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Don't stop collaborating just because you're remote

As a person whose livelihood has generally depended on building relationships, facilitating teams and groups of people, and driving outcomes for clients, being suddenly grounded at home for what is currently an unknown period of time is a bit of a shock. Right now I'm extremely grateful that Thoughtworks has been practicing remote-first philosophies for some time, so prolonged periods of being physically cordoned off don't mean I'm working alone. In fact, so far I haven't felt the difference. My colleague Martin Fowler expresses some of this here

A video meeting feels like the default to me. We have the tooling and many of the habits we need to just keep moving forward with our daily business: good internet connection, headset with a good microphone, everyone on a camera, use of chat function, and other real-time collaboration tools. But now I’m actually excited by the prospect of translating my in-person facilitation skills to the virtual world. This will require instilling a bit more discipline so that our good work in this area becomes excellence and our ability to collaborate actually amplifies. 

It’s one thing to be productive on your own or in pairs in remote and distributed working environments, but that isn’t the same as collaborating in groups. The difference boils down to having the discipline to follow some important principles and use some new techniques. Like any new learning, these may feel awkward at first, but once they become second nature, you will find the flow of virtual collaboration will be entirely worth it.

remote working Thoughtworks

Be clear on the purpose of the meeting. Everyone should know the goal – people are more comfortable when they know what to expect.

  • Are you just there to discuss a topic?
  • Do you need to make or come to agreements? Have a plan for decision making. (E.g. state the decision and have a visual thumbs up or down.)
  • Do you need to generate idaes? Use a tool where people can add their thoughts. There are a lot of free boards like Fun Retro, paid tools like Mural, or even Google sheets
  • Have an agenda and make sure everyone knows who is facilitating and how
Make room for every voice. There is nothing more disengaging than a meeting where you can’t get a word in edgewise. (I learned some great techniques on this from the Center for Purposeful Leadership)

  • Have everyone on their own video
  • Greet people when they enter the “room” (it’s nice and has the side benefit of testing out their audio)
  • Start the meeting having each person say their name and where they are physically. This breaks the seal on everyone contributing and brings in their attention
  • Do round robins to get everyone’s thoughts on a specific topic (put a list of the names in chat and go in order, see “time box” below)
  • Mix in popcorn style where people jump in with their thoughts. I say "mix in" because this tends to be the norm and it isn’t a bad way to go, it just shouldn’t be the only way
Time box. There is something funny about being by yourself talking to faces on video. You forget to take turns talking, forget to be concise, and you start to feel like you are playing Hamlet and it’s your big soliloquy.

  • Give people time limits for getting points across; it's amazing what people can say in one or two minutes or even 30 seconds
  • Use an audible timer so it is fair. No need to be overly intense about it: it's just when people hear the timer go off, they know to wrap it up
  • Plan larger time boxes for everything you need to get through and be realistic. It could turn out you need more time; ask the group and pivot if you need to

    remote working Thoughtworks
Use chat appropriately.

  • For the “hear, hear”
  • For small add-ons and re-phrasings
  • Funny jokes and puns (it can still be fun)
Allow for silent spaces

  • It’s okay if there is a pause between one person speaking and another, in fact, great ideas happen in the space between
  • Plan or schedule in reflection moments, if helpful
This one is gonna hurt – Silence your other apps. It's so easy to check your email and chats while you are on a video call. Most of us have mastered the "video blank face" so that we can respond to other things while pretending to participate. Don’t do it; figure out what needs to happen so the current meeting gets everyone’s focus.

  • Have a clear purpose and agenda
  • Listen to others - you'd like them to listen to you, and they may inspire you
  • Build in breaks if it’s a long meeting
Let me know if you have some great techniques you’ve used. I’d love to incorporate them. I’m planning governance meetings and workshops that used to be in person, now totally virtual. 

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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