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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for details of the sessions or watch this video of a recent webinar
Last week, John Lewis & Partners announced the effective closure of their head office in Victoria, which means that a lot of staff have had to adjust to working from home.
Our experience has been that John Lewis & Partners has taken to the new remote model extremely well. For one team, the change has had a positive impact on their ability to deliver. In the first week of the change, they almost doubled their throughput and performed more releases to customers than in any other given week in the last five months.
This team considers collaboration to be their superpower. They continue feeding and watering their team spirit in the new context. There is no single correct way to do this, but here are some of the experiments the teams are trying.
Running a perpetual mass Hangouts to mimic a live office environment where you can hear each other working. Back in the office, you would be able to simply turn around to a colleague and say, “Can I chat with you for two minutes about X, Y or Z?” and that’d be fine. Not only that, but due to collocation, others could eavesdrop on the conversation even if they were not directly involved. The team has emulated that by occasionally having meets on Hangouts and keeping Hangouts always on. This helps the team feel in touch with each other, and conversations can spontaneously spring up. Even though these meetings don’t necessarily involve everyone, team members still benefit from being able to listen in.
Time is set aside each day to do some form of meditation or mindfulness exercise. This is not a group activity, but team members do this at the same time each day. By synchronising these activities, the opportunities for collaborative working are maximised. The effect of taking this time is really felt. Afterwards, team members are all very much more relaxed and able to focus.
As part of this transition, we hosted a number of webinars to share good practices for a team working fully remote. Most of the John Lewis & Partners teams that we work with were already set up to enable home working. However, moving from a few people occasionally working remotely to everyone working remotely all the time is not a trivial transition. Our webinars are designed for teams that are already comfortable with working remotely. We share tips and practices that will really help them gel and perform in a remote-first environment.
For example if you want to learn some of the techniques we use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this webinar.
Part of our mission working with John Lewis & Partners is to enable their Partners. This means that our consultants transfer the necessary skills and knowledge to the Partners so they can continue to develop new digital services and products for their customers.
At Equal Experts, we have been building a remote-first mindset for years and have engaged in a number of fully remote deliveries. That’s why we published and open-sourced our remote delivery playbook earlier this year.
As reality kicks in and changes our world, remote working becomes the interaction of choice for many organisations. We believe that successful organisations look beyond remote meetings but enable their talent by allowing for all types of interactions to happen remotely.
Most recently, we have seen an increased need to run collaborative workshops as well as interviews remotely. And we think we are doing this well. So we want to share our experiences and learnings.
In this post, we’ll be sharing the challenges we find, and approaches we take when running remote interviews. This builds on our remote working playbook, which contains hints and tips for running a remote team in general.
One remote – all remote
We follow the paradigm that if one person is remote, everyone is remote. This means that even if two out of the three people are in the same physical location, behave as if you are remote. Open your own laptop, and turn on your video. This creates the best overall experience. This provides a more inclusive environment for those who are remote and levels the playing field for all participants, especially in interviews.
In fact, candidates have given us feedback that suggests that they prefer the “all remote” scenario as it makes for better interactions and more natural communication (compared to a ‘half-way house’).
Remember, as we will be working remotely more frequently, be this with colleagues or with clients, a remote interview can be a good indication of a candidate’s ability to work in this manner.
How we interview
For non-coding roles, the interviews consist of open conversations and case studies. For the case study, the candidate and their interviewers play through the scenario collaboratively, and most candidates will want to draw or otherwise visualise their ideas.
This means that we not only want to hear and see each other, but share drawings and visualisations remotely and allow collaboratively exploring and changing these.
Tools we use
Communication and screen sharing – Zoom
Use a high-quality and easily accessible communication tool, and we’ve found Zoom currently has the best quality. Ensure you have high-quality headphones with a good boom microphone.
General visual idea sharing and collaboration – G Suite or Miro
Use an easy-to-use real-time collaboration tool (or any other reasonable tool the candidate may suggest). Candidates in the past have successfully scribbled on paper or a wall and pointed the camera. It is not ideal, but it works.
Make it easy for the candidate
- Share the conference details well in advance.
- Manage candidate expectations: Make the candidate aware of the need for good connectivity and conducive set-up and surroundings. Explain how the interview will unfold and what the various remote tools will be used for.
- Test the technology: Provide guidelines for the candidate to test their set-up beforehand and familiarise themselves with the collaboration tool. We have seen interviews get cancelled because one party couldn’t get their audio to work.
