Close your office. Now. How to operate your startup under lock-down.

Mar 14, 2020 · 13 min read · 4,821 views

What a week.

The US declared the state of emergency. Many leading startups closed their office. And I expect that all startups in the tech hubs will have their offices closed by the end of next week – if they haven’t already.

You might not live in a hot-zone of COVID-19, and might be unsure if it’s too early for to do so as well. You might be based in a rural America, LATAM, India, Europe – in a region or city where it’s moderately safe right now.

No matter where you are based: I think you should

Close your office. Now.

Think of it as a test-run.

Most likely you don’t need to worry about COVID-19 too much. You might not worry that it could get as bad as in Italy, maybe experts overreact or you are just lucky because your city has no cases and team is young and healthy anyway. But you should worry about being not fully operational in a phase that could be critical for your customers. You don’t want your most important people laying sick in bed while this happens.

If everything goes well you have a week of experience with a wfh-setup that you can fallback to. If things continue to escalate, you ensure that your team and business stays healthy. And most importantly, you might help slow down the spread of a pandemic.

Close your office. Now.

In this blog post I want to share my minimum recommendations I think you need in order to continue functioning as a startup, and what you need to watch out for over the next several weeks.

I want to keep this document evolving so please send me your feedback and suggestions.

First up: We are the lucky ones

If you are reading this there is a high chance that you are working in a tech startup – maybe you even live in a high density tech hub. The majority of people like us are able to work digitally, safely from home.

It’s worth reflecting that we are the lucky ones – this is a pure luxury. Many people worldwide aren’t able to stay at home to work, and will need to risk their health and personal safety moving forward.

While I want your your team to be set up for success during this time, I want you to also consider reaching out to the hourly workers that help you in your office. Your security, cleaning staff, cafeteria personnel, and anyone else who enables your office to sustain an environment and culture that employees want to work in. Continue paying their wages and see if there are other ways you can help them.

Let’s get started…

As a team leader you have the following todo list

Right now:

  • Understand the situation
  • Own the moment and communication
  • Working from home - Help your team to optimize their daily routine
  • Remote work - Set your processes up to function remotely

In the next weeks:

  • Get ahead of the problems you might face next
  • Create confidence & focus by going the extra mile

Understand the situation

The current situation we face is not about “remote work”.

Right now, we face forced isolation and forced work-from-home during a global pandemic.

There is no point in sugar-coating this. This is stressful for everyone – including you and your team. Especially now in the first weeks.

Many countries will manage it properly, other might create a complete mess. But in any case this requires you to change how you operate as a company for the next few months.

Remote teams have years to optimize their internal processes, and everyone who joined them did so with a prior understanding about this work setup. Your team doesn’t have this luxury right now.

Your goal right now is not to become a fully functional remote team overnight.

Your first goal is to establish an emergency work-from-home setup that sustains your productivity.

Own the moment and communication

Together with your HR and people team, figure out the right process for your startup. You want to tackle this head on and get ahead of the situation. Even if you are “just” a 10 person startup, this is a moment where your team is looking at you for leadership.

My Recommendation:

  • Read about the internal processes of other startups
    • Skip all the in-between steps and directly go to the most drastic approach
    • Close offices, stop traveling and introduce mandatory work-from-home for everyone
  • Then…
    • Put your HR/people team in charge and make this a CEO/COO issue
    • Implement a test week in which everyone works from home
    • At the end of the week decide if you want to continue like this (you should)
    • Expect this to last 2-3 months and allow planning accordingly

I hope this document can help with this

Working from home - Help your team to optimize their daily routine.

Day one this will be perhaps the biggest issue that your employees will face.

My Recommendation

  • People will realize how bad their internet at home is
    • Tell them to upgrade
  • Their home setup might not be useful for daily work
    • Create a stipend they can use to buy proper chairs or desks
    • Tell them to get equipment from the office (if it’s safe to go there)
    • Normal apple headphones are fine, fancy headphones are great
    • External monitors are a game changer
  • Advise people to have dedicated work and non-work areas at home
    • If possible with a door in-between
    • It’s worth rearranging furniture to make this work
  • Recommend morning and evening routines
    • Eg walk around the block
  • Encourage them to have regular calls with each other (see below)
  • Create a slack channel in which your team can share with each other work-from-home-tips
    • This is not only a good source of information but also gives the people on your team, who have worked remotely before, a moment to shine and become the “go-to person” for private discussions

I highly recommend reading Benedikt Lehnert’s omgwfh.com

Remote work - Set your processes up to function remotely

To minimize any initial shock:

  • Get a zoom and slack team license
  • Encourage daily calls for smaller teams (standups) in the beginning
    • If you notice that people don’t pay attention switch to daily text updates instead
  • Consider having a #hibye channel
    • People check in and out and greet each other
    • If it doesnt work for your team stop doing it
  • Encourage video meetings
    • Have a video-on policy
    • Experiment with meetings that dont require people to be muted
    • But make sure to mute people who have loud background or bad mics
    • If you notice this to be a problem switch to muted by default
  • On the long run you will try to minimize meetings and synchronized processes but for now this help people to accommodate

Once you feel comfortable:

