Keeping team morale up while remote working in an AI scale-up company: three lessons Avora learned in the first 6 weeks
4 minute read
This is part 1 of a 2 part blog co-authored by Ana, a project manager and voluntary wellness lead from Avora’s London office, and Bodea, a front-end developer from Avora’s Cluj office in Romania.
We’ve all seen the statistics about the impact of isolation and loneliness on mental health.
The impact of remote working on culture and wellbeing echoes this. Since lockdowns all over the world forced many businesses to operate remotely or to temporarily close, companies have been scrabbling to minimise the impact of this culture shock on their business. And unquestionably, employee morale has a huge role to play. High employee engagement in teams correlates with 21% greater profitability. And 87% of employees expect their employer to provide support to them in balancing work and personal commitments.
We took a look at how Avora has aced its team morale and employee engagement strategy moving into a 100% remote working environment. Asking each other questions interview-style to share our experiences, we tried to get to the heart of what really works (and what doesn’t work!) in this situation.
We learned a number of great lessons. Here are the first three:
- It’s important to keep people connected. Not just technologically, but also socially. People need to feel connected to each other and to our company values and product.
Bodea: I think one of the most challenging parts, even if not directly related with my area (front-end development), is communication and being available as much as possible in the same way you can be when you are physically together. Even if we do video-calls and so on, saying stuff and putting things and plans together is a little bit harder – we need to find free spots for everyone, people should be engaged in the call, it’s harder to keep focus.
I am still new in the company and I have a lot of people that I need to meet – but I already feel connected to the people that I met and I talked to. I feel connected to its value proposition and I am enjoying getting to know more about the business itself.
I’m a social person, I miss getting out during lunch-break to the nearest restaurant and eating together with a group of people. It’s really important to keep connected with your friends, your family and your co-workers. Keep in mind that most of your day is spent on working and ‘co-living’ with your work colleagues. It’s important to get along with them – and with this you will feel more integrated and comfortable with everything you are doing.
As for the challenging part – the number of meetings increased a bit and it’s normal in this situation – but it means we often need to change our focus, from one thing to another and afterwards back to that thing – and this is a bit of a challenge. If I need to talk with somebody, I cannot physically see if that person is really focused on something and should not be bothered – and I could accidentally distract them and make them lose a part of their productivity. So it’s a bit harder to comfortably contact some people you need to.
Also, if you have a task and you need some help – you need to spend time by writing a message or by scheduling a call with someone that you need. This takes a lot of time from your productivity – and maybe your schedule is different to the other person’s and so on. I think we can wrap everything up and say that a challenge, even with all the means that we have, it’s the ease of communication and the way we can connect right now to other people.
Ana: Bodea asked me about my experience of helping our multicultural team (London, Cluj, Serbia and other locations) go even more remote because of lockdown rules.
Undoubtedly a key challenge is communication. I’ll break this down into two components – recipe for communication and communications flows.
What I mean by a “recipe for communication” is the components that enable information to move between two people clearly and result in action.
I think you need a few key things for this to happen well: Trust, Clarity and Speed. Clarity in communication is already difficult in normal circumstances – this is compounded when technical work is involved, and further by a move to 100% remote communication. Speed is how fast that information can move – our team uses Slack for instant communication, Hangouts for video calling and email for external comms and for long form thought pieces.
Sometimes these tools cause their own challenges, like reduced ability to convey tone and urgency by text. Speedy comms via text mean an emphasis on how you explain something is as important as what you write. Up to 90% of communication is non verbal. That changes when you’re just using email / messaging or calls. That’s why when our whole team moved to full remote working, we introduced a policy where video is mandatory for all internal calls, which increases engagement.
Secondly, I like to picture communication in flows. When we were working from the offices in London and Romania respectively, decisions could be reached in Romania and quickly fed back to London and vice versa. This was a strength we didn’t realize we had until it was gone. After the first three weeks of the adjustment period, team members expressed feelings of meeting overload and video call fatigue. We are still working on it, but without question, communication is king.
- We needed to work even harder on our company culture to help people feel that they are part of something beautiful, a ‘family’.
Ana: In our first week I set up “Donut” – a Slack integration which pairs team members across the company for weekly “virtual coffees”. I set up custom groups so team members could select “Romania / International” or “London”.
The intention was to connect those people who were already not working closely and improve bonding across the company. We will experiment setting pairs to occur based on departments next. Very positive feedback from this culture and wellbeing initiative via our “High Fives” and direct messages signaled this was an initiative to keep for the long term. (High Fives are little shout outs of what we’re proud of on our team feedback tool, 15Five).
Bodea: For me, personally, donut was a good way of meeting new people from the company with whom I would not have the chance to meet so fast and in a personal way (not only work related stuff). This way of talking with people, being friendly – gives the people a relaxation and calming mood – and like this most of the employees might have more courage to say things as they feel they are and to give and ask for feedback.
Human relationships in general are very important for your well-being and team morale. Be there one for each other and your time will pass in a nice way and you will not feel that you are working.
- Appreciation and Recognition need to be handled differently when everyone is remote.
Bodea: People are using the #wellness Slack channel we’ve introduced as well as Donut / e-coffee sessions and 15Five (our employee engagement tool) to recognise each other. Usually the e-coffee is really nice, and we get to know other sides of the people, maybe some passions, things in common and so on, and 15Five is a good way to thank each other for it.
Ana: On one of the last all-hands, Manjit (our CTO) did a personalised shout out to each developer. It took a little while, but it was important that they knew they were valued as individuals, in addition to being important wheels in the Avora machine.
In Part 2 of our blog, we’ll cover Wellness in more detail. We’ll also be looking at how we’ve handled time-management when boundaries are blurred between work and home life. And if you want more food for thought in the meantime, check out this blog by Manjit, our CTO, on his tips for handling communication and knowledge sharing in software teams in the remote era.