- Provide exercise materials: Share case study-based exercises either a day before for the candidate to have a quick read or at the start of the interview, and then allow the candidate some prep time as part of the interview.
- Put your candidate at ease: Interviewing is hard; remote interviewing is harder. Be mindful of the stress a candidate is under. Put them at ease and cut them some slack. Form a connection, similarly to as you normally would.
- Pre-meet to align with your co-interviewer: As we always co-interview, briefly meet your interview partner prior to an interview to align procedures and tools.
- Kick off earlier: Connect with your co-interviewer at least 15 minutes prior to the actual interview to ensure you are set up. The remote call should be “live” when the candidate joins.
- Get your set-up right: Find a quiet and low-echo space. Make sure that everyone can see and hear each other and that any scribbles (digital or otherwise) can be seen and read by everyone.
- Have a headset: Make sure your headphone and microphone work well. We prefer this over conference call speakers.
Run it well
- Introduce yourselves: With remote interviews, it is easy to “jump into it”. Don’t forget to introduce yourselves, explain what’s going to happen, and make a bit of chit-chat to lighten the mood. This is even more important should only one person be remote.
- Preparation time: Stay online during the time we give to the candidate to prep, so the candidate has a feedback line in case they need support. You may wish to turn off your video and mute your microphone.
- Keep time: Set clear expectations with all parties in regards to timekeeping, especially if you go mute or offline during preparation time.
- Bad connectivity: Do introductions via video, then turn the video off.
- No Audio: Have a fallback solution if the candidate cannot get their audio to work (it has happened before)
We hope you found this information useful and are able to put it to good use. And as mentioned above, feel free to check out our remote working playbook which is full of further suggestions. If you would like a short consultation on running remote workshops or want help and advice about running remote teams, get in touch with us at email@example.com
If you want to learn some of the techniques we use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this webinar.
We have been running increasingly more workshops remotely – from pre-mortems and retrospectives to inceptions and design sprints. We have found (so far!) that all workshop activities can be effectively run with a remote, distributed team. All we need to do is adjust how we design and run a remote-first approach.
This is critical because co-located teams think with their environment (this is called distributed cognition), and working remotely disrupts a team’s environment. In a remote setup, teams are no longer able to read subtle social cues as easily, can miss nuances in discussions and can struggle to leverage their colleagues’ energy levels to stay motivated and focused.
As a consequence of these factors, we need to adjust activities and amplify how and what we communicate in remote workshops. Creating a virtual environment for collaboration becomes critical.
In this blog, we’ll be sharing some specific challenges and approaches we take to running remote workshops. This builds on our remote working playbook which contains hints and tips for running a remote team.
If you want to learn some of the techniques we use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this webinar.
When running a remote workshop, the facilitator’s role changes. There is more emphasis on the pre-workshop preparation when compared to physically co-located workshops. On the flip side, there is less to write up at the end as the team creates the digital boards, diagrams and maps throughout the workshop.
We recommend having one facilitator (rather than multiple), as we have found that with two people tag-teaming, it is harder to pick up on some of the visual clues to stop, start and hand over the conversation. You can still have other people lead sessions, but overall we recommend one facilitator.
Set up the space
One of the biggest enablers for a remote workshop is to have an effective virtual space that replaces the usual walls/whiteboards we use in person.
We tend to use www.miro.com as it offers a large canvas to work on, and it is built for collaboration. It also has very low friction for inviting participants to collaborate.
- On a single canvas, create a different section on the board for each activity you are planning to run. For example, if you were running an inception, you might include a section for Vision and Goals and a separate section for the Business Model Canvas.
- Label each section clearly and provide a description of the objectives of the activity and detailed instructions on how to complete the activity. If the section has a template, add this in as well, e.g., Business Model Canvas. Add these in order of the agenda so that there is a clear flow across the canvas, e.g., left to right.
- Add sections for capturing questions and ideas like a Parking Lot or somewhere to capture risks and issues as they are raised.
- Add the running sheet (agenda) down the left-hand side with a clear narrative on why these activities have been included.
Setting this up will make it easier for participants to understand the context as they go and has the added benefit of being set up beforehand, allowing people to work ahead of time and think about how they’ll contribute to the board. People will often start filling things in before the session starts (which is useful for certain activities).
Split the sessions
It is often much harder to stay focused and process what’s happening in remote workshops than in person.
Therefore, instead of running a single long workshop, look to break it up into smaller chunks. For example, if the workshop takes four hours when co-located, split this down into two one-hour sessions on the same day (morning then afternoon) followed by one two-hour session the next day.
