Yury Molodtsov

COO and Partner @ MA Family where we help tech companies get into the news

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Posts tagged remote

How to Use Virtual Backgrounds for Meetings in a Non-Cringe Way

April 20, 2023

I’ve spent over a year living in different countries and apartments that weren’t that great for video calls. And I primarily work remotely, so these calls are essential for me. One thing that saved me was virtual backgrounds.

I know, they have a bit of a cringe reputation. But hear me out, they can actually be a great tool if used correctly. They have a bad rep because people often mishandle them or use stock images in Zoom.

Now, let’s set some ground rules. These tips are for regular people, not someone willing to buy a $3000 camera setup or redecorate their entire living space to put this beautiful bookshelf behind them. It’s not practical.

Still, if you’re doing a lot of video calls looking right is actually important. So let’s figure out how to achieve the maximum possible result with minimal effort.

I like to think of it as the “3+ seconds rule.” Basically, the goal is to deceive people into thinking that your virtual background is a real environment for at least three seconds. And I’ve indeed experienced people asking if I’m in a specific city they recognized through the “window”.

How do we achieve this? First, choose a uniform wall behind you. It doesn’t have to be a green screen or a blank white wall, but it should be something uniform in color and texture, even if it’s a terrible choice of wallpaper or drywall. This will help with edge detection. I often noticed that people use virtual backgrounds or just blur out the image while sitting in a busy environment and get a terrible disturbing halo around their heads.

Next, avoid using abstract images as your virtual background. While they might look cool in theory, they can be distracting and cheapen the experience. Instead, try using photos of actual interiors. My lifehack is looking for great options on Airbnb or Houzz. You have actual interiors, these images are usually well-lit and visually appealing. Just find one that’s still beautiful without going into the “too much” territory. That giant glass ball over a canyon is probably too much, even if you’re already booking the place for the next weekend. Find something approachable.

Another thing to keep in mind is the lighting in your space. Make sure that you’re well-lit from the front, so your face is visible and not shadowed. You can achieve this by placing a light source in front of you. Now, you don’t have to buy a dedicated device for this, you can just use a lamp. And don’t have a window behind you.

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How to Run A Remote Team

January 7, 2023

I’ve been working remotely for 8+ years and now running a team distributed at least across five countries. It’s challenging, but it’s also very likely the best work environment that can help you attract talented people no matter where they live.

When I decided to improve our processes, I read all the guides on remote management I could find. Companies like Gitlab, Todoist, Buffer, Basecamp, and many others, have produced countless pieces on this. One of their shortcomings is that most are targeted at teams that are quite large, at least 50 people and more. So I wanted to describe my own experience, which might be relevant for smaller teams.

Async first

Remote work sucks unless you primarily work asynchronously. This was the mistake most teams made when they had to go remote in 2020. It means you should focus on written communications, not spontaneous calls.

When you’re in the office, people might just come to your desk to check if you’re there. You could go for lunch, a meeting or something else. If you are remote, people don’t see that. Therefore, they tend to call you out of the blue when they need something. That approach only leads to anxiety as you end up chained to your workstation. You should avoid this yourself and heavily discourage this practice in your team.

How can you do this? People still need to get the information they need somehow. A good remote work environment follows the same principles as any good work environment. This means a heavy focus on written comms. Create your company wiki where you write down your processes. But also keep memos on active projects. This is helpful regardless of the way you work. Too often, I notice that people, in fact, haven’t agreed on what they’re building and end up spending hours in meetings arguing with each other. When you have to write things down, you’re more likely to find out about these disagreements in advance.

Respect people’s time

In a remote environment, calls should be scheduled in advance. Of course, something urgent and unexpected can happen. Servers down, your client has a crisis, something else went down. Well, treat it as an odd and rare situation it is. You can establish SLAs for team members or specific roles if you feel like you need this.

Don’t set up unnecessary calls. Depending on your time zones, it might be OK to have a short daily standup. Regardless, all materials for the calls should be prepared and reviewed in advance. There’s nothing worse than a classic meeting where everyone is seeing materials for the first time, as one person is screensharing and reading out a document they wrote. This is simply unproductive.

Try to be mindful of people’s time. Avoid sending them non-urgent messages and emails late in the evening or during the weekend. All modern communication apps, whether email or Slack, have a scheduling function. Use it.

Hire the right people

Another good trait of any company, but especially a remote one, is hiring people who can manage themselves, giving them context, goals, and resources they need. People who don’t need someone to hang over their desk to produce work and get results. Certain companies with unimpressive middle management believe they must install monitoring systems to keep their workers in check. In fact, it’s very easy to assess the performance of any direct report without creepy surveillance. You should focus on the deliverables and the actual work being done. That’s the only way to assess your employees anyway.

