I’ll get back to you
Nailing the subtle art of messaging etiquette: you’ve been there, right? Sent an email, or pinged someone on Slack; fired off a question or a request, put the ball in another person’s court. And then you wait. And wait.
After a few hours – or a couple of days, depending on the context – you check to see if you’ve inadvertently missed the answer. You refresh. Check your internet connection. And your outbox.
It’s a bit like that first date scenario: it went well, you come home happy, and for a couple of days you’re jubilant. Everything is in place. But then you start to fret. Have you missed a reply? Is it too soon to chase? You really could do with knowing, but will you just irritate your recipient and blow the whole gig if you hound them? The angst! Which is why we all need to buy into some messaging etiquette.
Why messaging etiquette is more important post pandemic
Before remote working became the norm these situations were much easier to manage. There was always the chance of a “watercooler moment” where we could make a polite query as to the status of our message and go about our day with one less distraction on our minds. We could even casually ‘swing by’ someone’s desk and lightly drop it into conversation, without the fear of harassing a co-worker.
But with working outside a traditional office environment now the norm rather than the exception, our actions need to be more intentional. We have to have a reason to talk to someone, and that everyday anecdotal rapport is harder to conjure. It leaves little space for a casual “Oh by the way, that message about the thing…” and so we end up with scenarios like the following:
- Ping someone on Slack/MS Teams/Email with a query for information on a dependent story.
- No response, just the sound of imaginary crickets in your head, and visions of tumbleweed in your mind.
- Questions begin to form: Was the message received? Is it being dealt with? When will it be dealt with? Is it off my plate? Do I need to stay on it?
Why you need a ‘holding’ message
Do a quick google of ‘email etiquette’ and you’ll find a plethora of articles on how to make sure you’re getting your work communications on point. Right up there at the top of most of them is this plea:
As we get more accustomed to our remote work setups, this element of Slack or Teams messaging etiquette becomes even more important. When someone sends you a message and you don’t reply straight away, the above is what’s going on for them. It eventually forces them to follow up their original message, which really is a waste of everyone’s headspace. The cognitive load is larger than it needs to be too, as two people have the same thing on their minds when one would do. It also runs the risk of causing a build-up of resentment, as you start to feel ‘chased’ by the other party.
The solution – send a holding message
It’s not rocket science. A brief reply, in a timely manner, indicating that the message was received will remove the cognitive load for the requester. There’s a benefit for you as well; Alex Cavoulacos, President of The Muse says that “the faster you respond, the shorter your answer is allowed to be” in her guide to the unwritten rules of email. A quick “got it!” can take the pressure off the recipient as much as it alleviates stress for the sender.
Even if it’s not something you can get to straight away, a quick – and honest! – response is still of huge value to both parties. A “too much on my plate right now, will come back to you next week” is perfectly acceptable. This holding message example means that the requester knows the situation, and can make alternative arrangements if they need to. Just understanding whose court the ball is in can make a world of difference to both sides.
Keeping the communication current
Once you’ve taken possession of the ball, so to speak, it’s also helpful to send follow-up messages updating the requester on the status of the work. Occasional updates or check-ins as you work on the task can help keep everyone’s headspace clear, and manage expectations. Again, a little bit of messaging hygiene reduces everyone’s cognitive load and keeps expectations simmering rather than bubbling over.
Observing good messaging etiquette also has the wider benefit of improving working relationships. Go back to that watercooler analogy; aren’t those the moments when rapport grows over time? These ad-hoc exchanges create the foundation of trust that makes a team. They foster positive interactions and a long-term sense of confidence in the people that you work with.
Great results come from great working relationships, at every level of an organisation. Wouldn’t it be cool if all that could come from nailing the simple art of a timely response..?
The concept of remote-first working is more nuanced than you might imagine. It would be easy to decide that as long as we facilitate remote workers with strategies that allow them to join the in-office meeting the job is done; or to assume that we’re asking everyone to stay at home as we did during the pandemic lockdown. But that would be to ignore the valuable lessons that have been learned through having to work remotely.
Lessons that put meeting quality right at the heart of every interaction we have going forward. Why? So that communication flows, meetings are productive, and everyone is in the loop.
So what is remote-first?
A remote-first definition needs to encompass everything we’ve learned as working practices have evolved since the 2021 pandemic. Think of it like software development. In the same way software transitioned from being designed for desktops with mobile devices as an afterthought (desktop first), to a strategy that puts the mobile experience at the core of the design (mobile-first), remote-first teams deliberately design the team experience around the virtual office rather than the physical one.
A remote-first working approach should be at the core of the team’s working practices and take into account the constraints and behaviour associated with the virtual office. Essentially, we’re looking to create a colocation space virtually, with high bandwidth communication that operates at the same level as if you were physically colocated.
The principle of virtual colocation is to create the conditions that allow teams to be highly collaborative even when some members are working in a remote setting. The setup should increase the connection strength between each link to the point where there is clear common ground across the team that doesn’t rely on everyone being in the same place at the same time.
What does remote-first mean in practice?
Remote-first work culture compared to on-prem, remote-ish and remote-only
On-prem: Old school office working. Your company processes, tools and meetings revolve around the physical office. Key assumption: Communication is designed around the physical workspace (physically colocated).
Remote-ish: Your company may allow you to work remotely. But, most of your company’s processes, tools, and meetings will revolve around the physical office. As a result, remote teammates often feel excluded from important meetings and company decisions, even if that’s not the intention. Key assumption: Communication is designed around the physical workspace (physically colocated).
Remote-first: This empowers team members to work remotely, whatever their location. A remote-first team makes decisions online and individuals have their videos on, even if most of the team are in the same room. Tools, ways of working and processes level the communication playing field providing equal opportunities to contribute ideas and access information. Remote-first doesn’t prevent team members – or the full team – from holding meetings when needed, eg. for team building or major new project launches, But as long as one person is remote, everyone is considered remote. Key assumption: Communication is designed around the virtual workspace (virtual colocation).
Remote-only: Everything included in remote-first plus no expectation to physically colocate.
Source amended from https://doist.com/blog/remote-career-advice/
Why remote-first working should be the default
Regardless of which office location model you are looking to adopt, as soon as a single team member is working away from the office (eg. for medical or childcare reasons, to allow access for the electrician, or even a dental appointment!), the most efficient communication will happen by adopting remote-first practices. What it boils down to is this: remote-first working allows the kind of flexibility that means team members could be sitting right next to each other, or anywhere in the world, with no difference in experience or outcomes!
Don’t mistake remote-first for remote-only
Be very clear about this. Remote-first working isn’t about outsourcing everyone, nor does it mean avoiding physical meet-ups. Instead, once you’ve decided to go remote-first, the crucial thing is to be intentful about the type and frequency of any meetings that do need to take place in-person.
How to maximise the introduction of remote-first practices
This is where a team charter comes into play; by agreeing on a set of fundamental working practices, you are then able to trust your teams to decide for themselves when an in-person meeting would be most advantageous. Revisiting the team charter regularly, means you can set and revise principles that will inform behaviours to ensure a consistent approach from all members of staff.
