Work from home if you can

In March, Barbal moved out of Bristol’s Engine Shed and became a remote company days ahead of the work from home announcement. It was the right thing to do.

As a software startup, we were already set up to work from home and would do so as a matter of course as part of our flexible working approach, so we didn’t feel there had been much disruption. Our four full time staff are all local to Bristol but two of our summer interns were based in Hertfordshire and Budapest — in fact I’ve never even met Daniel in person — and it seemed fine. We got very good at using Slack, Zoom, Hangouts, Miro, Jira, Airtable and our own software to help us get work done.

Since August we’ve been getting together once a week for some informal co-working sessions, dipping our toes in the real world (we even put Daniel on the screen like a Big Brother Jnr).

We realised that we actually really value being together in person, even if at a social distance. By the middle of September, “once a week” had become “twice a week” and we were talking about how useful it would be to get together whenever we want to. So much so that we’ve started looking into renting a permanent space for ad-hoc co-location.

Then came Tuesday’s instruction to “work from home if you can”. 🤦

As a startup, we need to be efficient and respond quickly and effectively to external events. We cannot afford to coast and could quickly lose momentum. We need to be constantly pressing the gas to go quicker. With hindsight, we got into coasting a little during the lockdown. It was easy to get complacent without the buzz around us and whilst having to deal with the strains put on all part of our lives. But since the summer there has started to feel a lot more flow and enthusiasm in the ranks and I have to put at least some of that down to being together in person again.

As a software company everything we do can be done from home. In the same way that if I need get to a meeting in London, I could go by bus and save a few quid. It just wouldn’t be very time efficient or comfortable for working, so I take the train (unless money is very tight).

We’re left pondering the definition of “can work from home”. The real question for a company like ours is “when is it more appropriate to co-locate than work remotely?”

Superficially, the question could be framed, “under what circumstances should we to ask staff to risk contributing to the spread of a global pandemic?”

Or it could be framed “how do we make sure that everyone keeps their jobs and feels safe, despite a crashing economy?”.

We need to work harder than we have been to get a culture of togetherness whilst being remote, especially as we onboard new team members in the autumn and winter. Slack and the daily standups aren’t enough to support a culture when we’re working on different things. The impromptu Google Hangout request still feels disruptive in a way that a “hey, what do you think about this?” across the office doesn’t.

It feels like now is the time to actually establish the “new normal” and not just talk about it as a future state. For me this means nailing when and how we work both remotely and co-located.

How are you approaching this second wave of restrictions? Have you developed any principles or framework to decide if and when you “can” get together in person? Are you using anything better than a combination of Slack and video chat for remote team work, without it feeling intrusive?

I’d love to hear how you are approaching this one, because I’m running out of ideas.

Co-founder and CEO at Barbal.co — helping experts to reach consensus faster.