As many of us accept the new reality, hair increasingly wild, and perhaps having embraced a pandemic wardrobe (daytime pajamas are a legit work outfit now), there’s no return to the office in sight for those of us who can work remotely. It’s time to consider some of the ways in which our teams are not working as well as they could be – or did – and how to address them.
My work BFF Eli and I both work at fully distributed companies, she’s Head of Apps at Automattic and I am now an Engineering Director at DuckDuckGo. So, we got together to talk about 5 areas that can be challenging with remote work, and some action items that can help you improve them.
Recompile your Rituals
Every team has rituals, even if they aren’t documented. Standups, sprint planning, weekly meetings.
Eli’s team runs a two week release cycle and a lot of rituals are tied around it. For example, sprints are aligned to finish just before a code freeze. The work of an almost sixty people team is summarized each month in a recap post, with a mini retrospective for each team. Along that they share key numbers, like monthly usage, stickiness etc. Another important team ritual is a monthly “snaps” post, where everyone comments on at least one thing they are glad to have done, one thing someone inside the team did that they are thankful for, and one thing someone outside the team did that they appreciated.
Rituals create a sense of cadence, progress, and connection. Being reliable and consistent in your rituals can be very stabilizing for a team – especially when the world around them is chaos. When we consider the rituals on Eli’s team, they happen at different levels and frequencies, but also hit different aspects of a well functioning team. The release cycle rituals are about delivery, the monthly recap and summary is about strategy, and the snaps are about connection and appreciation in the teams.
Don’t let this move to remote turn your team rituals upside down; instead use this opportunity to improve what’s helpful, get rid of what isn’t adding value, and add what’s been missing.
- Consider how you mark launches or releases. Are you still celebrating?
- In an office there are a lot of implicit expectations. Take for example standups, if your team used to do a daily standup at 10am, everyone was expected to be at the office at that time, even without no one actually saying so. As you move to async standups, by when are people required to do theirs? Is there a time they are expected to be online?
Meta: Make a list of your rituals and for each one:
- Clearly articulate the purpose. What is the ritual meant to achieve?
- Ask yourself and the team if that purpose is needed. If not, you’re done with that ritual (and there’s probably no need to continue once you are back in the office either).
- Take the time to consider how best to fulfil the purpose of that ritual given your current constraints.
Once you’ve done the meta audit, it’s worth documenting it. It can be helpful to have a team handbook or operations manual, ideally one created collaboratively with the team. This should outline all the team rituals, their cadence, purpose, and a couple of good examples for each. Norms are much harder to transmit in a distributed context, so it’s all the more important to communicate them explicitly, and this can be really helpful with onboarding.
Rearchitect your Communication
In person cultures are often overly reliant on meetings to transmit information. In a remote context, however, written communication works better. Engineering directors in colocated companies spend most of their time in meetings; Eli and I spend a lot of our time reading. There are no status updates meetings, and given limited timezone overlaps everything that can be async is in text to make the most effective use of synchronous time together. You’ll be surprised how much written content is generated once you make the switch to default to written communication.
When we hold meetings we have to multiply the time spent on that meeting by the number of attendees and be conscious about whether that’s the best use of the team’s time. While in person meetings help with team bonding, that benefit is greatly reduced in a remote setting. In a distributed context, timezones can really force this issue, but it’s worth thinking about even when timezones are not a problem.
When thinking about written communication it’s important to remember that silence is not agreement. It’s much easier for people to skip commenting on something they disagree with than it is to stay silent in a meeting when they are explicitly asked for their opinion and commitment to the plan. Make sure you follow up with key people to hear their thoughts about what you’ve published, and also ask, when it makes sense, why they have not shared their opinions publicly in the first place.
As Eli moved into management, she started writing more and more, but as an ESL (english as a second language) person this has been particularly hard. One of the best examples was her first outreach email. She sent it to me, and I responded: “Eli, this is a commit message, not an email!” Of course, I also helped rewrite it, and we continue to give each other feedback on all our early drafts.
Skewing toward communicating in writing sets a standard for transparency—a lot more people can be expected to read a document than can usefully (or even possibly) attend a meeting. It also makes it much easier for people to refer back to decisions after the fact. When people’s schedules are unpredictable or when working over multiple timezones, it’s easier to carve out time to focus on reading than a set meeting time. The written form is also more persistent. This helps with onboarding, but also if someone is away for a longer period, especially if that is unexpected. Finally, it’s harder for people to focus on video, and there are more distractions. There’s no concept of a “no laptop” meeting when everyone is calling in from their computer.
