Teams come in all shapes and sizes; all created by different evolutionary forces. There is no universal guide that will grow all plants from cacti to orchids. There is no single guide that will work for all teams.
With plants, there are certain essential elements; so while there is no single guide for growing them all, there is a single list of how to kill them. Teams also have their version of oxygen, water, and sunlight. With covid-19 and the sudden shifts from colocated to remote, success depends on insuring that these essentials are being provided.
Google’s famous project Aristotle was a years long project studying what made some teams so much better than all the rest. They found 5 key factors: dependability, clarity, meaning, impact, and psychological safety. So while there is not simple checklist to make distributed and remote teams work, there is short check list of guaranteed ways to fail.
The biggest challenge of being remote isn’t changing best practices, it is being disciplined about what you already should have been doing. Organizational discipline is about conserving finite resources; chiefly time, focus, and impact. Most of the work around colocation and agile are not about conservation, but minimizing the cost of being sloppy. Once your team goes remote, the cost of sloppy habits is exacerbated by distance and delays. What used to be ineffecient can become fatally unaffordable.
Trust is the fundamental requirement for a functional team, even more so for distributed teams. In the absense of information, people will assume the worst. Distributed teams are plagued by a lack of direct personal communication and its ability to transmit high bandwidth nuance. Individuals on successful distributed teams need to fill in the gaps themselves. Trusting teams can openly address miscommunications and ambiguity with minimal fuss and hurt feelings.
Lack of trust is a recipe for micro-management. Command and control organization don’t scale in a small office, let alone across distributed teams. Like the Internet, a distributed system can only scale as well as it can delegate, and delegation requires trust.
Remote settings amplify the worst temptations to micromanage. Are people really working? Why are they taking so long to answer messages? Are they putting in the full hours?
Teams will perceive the lack of trust and psychological safety will crumble. If management cannot trust their teams when they are not watching them, there are a bigger problems than remote work. Knowledge workers thrive with autonomy.
Build trusted teams. Defend that trust. Deal with issues openly and swiftly.
Track What Is Next
Tracking is not the opposite of trust, it is the partner of clairity. One of the great things about small, colocated teams is how easy it is to coordinate. If someone gets stuck, or suddenly frees up; tasks and context can be passed around quickly and easily.
This takes more of an investment to work with larger or distributed teams. Setup tracking system to help the team coordinate and maintain clairity on:
- who is working on what
- what is coming up next
- priorities: what is urgent and what is important
- what changes are being made
- what are key dates that the team needs to coordinate on
This isn’t about tracking progress or spotting who isn’t doing their work. That is notoriously tricky and counter-productive with knowledge and creative work.
Focus on creating simple ways for the team to maintain clairity. Make it it simple. Make it a routine. Make it future facing and focus on coordinating what is next.
Information theory tells us that longer communication channels have more lag and more information loss. To compensate, use protocols that have error checking and higher bandwidth.
In an office, you can turn around and ask your partner several quick questions over the morning and get quick answers. The quick context switches allow for minimal blocking. Now move that communication over slack, or email, or scheduled a video conference and you end up blocked, waiting for data.
We know better than to write software like this, but we design teams so they they spend too much time as spinning hour glasses. Use the clairty of tracking to anticipate the questions and conversations the team will need in the next cycle. Front load the conversations to the beginning of your sprint to get things unblocked. Batch up threads from related topics.
Honestly, interrupting your team with questions through out the day when you were colocated probably wasn’t helping people stay in their flow. Each question probably translated into bugs caused by context switching.
Use the Right Communication Tools
Messaging platform like Slack kill communication the way that open offices kills concentration. These platforms offer instant gratification. You are only one interruption away from feeling busy without the hassle of actually driving impact.
Slack certainly has its place, and teams that learn how to leverage messaging, chat rooms, and channels have the power to create synchronous flow across distance! However, making everything synchronous is single threading your organization.
