How to work remotely at Zalando
Going fully remote as a company from one day to another is a challenge. Working remotely requires a clear set of “rules to live by” that have 100% buy-in across the company, and a healthy system of meetings, events, and habits that keep people communicating.
This document is heavily informed by remote work guidance from other companies and authors. Notable sources include FYI's 11 Best Practices for Working Remotely and Laurel Farrer’s How to Design Powerful Rituals for Successful Distributed Companies. Special thanks to Timo from GiantSwarm for sharing learnings in an ad-hoc phone call. Other sources are linked in the appendix. We would like to highlight that we added a link to Alice Goldfuss’ Work in the Time of Corona, which was published after this document was available internally, because of how succinctly and thoroughly she covers areas that other guidelines address partially at best. Zalando has some remote working experience due to our tech hubs, but we do not consider ourselves experts in this matter. That being said, we want to share our internal guidelines in the hope that others might find them useful.
Going fully remote as a company from one day to another is a challenge. Working remotely requires (1) a clear set of “rules to live by” that have 100% buy-in across the company, and (2) a healthy system of meetings, events, and habits that keep people communicating.
Due to the current circumstances, we have an opportunity to practice remote collaboration. Compared to just one team member doing mobile work and everyone else being co-located, we have the advantage that everybody is in the same situation (all remote). You can even get to know your colleagues better. Maybe introduce your co-workers to your cat during a video call.
This document contains guidelines, tips, and expectations to make 'remote' possible in our current situation. Please read these carefully and apply them in your teams adjusting to your special circumstances, if needed. The most important baseline rules to follow are:
- Get VPN (needed for some internal Zalando tools and datacenter access) and make yourself familiar with Zalando's privacy information [internal link]
- Establish daily standups via chat and video
- Have weekly 1:1s between manager and team members
- Perform weekly team retrospectives
- Establish personal and team rituals
- Prioritize documentation and clear communication
- Embrace asynchronous work and communication
We expect every tech leader in Zalando to follow these baseline requirements, and support and empower their teams. The appendix contains the FAQ, additional tips, and resource links.
- 💬 Establish daily standups via chat (asynchronous) and video call (synchronous).
- 👫 Establish regular weekly 1:1 meetings (video calls) to check in regularly with your directs.
- 😊 Create a safe environment and culture for team members to report when they are away from the keyboard (e.g. "I'm AFK" in team chat, or via Google Chat Snooze) to prevent the feeling of being pressured to always be online.
Practice good meeting etiquette
- 🎥 Prefer Hangouts Meet over chat, turn on video to understand non-verbal communication.
- 📵 Be present and don’t fiddle with the phone.
- 🤩 Use agendas to communicate the purpose of a meeting.
- 📄 Share a document as pre-read and solicit comments before the meeting.
- 📝 Write meeting notes (assign a note-taker!) and share them.
- 👍 Define action items and owners.
- ⏲️ Start on time, end on time.
GitLab provides some good advice for All-Remote Meetings.
Prioritize documentation and clear communication
- Document more than normal e.g. outlines of your ideas, next steps, meeting notes.
- Collaborate virtually, e.g. virtual whiteboards & sticky notes (use Google Slides or Google Jamboard, a digital whiteboard), work on documents in real-time. Check out “Working with Google Software at the Zalando Workspace” instructions [internal link].
- Share how you feel by using emojis 🤗. What’s going well? What’s not going well? Explain how you are feeling and when you need help.
- Empathy is everything: always assume positive intent. Tone and nuance can get lost over chat, so assuming your colleague is coming from a positive place helps with potential misunderstandings. If you think your colleague acts weird, or a chat is getting too long or confusing, have a video call.
- Say what is obvious too: communicating everything explicitly is key to avoid misunderstandings.
- Take care of the Google Drive structure so that people can find documents faster. Familiarize yourself with the search features, e.g. searching within a subfolder is possible via the triangle on the right of the search bar 🔍.
Create boundaries between work and life
Boundaries between work and life get blurred when working remotely. We want to prevent that work environment and home environment merge into one. It’s easy to adopt bad routines, like waking up and immediately checking your email, sitting down for breakfast while working, keep working throughout the day without going for lunch or regularly drinking some water. Suddenly it’s 21:00 and you’re dehydrated, hungry, a headache is creeping up, but you’re still working. Unplugging is important to stay healthy. Our core working hours are between 10:00 to 16:00 local time and yes, you are responsible for getting your work done and to make sure to attend meetings while working your regular hours, but please use the following guidance to stay healthy.
- 📅 Time-block your day so you have a start and end time: configure your work time in Google Calendar. This makes it transparent for your colleagues and manager when you are available and when not.
- 🍲 Plan and block your lunch slot as a recurring public event. This helps you stay healthy and manages expectations for availability.
- ⏰ Plan regular breaks, e.g. by setting a break reminder and stay hydrated.
- 💻 Create a physical space for work at home that you can leave at the end of the day (i.e. don’t work from bed).
- 💼 Use props that signal your brain that you’re working (e.g. work shoes, work shirt).
- 📴 Switch off when you're away from work.
