Coronavirus & Conference Calls: Our Remote Work Diary

As a conference call provider, we’ve provided the tools to enable our customers to work remotely since the day we were founded over 10 years ago.

 

However, like many businesses we have always been slightly apprehensive about going completely remote ourselves.

 

How will we keep in touch? Will my team still be productive away from the office? How can I manage a team that I can't see? The reasons for not going completely remote go on.

Sometimes it takes something big to happen in order to drive a real change, and with the COVID-19 outbreak we certainly got that. Overnight people’s entire way of life has been flipped on its head. Working from home is now our ‘new normal’.

At Meetupcall we thought we were well prepared for remote working, but on the day that the Prime Minister advised that workers should stay at home wherever possible, it turned out that we weren’t as well prepared as we’d have liked (but then again, who was?)

Not only did we have the sudden upheaval of an entire office of workers having to start working from home almost overnight, but as a conference call provider we suddenly found our customers needed us more than ever.

In the first couple of weeks since the Prime Minister advised us all to work from home, we’ve seen a five-fold increase in usage of our product. Whilst we welcome the extra business, it has meant massive workload increases for our infrastructure, support and sales teams, whilst our product, development and marketing teams have found themselves quickly shifting their priorities too.

All this whilst suddenly closing the office and going remote means the last couple of weeks have been pretty manic to say the least, and certainly not something we could have ever fully prepared for.

As it has been such a unique time in the relatively short history of our company, we have decided to document and share our experiences. The challenges we’ve faced in going completely remote whilst facing a sudden and massive increase in demand, and how we’ve tackled these – our successes (and failures) and what we’ve learned.

Hopefully you find our story interesting and you can apply some of the lessons we’ve learned to your own journey through these uncharted times we are living in.

 

Monday 16th March

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but just a couple of weeks ago life was still relatively normal. Traffic was busy on the morning commute as everyone was heading in to work, however the weekend had given a taste of what was to come as all Premier League football games were called off, and anyone trying to do their shopping over the weekend would’ve struggled to buy any toilet roll or pasta!

Our CEO Simon had been over at our Middle East office and was due to stay over there for 3 more weeks, however seeing what was going on in the UAE – who had started their own lock down the week before – he made the decision to head back to the UK with his family.

The previous week we had published our Emergency Remote Working Guide, and on the morning of the 16th that began to swing in to action at Meetupcall.

Here are the first steps we took in order to prepare for going remote.

  1. We reviewed all employee’s roles and tasks to ensure everyone can still do their jobs from home.
  2. We audited our hardware (laptops, PC’s, monitors, telephones, etc) and software and made sure everyone had the tools they needed.
  3. Our HR department spoke to all staff members to make sure they were comfortable working from home. Questions were answered and advice was offered with regards to setting up desks and WFH environments.

 

Then, at 5pm on the 16th, the Prime Minister gave a briefing in which he advised people to work from home wherever possible.

Tuesday 17th March

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement, we were keen to ensure that all staff could begin working from home as soon as possible.

At lunch time the HR team sent out a formal communication advising everyone that as of the 18th they should begin working from home, and throughout the afternoon everyone helped one another with packing up cars with things like monitors and office chairs.

Whilst all of this was going on, we began to see an increase in usage and in new customers signing up for the free extended trial that we had started to offer to try and do our bit to help. By the end of the day we had seen our busiest day ever in terms of concurrent conference calls, although this was only a slight increase on our previous record number so it wasn’t anything that caused us any issues, however it did mean that we had to start preparing our infrastructure for the bigger tests to come over the coming days.

 

Wednesday 18th March

With everyone now working from home, it became clear that an official communication plan would need to be put in place to ensure everyone could keep in touch and was aware of what was happening across the business.

Here is a quick run-down of the tools that we use to help everyone keep in touch whilst working remotely…

Slack

We use Slack as a quick and easy way to communicate with one another throughout the business. You can send direct messages, whilst channels are set up to help each department keep in touch. We also keep a channel free for general chit chat and office banter – it’s important to have somewhere you can talk about things other than work.

Meetupcall

For an easy way to have an actual conversation with one or more people, we use Meetupcall (of course!). Whilst not yet released to everyone, we have developed a video conferencing feature that we’re using internally whilst testing so it is a great way to catch up and have at least some level of human interaction.

(If you want to be in the soon to be released beta testing group for video conferencing you can register your details here!)

We also find that a conference call is great when two or more people are working on a project simultaneously – you can have the call open in the background and talk through the project together without having to send messages and wait for a reply.

Email

When you have a query that is too long to send over Slack, and not urgent enough to warrant a call, then we encourage sending a good old-fashioned email.

 

Thursday 19th March

By now we had seen a massive increase in usage, up almost 500% compared to what we’d usually expect, and it seemed it wasn’t only us having to adapt to a sudden increase in usage as UK mobile networks were reporting issues with congestion too.