Build the right structure

It might be a good idea to have regular 1:1 calls with your direct reports though. Spend that time discussing high-level things and sharing mutual feedback. Have a structure for this and lead with your example. In my experience, weekly is more than enough, and you can bring it down to once every two or four weeks, depending on your particular team.

Another purpose of these calls is to assess your reports’ well-being. When you don’t spend time with people, it might be difficult, and everyone has their own problems. You have to do it proactively. Otherwise, one day you might find yourself with a burned-down employee who wants to quit.

You have to build structure and processes to replace that watercooler kind of conversation that might happen offline. It won’t just happen organically. Structure your calls and channels, run activities, show examples, and ask people to do specific things.

Slack (or similar apps) is great for this:

  • A channel for work-related topics where people share interesting links and tips and share their own experience
  • A channel where people share their key achievements and challenges daily or weekly. You could set up a recurring call to discuss these and figure out solutions together.
  • Use integrations to create channels tracking your key outputs and showcasing them to the team. That could be Github commits, media publications you secured, contracts won, practically anything. Be the champion of your employees and ensure they know what’s happening with the company and that their input is appreciated. Celebrate your wins.

And last, you should gather your team members for an offsite at a particular location a few times a year. It’s not cheap, but it’s way cheaper than renting an office 365 days a year. Develop a schedule of work-related activities but accept that the key purpose is to let people socialize and become closer to each other. Become a team.

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How to Work Remotely and Stay Sane

December 20, 2022

I’ve been working remotely for nine years now. I wouldn’t say it’s everyone’s future. There are pros and cons. For me personally, the advantages far outweigh the problems. If you ended up in a remote work arrangement, you might find these tips helpful.

Choose the Right Company

Some people dislike remote work altogether. Others have never tried it properly. First of all, you need to be in the right environment. In a team that actually understands how to work remotely and what this entails: shift to async operations, focus on written communication, etc. The worst scenario is when a company just moves everything they did at an office online, and everyone is stuck in endless Zoom meetings. This is what many experienced in 2020 when businesses had to shift towards remote work rapidly. This isn’t how it’s supposed to look like.

Build a routine

When you work at an office, your life has boundaries. You must get dressed, leave at a certain time, commute, etc. Remote work might have fewer of these boundaries. Use the time freed from commuting wisely. We create habits by building a routine and sticking with it for some time until it becomes ingrained. Every morning I go to shower, train, drink coffee, walk my dog, and cook breakfast. And then, I open email, Slack, Notion, and other tools to catch up on what’s been going on and start working. Someone who works in their pajamas at 2 pm without leaving the bed is either playing a joke or in a pretty bad condition.

Meet friends proactively

People are social creatures. Even introverts tend to feel better when they’re meeting other people on a regular basis. Use some of the time you freed from the commute, especially in the evening, to set up meetings with your friends. Have dinner, go to a bar, or maybe just drink coffee in the morning. It will be good for you.

Have a workplace but be flexible

Everyone keeps telling remote workers to build an office. Something with a standing desk, a giant monitor, and a mechanical keyboard to look great as an Instagram photo. I usually have a dedicated workplace, but I tend to move around my home throughout the day. I work at a bar counter in the kitchen, on the couch, in a comfortable chair – basically everywhere. Moving and changing the environment actually helps me stay focused. I guess this is the reason I’m not buying a giant monitor, as I want to keep the same experience everywhere. A dedicated workplace could be used to signal to people you live with that you’re working right now and shouldn’t be disturbed unless it’s urgent. This is actually quite helpful.

Coworking not cafe

If you are working at a remote company but still want to have an office-like experience or simply to separate your work self, go to a coworking space. Maybe your company even has some allowance for this. Don’t work at a coffee shop. Now, it’s OK to take a coffee and work while you drink it, but don’t imagine this is a good work environment. It’s probably loud, the tables are a bit too low, the chairs aren’t great, and if you suddenly need to take a call, you either going to abuse people around you or leave your things and go outside (where it also might be loud). This principle is even bigger. Don’t work in weird environments, like being half-immersed in a pool or sitting on a bench under direct sunlight in a park. This isn’t going to be comfortable or productive. Also, while it’s OK to switch cities, it’s certainly not ideal to mix work and travel as they will inevitably clash with each other. Take a vacation.

***

This is how I choose to work remotely. You might have different needs and habits. I just hope it’d be useful for people who are still struggling with it. Some might read this with horror on their face, not understanding why anyone would go to all these lengths just to avoid the office. To me, the advantages are clear. I was able to work at fantastic companies and live exactly where I wanted at any time without compromises. And visit other places without breaking a single habit or process.

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