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Stories of Collaboration in Remote Teams

Lisette Sutherland and Elinor Slomba have been collecting and sharing stories from people whose business models depend upon getting remote teams right. These stories showing how remote  teams collaborate, bridge distance, build trust and get things done together will be described in the upcoming book Collaboration Superpowers: The Field Guide.

InfoQ interviewed Lisette and Elinor about how people work in remote teams, which tools they use to collaborate and communicate, and what it takes to work remotely as a team.

InfoQ: Why do people choose to work as a remote team?

Lisette: The need to attract the right talent and pull together people who have specific expertise is certainly an important driver. This goes for small enterprises as well as large, global organizations.  Instead of being limited to people in a particular office, people can benefit from working with others with particular competencies without travel or commute. In this way, teams can get fast feedback from multiple disciplines.

Offices have implicit social conventions. What is productive for you is not productive for me, so the average becomes the least productive for all of us.  If you design for success when working remotely, you have the freedom to do things in the most effective way.

Elinor: Not having to commit to a particular piece of real estate lessens the risk involved in starting and sustaining any business venture.  Remote teams have less physical stuff to deal with, and this can be useful.

For organizations engaged in change, the old model went something like bring in a consultant, and within a certain timetable you’ll transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly (Mike Sutton gave us that metaphor.)  Enterprises are finding, however, that in order to be deeply grounded and sustainable a change process may not follow such a strict linear progression.  Over time they can benefit more from outside expertise if some of the access is remote. 

To keep the right people in a conversation long enough to get something valuable done, there’s just no need to have them struggle with commuting, or be away from their families.  In the new world of work, qualitative improvements are taking place that did not seem possible just a short time ago!  Not everywhere, certainly, but in enough places that it’s worthy of study and raising the visibility for the folks who are succeeding.

InfoQ: What makes working in remote teams different from co-located teams?

Elinor: Face-to-face communication looks different, of course.  And it can take some getting used to. But it can also be an advantage. Some pair programmers prefer working virtually to sitting alongside someone and working intensely together for hours at a stretch.  The remote connection, when tended intelligently, becomes fluid and adaptive to the needs of particular individuals while supporting their interactions in a high bandwidth way.  For instance, remote team members can ping each other during meetings to test assumptions right there on the spot.  And a vice president of business development becomes just as accessible as a developer or anyone else on the team.

Focus is on the value that’s being created rather than following office protocols or worrying about how the process looks to a co-located manager.  When you compare what’s possible in a distributed environment, a group of people showing up at a fixed location for set times under supervision, day after day can appear to be an antiquated relic of the industrial revolution. 

Remote work can actually raise the value and enjoyment of standing among co-workers and sharing space physically.  Because it’s more rare, it’s taken less for granted.  For members of a distributed team, any chance to be together and interact becomes an occasion to be thoughtfully crafted and celebrated.

InfoQ: You are doing interviews with people that are working remotely together and sharing this as stories. What made you choose to do it in this way?

Elinor: We both have years of experience working remotely.  And we’ve found that everyone at work must bridge some form of remoteness, even at the same address.  We wanted to illuminate this problem with our stories and create a platform for sharing solutions.  Each company and team requires its own special cocktail of communication, personality and technologies plus the ability to be adaptive in its remote practices. Co-learning across many sectors - from IT to the arts - we want to give remote collaborators and facilitators a collective voice and provide valuable insight into the nature of teams that excel.

Lisette: The book we are writing will be a visually rich survey of those who are getting remote working right. However the community we’re building is even richer.  This space is so dynamic and people are trying so many different things.  We want to be there to foster conversations, introduce people to each other, and capture the great stories so we can share knowledge and be powerful together.

InfoQ: What kind of tools do people use to work together remotely? Do they really work?

Lisette: From simple tools like instant messaging to entire collaboration platforms like Yammer, there are hundreds of tools that exist to make remote working possible. We are experimenting with and trying out many different tools: e.g., Sqwiggle, Trello, Boardthing, Hangouts, Sococo, Second Life.  They all have their advantages and drawbacks, but in a way, the technology part is easy.

The most important thing is to choose a set of tools that works for your team and then inspect and adapt.  More important than tools, though, is communication. Remote work demands proactive communication!

One proactive communication technique is called “working out loud”. It’s about narrating your work and making it observable to others.  Essentially, it’s just journaling what you are working on to the people you are working with. There are many different ways to do this - and again, it’s important to choose a method that works for your team.

Elinor:  To the degree that a team can be self-organized it will find its way to the best tools.  But as we know, self-organization needs structure.  When you’ve experienced the improvisational flow of working on meaningful projects with people on several continents, it is tempting to be a real booster.  However, the challenges are real, and we do not gloss them over. 

