While technology companies and creative agencies often introduce remote work cultures from Day One, fashion and retail brands still tend to be pretty traditional when it comes to where work happens — until now.
Seemingly overnight, the industry has had to send employees home to work remotely as a social distancing precaution against the coronavirus. But setting up a remote work infrastructure isn’t something companies usually do casually or on a whim.
When my business partners and I built Shapermint — a direct-to-consumer shapewear and intimate apparel marketplace — we leveraged the remote workplace model we had established for its parent company, e-commerce group Trafilea. From the beginning, our mission was simple: We wanted to be the best company to work remotely so that we could attract ambitious talent, independent of country, continent or time zone.
Trafilea has since grown to 180 people, who are aligned on purpose and share a common vision. Shapermint, which we launched in 2018, follows the same remote workplace model and has already acquired more than 3 million customers, profitably, as well as introduced two proprietary product lines to market (Empetua and Truekind).
So, what have we learned along the way that might be helpful to the thousands of companies currently scrambling to adapt quickly to coronavirus-inspired remote workforces? A lot.
Following are a number of the best practices we swear by, remote workplace myths to let go of, and on-the-ground examples that will not only help companies maintain productivity, but possibly even improve it.
Some of your existing systems and processes are going to be tested. While it’s important to get newly remote teams up and running quickly, it’s also important to understand that this situation is going to reveal some cracks in your culture and methodologies. It will be tempting to blame these things on working remotely, but it’s better to view this situation as an opportunity to evolve your processes for a changing workplace. Doing so will ultimately come down to having the right people and processes in place, which I address in detail to follow.
Your culture will dictate how fast your company can go in a remote — or any other — work environment. With few exceptions, your expectations of employees shouldn’t change just because their location has. Some leaders fear that when employees work at home, they’re going to be less productive. Or that they can better manage their teams if everyone is in the same building. Good management and productivity aren’t a function of location though; they’re a function of company culture, clear communication and the systems you have in place to manage core functions.
Move toward accountability. Move away from micromanagement. No matter where people work, leadership should set clear goals against defined time frames. If your goals are measurable and reasonable, each employee should be responsible for proposing his or her own approach to meeting them (using established company processes if applicable). This gives employees control over the how, while still getting leadership where they need to be.
Empowering employees in this way also instills a culture of trust and accountability, which can be enforced through effective communication and regular check-ins to see how they’re tracking, rather than leaning over their shoulders to run interference mid-process. Which brings us to…
Communication is a matter of discipline, process and regular moments of humanity. Remote teams have to be structured about communicating with one another. Rather than depending on teams to be naturally disciplined about checking in with leadership and each other, establish consistent processes for frequent and effective communication.
At Shapermint and Trafilea, we follow a very specific meeting structure that can be adopted and modified to meet the needs of other companies, too:
Daily meetings: We start with free-form personal conversations and updates. It’s important to get people engaged on a human-level so they can work as a team, especially since they don’t have coffee chats like they do in an office. We then report on our progress on yesterday’s goals, establish what needs to be achieved today, and discuss any obstacles to achieving it.
Weekly meetings: We get aligned on our top priorities for the current week and share learnings from the week prior. Every team member of the area shares two main commitments that are the most important things to be done during the week that will impact the main goal of the company.
Quarterly planning meetings: These meetings are more strategic and high-level than tactical. The leadership teams share their vision for the quarter, discuss projects and establish growth goals, quantitatively and anecdotally. (We use the OKR methodology.)
Cross-functional meetings: We call these “squad meetings” and they include everyone involved in bringing a particular initiative to life. They can be weekly, biweekly or monthly depending on needs. You set specific people to be in the same place. The project owner is responsible for making sure that all notes, outcomes and next steps are communicated in public channels (such as Slack) so everyone is aware of them.
Use technology to replicate in-person meetings and in-person collaboration. Technology needs will inevitably differ by company, but chances are most companies are already using much of what they’ll need as they work from home. Here are some of the tools and technologies we use to run Shapermint and Trafilea’s remote workplaces:
Virtual project collaboration: We use G-Suite for all meeting notes, documents and presentations. We can edit in real-time, and at the same time.
Day-to-day communication across teams and projects: Slack is a great tool if used the right way. We train employees on how to use it most efficiently and consistently (e.g., when to use channel tags, when to tag people, how to answer a person in threads, alerts management and so forth). There are several good articles out there about how to use Slack, as well as why it can be a productivity killer if not used the right way. One challenge with Slack is that it’s too easy — too easy to send a message, too easy to check.
Video conferences: We prefer video calls to regular conference calls because you can see the other person’s face, their emotions, reactions and body language. Being remote is about how you make it human in specific touchpoints. For this, we use Zoom. It’s easy to use, you can record full meetings and the whole company can have access.
Laptops versus desktops: Some people are accustomed to working on desktops at work, but won’t be able to take those home with them. Ideally, your company has cloud file storage that employees can access from their own laptops at home. If they don’t have computers at home, that’s an investment you’ll need to consider.
Lifestyle will always be important, no matter where people work.
At Trafilea and Shapermint, we have set up an almost aspirational workplace culture that has become a large part of our brand identity. This means enticing prospective employees with their ability to work from anywhere in the world, while also demonstrating our culture of in-person and online camaraderie. While in-person will be difficult in the weeks and months to come, here are a few other things we do to perpetuate our lifestyle virtually.
- We have exercise programs where employees engage in friendly competition or have to complete different challenges to win prizes, such as FitBits.
- We have a meditation program that gives employees monthly access to the Headspace app.
- We have a Slack channel where anyone can share their “happiness habits” to make everyone’s lives better.
- We make a habit of posting photos of Trafilea’s employees’ workspaces on Instagram.
- And we spotlight the amazing places our employees travel to while working for us.
This kind of approach can be adapted in the short term to get people excited about working from home. Ask them to show off their work-at-home stations. Encourage them to take advantage of the fact that they get to listen to their own music and wear whatever they want. Prompt them to introduce new home rituals, and consider letting them work on their own schedules if you’re comfortable with it.
While everything might seem chaotic right now, the silver lining is that this forced moment of social distancing has introduced an opportunity to take the remote workplace model for a test drive. With more and more employees gravitating toward companies that give them workplace flexibility and the option of working from home rather than spending large chunks of their day commuting, many companies will come out of this with a model for accommodating these types of lifestyle choices.
Massimiliano Tirocchi is a cofounder and chief marketing officer of Shapermint.