In part one of this series we shared some tips based on our experience about good practices of how to work remotely as a company, now is time to look at this from a team perspective.
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts”
When we talk about a team, we are not only talking about a group of people who work together, but also about people that have developed a culture, a way of working, shared values and goals that go beyond the individual. We have seen how aspects of a team's culture remain even when all of the original members have been replaced.
The entity (team) must be taken into consideration in addition to the individuals and it’s essential that someone is in charge.
In our teams, the good practices of working remotely have become a habit. However, when we work with clients who are not used to this, it’s necessary to designate a “champion” on the client side who advocates for ensuring that these good practices are followed.
If these practices have not yet become a habit, it’s recommended to have someone in charge who advocates for them.
Choose a schedule. It can be the same as when everyone works together in person, however, when they are working from home, the time that would have been spent commuting becomes usable and can be an ideal excuse to start and end earlier.
Keep and create new practices and rituals. If you are used to working face-to-face and have now switched to a remote environment, you have to find a way to adapt practices so that they are remote friendly and gradually change. Avoid sudden changes so that the culture evolves without destroying itself.
Introduce remote work in feedback sessions; hold specific sessions to cover this topic.
Consider people as individuals and be empathetic. Create intentional virtual spaces for personal conversation and be tolerant of new workspaces: not everyone has a home office.
Use a virtual whiteboard. It’s often necessary to use a drawing to bring a concept to life. When people are face-to-face, they get up and use a whiteboard, but being remote requires a collaborative virtual board. (Mural has helped us a lot). You can have a dedicated board like a blackboard, which everyone can access.
Include virtual rooms in all invitations to the work meetings and all the links to documents, presentations, etc. that will be used.
All digital. Although it seems obvious, sometimes it’s not. When working in a distributed way, there are occasions when two or more people are together and for convenience they tend to use the whiteboard and point a camera for people to see; or use the physical storyboard (Kanban, Scrum) and point a camera at it. This makes communication and conversation isolated and dominated by people who are together and excludes other remote members so remember to be inclusive.
Ideally if one person is remote, then the whole team should be remote. This means that everyone should join the meeting via computer and use tools such as instant messaging and video to make everyone feel included.
A single tool for video calls. There are many tools on the market and the benefits of choosing a standard one helps ensure that plug-ins, drivers, etc. are configured and work well for everyone. Sometimes having two tools—one for the client and the other for us— causes audio issues that don’t work if you leave one tool and change to the other. Sometimes it’s necessary for individuals to even restart their computers or reconfigure their set-up to make the call work.
Consider these criteria when choosing a tool: Ensure the tool allows people to easily mute/unmute themselves, even in full or shared screen, and provides screen sharing. In Zoom, for example, you can choose which window to share; that way you can see notes while presenting. Keep in mind that there are video call tools that have limitations in terms of the number of members that can be connected and/or duration of a meeting.
Always use group video calls so that all members can be connected. If someone is on another call, it’s understandable that they’re not online, however it’s recommended to join the group call as soon as possible, which helps to foster a sense of team and transparency.
Camera on, speakers/headphones open,and microphones off for all the members of the call.
Shared microphone and monitor. If there are team members who are together, it’s recommended to also turn on a central microphone and have a monitor connected to the group video call.
Two monitors for each team member, when possible. One for your personal work and the other to project the group video call on the screen.
Choose a single instant messaging tool for the team. There are many options: Slack, Telegram, Hangouts, Microsoft Teams etc., but sticking to one is essential to strengthen communication as a team and avoid isolated conversations.
Consider key criteria when choosing a tool. Select one that allows multiple channels, tagging people, notifications, mobile and desktop versions. You should also consider one that’s available for various operating systems and allows you to easily see unread messages
Messaging applications installed on the smartphone. Electricity and internet connection are not as reliable as we would like, and thankfully mobile phones usually work in the event of an outage. Don’t forget to silence notifications after an agreed time.
Answer quickly and respect the agreed schedules. The purpose of these tools is to have immediate interactions. If a message arrives, a quick response is expected. That’s why it’s important to be aware of agreed schedules and what time you send messages, since people may be focused on other tasks.
For quick responses only. Avoid using the message tool for topics that don’t require a quick response.
Do not use the video tool for a chat. If the instant messaging tool you opt for isn’t the same as a video call tool, then avoid it when sending links or text messages. Make all communication of this type official in the same tool. Sometimes in a call it’s necessary to send a presentation link or an excerpt of an email. One disadvantage of Zoom chat is that the messages on the chat are temporary, and aren’t always visible to people who join later.
Channels for instant messaging
This is the main channel for any team to always stay in touch.
There’s no such thing as over communication. If someone is going to be disconnected for more than 10 minutes, it’s important to notify the team: AFK 15 min, I’m back, good morning, etc. Make sure this is part of the team's culture.
Open an informal channel. Sometimes it’s necessary to distract yourself with a joke, memes, etc. and sometimes the group channel isn’t the best place. Use an informal channel for all messages that don’t require a response.
Keep channels relevant. Phrases like, "I didn’t see it,” or "It happened to me," or other similar ones are red flags and indicate that most of the messages aren’t being seen as important to the members.
Avoid very specific conversations between two people on group channels; opt to do this via a call.
Have a channel for people who have common interests. Depending on the need, other channels can be opened where specific topics can be discussed that aren’t relevant to the entire team.
Only open channels that are necessary to avoid communication saturation. Although opening a channel is easy, the consequence of having multiple chat rooms open is that people don’t know which one to follow or where to place their messages.
Instant messaging does not replace email. Email is the best way to have important conversations that can be handled asynchronously.
Choose video calls when more communication is required. If it’s an important conversation and/or requires immediate action, switch to a video call.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Internal or external agents are often the catalyst for organizations adopting new ways of working or introducing new technology solutions as they need to find new ways to remain relevant.
Remote working isn’t something new, but today it’s more important than ever. The impact that this crisis is having on organisations leads me to believe that remote working will not be completely reversed. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of this practice and is likely to continue permeating organizations and society, generating collateral effects and a change in culture that we will all have to adapt to.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.