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Q&A on the Book Thinking Remote

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Key Takeaways

  • Design your digital workspace to support your workflow and your team’s particular communication needs.
  • Identify what team members need to know about each other’s workflow, and agree on a way of “narrating your work”.
  • Before you design for collaboration and connection in your organization, identify what exactly you want to achieve.
  • Psychological safety in meetings is affected by how you communicate in other parts of your ecosystem.
  • Set boundaries around communication and agree on message response times, to keep everyone healthy and sane!

The book Thinking Remote - inspiration for leaders and distributed teams by Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss provides lots of ideas for managers and leaders who are working with remote or distributed teams. It can be used as a handbook for leaders of virtual teams, helping them to deal with the leadership challenges and making the transition to remote working.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of the book Thinking Remote.

InfoQ interviewed Pilar Orti and Maya Middlemiss about encouraging interaction and collaboration, designing a digital workspace, narrating out work in distributed teams, nurturing psychological safety in online meetings, and GDPR compliance.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Pilar Orti: The number of virtual teams and remote team managers and leaders has increased over the last few years, and managers in organisations can expect to lead a team including remote workers at some point in their career. In order to support these professionals, we’ve written many blog posts on Virtual Not Distant, covering a range of challenges facing managers and leaders of distributed teams. We thought we’d tie them together with a set of reflection questions to encourage managers to come up with their own solutions, rather than search for best practices elsewhere.

Maya Middlemiss: Blog posts tend to be consumed rather ephemerally, but looking back at the amount of research and effort which goes into our posts, many of them really do stand the evergreen test, and we felt from the feedback we received that there would be value in curating them into a standalone publication, a handbook for leaders of virtual teams to keep on the office bookshelf and refer to as they develop their own practice.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Orti: For managers in teams or organisations which are transitioning to remote. It’s also aimed at new managers who might find themselves working in a virtual team for the first time.

Middlemiss: It could also be of value to experienced managers who have never worked remotely or led others from a distance, anyone who might be starting to explore the potential or be interested in piloting some changes in their organisation. It could also be useful for anyone considering their next career move, to a role in a more office-optional firm.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to encourage interaction and collaboration, both in the office and digital workspace?

Middlemiss: If we were asking this question in a colocated organisation, we’d start with what kinds of interaction we wanted to facilitate - then design for that. Online it’s no different. Do we want them to collaborate to co-create, to connect, to compete...? What specific behaviours do we want to nurture?

Orti: Before taking action, it’s important to understand why exactly we want more interaction and collaboration. Is it to spread knowledge throughout the organization? Is it to create an organization where learning happens in all different kinds of ways, including through interactions with people outside our teams? Or if we are a remote organisation, is it mainly so that people can network, get to know each other, and find strong informal networks they can turn to when they need personal support?

Latte and Learn meetings can be good for spreading learning (it’s important that team members can choose to attend; they’re more likely to take ownership of the meeting and their own learning). Internal blogging or special interest groups in social enterprise network platforms would be good for spreading knowledge informally, whereas having systems to create connections (such as Trello’s Mr Rogers) between people who don’t work together is a good way of helping people find their informal networks.

InfoQ: What's your advice for designing a digital workspace?

Orti: First, understand the limitations of the system within which you are working. If your organisation has a set of approved tools, it might be a case of agreeing on how the different tools available will be used, rather than choosing the tools you will use.

In any case, you need to understand your own workflow, your communication patterns in your team, your agreed availability to each other, etc.

Middlemiss: Start with the need; really brainstorm it and drill down into the specifics of what you want it all to do, before looking at solutions - if you possibly can (and there might be legacy tools in place of course). But if you have a blank canvas, it’s often very tempting to fit the work to the tool, instead of the other way around. The marketplace for digital workspace apps is growing all the time and becoming more specialised and fragmented; it’s vital to start with exactly what you want to do and how, then look for best fit - what bits of tech will fit together to deliver that for you, in the way that serves you and your work best.

InfoQ: How can we narrate out work in distributed teams and what benefits can it bring?

Orti: Ideally, we need to find a way of narrating our work to suit our workflow. For example, if our tasks are not complex, showing completion of tasks and progress might be what’s needed. So using project management tools with easy to interpret checklists, like Trello or Basecamp, should be suitable.

For some knowledge workers, long form, less frequent communication might be suitable, such as long posts, which other people can easily comment on and ask questions; or even audio files, when we can explain a concept that would otherwise take a very long time to put down in writing.

The most important thing is that we agree on how we will share our progress (or doubts, our thinking, or decision-making etc), how often, and that we all know what to expect from each other.