Having deliberate, considered factors around the teams’ behaviours can also be used to support successful recruitment practices, so that expectations are clear for new team members, and to inform recruiters about geographical constraints.
Why remote-first working is the most productive model
A remote-first culture just makes sense! By maximising remote-first working practices you remove the typical distractions of an office environment, and allow for much more focus, wherever your team is.
But more than that, you gain endless flexibility of choice around how your business operates. Now that we’ve learned how to make remote-first work so brilliantly, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as we consider how we will plan our meetings from now on. Instead, we advocate retaining the continued benefits people have received from working remotely, whilst emphasising the unique opportunity to decouple meetings from locations.
That’s really what remote-first means. And the benefits of buying yourself this kind of flexibility are immeasurable!
When the pandemic hit, many organisations were faced with the prospect of making something work that they’d never previously wanted to consider. Remote working had been seen by many as too difficult to achieve, but suddenly the laws of lockdown required exactly that. What not many anticipated was just how successful remote-first meetings would become, and how quickly!
A lot of teams have thrived in the fully remote environment. During lockdown, productivity wasn’t impacted nearly as much as most people anticipated, and in many cases it actually improved as teams put remote working tools and practices quickly in place to ensure ongoing delivery. In fact, it forced us to do what some of us didn’t think we could!
Results of a study by the University of Southampton suggest that 54% of remote workers assess their productivity as better than previously, based on tangible output per hour. This worked largely because the teams were all remote, which allowed the emergence of practices which were centered around co-locating virtually.
But as businesses are now considering going back to the office, there is a real threat to productivity as teams become neither fully remote nor fully on-site.
The choices as we see it are these:
- Stay remote-first (virtually co-located): this only works if you keep operating as if everyone is 100% remote.
- Go back to the office and be physically co-located: with this option you can go back to the old ways. Get the whole team into the office, get the post-its out, and forget your digital whiteboard and messaging systems. This might be perfectly acceptable for your business. Just cross your fingers that there won’t be another lockdown, or a teammate who has to work from home for an unexpected doctor’s appointment…
- A hybrid model of work: with this option you risk falling into the bear trap of trying to combine the two and ending up with the worst of both worlds.
Why a slide back to pre-lockdown working practices is so alarming
Remote-ish companies face even more obstacles than the fully remote ones, according to Michael Dell, CEO and Chairman at Dell Technologies. Pre-COVID, most teams were at best remote-friendly. For example, if someone worked from home, they might be included in meetings by a thoughtful colleague pointing a laptop camera at a whiteboard.
But more often than not when everyone else was in a meeting room, people attending from home would be left struggling to hear what was being said at the end of a badly setup video conference.
With teams now considering a return to the office there will be a natural tendency to revert back to patterns of co-working and meetings which prioritise physical location. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the lockdown lifted, I immediately witnessed meetings with part of the group sitting in the conference room and others joining via zoom; instantly the frustrations of those on zoom were evident as they became unable to meaningfully contribute, either to the conversation or by active participation with tools like whiteboards.
The gradual downturn in remote working will inevitably mean that working practices decline back to their lowest energy state – in this case a progressive drift into ‘physical location’ centric practices. The result will be poor communication between physically co-located and remote workers, as well as frustration, misunderstandings, and the loss of shared context.
The antidote: If one is remote, everyone is remote
The only way to keep the lines from blurring as we consider any kind of return to the office is to behave as if everyone is remote, even when they’re in a central location.
There are easy ways to implement a remote-first approach, but it will require serious effort from both employers and staff to resist the slide. The benefits you receive are worth it: continued high bandwidth communication, no matter where you are located. Read on for some of the potential pitfalls and solutions.
8 Remote-ish meeting traps you might fall into and how to avoid them
The preference, in my view, is for remote-first meetings. This means that we keep running our meetings over video conferencing unless 100% of the team are in the office. In the past, I’ve seen teams resort to an almost comical gathering around someone’s monitor to talk to the teammate who didn’t manage to get into the office. We cannot allow ourselves to go back there!
Here are 8 ways you might fall into the bear trap when adopting a hybrid work practice, and how to avoid them:
1. Bad audio in a conference room:
- It is often instinctive to concentrate on the people and conversation in the office with you, but this can leave remote members of the team feeling excluded and disengaged. This disconnect is substantially exacerbated when there is poor audio and acoustic quality in the room. A lot of the detail of an in-flow, in-person conversation gets missed by remote participants, and frequent requests have to be made for things to be repeated. This interrupts the creative flow of the meeting.
- Focusing on a remote-first practice removes this challenge. By keeping the remote-first tools and information channels you reduce the chances of individuals becoming isolated, and therefore less productive.
2. Background noise in the office space:
- Office space can often be noisy. A lack of meeting rooms in most offices means staff from different teams who sit close to each other can frequently be in different meetings at the same time. This causes irrelevant background noise to interrupt the flow of creative meetings – annoying enough for the people in the office, but for those trying to contribute from home it’s even more challenging!
- Conversely, people working in their own space makes for better quality meetings with more valuable focus on the topic at hand.
3. Not wearing headphones in the office:
- The way to eliminate background noise is simple. If one person in a meeting is remote, then everyone should adopt remote-first practices. The meeting should be joined individually, with each person using their own quality noise cancelling headsets. This levels the playing field and addresses most of the issues typically experienced in remote-ish meetings.
4. Writing on a physical whiteboard:
- While a physical whiteboard can be a creative place for a co-located team to explore ideas, in a meeting with remote participants it is disengaging. I’ve seen well-meaning colleagues try to point a camera at the whiteboard for those who are at home, but it is impossible for remote participants to really participate.
- Very expensive online boards improve the situation from a graphical perspective, but don’t address other remote-ish concerns. A better and considerably cheaper solution is using common online tools like Miro, with everyone using remote-first principles.
- DO NOT move to a physical board unless the team is 100% physically co-located, 100% of the time. Remember, you’re looking to avoid an imbalance of information between home and office workers, so that every team member has the same tools, regardless of where they are working.
5. Having side conversations outside of the virtual context:
- It is very easy for co-located meetings to become split into two or three smaller meetings as various options are discussed. For remote participants, this is impossible to follow, adding further to a feeling of being disengaged.
- Ad-hoc conversations are bound to happen but keep the learnings from lockdown working and update your messaging channels with what’s going on, even when everyone is present – it’s unlikely that 100% of the people who might benefit from that anecdotal conversation actually overheard it.
6. People in the room forgetting about the virtual participants:
- We’ve all been in meetings that have been wrapped up in a room without even a goodbye to the remote participants. I’ve even heard of meetings where those not physically in the room weren’t even asked to share their opinions! Out of sight, out of mind becomes a reality when remote-first principles are not applied.
7. Poor documentation of remote-ish meetings:
- There’s often an assumption in remote-ish meetings that because everyone was ‘present,’ there is no need to document decisions and outcomes. This sometimes leads to doubt and conflict months down the line when different recollections appear.
- Remote-first by definition leaves a trail on online tools like Miro and Slack, and allows the team to have far more consistent communication than is the case with a co-located or remote-ish team.