- 🎵 Use background music or sound to help with concentration. Background noise helps in creating an environment which you associate with working. You can share your favorite playlists within the team for that.
- 👋 Check-in to team-chat by stating that you’re starting to work and what you worked on the day before.
- 📥 Assign tickets (e.g. GitHub issues) to yourself when you start working on them. Leave a comment to inform the whole team about progress.
- 🔕 Update your chat status (e.g. mute) when you need to focus.
- ✌️ Check-out of team-chat ("heading out from work", "AFK" for "away from keyboard").
- 🌜 Use the Google Chat "Snooze Notifications" feature to signal absence. If you have set up your work hours in Google Calendar, this happens automatically for non-work hours.
- 📤 Commit work frequently instead of only committing locally. Finish up by committing in the evening and provide a short summary in the ticket on the progress or blockers.
Make yourself visible and be responsive
Organizing expectations around communication creates a healthy relationship between employees and supervisors — no one will have concerns about productivity expectations or be left in the dark.
- ✉️ Catch up on email at least twice a day to stay informed.
- 📅 Check your calendar, respond to invites with a 'yes' or 'no' plus comment. Attend appointments.
- 💬 Scan relevant chats (esp. your team chat) every hour.
- 📟 Find a balance between synchronous team interaction and embracing the benefits of an asynchronous work style. You can stay online when working, and update your team via chat on what you’re working on, or manage expectations around check-ins. This way we compensate for the loss of ad-hoc availability from not sitting next to each other.
Reflect and Adapt
The new remote situation is radically different from how your team worked before. Set up weekly team retrospectives (video call) to recap what worked well and what can be improved. We recommend using Google slides to simulate a whiteboard with sticky notes: the first slide is the whiteboard. The following slides are for each team member (one slide per member) where they can prepare red & green "sticky notes" before the retrospective meeting. The meeting runs similar to a physical meeting: 1) every team member copies their notes to the "whiteboard" (1st slide), 2) the team clusters the notes on the whiteboard, 3) the team selects 1-2 most important issues, 4) the team defines action items and next steps.
What about the monthly tech onboarding and engineering bootcamp?
Tech onboarding and engineering bootcamp will happen remotely through Google Hangout Meets.
What should I do if my Internet connection at home is unavailable or slow?
If you don't have Internet at home or an unstable or slow connection and no company-provided phone, please contact Helpdesk which can provide phones for tethering.
Other Tips for Successful Remote Work
These tips are copied from Trello's excellent The Best Advice For Remote Work Success From 10 Global Teams (free PDF guide).
Chat vs. Video Calls
Recognizing the humanity in team members via seeing their face on a video call is a game-changer:
- Tools can mask intention and humanity: Keep in mind that at the end of the chat is a human being with feelings and reactions.
- If you have constructive feedback to give, do it over a video call so your intentions come across.
- Due to a lack of verbal and emotional cues: One person may perceive a chat convo as an argument when the other person perceives it as a discussion.
- Resentment builds over time due to underlying issues not being addressed. Digital communication gone rogue can breed misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Establish a process, structure, and agenda around meetings and updates so everyone can follow along no matter their location. Assign a meeting lead and scribe (note taker) to ensure key decisions are captured in writing.
Treat Others With Transparency
Keep important information accessible for everyone: log side chat decisions, record video meetings, and always take notes to share in public (company-internal) spaces.
Use Video for Face-to-Face
Seeing as up to 10,000 non-verbal cues can be exchanged in one minute of face-to-face interaction. Video meeting tools ( Hangouts Meet) are essential for building relationships with others. You can set up team-building activities over video that play into the strengths of remote work, like sharing your office view or introducing your cat to your coworker’s dog and watching the furry friendship unfold.
Never work from bed
"When I started working 100% remotely at Buffer, I set the rule for myself that I would never work from bed, and here’s why:- It becomes more difficult to fall asleep because working from bed weakens the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.- You may start to feel like you’re always at work and lose a place to come home to.- Your quality of sleep will decrease because using electronics before bed reduces the melatonin you need to fall asleep.” - Hailley Griffis, Future of Work Marketer, Buffer
Grafana: How to work from home effectively: Tips from the remote-first Grafana Labs team
mistro: 10 hacks to improve your WFH experience in 10 minutes (or less)
Alice Goldfuss: Work in the Time of Corona
GitLab: What not to do when implementing remote: don't replicate the in-office experience remotely
Yonder: How to Design Powerful Rituals for Successful Distributed Companies
fyi: 11 Best Practices for Working Remotely
TechRepublic: The 10 rules found in every good remote work policy
GiantSwarm: Taking Care Remotely
GiantSwarm: Giant Swarm is "Remote First" and I put it to the test
GiantSwarm: Surviving and Thriving: How To Really Work Remotely
Trello: The Best Advice For Remote Work Success From 10 Global Teams [Free Guide]
SRECon2017: Don't Call Me Remote! Building and Managing Distributed Teams - Facebook
Inc.: It Only Takes 7 Words to Create the Last Work-From-Home Policy You'll Ever Need
Andreas Klinger: Managing Remote Teams - A Crash Course - Startup Lessons Learned