so issues that they might be able to quickly fix are not brought up for potentially hours instead of minutes.”

Discord to the rescue.

Before this week, I’d only heard about Discord as a way for video gamers to talk as they play. Think of it as Slack — but for voice. Recently, some teams at Atomic started trying out Discord for their remote pairing. Each organization can create a server. Within servers, channels allow for private communication between people or groups. Unlike an ad hoc call, discord channels allow for continuous voice communication for anyone in the channel. That makes it ideal for anyone looking to simulate an office or team sonic experience while away from the office.

We created our Discord server four days ago, and we already have 14 channels running. They create space for everything for project teams to office communication.

Here’s how one developer says he’s using it:

“The Atomic Discord server has been awesome. My team stays in the channel all day (usually muted), and if we ever have any questions, or just want to chat, we just start talking to each other. Occasionally, other people have joined our channel and started a conversation, just like if they were stopping by our desks.”

Here’s a tutorial on how to set up a Discord server if you’d like to try it out.

Hack 2: Establish Team Norm of Over-communication in Slack

Since I joined Atomic four years ago, Slack has been an inextricable part of our culture. It helps us stay in touch across the state, with our clients, within teams, and to share updates.

Those updates have been all the more important when we’re separated, and it’s hard to know what anyone is working, on, thinking, or expecting. Because of this, several of our teams adopted a team norm of over-communication. Slack allows folks to broadcast their work, when they get stuck, their status, and their challenges. This helps prevent miscommunications and assumptions.

Here’s what a designer said:

“I think it’s been important to let no team or project space go radio-silent. I want my team members, MPs, and clients to know what I’m up to and that nothing has changed, really. That we’re still working hard and that if some aspect of a project does need to change, that I’m outlining exactly what they should expect.”

Since we’ve gone all-remote, our Slack instance has some new channels. We have a #working-remote channel to share tips, resources, and photos of folks’ remote working stations. We have a new #spooky-manor channel for a remote game a developer set up in place of our canceled social event last Friday. The most popular of these by far has been Atomic’s #pets channel. Seeing photos of Atoms’ blissfully unaware cats and dogs is a welcome and distraction from the stress of this moment. There’s also a #plants channel for those missing out on the pet train.

Company leaders also created a channel that serves as a place for Atoms to share positive thoughts and experiences about us living Atomic’s Mission, Purpose, Vision, Values, and Traits. In times of stress, our leaders wanted to lean on the things we hold most dear as a company.

Hack 3: Carve out 30 Minutes a Day for Personal Check-ins

Many of our Atoms are working remotely without the company of others. When socially isolated, it’s easier to let the fear take hold in these uncertain times. Several people I asked let me know personal check-ins from their teammates made a big difference.

A developer said:

“Something that has made a big difference to me has been having a few people who I am closer to who I check in with regularly. I find that every side conversation I have with someone on slack reminds me that I am not alone and we will figure it out together.”

This is a good opportunity for leaders to build that time into their calendars. It’s possible the people on your team struggling the most are the ones you are hearing least from, remotely. A quick Slack message, email, or video chat can make a big difference.

One tool I adopted to try to encourage remote 1:1s across the company to promote video meetings is the Slack app Donut. Donut allows you to create a dedicated Slack channel in your workspace. Anyone who joins that channel will be randomly assigned with someone else from that channel and prompted to schedule a 30-minute video chat. The app has a useful free tier, and you can seed the channel with good conversational prompts. (These are some of my favorites.)

Hack 4: Encourage Teams to Borrow from the Office

One of the most consistent, practical pieces of feedback I heard from Atoms was how much they appreciated being able to take hardware (keyboards, mice, external monitors) and furniture (desks, office chairs, plants) to their remote working station from the office.

Our remote work situation is likely to last for at least a matter of weeks. Having a little extra screen space, lumbar support, and tools can make a huge difference in the sustainability of work. Plus, by allowing folks access to the building to borrow supplies, they limit unnecessary trips to the store or spending money.

