Communicate, adapt and make time for ‘water cooler’ chats during lockdown

With three days of lockdown under our belts and just 18 more to go, we have some advice and practical tips to offer about working remotely during the Coronavirus lockdown

Although working remotely is nothing new to the team at OpenUp, like the rest of South Africa, we will need to adapt to the way we do things during the next 21 days of lockdown, in an attempt to stop the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19).

OpenUp moved out from under their usual under-the-bridge-office and into our homes nearly two weeks before South Africa went into lockdown. The transition is easier for some than others, but we find ways to support one another and make it work. Photo: Matthew Stark


We usually operate from an office under a bridge in Newlands, but our work takes us all over the city, country and at times, the world. We love being able to crowd around someone’s laptop to hash out the details of a new feature, e.g. looking at a dataset together, or trying out a design mockup by the designer’s desk. We also enjoy eating lunch together, gathering the entire team in one room to discuss strategy, interacting with non-staff members who work in our shared space and every Friday morning, we make and eat breakfast together.

We also have strong guidelines about working from home when you’re ill to avoid contaminating the office, but it’s easy to feel like you’re about better and that you’re so much more productive in person — whether either of these is true or not depends entirely on the person and their individual circumstances. But now, with the president’s announcement last week, we don’t have a choice. Luckily, we’ve all practised working remotely before.

One thing that won’t change too much is the actual work we do. Of course we often attend in-person meetings, but given how widespread the type of work we do is, and that some of our clients aren’t based in the same place as us, we usually find ourselves behind a computer screen and on the phone. We need to think a bit to get the same high bandwidth brainstorming and exchange working effectively, remotely. But since we often have similar conversations like this, it’s not a massive stretch.

On the other hand, a big change that we will have to accommodate is the way we run workshops that have been planned for several weeks or months now. Our main concern is access to devices and the internet for everyone, not just a privileged few. We know that this is tough in the best of times. Access to public spaces like universities, libraries and coffee shops are no longer an option. This is not something we have a clear-cut answer to yet, and will probably require something different each time we need to pull it off.


This might sound obvious, but communication is key. Communicating in person can be a challenge for multiple reasons, and communicating remotely is even more prone to incidents of misunderstanding. Lockdown has just intensified this. Like with most of the challenges we will face, we’re going to have to adapt. We will probably sharpen our skills very quickly when misunderstandings crop up, and we may need to respond quite fast.

We already have a few things in place for dealing with this type of issue, such as video calling, screen-sharing and project-based task boards. These act as an authoritative source of truth when it comes to requirements and decisions around any piece of work. Now, these tools won’t be used every other day by some people, they will be utilised every single day, by every member of the team. This way, miscommunication won’t slip between the cracks. We need to be far more diligent in practising our pre existing processes.

Lots of people now working from home have to improvise by using coffee tables, benches and other household items to create a functional space. Photo: Lailah Ryklief

Here is a short list of key lessons that we’ve either already encountered or definitely will over the next three weeks:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, whether it’s a colleague or a client you’re trying to communicate with. Think about where they’re coming from and the context in which they’re asking a question or raising an issue — this way, you can fill the gaps quickly and avoid even further miscommunication.
  • Communicate using the most effective medium for the task. For example, if a key member of the team cannot join a call at the designated time, record a screencast using lots of screenshots and include notes explaining these.
  • Be script about updating your to-do list and project task boards. This way, the rest of the team will know what you’re busy with and can plan their own time accordingly.
  • Accept that communication will probably always be imperfect and instead of holding onto an idea that someone will definitely understand something the first time round, build iteration into every process. This will allow for progress to be made and give others the opportunity to review the direction in which something is going and change course if necessary. It will also prevent anyone from feeling bad if they get something wrong.

Finding a space that works for you is the most important part of working at home. Not everyone has a home office or even an extra room, so being able to adapt is important. Try and avoid clutter if possible, as this can be distracting. Photo: JD Bothma


The entire country, our team included, probably expected that a lockdown would happen, as we watched things unfold in countries that were hit with the Coronavirus early on. Most of us already have a relatively good setup for working remotely, and we have a strong culture of finding ways to accommodate those who aren’t and might need a bit of help.

We officially mandated working from home to reduce exposure and to #FlattenTheCurve from 16 March, more than 10 days before the lockdown kicked in, so it wasn’t a huge shock and we’ve made sure to support one another throughout this process.

We won’t expect much to change during lockdown — we are able to buy food and continue to work flexibly — so as long as the rest of the team knows that someone is away from their laptop for a while, everything can continue as normal for us. Like we’ve already said, communication is key!

We don’t know what will happen once the lockdown ends, but we will definitely be cautious and responsible. Luckily, we don’t need to return to the office straight away, so if there is still a large risk of spreading and contamination, we could keep working remotely.

The only way to keep working as a team is to ensure that communication is key. Use methods of communication that suits everyone's situations and resources. Photo: Shaun Russell


  • Create and follow a schedule, as you would any other workday. Get up at the same time you usually would, get dressed and take your usual lunch break. If possible, stick to your regular working hours — if you’re anything like us, your time is budgeted specifically for, so this as a guideline.
  • Create a working space that is optimal for you. We understand that this isn’t always easy and might not be possible for everyone, but try your best. Somewhere to sit, a decent chair, good lighting and relative quiet are a good place to start.
  • Don’t spend all day at your desk. If you can go outside (garden, balcony, parking lot, etc), eat your lunch in the fresh air and don’t forget to get up and walk around every few hours.
  • Avoid feeling isolated. Get creative about creating public praise for good work or goals reached (we use Slack and lots of emojis), and make some time for those (virtual) ‘water cooler’ chats.

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