20 March 2020
The idea that everyone would end up working from home would have been unthinkable even just a few weeks ago, and yet, in this age of Coronavirus, it has become a fact of life overnight for many firms. For some of them, digital collaboration is fully unexplored terrain and, as such, a real challenge. Maren and Matthias Wagener know all about coordinating teams remotely: They’ve been running their IT company, Vast Forward, from a yacht for the last five years.
#explore: What would your advice be to companies which don’t have a lot of experience in digital, location-independent work but are now being forced to make the switch?
Maren Wagener: In tech terms, you of course need a mobile workstation: in other words a laptop with the right software and a phone and internet connection which will need to be provided by the employer. Also essential are certain structures, which the management will also need to set up: clear communication, a high degree of transparency and mutual trust.
Matthias Wagener: Handed-down management methods like micro-management won’t work at a distance. We believe in transparency and work, for instance, with a Google table with all the year’s projects. This helps with project handovers and gives us a constantly updated overview of which projects are active and who’s working on them.
© Vast ForwardMatthias and Maren Wagener run Vast Forward between them.
What for you are the most important software tools for team organisation and working together to resolve issues?
Maren Wagener: Some of our customers work with tools like Slack, Jira and Trello, and we’re flexible in this regard, of course. Internally, we’ve kept things as simple as possible ever since we first launched. We mainly work on the phone, with e-mail and Skype - everyone knows them, everyone has them, and everyone can work with them. And we also use collaborative documents like Google Docs, of course, to keep everyone up to date. For video conferencing, we’re currently also testing Zoom as an alternative to Skype. Zoom allows you to see up to ten participants in higher definition; the software is also less resource-intensive and appears to run more stably for that reason.
Which tools do you use for which purposes?
Maren Wagener: We distinguish between synchronous communication that happens all at the same time, and asynchronous communication that happens at different times. When it comes to brainstorming, short-notice consultations and quick decision-making, phoning or video calling are best. We use e-mail or Google Docs for documentation when it needs to be readily to hand, for briefings and the like. And these briefings need to be as clear and structured as possible, of course, to virtually eliminate the need for follow-up questions.
Matthias Wagener: These approaches also make sense in the standard office environment, of course. But when you’re working remotely, things like structured document storage and labelling are especially important.
Maren Wagener: Alongside individual channels for different projects, we also have a shared Skype chat for all project managers. This forms the backbone of our communication: anyone who has a technical, professional or some other question will get an answer here within minutes. As one of our project managers puts it, she may be sitting at home alone but never feels on her own.
© Vast ForwardCan you run a business from a yacht? If you’re Vast Forward, you can.
What do you need for a productive video conference?
Maren Wagener: Thorough preparation is key. We start by setting an agenda and defining the objectives of the video conference, which everyone of course also prepares for. There’s nothing more disruptive than having to repeat and read things out during a conference that everybody should really already know.
Do you have something like a code of etiquette for a video conference?
Matthias Wagener: The rules of conduct are actually relatively simple. The most important one is to let others finish speaking. And then you should first let the chairperson speak. The others can mute their mics until he or she has finished. This is because, depending on the tool, extraneous noises can cause the program to switch speakers, and the pictures then start to jump around. People who don’t have much experience of video conferencing often don’t realise what kind of impression they’re making in front of the camera. For example, resting your chin on your hand while listening can quickly make it look as though you’re bored and disengaged. You should always be aware that you’re operating in a professional context - even if you’re sitting in your lounge at home.
Maren Wagener: This especially applies to communication by chat. If you’re swapping texts or WhatsApp messages, you can quickly forget the niceties and just let loose with your own particular issue. You should instead start with a friendly “hello” and perhaps even ask how the other person is. After all, that’s what you’d do on the phone. And courtesy matters on chat channels too.
© Vast ForwardTools for video calls are vital - as is being able to see one another.
Is there a point at which there are too many people for a video conference?
Matthias Wagener: Technically speaking, there aren’t really any limits. But the crucial question is why you are holding the video conference and who needs to be there. You can do presentations, give speeches or conduct webinars with over 100 participants. But this kind of number makes it impossible to have a genuine democratic dialogue at eye level.
Maren Wagener: For brainstorming meetings and internal organisational matters, we keep the numbers down to no more than eight or nine. This will always be easy to handle. If everyone has agreed on what the meeting is going to be about, prepares accordingly and observes meeting etiquette, I think it’s completely fine to have 10 to 15 participants.