8. Assuming in-office meetings are required at all!
- Sometimes jumping straight to a “we need a meeting” conclusion is a knee-jerk reaction that causes a major drag to a team’s momentum. Decisions are delayed until everyone can get together, or very poor quality meetings – for all the above reasons – take place in shared spaces.
Don’t fall into the bear trap!
For now this may seem like a small problem to businesses who are only just beginning to decide on their return to office strategy. However, once critical mass is achieved in the office, and fewer people are working from home, teams will inevitably start using tools which exclude their remote colleagues.
The pandemic has given businesses a unique opportunity to learn how to deliver what employees have been requesting for decades – flexible working from home. And it’s been a success! Let’s not now throw away the digital transformation that happened in lockdown and allow the previous centuries of deep-seated inflexibility to rise again. It’s time for remote-first businesses to lead the way with deliberate decisions based on productivity, not old habits.
As so many aspects of daily life get back to ‘normal’ post-pandemic, the big question for businesses is this: What should your return to office plan look like going forward? In fact, after being forced to dramatically change all our working practices just to stay operational, is normal even relevant anymore?
A recent LinkedIn post from Brad Reilly – Executive Creative Director at McCann Worldgroup – characterised precisely the dichotomy of trying to incorporate office working into a now well-rehearsed work from home setup:
We’ve previously shared compelling evidence to show why going back to the office isn’t going to work. Here we talk about why we think an “As-Needed” policy is the best way to determine when (and if) staff will benefit from being at the office.
Why coming to the office ‘As-Needed’ could work best for your teams
The typical policy appears to dictate a target number of days per week to be in the office, based on nothing particularly scientific. Anecdotally the premise seems to be a perceived shortcoming of working remotely – even though huge organisations have thrived during the pandemic by doing exactly that.
With all of the learned benefits of working from home in mind, organisations should now consider shaping policies that require teams to come in only when it is valuable for them to do so. By establishing an ‘as-needed’ philosophy, managers don’t specify the number of days people should come into the office; rather they trust their staff and their teams to come in when there is a benefit that can’t be achieved in the same way remotely.
Whether we like it or not (and if you haven’t already guessed, at Equal Experts we like it!) the pandemic has provoked a major overhaul of traditional working practices. It would be illogical to throw away that learning in favour of coming into the office for the sake of it. Think about it – just as software once transitioned from its beginnings as a desktop-first application, to a strategy that puts the mobile experience at the core of the design (mobile-first), so office-based working now needs to undergo a similar transformation.
Here’s why you need to trust your teams to determine if they need an in-person meeting:
- It’s likely to help with staff retention: people have found new ways of managing their work-life balance since the pandemic hit and most say they prefer the flexibility they now have. A survey of employees by Cardiff and Southampton universities found that the majority of those currently working from home would like to continue to do so in some capacity, with 47% preferring to remain out of the office for most of their working hours. These staff are likely to look elsewhere to find job flexibility if organisations rigidly insist on a fixed number of days.
- It keeps productivity high: 29% of those surveyed indicated that they were more productive at home, with employees who’ve been working full-time from home saying their productivity has increased during lockdown. Preventing these people from choosing how they work in the future does not make economic sense.
- It helps with capacity planning: trying to give employees flexibility whilst mandating, for example, three days per week is highly likely to result in over capacity for at least one of those days. At the other end of the flexibility scale, allowing staff to choose one day per week dilutes the probability of teams being in the same place at the same time and reduces the chances of serendipitous meetings – one of the key motivations for getting back to the office in the first place!
- It may improve employee wellbeing: with mental health problems on the rise following the pandemic there are well-documented benefits of working from home that need to be sustained. A new report from Microsoft Surface and YouGov, entitled Work Smarter to live Better has found that the new way of working has given workers the opportunity to live life in a different way. Fifty-five percent now use their lunch break to focus on their personal life and 56% reported an increase in their levels of happiness working from home.
Instead of prescribing a calendar of days in the office, allowing your teams to plan their own schedules for in-person meetings is much more likely to produce both happy staff and useful outcomes. One of my most enlightened clients has told everyone that their ‘return to office’ frequency is up to each team to decide. These teams are still geographically close, but they are trending towards meeting in person based around major ceremonies, or simply when they need a mini break and a couple of evening beers.
When it might be valuable to meet up in person (and when you should question yourself)
Different teams will have different reasons for coming into the office. There is no one-size-fits-all; personal and professional circumstances will drive different preferences. That’s another reason for trusting your staff to make their own decisions on an ad-hoc basis. Teams need to work together to decide and agree on which activities provide genuine benefits that justify the cost, time and effort of meeting up in person.
High performing teams are created on the foundation of collaboration and shared context, building high levels of trust as they evolve. Choosing activities that support improving any of these principles is a good place to start when deciding what the guidelines should be for a day in the office. There are no right or wrong answers, however, here are some reasons that are worth considering:
To foster better relationships with work colleagues: building strong relationships is key to creating strong teams and anecdotally is one of the main reasons people want to return to the office. In a Leadership IQ survey, researchers found that relationships with work colleagues are far better when working in an office than when working from home, with 54% of respondents finding it either a little better or much better, compared to only 15% who say it is better working from home. Just coming together to socialise in order to build better relationships sounds like a worthy reason for jumping on that train.
For understanding context when starting a new project: starting a new project frequently involves a new domain, a new team and often a new company. With so much context to assimilate, and relationships to build, bringing people together and away from day-to-day distractions could be the most effective way to accelerate through Tuckman’s stages of group development.
To facilitate better contributions in meetings: it might feel logical that contributions in meetings would be better in person, however in the Leadership IQ survey, 56% say that contributions are “The same in both situations,” with an even split who say they are either much, or a little better working from home (23%), compared to 21% who say contributions are better when working in an office. When asked if meetings are more productive working from home or in an office the results were split evenly again, with one third saying better, one third saying ‘the same’ and one third saying they are worse. So before you rush in for that meeting, consider if it’s really the best use of your time.
Onboarding new starters: it’s traditional to give new employees an induction before they start work, typically to meet key people and understand systems and practices within your organisation. However, we should remember that lockdown didn’t prevent new contracts from starting, so it would be wise to consider what new best practices can be sustained now that we understand how to do it remotely.
To get creative juices flowing: in the same Leadership IQ study a significant group reported that they have experienced increased creativity when working from home, with 39% saying their creativity is a little or much better when working from home vs only 23% concluding that their creativity is impacted. Again, something which seems obvious at first glance might not be the case in every circumstance, so think hard about whether being together in the office will improve creative outcomes or not.
To foster team spirit: reports of loneliness and isolation have been well-documented during the various lockdowns, and there could be some value to scheduling in-office meetups to alleviate stress caused by remote working. But before you leap to a solution of regular office meetings it’s worth considering other methods of building team spirit remotely, as well as supporting your staff’s mental wellness in different ways. Virtual social activities, physical challenges like the EE walkathon, or group sessions for skills improvement can all contribute to feelings of belonging amongst your employees.
When communication across multiple teams is needed: although purely anecdotal, many of the remote teams I’ve worked with report less collaboration with teams outside of their immediate circles. With no real purpose for meeting and no – or limited – opportunities for chance encounters, some managers feel that the opportunity is lost to turn serendipitous conversations into meaningful communications. Identifying opportunities for cross-team encounters such as internal conferences could help teams share context and establish common ground.
