The organisations looking after their remote teams

One year on from working remotely, here's how two organisations have adapted to support their remote teams.

In March 2020 offices all over the world were closed by the Coronavirus pandemic. Most of us packed up our laptops and went home thinking we'd be back in a matter of weeks. All across the globe, makeshift desks were set up at dining tables or in bedrooms. Zoom became the daily norm. 'You're on mute' became one of the most spoken phrases of the year.

Fast-forward one year and remote working is no longer a novelty. In fact, it's safe to say the world of work has been blown wide open. People are leaving London in droves, causing a drop in the population. And our recent census found that 65% of job seekers are most interested in remote opportunities.

But whilst skipping the commute and spending more time with family are huge benefits, we also found that the majority of job seekers missed seeing colleagues and found it more difficult to work collaboratively through a screen.

With remote work here to stay, the onus is now on employers to find the right balance to support their teams whilst creating collaborative work environments. We spoke to Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful and Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations at Unreasonable Group to find out how they are striking this balance, and what they have learned from the past year...

Most of us have been working from home for a year now. Reflecting over the last 12 months, how has your organisation and your team adapted to remote working? What were the biggest challenges? What are the benefits? 

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful:

"I think it’s fair to say that one of the most challenging moments for our team was when Covid initially hit back in March. Whilst we did have the set up for some amount of home-working (everyone was encouraged to do this a day a week), there was a lot to adjust to. The team was adapting to full-time remote working, and in some cases changes in personal circumstances, whilst also responding to the urgent needs of our beyond profit clients.

With so much going on from a client delivery perspective, it was fundamental that we balanced this with a focus on the health and wellbeing of our team. Many of the challenges our team faced weren’t unique to Lightful: isolation, juggling work with home-schooling and maintaining boundaries between work and home life, to name a few.

We supported our team as robustly as we could by putting support systems in place. We recognised the gravity of the times and that we not only had to survive, we also needed to see the ways in which we could try to thrive."

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"With a flexible approach to working from home in place prior to the pandemic, we initially fell into this new normal rather easily, but the duration of time spent in isolation has definitely become a challenge. We’ve learned it's much harder to celebrate wins remotely but I think the biggest challenge has been the lack of balance between life and work. When there is no separation from your work life and your home life, it is hard to make the time and space to truly step away from the workday and then return refreshed and restored. 

Like many, we’ve leaned more heavily into a remote-first posture in hiring, learning that there really is little business imperative for certain jobs to be in certain locations. 

We’ve also found increased value in our product in services. We host intimate gatherings for CEOs of scale stage ventures from all over the world, wrapping them with the community resources, mentorship, and access to capital they need to scale their businesses and solve their problems differently. Moving to virtual gatherings has allowed us to increase the value and benefits for our CEOs, accessing our entire global community rather than being restricted by who is available to be in a certain location at a certain date." 

What are some of the different things you have implemented or tested to support individual team members? 

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful:

"We adapted our benefits package so that it was more geared to healthy home working, introducing new exercise and meditation apps and a new health cash plan benefit covering physical and mental health and wellbeing.

We also took time to do one-to-one workspace reviews. We circulated desk exercise infographics and ran a virtual stretch session guided by a chartered physiotherapist. We implemented additional monthly contributions to home working costs.

We surprised our team with plenty of ad hoc perks including hampers of treats, plants to refresh their home offices, gear from fellow B Corp Patagonia to keep them warm through the winter and chocolates to help see them through Blue Monday.

We ran a session on Building Strong Mental Health when Life Makes it Difficult, introduced a new Wellbeing Guide and encouraged flexibility and the taking of breaks.

We hosted wonderful virtual summer and Christmas parties where we encouraged mindfulness and some limiting of screen time, with sculpting and craft sessions in small breakout groups. We’ve also run other regular social events, such as an adult art class and a family interactive storytelling session, to support those tackling the mammoth job of home-schooling."

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"We implemented Monthly Thrive Days and Deep Work Wednesday’s taking inspiration from Thrive Global and Spill respectively. 

The intention of Deep Work Wednesdays is to provide a dedicated space and time for the company to get real work done without interruption and ideally achieve flow.

How does it work? As a company, we strive to not hold any internal meetings on Wednesdays and only schedule external meetings on Wednesdays as a last resort. We know this will not always be possible, but we hope that with as few meeting interruptions as possible, the team can lean in and prioritize their deepest, most thought-provoking work on Wednesdays.