Team spirit also comes about over coffee or a shared lunch. How do you create it remotely?
Maren Wagener: In our experience, it’s incredibly important to actually see each other now and again - even if only via video conference. To ensure that we start the week together, we get together for a Monday morning chat: everyone turns on their Skype video, and we take turns to talk mainly about private stuff. This goes some way toward recreating the chatter you get around the coffee machine. Every Wednesday, we have a shared Skype yoga session - led by a teacher who also joins us via Skype. This helps us get out of our work heads and have a break. This is, after all, also a key part of self-discipline when you’re working from home.
Matthias Wagener: About once a month. we also have a “lunch and learn” session in which someone from the team or an external expert talks about a specific issue. Every three weeks there’s a project status meeting, at which we discuss all our ongoing, upcoming or recently completed projects. This sort of ritualised meeting is incredibly helpful. For teams that have just started working from home, daily video conferences might also be useful to start with. These give people the opportunity every morning at least briefly to look into each other’s virtual eyes and check in about what’s happening that day.
Maren Wagener: Although this is currently tricky, of course, it’s fundamentally important to be able to meet in the flesh at regular intervals. We meet with our team three or four time a year - in connection, for instance, with a conference, a staff workshop or just a nice event or a meal out.
"In our experience, it’s incredibly important to actually see each other now and again - even if only via video conference."
How can I organise my work from home so as to keep work, my private life and my free time separate?
Maren Wagener: This starts as soon as you take off your pyjamas, get into the shower and put on your work clothes, as if you were preparing to go to work as normal. In other words, we don’t think it’s a good idea to sit down at your computer in your comfortable old leisure gear. About half of our team members exercise in the morning: going for a run or just getting out of the house. We’re in Majorca at the moment, where the lockdown means that we can’t go jogging any more. But we can do yoga or just nip out for some fresh air. What you definitely shouldn’t do is boot up your computer while you’re still in bed. We have coffee together, talk about what the day holds, and only then do we power up our computers.
Matthias Wagener: Self-discipline is crucial when you’re working from home. But this isn’t necessarily easy for everyone, of course. Maren and I find it fairly straightforward. After all, there are two of us, so we form a small office community. Our staff, all of whom are women, find it straightforward to reconcile the way Vast Forward works with their working and private lives. We ourselves tend to blend work and life, making little distinction between them. Even so, we’re still faced with the challenge of when to stop - after all, we opted for this lifestyle on the boat because we wanted to see something of the world. We try to get the bulk of the work done by 3 pm. We then get off the boat and take in the local scenery. We can, after all, always get on the phone if we want to make sure that the projects carry on. Working from home doesn’t mean being forced to work from 8 am until goodness knows when in the evening; you have to organise yourself to find your own way of doing things.
Maren Wagener: One of our project managers summed it up really neatly: we may always be contactable, but we aren’t always available. We try to respond quickly to e-mails. But this might mean nothing more than saying: “thanks for the message, we’ll sort it out.” Our staff can organise their own time flexibly. And they shouldn’t be using their mobiles for work when they’re queuing up at the supermarket checkout or picking their kids up from nursery.
Some companies are still afraid that their employees will work less hard when they’re working from home. What can you do to build up mutual trust here?
Matthias Wagener: Our principal mantra is “trust and let people get on with it”. Remote work is a bit like being in a long-distance relationship. There are two sides who want something from each other and to do things together. As a company, you offer financial security, time off and training - plus, in our case, quite a lot of freedom. Our staff contribute their loyalty, expertise, critical judgement and personal time to the situation. And if you give your colleagues individual room to manoeuvre when it comes to their work, you really can develop a relationship based on mutual trust. We don’t check whether our employees are working the hours stipulated in their employment contracts. Instead, on the one hand, we use the projects they’re responsible for in the course of the year to gauge the effectiveness of their work. And, on the other, we look at the initiative they take when it to comes to training, which is, after all, extremely important in our digital metier. We use these two metrics to assess whether the remote relationship is working from our point of view and if the trust we’ve placed is justified.
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Maren Wagener studied media management and founded the IT company Vast Forward in 2008. Her husband Matthias worked for various advertising and digital agencies before joining the firm in 2015. Since then, they’ve been directing their team of eight project managers and about 30 freelance programmers from their yacht.