How to make sure an as-needed approach to office working will drive results for your business
In essence, where we have policies that are based on office centric designs, performance will erode. Conversely, organisations that don’t cling to office-based practices and instead design policies around human behaviour will produce higher performing teams.
It would be wise to enter this new arena thoughtfully; there is a lot to learn, and we still need to experiment with return to work policies that focus on desired outcomes rather than historic practices.
The key to all this is going to be trust. If we as leaders provide the right framework, our staff will naturally make wiser decisions around ensuring that time in the office is time well spent.
- What is burnout?
- How does it manifest?
- Why is it important?
- And what can we do about it?
On 6 May 2020, Save the Children and Equal Experts co-hosted a remote-working workshop at the Global Digital Development Forum, an annual get-together focused on digital technology in social and economic development.
For the first time the forum was completely online, compacting a three-day conference into a single day. The 20 continuous hours, follow-the-sun event kicked off with the Asia Pacific, and finally closed with the Americas Pacific sessions.
Equal Experts has been working with Save the Children in Rwanda and Burundi since the end of March, helping them be a high-performing team while remote-working and in the most challenging of circumstances. We’ve had the privilege of witnessing their extraordinary work to deliver critical healthcare and child protection services, in refugee camps and other settings, and as they respond to devastating floods and landslides.
On the 22nd March, Rwanda became the first sub-Saharan African country to go into full lockdown. At the same time devastating floods created humanitarian crises in the region. Many international workers were forced to fly home and many NGOs went into hibernation, leaving many vulnerable people to fend for themselves.
Working from home is hard for everyone and the in-country team at Save the Children had never worked remotely before. On top of that, Save the Children needs to respond with urgency to the unfolding events happening on the ground.
I realised my colleagues at Equal Experts could help by sharing their remote-working experience and know-how.
Equal Experts has many, many collective years of experience of remote-working with high performing teams across hundreds of companies. We’ve been sharing that with the Save the Children team, to help them regain their effectiveness while under strict lockdown. We have learned a great deal from them, too, as much as they have from us.
Phoebe (Operations Director at Save) shared a story about connectivity and access to WiFi.
“In the total lockdown in our country, they were not ready to work from home—we were not prepared. Not everyone has internet connectivity or WiFi in our homes. So we used our phones using our internet bundles. One of my colleagues had to get access to the internet, by hanging his phone in a tree. At the office you have an IT person who is supporting you, but at home we do it ourselves.”
Save the Children invested in upgrading home IT, but challenges remain. The quality of internet connections is a common complaint.
Phoebe said “We relied on emails, which was not effective and productive in the new environment and situation. We would have to wait for someone to send an email when asking for information, and we wait for a long time to get the feedback from a colleague.”
It was not easy to access information. To get visibility of what colleagues were doing was not easy. So, it’s important for us to be creative and empathetic and keep the tools simple, acknowledging that not everyone has a good office set-up at home, and not everybody has flexibility.
We now have short calls a few times per week, reducing reliance on emails. The team has a shared understanding, and everybody has equal access to information. We’ve reduced the amount of time that people have to spend waiting for feedback, or writing reports and emailing—now you get immediate updates on a call.
To begin with, not everybody attended calls regularly. Making sure that everyone attends a short and regular team meeting, means we can work effectively and reduce time wasted due to miscommunication. People have many calls booked into their calendars and prioritising between them is a challenge that we continue to work on resolving.
We’ve reduced the amount of overall time on video calls to let people work in their own time. Remote team work is not just about video calls, it’s about a mix of collaboration tools that work under low bandwidth or patchy connectivity. Video platforms can fail gracefully to low resolution video, but often simple audio is all that works. That’s fine if we are flexible and go with what works for everyone.
A continuous process of learning is really important – to make sure we continue to adapt. Phoebe’s team is drawing up a Team Charter, so the team can stay on top of working together well.
We accept that stuff happens – WiFi gets patchy, or we speak while we are muted, which creates that awkward silence. Sometimes home life collides with work life. Everybody’s digital literacy is in a different place. We each try our best to be empathetic and help each other in an inclusive way, so that we can be a remote-by-default team where each person is on the same page.
The team is also thinking about how to be more social by dedicating some time to bringing that “lunchtime canteen experience” into the online world. So all that important chit-chat and some important work stuff get discussed, in a socially engaging way.
We are making a big shift, from being remote-friendly to remote-by-default. Remote-friendly says, “Let me continue doing my job as before, but now try to figure out how it fits into this remote world.” Remote-by-default means you completely redesign how you and your team work–designed around remote working, right from the start. There are lessons to be learned from designing for accessibility needs, and being inclusive by designing the experience around those at the edges – around the most excluded.
The Rwanda team – Francois, Marie Claire, Patrick, Paulin and Phoebe – have made incredible progress and are an effective, productive and impactful remote team. Even though lockdown restrictions have eased a little and some team members could be in the office, they have chosen to continue working in remote-by-default mode.
Remote-by-default enables teams to be resilient in the pandemic. It is also an opportunity to have an impact on a larger scale, and to make use of globally distributed expertise. All organisations are becoming much more carbon conscious and will travel less post-lockdown. So getting used to this way of working is an essential skill, despite IT and other challenges. Organisations will hugely benefit from adapting the way they work to make remote-by-default teamwork part of their playbook.
You can find the session details on the GDDF website. During the session we share some best practices from the Equal Experts remote-working-playbook.
We share some stories of how Equal Experts and Save the Children have worked together to increase everyone’s visibility of team activity, improve flexibility, and gain more control despite the challenges that everybody’s facing.
As we all settle into the #remotelife, many have asked the question, “How do we engage new team members and build new teams in a remote setting?”
Traditionally, an in-person get together (which now carries a hefty fine in most of our network countries), was the preferred method of getting a team to meet and greet.
With inspiration from some friends, I set off with my pack of Equal Experts IceBreaker cards. I’ve been a big fan of these cards, first published by Ber Flynn, and now in their third edition, from the first time I saw them.
I’ve always liked the combination of questions and activities and the format of the cards. I’m an avid board gamer and collector; it’s a hobby that has allowed me to get into game theory, gamification and game mechanics to the extent that I have produced my own games and mechanics.
Using my experience, the cards and the enthusiasm of a young Jack Russel, I embarked on a journey to translate these cards to a digital format and build an example Miro board. The intent is to showcase how the Equal Experts IceBreaker cards can be used in a digital setting for team building and formation activities.
The Board at a Glance:
This is what I came up with: A section containing all 54 cards from the IceBreaker deck, rebuilt in a digital format throwing out the poker suits and enlarging the font sizes for easier reading. To the right are four exercises that I put together with help from my fellow Equal Experts colleagues, Neha Datt and Gary Lamb. We refined and reworked the exercises until they came out looking like this (I did all the design work, so the layout is my doing):
PLOT 1 — Pick A Card:
How it works — The first “game,” or “plot” as I like to call it, is simple enough: The facilitator selects a single card, the team answers that card, and everyone has a good laugh about the answers.