For some added flair and to get into the right headspace, we encourage every team member to kick off their "Deep Work Wednesday" with a half-hour of gratitude. Practicing gratitude is shown to be good for one's health, happiness, and overall well-being, and sharing gratitude with our team and our community has always been core to our culture here at Unreasonable. In shifting from a "Monthly Thank you Hour" to a "Weekly 30-minutes of Gratitude," our hope is that we'll reinvigorate the practice and further contribute to team productivity as we use gratitude as a launching point for Deep Work Wednesday.

We also reintroduced a mandatory 3-day weekend off-grid each month. This was a practice long ago ingrained in the Unreasonable team and one we were excited to reignite. After giving it a bit more thought, though, and hearing from a few voices across the team, we realized that encouraging teammates to take a long weekend once a month to unplug and reset was not enough. It's too challenging to really disconnect when the rest of your team and company are still crunching away and you're being hit with updates and questions while you're trying to set some distance. The anxiety of returning to an overflow of messages after a day away is enough to prevent someone from stepping away in the first place.

With this context in mind, we decided to implement a three-day weekend, once a month company-wide, and have designated the first Friday of every month as a "Thrive Day" and expect the whole team to take the day off, unplug, and re-group. 

In addition, we distributed a home office stipend to allow teammates to upgrade their home workspace to increase comfort and productivity, and shared a wellness bonus for each team member to take care of themselves personally however they saw fit - and then to share and celebrate how they used the bonus." 

Have you tried anything that hasn’t worked or been less successful? If so, why do you think that was? 

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"We moved our weekly team lunches to virtual and it was an epic fail. They were set as optional and thus with inconsistent attendance and zoom fatigue, they feel pretty flat pretty quickly. 

We recently changed it up moving to a monthly, highly encouraged team lunch with an internal facilitator and crowdsourced topic of discussion. Our re-launch of virtual team lunch was a huge success!"

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful

"There have definitely been a few initiatives that didn’t work as well as we hoped. We really try to take feedback from the team and recognise that Zoom fatigue really does impact people. This meant that some of the magic was lost when we tried a regular flow of smaller socials. We’ve since moved to having events to maintain our team culture every 6-8 weeks with some off and on-screen activities. Sending regular pick-me-ups in the post is another way of letting the team know that we support them.

In late summer, when Covid numbers had dropped and Government advice permitted, we decided to offer an option for individuals to use a drop-in office/co-working space. We were aware that long-term home working was particularly challenging for some of the team.

That became increasingly difficult to implement as Government advice changed and further lockdowns were implemented. Our priority was and remains the health and safety of our staff, so this never really got off the ground."

What have you done to stay connected as a whole team whilst working remotely? 

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful:

"As a tech business that had encouraged flexible working for some time, the shift to full-time remote working wasn’t as overwhelming for our team as I’m sure it was for other businesses. The team adapted incredibly quickly to using video calls and Slack to stay connected.

Team%20Lightful.pngAfter a couple of months, we felt it was important to re-set some ground rules early on to limit the time of Zoom meetings and to encourage videos to be turned off in some of our meetings. For the purposes of connection, we continued to run our twice-weekly team meetings, with a recommendation for videos to be turned on.

We also encouraged support networks with Work From Home buddies, Work From Home tips shared on a dedicated Slack channel and regular leadership check-ins. We introduced optional sessions where people can drop in with a cup of tea, acting as a more informal check-in - another way we are trying to maintain and enhance our team culture.

Towards the end of last year, we launched a team pledge challenge with the help of fellow B Corp, Do Nation, to get our team engaged in activities that support sustainability and wellbeing. We recently completed a February active challenge, to motivate and support our team through winter lockdown, with individual winners and all participating teams being rewarded with contributions to charities of their choice."

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"Early on in the pandemic, we implemented Donut to facilitate frequent virtual, but human, coffee dates across the team. 

We implemented two fun ways to just get to know each other better and bring some humor to our work early on. We hosted 2-minute teachers at the start of each all-hands having one teammate teach the company a new skill in 2 minutes. We also played a Guess Who game inspired by Through the Key Hole wherein we’d post photos of objects found in a teammate's house to Slack over the course of the week and the rest of the team guessed who they belonged to. Sound silly and it was, but it was a lot of fun! 

We’ve also extended our weekly all-hands meeting and adjusted the format to ensure a value touchpoint across the entire company each week."

Have you interviewed or hired any new team members remotely? How have you found that process? 

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful

"Yes, we have hired 15 new recruits since lockdown began. We have a warm and welcoming team, so we hope that their introduction to Lightful has been as smooth as possible, despite many having never met their colleagues in person!