One developer said:

“I am so incredibly thankful that I was able to borrow office furniture for home since I didn’t have a home office.”

Hack 5: Send Reassurance from the Top

Finally, many Atoms said they felt more safe and secure as a result of hearing and reading encouraging, proactive communication from company leaders.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak began in the United States, Atomic’s co-CEOs have sent company-wide emails helping to align our plans, company outlook, and resources.

Here’s the email Mike Marsiglia sent the company after our second full day of remote work. If you’d like to adopt any of this messaging, feel free to steal and change the language as it works for you and your organization.

“Hi Atoms,

We’re impressed with your flexibility, positive attitude, and the speed in which you implemented the remote work change.

It’s been great to see the Slack interactions, remote standup organization, and willingness to help. We are truly grateful for this wonderful team.

Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis.”

It’s likely this situation will get more challenging in the world before it gets better. Things will get better though. At the same time, we all have an opportunity during this crisis to live our values, make the lives of clients and colleagues a little easier, and help out our communities.

We’ve asked Kim to help with some fun culture hacks/experiments. She’ll be sharing more of those in the coming weeks. We’re looking to make all of our lives a little easier, buying local, and spreading some positivity.

If you have an idea for a culture hack/experiment, or are interested in lending a helping hand please connect with Kim.

Children being home from school may present a challenge for some of us (interruptions, noise, etc.). If you’re a parent in this situation, please discuss your situation openly with your team. It’s important to get work done, but we have flexibility within any given week. M-F, 9-5 might not be the ideal schedule for everyone right now. Teams – be creative and flexible.

Please remember the Employee Assistance Center (EAC) is available to you and anyone in your household. And they offer video counseling services.

Media outlets are offering us a steady stream of bad news. That certainly can feel overwhelming. There are wonderful things happening at Atomic. Keeping that in mind can brighten our days.

Have a restful and safe weekend.

Mike and Shawn

P.S. Keep calm. Eat well. Get plenty of sleep. Try not to worry… and wash your hands (a lot).”

The email was timely, realistic, and also positive — highlighting gratitude and resources. It didn’t share too much new information, but it clearly made an impact on our Atoms.

Here’s how one designer put it:

“There isn’t a company I’d rather be working for than Atomic at this time. During challenging times like these, our values always seem to be shown the most. Having leadership that’s transparent, thoughtful, quick, and progressive is reassuring. Having project teams that share the pain, pick up slack, but more importantly understand that each and every one of us is going to face different challenges, and showing patience and empathy goes such a long way for just pure mental health reassurance.”

Let’s Put Our Heads Together

As we evolve into our new normal, we’ll find new challenges and meet those challenges with more good ideas.

Please share what’s worked for you in the comments.

  • Mike English says:

    I’ve been working mostly remotely for 4+ years now, but I stand by my recommendations from 2015:

    Based on my experience since then, I’d also place even more emphasis on the value of tending to a project’s Git history:

    (It’s worth contemplating the similarities between asynchronous-by-default communication and documentation.)

    I’ve also found that scheduling regular remote pairing sessions between team members of various experience levels and domains of expertise can be a very valuable use of time. It can help spread knowledge across distributed teams, and it can help people to feel more connected socially (like pair lunches). You can trade time working on different peoples’ projects, or use it for open-ended discussion.

    I think it’s also very much worth noting that “pandemic-induced working from home” is NOT the same thing as regular remote work. Many of us now have very different family situations with children unexpectedly home from school or regular childcare for extended periods of time and many other concerns, stressors, and distractions that are not normally a part of our workdays. As everyone figures out a new (hopefully temporary) normal, teams may need to be even more flexible than usual to accommodate unusual or interrupted working hours, and workers will need to make an extra effort to communicate.

    Wishing you all the best in this endeavor and during this trying time,

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