What it does — The game prompts an entire group to focus on a single concept or question and then exposes their varied responses. The responses are a gold mine of information and insight into how people think and perceive information. This is a great, fun way to pose some questions and get a feel for the personalities in the “room”.
PLOT 2 — Draw What You Mean:
How it works — It’s pretty easy. Simply choose a card, slap it in the middle and give everyone 10 minutes to draw their responses to the card. Obviously, it’s a good idea to choose a card that can actually be drawn.
What it does — This exercise allows again for a singular focus but now engages a fuller extent of the brain, bringing motor control and image manipulation into the picture to express a logical (or not so logical) answer. This is a great warm-up exercise and allows for a great deal of observation and opportunity to engage with the team. Remember, the more parts of the brain that we engage, the more awake a brain is, and the easier it is to take that brain on a further journey into, for example, a discovery, inception or retrospective. It is super important that the facilitator draws as well, draws “poorly,” and owns it. This is easy for me. You might have to work on poor drawings yourself. Being part of the “I can’t draw” crowd and drawing anyway is a great bridge-building opportunity.
PLOT 3 — Pick Three And Play On:
How it works — The facilitator picks three cards, and the team answers each in turn, then discusses the answers.
What it does — The trick here is to choose three cards that reveal something about the team, such as a series of shared interests. This could be fears, hobbies, pet peeves, etc. — anything that could realise the shared interests of the team and provide a foundation for you to build on further.
PLOT 4 — My Name Is:
How it works — The team chooses a card they would like someone else to answer. Allow people to pair up. This can be done in a couple of ways. If you have eight people, let four choose and put down their cards, then let the other four choose and choose who they want to pair up with. Alternatively, you can use any random means of pairing. This exercise can be repeated several times to emulate a sort of speed dating for team members, changing pairs every five minutes or so for three cards. Breakout rooms in Zoom are a great way to allow people to talk to each other. Alternatively, it can become a spectator sport where teams take turns to answer while everyone else watches.
What it does — This is pure “face-to-face” interaction, but if done in the speed dating manner, it can let a bunch of people meet each other in a short amount of time. The cards serve as nothing more than a connection point among people, something people can focus on to take social awkwardness out of the equation.
You can find the board here:
I don’t have a paid account yet, so for now, you can look and copy the layouts. As soon as I can, I will transform this into a template that can be downloaded. Please also note that these plots are ideas. You can make your own, and if you do, please share it with the network, so we can build on this board and expand it with new ideas and toys for others to use and build.
Equal Experts IceBreaker cards can be found here:
Just download the set for yourself and have fun!
Equal Experts also has an online random IceBreaker generator here:
This works really well when you are just throwing stuff off the wall or interacting in a large group on a Zoom call.
With thanks to Gary Lamb, Neha Datt, Kathleen Collier and Marcel Britsch for reviewing boards, supplying cards and vetting ideas, y’all are ROCKSTARS in my book!
PS For those who are interested, we are busy finalising a print-and-play version of Equal Experts IceBreaker cards that we will likely make available on our website. We’ve found a company that will produce one of the card sets on demand if you want a “real set,” but this is still being finalised.
I’ve worked with lots of teams over the years where team members haven’t been colocated on the client site. In the early days, it started off working with the offshore team, where power and control inevitably lay with the home team.
More recently, with the rise of more effective home-working technologies and remote-first working practices, there has been a positive shift away from the mentality of offshore and home teams towards remote-first teams.
There is no single way to describe the difference between a remote and an offshore or nearshore team; the line is blurred. Just because someone works from home on a Friday doesn’t make a remote-first team, having some team members working from the Maldives doesn’t make an offshore team. So, here are my traits to help you identify and think about moving towards remote-first working.
Physical Virtual Location
Traditional models are bound to physical locations based around the office(s). Meeting format is based on the meeting room, often with a big TV setup so everyone can be seen, but no one can actually discuss, engage nor often hear. Worse still, it’s often just the leads in each location talking, “we discuss, the team listens”. Silos are naturally created around the collocated groups, which can make it very hard for common ground between cross-group team members to be achieved.
The remote-first team is virtually colocated, rather than physically colocated. While physical locations still exist, the default is to meet in the virtual world (e.g., Zoom, Slack etc.) to ensure everyone has the same access and involvement. If one person’s remote, everyone’s remote.
Remote Trait: It doesn’t matter how many physical locations exist. New locations are seamlessly added to the team.
Distribution of Skills
Traditional offshore models provided a monoculture of skills for the offshore team. For a development team, often the offshore team would have Developers (Devs) and Quality Assurances (QA) while roles such as Business Analyst (BA), Delivery lead (DL), User Experience (UX), and DevOps would only reside locally along with any local Devs and QAs. In contrast, a remote-first team has the skills where they are needed to ensure the right flow of work, in effect promoting a cross-functional team culture by enabling the teams to seamlessly interchange themselves when and where needed. This often results in BAs, DLs, and DevOps residing in the physically remote offshore group, so a whole team is aligned on timezone(s) rather than location(s). There may be some roles that are dependent on physical location (or time zone), and some aspects of user experience testing could be one such example. But on the whole, as long as the skills exist, roles can be distributed.
NB: Distribution of depth and breadth of experience (Experts) is as important as the distribution of role type.
Remote Trait: Skills located to ensure effective flow of work (both role type and depth of experience).
Flow of Information
We want to shift the communication from travelling through the on and offshore team leads, who then update the rest of the group, to multi-channel communication that provides the team real-time accurate context to perform their tasks. Full team, face-to-face meetings can still happen over tools like Zoom; with your video on, everyone can be seen. “Watercooler” moments can still happen with teammates over Slack, or when you are shooting the breeze before the meeting starts. Basically, people and information are (generally) accessible to the whole team and not channelled through individuals.
Team members have a definite responsibility to conduct their communications effectively and efficiently, even more so for remote-first teams. In effect, each team member is responsible for completing the feedback loops they start. For example, conversations that happen in private chats and affect other team members or their work need to be communicated back to them. We won’t always get it right, but being mindful of our responsibility goes a long way in making communication in the team efficient.
Remote Trait: Information flows freely between all team members regardless of physical location (or continent)
Level of Trust
Models bound to physical locations often create siloed ‘circles of trust.’ Within a location, a high level of trust exists, but because there are limited interactions across teams, inter-team trust can be low. As you increase the distance separating people, you decrease the amount of spontaneous, informal contact amongst the team, which reduces team interactions.
Trust is built over time through interaction; private moments between team members are required, and spaces need to be defined so that teammates feel comfortable speaking or contributing. Remote-first teams create an environment that allows for quality interaction. They reduce the friction required for connection, create private spaces so people can hold frank and open conversations and ensure that channels are clearly signposted so people can talk about relevant topics in the relevant place. These range from specific technical subjects to a place just for some water cooler chat, all of which help promote connections between co-workers.
If basic levels of trust are not present, there are fewer interactions and, therefore, even lower levels of trust. With the right levels of communication, you learn about your teammates’ personalities, assess their values (and how they fit with yours) and evaluate their capabilities and expertise.
