6 April 2020

How our whole company made a transition into “A New Normal” of fully remote work after Singapore announced “Circuit-Breaker” measures.

Current mood: 😅busy, but determined.

The recently announced “Circuit Breaker” measures meant all non-essential businesses had to transition to remote work.

We, Novocall, as a company, has made this 100% transition 

Here is how we did it.

Welcome to the Lost & Founder blog. It serves as Novocall’s founders’ diary, to chronicle our start-up journey, share our successes (and failures) and most importantly our learnings. The start-up world is tough, and we don’t always have the answers. But in true startup spirit, we won’t stop till’ we find it. Here’s to future startups that might tread the same path.

     L&F entry written by

    Huang Jing Jie (JJ)

     Founder, CEO, Thinker

The recently announced “circuit breaker” measures announced by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday, effectively meant ‘lockdown’ rumours became semi-official (semi, because the government is not officially calling this a lockdown), and had a 3-day-timeline—taking effect on 7 April 2020. For the uninitiated, these measures meant that non-essential services were ordered to close and businesses that wanted to continue operations had to move to a 100% telecommute (remote work) structure.

We welcome the latest moves to mitigate the continued spread of COVID-19, and believe that it will help businesses like ours in getting back to full swing once the current situation is over. With that said, new operational challenges arose from the measures.

One, we needed to have a working 100% remote team in Singapore in 3 days before the newly-announced measures took effect.

Next, we needed to identify deficiencies to productivity in remote working, and come up with reasoned and enforceable measures for the team.

Here’s what we’ve implemented for our entire company.


Novocall’s Guidelines to Transition to Remote Work


1. Over-Communicate, in frequency and in quantity.

(i) Frequency: we need to communicate more through text and video. Team members will need to get used to ‘writing first’ instead of ‘speaking first’. Slack & Hangouts will serve as the conduit of all team communications. We’ll set up frequent and scheduled calls to ensure team communications are regular and objective-driven.

(ii) Quantity: since we can’t talk physically, we need to communicate with context. Instead of simply telling people what you need to do, tell them why—and dive into the details of how. For example, use Loom to record yourself speaking over short videos to share comments/reviews/instructions asynchronously.


2. Always-on Discord room, for the lonely (or challenged) team member who needs to see a familiar face outside of home.

The founders will strive to constantly be in the always-on Discord room, and team members are encouraged to join (but can come and go as they please, or need). This helps us maintain a sense of being a team, despite being apart. We hope that there will always be faces around, to make it easier to acclimatize to this “new normal” of ours.


3. Communication process, the whens and hows in replying.

If it’s urgent, take a few mins, then drop the team member a direct message on Slack or get on a direct call/Hangouts with them. If it’s not urgent, then communicate in your department group chat or general chat. If a longer discussion is needed or multiple people are involved, check respective calendars for an opening and schedule accordingly.


4. Update your Slack status to reflect your availability. Set focus hours to avoid non-urgent communication.

Need to focus on a task? Rushing something urgent? Will you be away from the desktop to attend to something? Change your Slack status to ‘Do not disturb’ or ‘Focus mode’ to indicate to teammates that you need to focus, or will be away. If it’s going to be for an extended period of time, communicate this by updating your personal calendar. We suggest syncing Slack with your calendar to reflect unavailability in your Slack status automatically.


Visibility & Accountability for Remote Operations

1. Visibility on Notion/Jira, to keep projects on-track.

We use Kanban boards at Novocall. When you’re working on a task, put it to ‘In-Progress’. If you’re done and need review, push it to ‘In-Review’ and tag the people who need to review it. This means business as usual, since this has been how the whole team has worked since Day 1.


 2. Daily stand-ups, to help you stay focused, and seek resolution.

For our morning daily stand-ups, you share what you did the past day, what’s the current task, and the % of progress into the task. Share the issues/blockers that you’re facing with your team members, and how you plan to resolve them, or if you can’t. This is important so that we can identify when you need help in acceleration or solutions.

In the event that you do not have a task at hand, communicate this overtly, and highlight your availability to help other team members. Identify something you’d like to learn until something else is assigned.


3. Weekly Objectives and Key Results (OKR) reviews.

When new members joined, we set OKRs for them to achieve. These are designed to ensure they stay aligned to larger team goals. As always, we will continue weekly check-ins to see their progress on OKRs.


Morale & Mindset for Remote Work

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s also on morale & motivation. Working remote and alone at home might be fun at the start, but it can get boring and isolated after a while.


1. Always-on voice chat room.

Covered in communications. This chatroom exists to show that we’re available and in solidarity with every remote team member. Working remote and alone at home might be fun at the start, but it can get boring and isolating with time. That’s why we introduced an always-on voice Discord that you can pop in and out anytime you want, and chat with anyone about anything.


2. Drawing boundaries between work and personal life.

This is especially important for those with family members who also work from home or are at home! When you used to go to the office to work, your family is made physically aware of the work boundary from your absence, and don’t disrupt your workflow. Now that you’re home, it may signal to your family that you’re accessible. Your partners, parents or children that might struggle to understand why you’re not engaging with them although you’re physically there.

What we suggest is having a conversation with your family, to help them understand that just because you’re home, doesn’t mean you’re always available. Another helpful thing would be to structure your work schedule to have a midday break for your family errands and responsibilities.


3. Interest-based Slack channels.

We encourage team members to find their tribe beyond their teams. We have several non-work Slack channels so that we can talk about things outside of work, like our pretty active #interests-workout (work out at home more!). Feel free to create your own, or join an existing one (interest channels start with #interests).


Meetings (synchronous communication)

Mondays: Company-wide Hangouts meeting.
(i) Share company-wide news, updates and introduce newcomers.
(ii) Roundtable, greetings, your focus & objectives for the week.

This is a good time to get aligned as a company, and to see and put faces behind the names.

Daily (optional): Departmental stand-ups.

All meetings are now recorded and published in Google Drive/Notion for those who can’t make it, and need later viewing.

The next few months

We are luckier than most. We’ve had existing remote processes for our remote teams in Indonesia and the Philippines for some time. These have been iteratively refined since we set up these extended teams, that complement our flexible team in Singapore, who also sometimes work from home. We adapted learnings from our remote processes, and put in place new measures, meant to ensure continued team function and business operability.

Transitioning to remote work isn’t as simple as stating that teams will now take all meetings and discussions online. It’s also about how you streamline communications to have brevity while maintaining actionable context. Beyond communications, we also acknowledge the ramifications on visibility, accountability, and team morale.

This is what we’ve tried to answer in our resulting guide. These remote working guidelines have been a long time coming, and out of necessity, we were ignited to fast-track our development for a full framework, which will become inducted into our onboarding process and (future) employee handbook.

Of course, I don’t expect that these measures won’t need ironing out, but as always we will do it iteratively and with the objective of removing friction within our processes.

My co-founders and I have moved swiftly, and we’ve consequently minimised impact on operations: a new hire joins us next week, on top of one that joined last week. They will face minimal disruption to their onboarding, and our entire team has been notified of new working measures we have put up.

I’d love to report on findings and updates to this. Share this with someone who could find this useful for their team, should they have the option of moving into a remote structure as we have.

For the essential services that have to keep running this month⁠—my hats off to you. If you happen to be in the medical line, we’ve extended our ‘Call for Care’ initiative and are accepting more new applicants to use our software for free. Find out more (www.novocall.co/call-for-care).

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