Synchronous communication works well for urgent and immediate work. It doesn’t scale well over complexity or time. Imagine looking through a week of Slack messages to thread together what a team has been doing.
Messaging: quick and urgent communication.
Chat Rooms: for teams that are coordinating in real time, such as ops or a team managing a release.
Channels: for general news, gossip, and annoucements. Things that are not time sensitive and are okay for people to miss.
Email: anything that needs to be captured and available for future reference. Team announcements that cannot be missed. Questions or conversations that do not work well synchronously, where someone would have to prioritize the work and spend time digging for answers.
Collaborative Documents: where you are trying to drive a collaborative conversation, but it will span a period or more than an hour. Collaboration where it is not possible to be synchronous, or where some of the work will take significant time. Collaboration that needs to be captured, such a team whiteboarding session.
Write Things Down
Good written communication seems to be something teams lost in the agile/colocated world. Distribution multiplies complexity, and as the information gets more complex so does the communication.
Embracing good documentation allows you to embrace asynchronousity! It is how you scale from single to multi-threaded. It is hard to get everyone on the same call at the same time. If everything is by slack and conf calls, then you end up playing the telephone game as people join and leave the chain of discussions. Decisions become unaligned, people fall out of the loop, and any context is lost.
Collaborative documentation solutions, such as Google Doc or wikis, allow groups of people who are remote and working asynchronously to stay on the same page.
Meetings need agendas and minutes. What used to be whiteboard sessions need to become collaboration over documents. Architecture, designs, and requirements all need to be captured to living documents.
Tracking creates clarity around who is working on what, documentation will create clarity on how the work is being done. The more complex the work ,the more moving parts; the more essential documents become. The extra work in creating and maintaining written records will be off-set by savings in wasted time and rehashing conversations and decisions multiple times.
Days of Conf Calls
I have worked in at least a dozen companies, and all but one complained that they didn’t have enough conference rooms. The outlier treated running out of conference rooms as a symptom of a problem, not a problem in itself.
When something is rare, you treat it with respect and try to get the most out of it. This one company actually had a metric of how many worker hours were spent in meetings versus the EBIT. Like all metrics, it begged to be gamed, but it tells you where the company’s priorities were — making every work minute count.
In a remote world, you can never run out of Zoom or Google Meets. We have an infinite supply of virtual meeting rooms. Just like messaging, there is a quick and easy temptation of dropping invites in 30–60 minute increments on people’s calendars — and then taking all the time because it was allotted!
Meetings are expensive, make them count. This doesn't mean to try to make them as dense or inhumane as possible, it means to really ask the age old question; could this meeting have just been an email?
Create a culture of good meeting etiquette. There are many fantastic guides on how to manage meetings and make the most of your team’s time. Read them! If you don’t control meetings, you will watch your staff’s reclaimed commute time, along with the rest of your work week, dissolve into death by a thousand invites.
In my current company, we blocked out time during the week for company wide No Zoom Zones; by forcing scarcity people develop more disciplin.
People are human beings. Sure, we work for a paycheck. We get satisfaction out of solving problems and having an impact in the world; but, in most ranked list of employee motivators you find personal relationships near the top.
Most of us will spend more time with our coworkers than our friends and partners. A huge part of our social time is actually at work: at the water cooler, at the lunch table, the casual catch-ups between meetings.
This has been probably the hardest change for teams switching to remote. If you are a team lead, you have to make the extra effort to create space and time for human conversation. The first half of my weekly staff meeting is now about asking people about their weekends, how the kids are doing, or just to share some personal news or projects.
It is fine to create virtual socials, tea breaks, and pub quizzes; but you have to inject personal connections into all the times were people get to make “face-to-face” conversations. The more we can remind our teams that we are all people, we are all showing up to work to try and be helpful; the more they will utilize trust and openness when things do go wrong or communication goes sideways.
If people are our most important resource, then giving them time to be people is our most important investment. The rest is just air, water, and sunlight.