Open, prompt and continual interactions allow you to gather evidence about other members’ credibility and trustworthiness. Remote-first teams take the extra effort and time to talk via video and keep constant communication via messaging. If you’ve gone through the whole day and have only spoken to your cat, then maybe you need to communicate with your team a bit more.
Remote Trait: Communication channels are designed to foster trust between individuals and teams.
Distribution of Decision Making
Distribution of decision making is highly dependent on the factors described above being in place. If you don’t have a flow of information, people can’t make informed decisions; if you are at a physical location rather than virtual, you will make decisions based on your silo; if you don’t have distributed skills, decision-making slows down because of time zones and availability. If you don’t have high levels of trust, you will discount important information when making a decision Empowering those who are closest to the problem and have been given the right information makes for higher quality and faster decision making and allows the team to shift from “do what I say” to “go solve this problem”.
Remote Trait: Decisions are made by the person with the best context and who is closest to the problem
Understanding Emotional States
This is the easiest thing to lose over the wire and is equally problematic with offshore and remote-first teams but can be approached differently in a remote-first minded organisation. For example, if the business owner is stressed because of important delivery milestones or feature deliveries, understanding and truly empathising is still easier when physically collocated. When and where possible, jump on the bike/car/train/plane so you can experience and really understand the situation and reset context. In many cases and especially when adopting a remote-first approach, you might not have the means to travel and come together. The emotional connection and experience can still be achieved without being physically in the same location and it all comes down to designing your communications well. Ensuring that people can grasp the gravity of a situation in terms they understand and contextualise is key to providing that emotional connection to a situation for remote-first teams.
There are many organisations in which this will be difficult to execute. Things to watch out for include:
- Strongly hierarchical organisations and individuals: prevents the flow of information and distribution of decision making
- Locked down/remote-unfriendly corporate systems: promotes isolation and creates friction in interactions between people
- Limited depth of expertise: inexperience in key roles can quickly revert the team back to a “traditional offshore” team
- Micro-management: strangles the decision-making processes into single-channel funnels
- Siloed teams: prevents the inter-team flow of information and reduces the levels of trust held between teams
To fully embrace the remote-first mindset in your organisation, what matters are traits and working practices used rather than where people are physically located. Address the traits above and start working remotely.
More on remote working can be found at https://remote-working.playbook.ee
The Digital Application Processing (DAP) team at Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) are building an innovative digital case management system that can process all UK passport applications. Equal Experts plays a leading role in the team, building iteratively with the goal of replacing an existing system as well as transforming HMPO operations. DAP has been managing live passport applications for almost two years – already having processed close to two million cases.
Since the start of the UK lockdown measures, the DAP team at HMPO have made the transition from remote-friendly to remote-first by adapting and leveraging existing infrastructure and practices already in place, as well as by demonstrating an innovative approach to problem solving.
How we have adapted
HMPO began by clearly articulating what is important. Starting with the highest priority first:
- Keep people safe – across the whole organisation
- Protect the live service – maintain the ability to process passport applications
- Covid-19 response – prioritise specific features that will ease limitations brought about by the crisis
- Keeping delivery on track
The DAP team has been operating a distributed team model between three main sites in London, Glasgow and Aldershot for a while now, so we already had good practices in place for facilitating effective communication and delivering value for our client at a distance. We’ve also been discovering that our people are finding new ways to approach problems, here’s what we’ve found helps…
We already knew we had amazing individuals in our teams, but in this time of crisis, where other priorities have to come above work, we’ve seen an overwhelming sense of positivity, flexibility and a willingness to make it work from all our people.
We asked our teams for examples of things they’ve done to help make working during a crisis easier, here are some of the things they said:
- Maintaining a routine is helpful – I’ve carried on setting an alarm, taking exercise at the same time each week day and continuing to put makeup on everyday
- Setting up a small office in my spare bedroom (working from the kitchen for the first week was a bit distracting on the snack front!)
- Taking 90 minutes off from Slack twice a day so I can focus on giving my child attention when he needs it
- Still eating breakfast at my breakfast meeting – I coordinate what I’m going to cook with my colleague and we have matching breakfasts from our houses
- Borrowed my mum’s spare TV to use as a monitor – that has made all the difference
- I scheduled daily hugs with my housemate, as I missed human contact!
We were initially unsure about being able to onboard new starters while fully remote – how do you make someone feel welcome and included from a distance? There are various activities that we typically take new starters through, which are far easier in person:
- Introducing people round the office, shaking hands etc
- Security assessments of any machines used for development
- Whiteboarding sessions to introduce various aspects of the project
In the weeks before lockdown measures came into force, we’d focused on hiring a lot of new people to form a new delivery team, and since we had put the hard work into finding the best people, we didn’t want to then delay their start dates with us, and risk losing them.
We started small with just one of our new starters and worked with HMPO Security group to create a fully remote security assessment process of machines being used. We got them onto Slack quickly and did welcome messages for them, encouraging everyone on the team to take the time to introduce themselves. We then did remote onboarding sessions and knowledge transfer, making sure to follow up with notes and diagrams afterwards, to aid in understanding. We asked for and offered frequent feedback for the team doing the remote onboarding as well as the person being onboarded to ensure we weren’t missing anything that we would usually have noticed if we were co-located.
Six team members have now joined DAP since we moved to fully remote: a content designer, three developers and two testers. Each new team member has fed back that they feel welcome and included, and are able to get on with meaningful work – adding huge value to HMPO.
Physically distant, socially connected
Like most teams, every now and then there will be social activities after work. Obviously this isn’t possible at the moment (for good reason), so we decided to try a DAP Virtual Happy Hour – every Friday at 4pm, people who want to, jump onto a video call and catch up on the week. It’s become something that we actively look forward to – and is a chance for people who don’t have conversations through the week to see each other, catch up, and we’ve even done a pub quiz on one of the calls. One of our colleagues has just had a baby, so we’re hoping to meet her at the next one!
If we were all in the office, we’d get social interactions with members of other teams as well as our own. We’ve been doing remote tea breaks with members of other teams – we’re finding it to be a good excuse to get up from the screen and put the kettle on, and while not a complete substitute, it gives us a chance to get some interaction outside of the colleagues we work with on a daily basis.
We’ve also started using a shared Spotify playlist – every day we pick a theme, and people add songs to the list. So far we’ve been using letters of the alphabet – we found that “P” generated the best mix of songs so far – we’re all dreading “X” a bit though! We also need to decide what to do once we reach the end of the alphabet – ideas on a postcard please!
With our primary focus on keeping people safe, we’ve been working on a project to enable HMPO Operational staff to work both remotely and securely. Our system is perfectly and uniquely positioned to provide this capability, and we are part way through the implementation plan now. This is preparatory work to aid HMPO during the recovery phase – when restrictions start to be lifted, and passport application numbers start to increase again.
The team continues to operate and monitor the live service, working with the business to regularly prioritise the roadmap and delivering high priority features at pace. With a reduction in users processing applications, monitoring has become easier to do – however, as the DAP service is used in four sites across the country, we were already well practiced at supporting users from a distance.