- Make sure to set clear expectations around meetings: for which ones is the attendance mandatory, and which ones are optional? It’s more important than before to mark on the calendar if you are planning to attend a meeting or not, to avoid people trying to rope in missing attendees through messaging at the beginning of the meeting.
- Have a clear agenda, filled out 24 hours in advance, with links to pre-reading materials. This will make the meeting shorter, and people can start discussing the topic at hand before Zoom fatigue settles in.
- You and your team may not be used to communicating as much in writing. It takes practice and feedback to improve, and can be something you need to coach people on.
- Ask someone to read your drafts before you share them, and offer that to other people.
Meta: Start by reviewing all your communication. Take a pass through your calendar, and look through and see meetings you’ve attended and also what documents you have created (or updated) over the course of the previous month. This is also a good time to rethink if everything that was a meeting should continue to be so.
With everything ask:
- Can this be text based?
- Can this be asynchronous?
- Can this be public (and how public)?
Reset your expectations
In an office, everyone had their work space and working habits. Now, you have no idea what kind of environment people are in. The office was an even field: when everyone arrived, they had their desk, their computer, and at least eight hours during which it was a clear expectation that their top priority was work. Now at least a few people on your team are sharing their space with their family, their partners may need to take calls, and other family members might need attention. The lack of childcare can result in distractions and curtailed work hours. They may also not have a quiet or ergonomic space to work.
Even in our workplaces, both fully distributed companies from the start, we saw the impact that this is having on productivity and emotional well-being. People have struggled to adjust their schedule, we’ve had more people take mental health days, and take time off to support primary caregivers that became exhausted.
Some people have had six months – or more – of little to no human contact, which can have horrible effects on people’s mental health. It’s hard to know what you can expect from people and when you can expect it, and people may be struggling with what they can expect from themselves. As things evolve, it’s helpful to reset and start defining in the current situation, what people can commit to and how you will communicate that.
One of the biggest problems with remote work is how easy it is for people to disappear. Then, the team stops expecting anything from them, and it can be hard to re-integrate. Rebuilding your expectations and how they get communicated is key to building some healthy accountability amidst the chaos. One company has people mark their calendars red (away), orange (somewhat available but likely to be distracted) and green (focused work time). Others have adjusted their time off policy, which is particularly important for parents. Some people may start working at night, because that’s the only time they have enough quiet time in their house to stay focused. What will be the business impact, if any, of this switch? And that’s where some of the adjustments we talked about with respect to communication can be really important. Are other team members aware that they haven’t disappeared, but are just on a different schedule?
- In a distributed environment it is harder and slower to learn by example. It may be handy to come up with team member expectations outlining best behavior at a company level, but also at a team level.
- Everyone’s schedules have been turned upside down, so be explicit about checking if people can keep up with their current responsibilities. While before, having a single person in a team in charge of one task was enough, this may not be the case right now. Use the opportunity to document single points of failures and have a backup plan.
- Focused periods may be reduced; is there any way you can adjust the way your team works to our new environment? It may be worth adjusting your task granularity.
- If you don’t know what’s going on with someone, you should ask them. This will help you give fairer and more timely feedback.
- Think about everyone on your team, how are they coping right now? Is there anyone you need to make a point to check in on?
- Pay attention to the way people talk about each other, does it seem like there’s anyone the team is finding is harder to rely on now?
Rebuild your warnings
There are so many visual cues in person. You can see when someone is struggling and offer them help, notice that someone seems disengaged and make a point to really check in. In a remote context it’s easy to take “I’m fine” at face value and be surprised down the line. You need to figure out your early warning signs, and set up explicit mechanisms and expectations.
This goes both ways. People will also make assumptions about you – that you’re busy, that you’re more annoyed than you are. Be explicit — just saying that you have time for people won’t cut it. You have to show it, by scheduling and by checking in. If something gets escalated to you, be transparent about why that is and how you’re handling it.
Eli was once asked in an interview, if she could wave a magic wand, what’s one thing she would change at Automattic. Her answer was getting people to ask for help after spending one hour investigating a problem. This was probably the biggest surprise to her working remotely. People hesitate about interrupting somebody else when they can’t figure something out. They think you are too busy, dealing with more important things. They can’t really see you are on a coffee break, and as managers we often fail to mention, repeatedly, that it is a core part of our job to make sure that our people are unblocked.
For instance, asking for help is always a useful skill, in a remote context it’s crucial that someone asks, because if they need help but don’t say it, they may never get it. This means communicating that it’s expected to ask for help, encouraging people to offer help, and creating a supportive environment where people aren’t judged for needing help or asking questions. It’s so easy for quieter, or “glue” work to go unnoticed in any context, but particularly a remote one. Consider what you’re missing in this new context, and think about how you might address it. When something surprises you, ask yourself what you missed. Is there anything that could have caused you to notice sooner? This is also where team rituals, like the snaps post that Eli’s team does, can help surface the ways that people are helping each other.