These mobile network issues meant that our support team were now dealing with a lot of calls from customers unable to connect to their conference calls.

In response to this, we had a look at our call data and used the findings to put this simple guide together on holding a successful conference call.

Here are the key tips from the guide…

  1. Don't schedule calls on the hour. If you can, arrange them for quarter past, half past or quarter to the hour instead.
  2. Avoid the busiest times. According to our data, 10am is by far the most common time for people to host a conference call. Aim to arrange your calls for around lunch time or late afternoon instead.
  3. Use a landline or make your call over the internet (VoIP). WhatsApp allows you to make one-to-one calls over the internet, whilst services like Meetupcall and Zoom enable you to make conference calls through your browser.

 

Friday 20th March

As it became clear that the situation was not going to get better any time soon, our board took the decision to update our company objectives accordingly.

We use the OKR framework made famous by Google as a way of cascading objectives throughout the business to ensure everyone is working towards a common goal, so it was important to reflect the companies change in priorities through our company-wide objectives.

At start of the year the main focus of our objectives was growth, however the sudden increase in usage meant that focus needed to shift to ensuring we continued to provide a reliable and quality service for our existing customers, whilst securing our own sustainability.

Elsewhere, in order for everyone in the business to keep up to date with what was happening, our management team began to hold regular video conferences. These are then followed up by a daily email from our CEO to everyone in the business with a summary of what has been achieved in the day.

 

Monday 23rd March

The start of a new week saw the Prime Minister make his announcement on stricter social distancing measures – all but putting the country into lockdown.

Thankfully we had made the move for everyone to work from home the week before, however conscious that not all of our staff would be able to adapt as well as others, we published a guide to working from home on the company intranet.

You can see the guide for yourself here. These are the main takeaways from the guide…

  1. Prepare like a normal workday. Get up at the usual time, keep to your usual morning routine, get dressed (this is an important one!) and be ready to start work at your regular start time.
  2. Have a dedicated workspace. Try to dedicate a specific room or surface in your home to work that has enough space for you to work comfortably, ideally with your office chair to provide support.
  3. Communicate expectations to others in your household. Just because you're working from home doesn't mean you're available all of the time and it's helpful if others in your house know this.
  4. Take a break and interact. Don’t let being at home prevent you from taking a break. And when you do take a break, try walking around the house or the garden and speaking to other humans – don’t be tempted to open YouTube and disappear down a wormhole for hours on end!
  5. Balance. You might decide to extend your lunch break some days to spend time with family and instead work a little later to make up for it. This is a healthy balanced approach. If you meet your objectives and remain responsive during work hours, you are just as productive as you were when in the office.
  6. Shut down at the end of the day. An often-overlooked danger of working from home is overworking. It can be so easy to keep working into the evening when you’re already at home, so choose a time or an event each day to help you switch from work mode to home mode.

Personally, I’ve found that going for a run at 6pm each day has really helped me switch off from work. It also gives you something to look forward to (if you enjoy running!)

 

Tuesday 24th March

Remember those issues we mentioned last week regarding mobile network congestion? Well, they were continuing to experience issues, especially at the peak time of 10am. We had tried to mitigate this by communicating the tips on holding a successful conference call, however 10am continued to be a peak time for people scheduling calls.

Another way to help avoid the issues with mobile phone networks is for people to connect through their internet browser (the technical term for this is VoIP - Voice over Internet Protocol).

We only recently launched this feature to our beta testing group, and ideally we would’ve liked to test it for slightly longer, however the benefits of rolling it out now were that our users would have a better experience on their conference calls, whilst the drawbacks may be a few small bugs that we would have to fix quickly – so the decision was an easy one to make in the end (remember those new objectives we set?)

And so, VoIP was rolled out to the majority of our users.

(If you want to activate VoIP on your Meetupcall account you can register your details here and we’ll get you set up right away.)

 

Wednesday 25th March to Friday 27th March

Towards the end of the week things seemed to at least start to settle down a bit. We were still seeing record levels of usage, however the combination of the decision to roll out VoIP as well as the mobile networks getting on top of their issues, meant that our support and infrastructure teams could begin to shift their focus back to their usual day-to-day and not the firefighting and plate-spinning they had been doing for the last week or so.

It also meant that the reality of working from home for what will likely be at least another month began to really sink in for everyone. And it’s not just working from home, it’s being confined to your home for 23 hours a day, with everyone else at home too.

These are unprecedented times to say the least, and everyone is learning and adapting as they go along – both to their jobs and to life in general. But we are all in this together. As long as we continue to help one another out wherever we can – both professionally and personally – then when we come out the other side of this we feel both as a business and as individuals that we will be much stronger than we were just a few weeks ago.

Keep going. You've got this!

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Our resident marketing specialist, Dan divides most of his time between drinking coffee and translating developer terminology for the English language

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