Our roadmap has evolved with the prioritisation of covid-related features. We’re tracking these by highlighting them on the roadmap, and by communicating the number of person-days being spent on these requirements. It’s not a perfect metric, but it gives us all a visual reminder of where our priorities are right now, and what the impact further down the road may be. These new features include:
- Increased automation through our system – reducing the human touchpoints in our system
- Additional security measures – in preparation for using the system remotely
- Removing team constraints from our service – allowing increased flexibility for our operational teams on who picks up what work
- Extending the withdrawal windows – we’ve increased the time on all applications in live as many people will be unable to complete their applications in the current circumstances
Really, really enjoying seeing these amazing outcomes – you continue to deliver no matter what’s thrown at you. Thank you!
Philippa Manley, HMPO Digital Services & Projects Director
I’ve been very impressed by the speed with which our teams found their new normal and proud that not a single person expected we would stop delivery.
Sarah Ravenhill, Digital Service Manager
The way the DAP team have adapted to distributed working has been remarkable. They have reacted to change with creativity and determination and the fact that they have continued to deliver the core DAP changes as well as reacting to Covid-19 support requests is testimony to the way they work together as a group.
Neil Carne, Portfolio Director
Authors: Beccy Stafford, John Connor, Nick Ashley, Plamen Balkanski, Seán Mundy
My household has set up a family charter to address the whole work/life balance problem during lockdown. I’d love to be able to tell you that we planned this from the start and that it was the first thing we did. But like most learnings, it came about from frustration and learning about what wasn’t working for our family.
To state the obvious, working remotely surrounded by your partner and family is a much different beast from the odd day working from home. Doing it amidst a global pandemic is even more stressful.
It became apparent to me after Day 2, when my wife and I had our third altercation. We really needed to set some ground rules so that we could survive working from home with a 4-year-old. We sat down and did a mini-retrospective on what was and wasn’t working for us and made sure we were much more explicit about the house rules.
I mean, if we recommend team charters, why not a family charter?
Note: The 4-year-old refused to sign off on this. He’s been placed in isolation until further notice.
What wasn’t working for us:
- Both of us sharing an office space and trying to be on calls/video conferences at the same time.
- Interrupting/being interrupted when trying to do “deep work”.
- Assuming the other person was available for general conversation when they actually weren’t
- Not knowing who had meetings scheduled, leading to schedule conflicts
- Everyone constantly asking, “Has anyone seen the 4-year-old recently?”
- Not connecting as a family and being present
So we took most of the basic concepts related to setting up a team charter and applied them at home.
Staying in sync:
Despite all being “co-located”, we were woefully out of sync. So the first step was to get a shared calendar up and make our individual schedules more transparent. You could do this with a shared online calendar, but a low-fi physical board would serve as a touchpoint and a way to start and plan the day together over a cup of coffee.
This also allowed us to plan child-care duties. We found that splitting the day into shifts worked better for us. Knowing that you had a morning or an afternoon shift meant you got more dedicated work time with less context switching.
It seems silly, but scheduling the housework also helped. So we now do that once every week, as a family. It also avoids someone randomly vacuuming in the middle of the day, when you’re on a call (don’t underestimate the powers of procrastination or nesting).
Making the work visible at home had the same benefits as at work! We were now able to see the system in all its ugliness and then optimise it.
Establishing distinct work/sanctuary zones:
This was really beneficial. It may seem easy to just plonk yourself and your laptop down on the couch, but we discovered some downsides to that:
- It’s not apparent to those around you whether you’re on Facebook and approachable or actually working and don’t want to be disturbed
- It takes away a sanctuary zone from other family members. So if they want to chill-out with an episode of Tiger King, they no longer feel like they can.
So we decided to also be explicit about where the “work-zones” were. If you were there, you were working. If you were not, you were fair game for general chit chat.
I mentioned earlier that my wife and I had a shared office. It was fine when we both did the odd day at home (and not at the same time), but it was clear we both needed our own space. Luckily, we have a covered outdoor deck, so I set up another workspace out there that either of us could use (Um, make sure this is properly waterproof if you try this). I can now BBQ and work at the same time!
We’re lucky that we have the space to do that, but the point is you probably need dedicated areas that are isolated from each other if you’re on the phone a lot.
Another thing that might seem silly is that you have to be more explicit about communication styles during this time. Quite a few of our early altercations were around being disturbed whilst trying to work, so having some ground rules in place for that helped greatly.
We tried not to disturb each other if one of us was in a work zone. If there was something we wanted to chat about, we’d message the other and follow up on it later that evening. I guess you could also put up a parking lot for discussion at dinner.
Having predefined signals is also useful. A closed door or having headphones on signifies to the family that you’re concentrating. Having a sign on the door that says when you expect to be done is a nice gesture.
There were a lot of posts on social media early into lockdown related to finding out new things about your partner.
Well, I discovered that my wife was a “pacer”. She can’t sit still when on a phone call and would aimlessly wander around the house. Needless to say – she now had an approved route.
Small things like tidying up after yourself also made a big difference. It’s one thing being a bit messy at home, but when the home is now your office, that clutter can impact your day-to-day productivity.
As a rule of thumb, just be consciously thoughtful about how your behaviour could potentially impact others. Sometimes we’re so comfortable with family that we don’t give them the same courtesy we do to our work colleagues.
Everyone has their own resilience rituals. It doesn’t really matter what they are as long as you have them and use them. Don’t wait until you’re too stressed to start.
- I make sure I meditate daily. For me, it lowers my anxiety levels so that I approach the day much calmer and not in an already heightened state.
- Digital downtime: Set up an end-of-day anchor where you stay away from work email and Slack.
- When I’m on social media, I’ve been trying to add some positivity and kindness into the echo chamber. There’s enough gloom out there.
- Get outdoors for some sunshine and fresh air.
- Be kind to yourself. These are challenging times. We’re all doing our best.
If you ever want to chat and have a virtual beer – let me know. I found a tremendous virtual background for Zoom. I’ll meet you at the pub.
If you want to learn more of the techniques we at Equal Experts use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this webinar.
Maintaining project velocity while leveraging a remote-first working model can be a difficult challenge. All too often, firms imply that “this tool” will be the panacea, when in fact, it is not a tool issue at all. When done right, distance-based development is a careful orchestration of talent.
Remote working is not new to many organizations, but remote-first or 100% remote is a new world for many given recent events. All of a sudden, we are faced with managing across multiple timezones and multiple business/personal schedules as our home and work lives merge.
In the fast-paced agile manner in which most of our teams and clients work, we have had the luxury of being able to reduce structure and planning. Now, in the extremely distanced context that we find ourselves in, we need to adapt without sacrificing too much speed or productivity.
Here are a few simple and practical tips some of our teams have learned over the years.
1 Pull Requests
In the context of a software development team, a pull request is the process of notifying others that your work is ready to be merged into a project or solution. It can act as an approval process where others review and comment on your work before accepting it.
Where an approver and a submitter work in different time zones, there is huge potential for context-switching that disrupts the flow of work. For example, if a developer submits a pull request early in their day but then has to wait several hours for it to be reviewed, the developer is forced to pick up the next story before having completed the current story. Then, when the first pull request is reviewed, the developer has to stop work on the current story and return to the previous one. This creates context-switching or multitasking, which is known to reduce productivity, especially during complex tasks such as software development. It also can lead to “work-in-progress” problems when a single developer has multiple “in-play” tasks at any one time, which is ideal from neither a productivity nor a flow point of view.
