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How Prezi’s Head of Remote Comms is managing during COVID-19

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on May 21, 2020


Spencer Waldron, Global Director of Communications and Head of Remote at Prezi, was in many ways well-positioned for mandatory WFH for COVID-19. He’d already been working remotely for six years. Yet remote in a global pandemic isn’t quite the same.

We talked a lot about Prezi’s meeting culture, and how it’s changed. Our research shows that WFH has made workers busier than ever. By the fifth week of March, we saw the average worker had spent 29% more time in team sync meetings, 24% more time in one-on-ones, and had 11% more Fragmented Time.

We also discussed the expectations he’s had to adjust, how Prezi has changed how they hire, and the things mandatory WFH has actually improved.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Cathy: How has your work routine changed due to COVID-19?

Spencer: Even as someone who has been working remotely for six years, this has been an especially challenging time, which has taken some time to adjust. While I am used to working remotely, I’m not used to doing it while my children and wife are at home. I’ve had to adjust my expectations for scheduling work and meetings since everyone is on a remote work schedule.

I've gradually been trying to change my behavior, so that I see meetings as the last resort. I always try to make async the first way to move things forward. I've learned that many times async can easily replace or reduce meetings.

I’ve also had to remind myself that these adjustments are necessary and okay as we are all dealing with this around the globe.

Cathy: How has hiring changed for you? Or has it? What new tools are you using, or how are you using existing tools differently now?

Spencer: Here at Prezi we’re used to hiring people from all over the world so in some respects how we interview doesn’t change that much. We used to ask people to apply by ‘Presume’ (a resume done visually using Prezi) but now we ask candidates to use our new product, Prezi Video, to create a pre-recorded video about who they are, their experience and what their passions and values are.

Using video helps others on the team and the wider company to asynchronously get a ‘sense’ of who the person is and what they’ll be like to work with. The main thing that’s changed is that we can no longer have someone physically in the office for the ‘assessment days’ we run as part of the interview process, so this now happens using video conferencing technology, where candidates get to know us and how we work. Using video actually makes this work in a more interactive and intimate way and has worked pretty well so far.

Cathy: What are some ways working from home due to coronavirus is making work easier, more difficult, or just different?

Spencer: We are navigating through unprecedented times. You can’t assume anyone is available during normal 9-5 work hours as you might have prior to this.

[Clockwise for Slack helps you see who’s available based on their calendar]

However, with the majority of people working from home, it’s been easier for everyone to embrace video conferencing, which has become the norm over other communication mediums such as phone calls or in-person staff meetings. This shift towards video as a primary method of communication has helped improve the overall productivity and efficiency of remote meetings, and because everyone is remote, I’ve seen my teammates make more of an effort to connect through virtual coffee chats or 1-on-1 check-ins, which helps strengthen the bond of any team.

Cathy: How are you supporting your team now, including tools, norms, routines, meetings, or anything else you think is relevant?

Spencer: When working remotely - clear, engaging communication is extremely important. Tools that help provide this will be key when managing a remote workforce.

[Check out this guide to tools for remote teams]

Something else we’re doing at Prezi right now is offering a Virtual Lobby. Some of the teams have an open video meeting room, where colleagues can meet and connect during lunch or other breaks.

Lastly, we need to be sensitive to the unseen. When joining video calls, I check in with my teammates and take note of people’s facial expressions and body language. If someone had a bad day because of an argument or is having a difficult time with all the recent changes, it is important to remember this will impact the meeting and you need to be sensitive to it.

Cathy: How do you schedule/prep for video calls?

Spencer: Managers’ schedules are often filled with meetings throughout the day, but a creator's time is used differently, especially with deep work projects. It’s easy for managers to forget that their team needs time to develop marketing strategies for different company initiatives, build code, draft communications materials, etc. - and all of these tasks would require deep focus and minimal distractions to complete in a timely manner.

To keep teams focused and on track, and not bombarded with lengthy live meetings, managers should evaluate each meeting prior to scheduling it. They should start by asking themselves, “What is this meeting for?” If the answer is a status update or info sharing, they should connect with their team by sending a quick 5-min async (recorded) video, allowing their team to watch at a time that best suits their work and/or productivity schedule.

I’ve been working remotely across the globe from my colleagues for years and leveraging asynchronous videos has really changed how I communicate. Async meetings allow you to stay connected with your team without assuming you’ll all be available at the same time. At Prezi, we use async videos to send status updates, check-ins and brainstorm follow-up to cut down on meetings.

When live meetings are required, managers should check their teams’ calendar schedule before sending out a meeting request or getting to an agreement on the time, which is easy to do with tools such as Gmail etc.

[The Clockwise Autopilot scheduler does this automatically, while also optimizing your calendar to free up blocks of uninterrupted time, so you can focus on what matters.]

Interactive video tools like Prezi Video allow people to easily record a quick, 5-minute update with engaging newscast graphics that display alongside their face on the screen. These updates are great for brainstorm / meeting prep, giving all meeting participants digestible content ahead of the meeting that’s more engaging than an info-dump in an email. Everyone can watch the video on their own time, then show up to the meeting ready and prepared to contribute to a more impactful discussion.

Cathy: Do you intend to go back to business-as-usual when shelter in place orders are lifted or do you plan to make or keep changes?

Spencer: Returning back to work will definitely look different when these orders are lifted, and it will be awhile until we know what that looks like. Overall, I think that offices will struggle to have everyone in the office at the same time, so we’ll likely see people coming into the office at different times - working from home some days and in the office for others. I’m always remote, so, for me, it will be different in the way that my colleagues will be spending more time in the office with the rest of the team, while I continue my work from home. However, I do think that in-office team members will be more understanding of how someone WFH operates throughout the day and their work-life balance needs, which will likely improve workplace communications on a macro level.

Cathy: What are your best personal time management tips?

Spencer: For me, partitioning my day and re-defining my work week have helped most with time management. We need to partition our time throughout the day, so that we work on activities and projects that require more focus and creative thinking, at your most productive time of the day. Then with your remaining time you can schedule meetings or work on more administrative tasks. For example, if you’re most productive in the mornings, then reserve your afternoons for video meetings.

However, there are many different variables besides meeting schedules and solo work time to experiment with, and these include workout scenarios, eating patterns, utilizing different spaces in your home, wakeup time, bedtime, attending to kids, how much you watch TV and turning off your email or Slack notifications intermittently to eliminate distractions.

Try to rid yourself of external factors and distractions when you are working, such as email or phone notifications, to determine peak productivity. When you see something pop up on your screen, chances are you’ll reply to it. It's difficult, but ignore everything for two hours. It's the only way to do deep work.

Cathy: How do you keep a human connection with coworkers while WFH?

Spencer: Maintaining a human connection with your colleagues while working remotely is of the utmost importance and establishing a personal, human connection will help remote teams collaborate and function in a more successful and productive manner. At Prezi, we have a rule that all participants must join with their video cameras on because having a face-to-face connection allows for people to see facial cues which can help guide the direction and flow of the conversation. Outside of business meetings, it is also important to connect with your coworkers on a more personal level in order to maintain a human connection and strengthen the bond of your team. Try to schedule virtual coffee chats or 1-on-1s where you talk about non-work related topics.

Going forward

Spencer rightly points out that getting real work done requires ample Focus Time with minimal distractions. To reduce your meeting load, consider Prezi Video. And to get more Focus Time, get Clockwise.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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