Needing to “keep things on track” is where a lot of companies go wrong and try to increase control over their employees. The reality is, it shouldn’t matter to you how long people are online as long as they are getting what they need to do done, and are present with their team members. You should be able to evaluate people on what they produce, not how and when they do it. Is the work this person is doing contributing to your long term goals? Are they not only improving themselves, but improving the team they work with? While you would see them pairing at the office, they can now be spending a lot of time quietly mentoring a more junior member of the team, and you want to make sure that you know and recognize the impact of that work.
- Asking people how they feel in daily standups, even if it’s just an emoji answer, can be really revealing.
- Restructure your 1:1s differently with some specific questions. In an office there were plenty of opportunities for people to share they were struggling, in a remote environment you have to create them. I like to make space at the start of every 1:1 for an emotional check in, and regularly text chat people throughout the week to ask how they are.
- It’s also important to give credit. If you reached out to five people to reach a conclusion that you then published, give them credit! Otherwise it is easy for people to assume that you’ve done the work alone, and that they should be able to perform at the same level, too.
- Be explicit about why you are getting involved, remember they can’t see your face! As a manager, if you are getting unusually involved in a project, when colocated it’s easier to discern why this is happening. In a distributed environment it might be less clear, as people can’t constantly see your face and read your emotions. Be explicit about your reasons: is the project something you are passionate about? Are you afraid balls will be dropped or are you having a hard time letting go? Or were mistakes already made and are you in damage control mode?
- Review your current set of projects – how are things going?
- Make a list of things that are worrying you, and make space to work through the risks rationally and without interruption – maybe with a trusted person like a coach, or peer.
- When something surprises you, make a note of it. Once you have a few examples, consider how they came about, and whether there were warning signs you missed or need to set up. Are there any trends?
Reconnect your team
How cohesive is your team? Likely some camaraderie is carrying over from the office, but how will you navigate change? What about the addition of new people or the inevitable reorg?
When Eli joined Automattic, it wasn’t after her first in person meetup that she truly felt part of the team. Also, as the team grew, even before COVID they couldn’t just have a meetup for every new person, so they had to come up with mechanisms to make them feel part of the team without that time together in person. Some of that has been remote pairing sessions, experimenting with different styles for townhalls: ask anyone anything, show and tell, guests from around the company.
Other examples of social connection things Automattic has rolled out are happy hour, launch parties (where people get on a Zoom together to watch a rocket launch), remote conference watching parties, exploding kittens app, video game parties, tod mess (kids Zoom with each other and play I spy with the help of their parents).
You will no longer have spontaneous social gatherings like lunch or happy hour, so you need to make sure to create instances where people get to know each other on a personal level. Effective teams really trust each other, but trust develops much faster when people get to share a physical space and chat about their lives and interests. Remote companies have relied on meetups to fill this gap but that’s off the table now too.
It’s also very easy to notice when someone is not engaged in a meeting when people are in the same room, or when there’s a thought in their mind that they are not sharing. Zoom meetings can be great for a lot of things, but this is not where they shine. Make sure to give everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts. Try to identify people that were not engaged during the meeting, and reach out afterwards for a debrief. One thing that I feel very strongly about, is that on a small call everyone needs to speak. It takes effort and intention to moderate calls in this way, but I’ve found it to be worthwhile.
- Have people schedule peer 1:1s, in particular new hires. This can be automated via a tool like Donut.
- In the office, people would inevitably share on Fridays what their plans are for the weekend, and on Mondays they would talk about all the fun stuff they did. You can add an automated prompt on your team messaging channel to have people share some of the highlights of their weekend.
- Have calls with only two rules: no talk of COVID, no talk of work.
- Talk to your team in 1:1s about building connections in a distributed way, is there anything that has been working for them personally, or that you’re not aware of?
- On my team, we run “experiments”. Anyone can propose an idea, we discuss it and agree how to try it, then after some period of time either kill, adjust or keep it.
The new normal may still feel far from normal, but with some time, patience, and intention, work – at least – can get back to some semblance of that, even if we are still not physically together. We hope these ideas help, and encourage you to share the things that have helped you and your teams in the comments, or on Twitter.
Thanks to Eli for writing this with me, and Bas for editing.
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[…] where we talked about async communication, team experiments, and the post Eli and I wrote about hotfixes for your newly remote team. I’ll also be doing an AMA on Friday 7 am Pacific / 4 pm Central Europe in the DevInterrupted […]