We’ve found that doing interviews by Zoom can be positive, as it saves both parties time and candidates can be more flexible with their interviews, not having to take any holidays to attend as they might have done in the past. It seems likely that some candidates are also less nervous because they are in their familiar home environment and haven’t had to face a new commute. Video calls also feel a bit more inclusive as you can have the call from anywhere in the world."

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"I think there are great benefits to interviewing remotely. Interviews can be set and scheduled faster, there are no travel costs, and everyone can converse from the comfort of their own home. 

You got this! Wear something comfortable but professional and ensure a clean backdrop behind you in your video screen. Prepare questions ahead of time and have your list handy and accessible. I would recommend a physical notepad by your computer so you are not frantically searching for the right tab when the time comes plus you can then easily jot down notes throughout. Like an in-person interview, pace yourself, and don't be afraid to take a few deep breaths before responding to a question."

Have you onboarded any new team members whilst working remotely? What have your learnings been from that process? What advice or insights would you share with other organisations that are onboarding new team members remotely? 

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"My advice would be to document everything in writing and give each new hire a priority sheet of what to get through in order. In trying to be thorough we can throw so much at a new hire, but it can be tricky to navigate the amount of content without guidance and prioritization, but massively beneficial for them to have access to all of the necessary information to consume at their own pace in between check-ins. 

Also - don’t forget about storytelling. Grounding practices and policy in storytelling helps them sink in and brings a human element to onboarding."

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful:

"Yes, we’ve onboarded 15 new recruits over the course of the year and our remote onboarding process has evolved to reflect our changing circumstances.

We have adapted our onboarding programme so that new recruits get a real feel for Lightful’s culture. It was pretty challenging to replicate some of the natural in-person interactions you’d normally expect a new starter to experience in their first few days in the office. To some extent, this was a process of trial and error, but feedback from new starters and line managers along the way has really helped shape our approach.

New joiners are appointed a buddy who is expected to make them feel welcome and to keep in touch through regular check-ins, particularly during home working. If we have socials in the calendar in the lead-up to someone joining the team, we always invite them along, so they have a chance to meet the team informally.

We also ask new joiners to fill out an informal, lighthearted questionnaire before joining, which helps the team get to know them a little better. It’s a chance to share a glimpse of what makes them tick and often leads to connections being made with other team members. We have a lot of foodies and animal lovers in our team, so if pets or an interest in food is mentioned, there will always be someone who steps in to add them to the #LightfulEats or #Animals-of-Lightful Slack channels!

It’s inevitably more challenging for recruits joining remotely to get to know the team and to see how their work fits into the broader picture. To try to address this, we’ve implemented sessions where new recruits meet various teams in a staggered approach.

Within their first 2 weeks, we aim for the new starter to have had a session with all departments throughout the company. Someone from each team will be appointed to walk the new starter through the inner workings of that area of the business in more detail and to answer any questions. During the session, other department members will drop by to introduce themselves, their role and give the new starter a warm welcome to Lightful. Our most recent recruits have told us that this was a better way to get to know the team and to get a feel for the team dynamic, rather than arranging individual calls with multiple team members.

We’re still refining our remote onboarding process and continuing to adapt to different scenarios as a team, especially since we’ve just hired our first U.S.-based team member. To some extent, switching to remote onboarding over the last year has helped us prepare for this, but there are of course new challenges that come with this exciting milestone. For example, how do we make sure those overseas feel as connected to our culture as the rest of the team, especially when office working becomes an option for the majority? How do we make use of our overlapping working hours most efficiently? As has been the case over the last year, as Team Lightful, we continue to keep our lines of communication open and figure this out together."

And finally, do you think the last 12 months have changed how your team will work going forward? Is remote working here to stay at your organisation? 

Whitney Hales Heaps, Director of People Operations @ Unreasonable Group:

"We are definitely embracing a remote-first approach and have adjusted our compensation philosophy to embrace this and provide greater internal equity across the team, location-agnostic."

Isabella Grable, Director of HR @ Lightful:

"Even pre-Covid we encouraged flexible working, but our experience over the past year has confirmed to us how effectively we can operate remotely. We’re all keen to get back to an office (well, two offices like we previously had, in London and Bristol), but we anticipate that our team will continue to work remotely for the majority of the week, if they want to, with one or two days in the office.

It’s likely that we will gather in an office for meetings, events and socials. We’re a social bunch, so while it still seems a way off, I know there’s a lot of excitement building at the prospect of getting together and working with each other face to face again."

Interested in working for Lightful or Unreasonable Group? Check out live opportunities on their career pages and be sure to set up an alert so you're notified of future roles!