We have found that the following help to maintain velocity:
- We prefer to delegate authority to allow engineering teams in the same time zone (or on the same schedule) to request and approve pull requests rather than having a centralized client team handle all approvals. This might initially feel risky to our clients, given that knowledge of their systems needs to be learned, and trust often needs to be earned or developed over time. In this scenario with our New York-based client, we moved slowly towards the goal of having our engineering team in Portugal approve all pull requests. We allowed time for everyone to get comfortable with the approach, starting with low-risk requests only and maintaining exceptions for the most complex tasks where the client still owned approval.
- In addition, we have also employed “Pull Request schedules” to ensure that all pull requests are reviewed daily at a regular time. For example, with our New York-based client, we agreed to a timeslot that was in the morning in New York and in the afternoon for our Portugal-based team. Having a regular mutual schedule helps improve the flow of work, allowing team members to get into a rhythm or cadence, which helps to increase flow and reduce inefficiencies, such as context switching. It also helps to act as a reminder, avoiding situations where a pull request is missed or other work is unintentionally prioritized.
- It is often possible and preferable to remove the need for pull requests entirely. Once a team has formed a good working knowledge of the domain or product, with a predictable velocity and a high-trust culture, approvals become unnecessary.
2 Think Ahead
Applicable to any delivery is the risk of reduced productivity due to lost time, such as waiting for access or information. In a collocated, physical world this is still a common issue, but the cost in a remote-first world is even higher as multiple unaligned schedules or timezones exacerbate delays.
As a standard, we find it helps to publish everyone’s timezone or schedule and find mutual working hours if possible so that everyone has a chance to collaborate with one another. The key is to prioritize work that requires collaboration during mutual working hours, leaving other work to other times of the day.
This form of prioritization is the responsibility of all team members and is something we mandate as part of our process and culture.
To help it become part of the mindset with our New York client, we use a team charter to showcase that navigating multiple timezones and schedules is the responsibility of all team members. For example, as a developer, it is crucial to be aware of where you are in your current task and think of what you might need to complete it. With the knowledge of any future impediments or dependencies, our developers make requests for information or input in advance and arrange their schedules so they are available to collaborate during mutual working hours.
Although this sounds very logical, it is very easy for team members to focus on their current tasks and to miss opportunities to collaborate during mutual working hours, especially when such opportunities are very limited in duration (which is often the case with more distant timezones).
3 Technical Alignment
To help replace some of the communication opportunities that happen naturally when we collocate, we create a daily team routine that includes technical alignment meetings during the start of each relevant timezone or schedule.
The meeting is a combination of a typical agile standup and a parking lot style meeting. It provides the opportunity to address important technical topics or problems without interfering with daily standups or the immediate flow of work. It creates a space where engineers and testers can share technical insights and make technical decisions together. This crucial sharing of knowledge and ideas can be easily lost when there are only structured or time-sensitive meetings arranged. With our New York-based client and Portugal-based engineering team, it really helped to increase productivity through more collaborative and better decision-making, which resulted in fewer mistakes and less rework and technical debt.
These are just a few of our tips to help improve productivity when working remotely, but for more ideas, check out our remote working playbook
If you want to learn more of the techniques we use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this webinar.
At Equal Experts we’ve been running a series of remote-working webinars for our teams and clients where we share tips and practices to help teams make the shift from remote-friendly mindset to remote-first. The webinars were built around the remote working playbook that we shared last year and have subsequently been enhanced to include many additional hints and tips provided by the teams as we’ve been running the webinars.
Here are some of our favourite tips to help you as you get started.
Create a “remote-working” team charter
Remember when you were onboarded at your work and were taken around the physical office? Now you’re working in a virtual office, be intentional about onboarding your team into your new virtual office.
Discuss how your team plans to work together. Design your virtual office – from the tools you’ll use to how you’ll communicate and what core working hours you’ll all share.
What’s obvious to one person isn’t obvious to everyone else, so be explicit about how you want to work as a virtual team in a virtual office.
Check out our template to set up your team’s remote-working team charter.
Balancing work, social and home life
Do you want to have a strict start/end time for work, or integrate work and home life throughout the day?
Setting up anchors ⚓️ throughout your day 🗓 will help you balance the time spent on work vs socialising vs personal commitments.
As an example, you could set up calendar reminders at the start/end of the day to manage your work hours, add a break time to stretch your legs, book in virtual coffee sessions with colleagues, and block out time for helping the family. Do remember to tell your team when you are not available.
Don’t replicate all physical meetings with video calls
While regular video calls are important to connect with the team and discuss important topics, they can also be inefficient and draining.
Experiment with “asynchronous” meetings to reduce unnecessary video calls. As an example, you can set up a meeting agenda on a virtual whiteboard, get the team to do their preparation work by themselves, and then have a call to discuss the points everyone has added. This gives people more time to think and clarify upfront, which reduces circular conversations during the video call.
Some teams do a great job of treating meetings like “design sprints” which end up removing circular conversations, resulting in faster decisions and better focus in teams. But be prepared as this requires careful facilitation.
Setup the right (collaboration) tools
Just because you use Microsoft Word doesn’t mean this is the right collaboration tool for writing documents for remote working. Select the tools you use as a team based on how good they are at collaborative working rather than historical norms.
Where more than one person is adding information, your chosen tools should allow multiple people to participate by adding and editing simultaneously. These tools should be easy to access and may also have useful features like letting you comment, vote, share and export.
At a minimum, you need to consider the right tools for making video calls, messaging, writing on virtual whiteboards, managing tasks, sharing content and writing documents. We use zoom (video), slack (messaging), miro (whiteboard), Trello or Jira (task management), Google Drive or Confluence (content sharing), and Google Docs (documents).
Remove ambiguity when you communicate, be specific
Working remotely means we lose a lot of visibility around what colleagues are thinking, how they’re reacting, and whether we have clearly explained ourselves.
Here are some examples of how our teams follow online etiquette to over-communicate and create clarity:
- Say hi to the team on Slack with a 👋
- Change your status on Slack so people know you’re busy but will be back (⛔️I’m in the zone, back at 3pm)
- Leave the day with a 👋on Slack and a message about tomorrow (👋 See you tomorrow – I’ll be in at 10am – as I have childcare duties)
Given we would communicate these things to colleagues in the physical office, why shouldn’t we in our virtual office?
Another aspect of communicating is to “actively listen”. Ask clarifying questions and challenge colleagues to be more specific. Making assumptions in a virtual office creates even more confusion than when we’re sitting next to each other.
Instead of “it’ll take me longer to write this draft document”, try saying “this will take 4hrs longer, so I’ll finish by 2 pm. I’ll drop you a line when I’m done so you can check this and confirm it makes sense.”
Interested in more tips?
We are sharing our learning with a series of public webinars so if you are after some insights on how to build high-performing remote-first teams please contact email@example.com for details of the sessions or watch this video of a recent webinar