  • Set up one central place for all documents
    • I recommend Notion but you can use whatever you are used before
    • The goal is to have one place where people expect to find documents
    • Write every process down that you expect more than one person to follow more than once
  • Manage slack
    • Reduce channels so it’s clear where communication happens
    • People will otherwise feel anxious about missing stuff
    • Encourage public discussions instead of private chats
    • Ensure that complex topics/decisions are discussed in collaborative documents, not in slack
  • Run more efficient meetings
    • Have a lead for each meeting who prepares beforehand an agenda and documentation
    • Make sure that you write down decisions and tasks resulting from each meeting so that less people feel like they need to join it
    • Make sure that each team has at least one meeting per week so that ad-hoc meetings and long slack discussions can be avoided
  • Measure output (instead of time)
    • Make sure you communicate clear expectations around goals
  • Involve and trust your people

Resources

Feel free to stop reading here

Focus on the parts above. Once you feel comfortable in your strategy come back here and continue reading. The following paragraphs mainly focus on how to get ahead of the problems you will face next.

Forced self-isolation and the feeling of loneliness

Over the next several weeks’, your employees might be worried about leaving their home and overcompensate by barely leaving at all – or if they do leave , experiencing high levels of stress while doing so.

Buffer and AngelList did the 2020 State of Remote Work survey. One of the biggest drawbacks even to successful remote teams is loneliness.

Given your team is not used to working from home, coupled with the added pressure of unclear semi-broken work-processes, this feeling of loneliness might become more prominent, sooner.

To minimize any initial shock:

  • Ensure they leave their house from time to time
    • Educate your employees about hygiene measures that should be taken, as well as how to behave safely when in public spaces
    • Encourage breakfast, lunch or evening walks outside
  • Crowdsource ideas from your team
    • Consider implementing happyhour-/lunch- or even cooking-zoom calls with no agenda
    • Start casual slack channels (Photo channels work very well)
    • Organize Online videogame tournaments or “show your pet/hobby/flat” shows

Being worried about family

Team members might have spouses or family members that work in hospitals, or parents or grandparents who aren’t healthy even on good days.

How you can help:

  • Evolve your 1on1s from pure functional discussions to focus more on the human side of work. Move the functional discussions and project updates to your team calls
  • Get to know the people reporting to you and what this crisis might mean for them
  • Allow taking time off now to get their stuff in order

Schools will get closed

Many people on your team might have kids, their schools will get closed or they might be forced to take them out regardless anyway. Help them figure out how to create time to focus while being a full-time parent.

How to help them

  • Offer to pay for any online courses or entertainment channels that kids can take during this time
  • If they have an option for private childcare (eg a babysitter) offer to pay for this as well (even if it’s a relative)
  • If your employees live close together, consider setting up a small-group Microschool so that education can go on and the burden of keeping their kids entertained while working gets shared

Have succession plans

You don’t want your company come to a halt because your DevOps person needed to get into a hospital. You don’t want your company to run into troubles because you are sick in bed.

  • Make sure decisions and todos are transparent
  • Have passwords shared in 1password
  • Have documents that explain what to do in case of problems
  • It should be obvious who jumps in for leadership decisions if someone drops out

Thanks to Rolf Veldman and Susanne Knoll for this one

Nice-to-haves

Consider this part as nice-to-have. If you are reading this blogpost for the first time feel free to skip this part.

Your goal: Create confidence and focus by going the extra mile

My Recommendation:

Organization

  • Set up documents that outline and explain all information they might need over the next several weeks regarding their health benefits and plan
    • Link to every provider you use and outline what to do in which situations
    • Make it clear who they can reach out to if they have questions
  • Spend extra time staying up to date with everyone’s productivity and mental health
  • Set up a temporary emergency budget to cover budgets we mentioned above
    • Add online mental health counseling and online sport classes to your benefits if you haven’t already
  • Match donations to COVID-19 related foundations, or your local food bank or to the WHO
  • Send care packages consisting of the most basic and typical needs of your team
    • This could be hand sanitizer or simply someone’s favorite drink from the office in bulk

Management:

  • Sign up for Running Remote’s Remote AID a free conference on all topics remote work
  • Optimize your engineering team for “single player mode” as i describe here

Ok, we are done… What next?

Once you have the short term under control focus on the long-term.

People will get worried about the economy and their jobs. Change the discussion from short-term crisis management to long-term strategy.

An extreme way to see this: Companies that try to keep the status-quo alive while the market goes down will go down with it.

  • Show that your company is here to stay
  • Don’t delay quarterly planning or ambitious projects
  • Create the vision that shows the WHY of your company
    • Your customers might need you right now
    • Your company might build the tools people rely on to continue their business.
    • Your services might help customers ease the burden of a potential upcoming recession
    • Or you might create the apps for a much needed distraction right now
  • Whatever your company’s vision is. Make sure to continue thinking long-term

Thanks for reading

This document sounds a bit dramatic. I know.

I hope 90% of what i recommend won’t be needed and this will all blow over without much fuzz.

Note that most of the suggestions in this blogpost are temporary and fairly cheap in comparison to your payroll but will leave a lasting impression. If your team’s budget is more limited consider what you can do without breaking the bank. Not every good idea has to cost money.

COVID-19 will be over in a few weeks or months. But your team will always remember how you prioritized their safety and put in the extra effort to facilitate a healthy, comfortable, and productive environment for each and every one of them.

This is your moment to step up as a leader.

You got this.

PS: Please send me your improvement suggestions for this article

Thanks for reading Andreas ✌️