With a split session, leave five minutes at the end to wrap up and prepare as a team for the next session. The facilitator needs to be explicit about when the next session starts and what is on the agenda as it’s harder to maintain momentum with split sessions.
Another activity which is harder to do remotely is to have breakout sessions; however, some tools (like Zoom) have a great breakout feature. Make sure you assign people to groups before the workshop as it’s pretty chaotic trying to get teams to form over a video conference.
Before the workshop
- Prepare the board and create the visual narrative of the overall workshop. Then provide access to the participants!
- Get everyone to test their access to the virtual tools before the meeting starts, e.g., the virtual board (above), video conference tool and task management tool (if you are using one). We often get teams to join the call five minutes early to make sure we can start on time.
During the workshop
- As a participant, to avoid distractions, take yourself away from your day job. Turn off notifications on your devices and consider removing yourself physically from your usual environment (e.g., find a private room or work from home).
- Make sure people attend on time as it’s hard to get people up to speed.
- Although it feels counter-intuitive, using the 1-remote-all-remote rule equalises the power imbalances we often see in remote-friendly teams. An alternative approach is to have one facilitator in each room of attendees however this approach has different challenges e.g., requiring the facilitators to have an ongoing private conversation throughout the workshop.
- Enforce basic remote-first working etiquette: mute by default, turn the video on etc . . .
- Focus on being efficient with the digital board: rather than raising duplicate post-its, either enhance or upvote an existing post-it.
After the workshop
- Get individual team members to playback directly to their stakeholder groups using digital boards, maps, and documents that were created during the workshop. No need to wait for a playback deck!
Challenges of running a remote workshop
- The biggest challenges are often around working with people who are not used to working together remotely. If needed, take regular timeouts to remind the team about remote working etiquette and agree to some practices as a team. Explaining the rationale behind practices and activities, and allowing time for the team to familiarise themselves with the online tools has generally resulted in greater buy-in, in our experience.
- It can be harder to know whether the attendees have understood and internalised discussions, therefore regularly stress-testing the team’s collective buyin and understanding is very helpful. We achieve this by updating the digital board and asking open questions to confirm we are aligned.
- Some find it hard because they like to talk (read: ramble), and there is less tolerance for this in remote sessions. Acknowledge this and allow for break-out sessions or “discussion time” between workshop sessions.
- Secondary objectives, such as building trust and bonding as a team, are more difficult to achieve during these sessions. Acknowledge this upfront and optionally plan the time for remote-friendly ice-breakers and trust-building exercises.
- Given it is harder to have casual “side conversations”, set up an open and/or anonymous chat channel so attendees can raise thoughts and concerns as they are going through workshop sessions.
If you would like a short consultation on running remote workshops or want help and advice about running remote teams get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This remote working playbook takes learnings from a variety of EE consultants who have spent time working remotely with a view to help our network collaborate more effectively and provide ways to improve the distributed work experience.
How it can help you
At Equal Experts, we are passionate that teams are empowered to succeed and deliver value no matter where they are located. Over the years our teams have covered the full spectrum from fully co-located, teams with work-from-home-Fridays, teams with multiple locations spread across geographies and different timezones to fully distributed teams.
As the friction created by remote working rapidly dissipates and as the generation of workers who have grown-up playing on-line enter the workforce, remote working will become an increasingly important part of our working life. With the right tools, practices and mindset, the once significant advantages provided by co-located working can be reduced to a point where remote teams should be a strong consideration when forming your next team.
Effective distributed working requires more than huddling around a big screen once a day or communicating via Jira ticket. We want this playbook to be practical and help teams establish useful tools, process and working patterns for remote working. We have included a healthy dose of practical tips and learnings as well as some recommendations for technical tools.
Technology is changing very fast, and while we have focused on giving practical advice, we have also shared some of the underlying principles that allow remote teams to be successful.
How to use it
Feel free to skip through some of the more theoretical sections as it is more musing about why, rather than practical advice on how. The Team Charter section provides a tool to help team alignment and set expectations. In this section, we give hints on working day etiquette, working across timezones, some important considerations when running video calls and thoughts that extend Slack beyond /giphy for communicating in a remote-working setting. Some of these suggestions may appear obvious, but applying them consistently makes a big difference when working in a remote setting.
We hope you find this and our other playbooks useful. If you’ve used it to help your remote team work more effectively or have feedback of any flavour, we’d love to hear from you. We offer a range of services, and of course, we’re pretty good at delivering software.
Finally, if you want to learn some of the techniques we use to build high-performing remote-first teams watch this recent webinar.