👩‍🏫 #BetterBusinessInsurance Q&A Webinar Recording Watch Now →

Accelerating Innovation as an Unexpectedly Distributed Team

Layr is now unexpectedly remote. That surprise is working to our advantage. Read on for how we're maintaining our momentum and continuing to innovate.

As Layr’s Head of Product, one of my priorities for 2020 was to eliminate the less-effective habits my co-founder and I developed bootstrapping our startup and simultaneously introduce new habits that directly support innovation across our products and internal processes. Then, the world was unexpectedly hit by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as one of Layr’s co-founders, I’ve been hyper-focused on ensuring that our small, but growing, startup team is able to maintain our pre-coronavirus momentum. Like millions of companies across the globe, our team – which is spread across Georgia, South Carolina, and Illinois – has gone fully remote. Also, like millions of companies across the globe, going remote without the time to prepare for our new reality has not come without challenges. As we settle into this new normal, I’m sharing some of our learnings so far, along with how we’re continuing to accelerate innovation by building better habits as an unexpectedly distributed team.

Culture and Connection

Layr’s Head of Marketing, Lauren FitzHugh, wrote a fantastic blog post sharing some of the fun and quirky ways we’re maintaining our company culture during a pandemic. Personally, I believe culture all comes down to connection. When everyone is spread out across cities and states while social distancing in homes and apartments, the connection becomes more important than ever.

  • Do I feel connected to the rest of the Layr team?
  • Does the rest of the Layr team feel connected to me?
  • Are we open about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us?
  • Are we continuing to tell stories about our personal lives?
  • Do we still share the gifs, memes, and the laughs that bring our team together?

These are just some of the questions I try to ask myself to gauge if I’m doing a good job of staying connected with my team. Because without connection there is no culture, and if you don’t have culture, good luck innovating. The best kind of company culture motivates and inspires individuals and simultaneously attracts and maintains the right mix of people that is essential to collective innovation. Now, more than ever, is the time to be relentlessly intentional about culture to avoid losing the qualities you’ve worked hard to establish for your company.

sentiment_dissatisfied Bad Habits Reduced

  • Department Silos
  • “Not Checking In”

sentiment_satisfied Good Habits Established

  • Scheduled All-Hands Standup
  • Virtual Coffee Breaks

Agile for Everyone

As a fast-growing startup, our engineering and product teams adhere to the hugely popular Agile methodology to stay on schedule and ship new features frequently. While most people reading this article have probably been exposed to some form of product management methodology over their professional careers, that exposure might have been limited to certain teams or departments. In my experience, it is rare for a company to implement a framework like Agile across its entire organization. And while it may not be feasible to expect a single opinionated methodology to benefit every team or member of an organization, you can incorporate specific tactics with great results.

As part of our new distributed reality, Layr has begun to subtly introduce elements of the Agile methodology to stakeholders outside of the product and engineering teams. As a result, we have noticeably improved communication accuracy and efficiency.

For example, instead of sending ad hoc Slack messages, the product team started mentioning collaborators in comments of the Jira tickets and user stories they manage, which has facilitated well-documented, organized, and thoughtful discussion that doesn’t interrupt someone else during their state of flow. Additionally, we gave our customer success team a crash course in documenting bug and feature requests directly within Jira for the product team to process and convert into work for engineering. Instead of random Slack reminders, forgotten to-do lists, and growing inboxes, frontline feedback gets the attention it deserves and important bugs never fall through the cracks. Finally, we’ve opened daily stand ups, sprint planning meetings, and retros to the entire company. Now, anyone from any department can see what product and engineering are working on and how they’re working on it. So, not only has engineering become less of an enigma to the rest of the company, but the whole team can get excited about each new feature release and the effort it took to accomplish.

sentiment_dissatisfied Bad Habits Reduced

  • Ad Hoc Requirement Communication
  • Undocumented Sidebars
  • “Lost in Translation”

sentiment_satisfied Good Habits Established

  • Structured Requirements Gathering
  • Discussion Audit Trails
  • Company-Wide Buy-In

Natural Noise Reduction

As aesthetically pleasing as open offices are, there’s no shortage of research to suggest they’re significantly less productive. While I love the intimate office that Layr was working from prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it did little to mask noise and prevent distractions. In many ways, going remote is like turning an open office into a walled one. While not without drawbacks, there are definitely some unique benefits. Here at Layr, the natural noise reduction facilitated by becoming a distributed team has created a fertile environment for innovative thinking and ideation.

Earlier, I referenced flow and linked to a YouTube video from one of my favorite minimalist creators, Matt D’Avella. In that video, he explains how flow is a mental state in which a person is able to become completely immersed and focused on performing a task or activity. In a flow state, productivity and progress accelerate and innovative breakthroughs are more likely. The unequivocal archenemies to flow is an interruption, and nothing facilitates friendly interruption quite like an open office.

Here at Layr, we’ve begun to take advantage of our new “walled offices” by being more intentional about what we interrupt each other, when we schedule meetings, and what we ask for help with. Because we can’t just pop over to a colleague’s desk or yell across the room, everyone is enjoying fewer interruptions throughout the day. In turn, this has increased the amount of time each team member is able to spend in a flow state. Some of us have even taken to batching our work (another Matt D’Avella video) as a result of having more and longer chunks of uninterrupted time. Batching is a great way to be more efficient with your time and increases the chances of entering a state of flow.

I personally designate my Friday’s as a marketing support day. Throughout the week, non-critical marketing tasks that require my input or assistance are backlogged by the marketing and communications team. Then, every Friday after our company-wide virtual coffee break, our Head of Marketing walks me through the backlog and we prioritize each item. I spend up to the rest of the day working through the list in order of prioritization. Any items that I don’t finish are either rolled to the following Friday or tackled when I have spare time after-hours or on the weekends. If you’re not already practicing batching, I highly recommend testing it out as part of your time-management strategy.

sentiment_dissatisfied Bad Habits Reduced

  • Disruptive Interruptions
  • “Bouncing Around”
  • Background Distractions

sentiment_satisfied Good Habits Established

  • Non-Disruptive Discussions
  • Work Batching
  • Increased States of Flow

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some of the bad habits we’re reducing and the good habits we’re establishing here at Layr in an effort to accelerate innovation. I firmly believe that change creates opportunity and opportunity breeds innovation. Very few of us have ever experienced change on the scale that COVID-19 has ignited. But by adapting, experimenting, and learning from each other, companies will continue to thrive and innovate.