Middlemiss: And don’t forget different team members need different kinds of information for different reasons. The perfect digital workspace should make it easy for all team members to collaborate, but also for the operations person to see any bottlenecks, for finance to monitor budgets and spend, for the project manager to see the status of all jobs, and so on - without having to go and interrupt people doing the work to ask them about it.

InfoQ: What can we do to nurture psychological safety in online meetings?

Orti: I’m glad you’ve asked this question, because there are some things I realise now I should’ve added in the chapter in the book! For example, a good starting point is making sure that everyone is familiar with the meeting platform and can make the most out of it, to make their contributions as easy as possible.

How much we communicate before and after the meeting is also important, so that everyone feels prepared and has ownership of the content of the meeting. Co-creating the agenda in an online document helps people feel like their contributions matter.

Having some sort of ritual at the beginning of the meeting can also help to create a sense of familiarity and connection. This ritual should involve everyone speaking at least once. It increases the feeling that it’s okay to speak up, and it also has the practical objective of testing everyone’s internet connections and microphones.

Other leadership behaviours which we cover in the chapter on psychological safety, which was written in response to the research done at Google, include not being afraid of silence (which is sometimes what some team members need to gather their thoughts), calling out conflict and strong disagreements, and agreeing on how they will be resolved. For example, if the discussion is only going to benefit a couple of team members, it can be moved to another meeting or other communication channel.

(For a different point of view and great suggestions, check out Mark Kilby’s article Remote Meetings Reflect Distributed Team Culture.)

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for working remotely in a way that's GDPR compliant?

Middlemiss: It’s important that you make privacy considerations part of the culture and conversation, so that everyone understands their role in avoiding breaches - because risks inevitably rise when people are processing personal data outside of a specific environment. It’s not just an IT or infosec problem, because you can have a ‘weakest link’ where your systems are all set up perfectly but then someone loses an insecure mobile device, or is working in a public place with PID on their laptop screen… Training cannot cover every possible eventuality, but it can raise awareness and focus; something which is everybody’s responsibility.

InfoQ: Working remotely can impact our work-life balance. How can we prevent ourselves from getting overloaded?

Orti: A team communication agreement is incredibly important, so that we can set expectations of reply time to messages. Finding a balance between asynchronous communication and online meetings through which we can have flexibility both in when we communicate and clarity, is worth discussing in a team.

At a personal level, deciding at the beginning of the day when the day will end, and switching off our devices or at least our work applications at that time, will go along way to keeping us sane. And the sooner we come to terms with the fact that something will always have to wait until tomorrow, the better.

Middlemiss: Boundaries are critical! Talking about them and being aware of them - it does put more onus on the remote employee, to manage things for themselves, to speak up if they’re overloaded and not coping. Managers have to be alert for signs and signals that someone may have too much on their plate, may be unwell, or worried about getting their work done - it takes extra awareness and sensitivity to overcome the lack of body language you get in a shared place.

InfoQ: What advice do you have for managers leading distributed teams?

Orti: Nowadays that’s a really difficult question, because there are all sorts of distributed teams. I suppose we could go back to the basics and think about how our behaviour and the ecosystem we have for our teams affects intrinsic motivation. Do I do my best to help team members feel like they have autonomy, and a say in how the work gets done? Do they have a sense of competence, do they get enough feedback to know how they’re doing, are there enough opportunities for them to learn? And finally, do they feel a sense of relatedness to each other, or to the purpose of the work? And of course, do I look after myself enough, do I have a support network, do I look for opportunities to learn, to be able to support and lead the team?

Middlemiss: All the management skills you have acquired leading colocated teams will be of value to you in this role, but they’ll need adapting. You’ll need to learn new things. You might feel like you’re letting go of some aspects of control, and find new ways of enabling and supporting people, but they may surprise you - remote teams can be the most productive and motivated people you have ever led.

About the Book Authors

Pilar Orti is the director of Virtual not Distant, helping organisations adopt remote collaboration practices as they move to an "office optional" approach. She is a trainer, consultant and workshop facilitator, specialising in remote team leadership. Orti is also the host of the "21st Century Work Life" podcast and an experienced voiceover working in London. She is the voice of Xuli in GoJetters and you can find out about that side of her professional life in the book "Hi, I’m Here for a Recording. The ordinary life of a voiceover artist."

Maya Middlemiss is a writer and consultant, obsessed with the future of everything, from tech and money to work and culture. She has been leading remote teams for nearly two decades, since long before they had a name or any dedicated products and tools to match. As an associate at Virtual Not Distant, she enjoys creating content to amplify the message that the future is flexible and individual - and that everyone can find a work-life blend which inspires and motivates them. Middlemiss runs her own distributed business, Blocksparks, providing specialist marketing communications services to emergent technology startups.

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