IceBreaking Remotely: Tooling Up For The Formation of Remote Teams
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.
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.
In December of 2019, Equal Experts started working with ListSure, a Fintech based in Sydney, Australia. They had an incumbent technology partner but had not been able to release new features to market for over six months.
For a variety of reasons, including office limitations, access to the right talent and providing a cost-effective solution, this client engagement was established from the start with a remote-first mindset.
In our case study we discuss some of the things we did to set this up for success, including running a remote discovery through to a system migration, all whilst team members were scattered across the globe.
Most importantly, beyond the tools and techniques, perhaps the most essential ingredient to making this work was by taking a genuine partnership approach.
“Equal Experts have a spirit of partnership in their DNA. Fundamentally, it’s not business to business – it’s human to human, regardless of where they are located.” – Brad Melman, CEO
For more tips on remote working, please check out our Remote-Working Playbook