One of the best, most supportive things a manager can do to create this structure is set up an asynchronous chat.  There, team members can check in about everything from the design of a new webpage to what the next quarterly business goals should be.  You don’t have to worry about who to “cc” on what, and none of the context gets lost.  An extra bonus is that there is less pressure to write policy manuals because you have a searchable record of latest decisions. 

Lisette: It’s important to keep things simple. Communication should be easy, often, and light-weight. The focus should be whatever makes communication more efficient with the least amount of friction.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of the practices that people use when working in time and place dispersed teams?

Lisette: Most teams at Spotify are co-located. However, one of their remote teams have chosen to use Google Hangouts, which the team keeps open at all times. The team connects via video with their microphones on mute. When someone has a question, they simply unmute themselves. This allows them to talk as if they were in the same room together.

Elinor: Treehouse Learning does everything on a project basis.  If you want to initiate work, you draft it as a project and identify the roles needed (i.e. for a new webpage, you might need a developer, a designer and a data analyst).  The projects get socialized and you can sign up to receive notices of new projects requiring your skills.  If enough people sign up to fill the roles, the project moves forward.

A lot of teams working across multiple time zones have experimented with different work schedules to maximize overlap with the team.

Lisette: One of the more interesting ways we’re seeing this overlap represented spatially is in environments like Sococo. In Sococo you can spatially design a virtual office that is mapped according to your workflow.  On a plan view, you can see all the team members and know which room they are in (i.e. what they are working on) - and team members can turn video/microphones on and off easily, chat with individuals or groups, and share screens.  Bill Krebs of Agile Dimensions compiled an entire atlas of distributed tools, and runs a Distributed Agile Study Group there.

Elinor: One manager we spoke with designed an experiment to have everyone who normally works co-located, stay home for one full week and try to get their work done as usual. The idea is to help the co-located team members empathize more with the remote team.  People need to understand how sensitive everyone is to feeling excluded, and how easy it is to default to focusing more attention on the people who are physically present.

Consciously crafting your physical face-to-face time is an important practice.  One remote worker we interviewed does tech support for marathons, and when he visits the office, he meets with the CEO by going running together.  This is quality time for bonding on a personal level as well as staying plugged in to the high-level conversations about business strategy.

InfoQ: What does it take when you want to work in a remote team? Do you need specific skills? Is it something that you can learn?

Lisette: In terms of personality, working remotely can be a life saver for people who are highly sensitive and work better in a quiet, personal space. Conversely, remote workers with social, extroverted personalities may thrive as a member of one of the coworking environments springing up in many cities and there are international directories like Sharedesk to help find one. It’s good to know what kind of person you are and to build a solution around your personality type.

One thing that doesn’t have an easy solution is the matter of discipline. You have to know when you’re procrastinating and then consciously stop. Sometimes it means powering through, and sometimes it means taking a break. You need the self knowledge and the ability to put triggers in place that work for you.

On a related note, workspace is also important. If you want to work from home, consider how your environment is set up to match your working needs. Make sure you have a proper work space with good lighting and sound quality for video conferencing. If you’re traveling, be sure to understand the technical requirements of the work you’re doing on the road and the connectivity options you may or may not have.

Elinor: For a manager, remote teambuilding requires trust in the emergent outcome and the ability to inspire team members.  As for the ability to learn, we are doing things that have not been done before at work.  So anyone who functions as a “purist” in terms of particular methodologies or treats a manifesto as dogma to be closely guarded to the letter will be at a disadvantage in this area of workplace evolution.

InfoQ: What would you like to give to people as advice when they want to work together remotely? Are there things they should do, or shouldn’t do?

Elinor: Everyone needs to keep a healthy sense of the absurd about the fact that things will always go wrong.  We advocate having a number of workarounds.  Don’t be dependent upon a particular piece of technology, but rather, focus on keeping the conversations going.  We saw this during the all-virtual Stoos in Action conference back in October 2013.  The conference was heavily relying on Google Hangouts, and the system went down for maintenance just as the conference was starting to broadcast!  Local satellites simply set up individual conferences until things were back online.

Lisette: Make sure you schedule both structured and unstructured time for you team. Structured time is things like meetings or work sessions, where there’s a very specific agenda.  And with a known agenda, you want to get in and out as quickly and smoothly as possible.

What structured time doesn’t allow for is room for intuition, for issues surfacing organically...for empathy and if someone has “the feels” to be able to express that.  Unstructured time is the replacement for water cooler time where people just hang out and chat together. Remote teams can do this by having virtual coffee or virtual lunch. When your entire team is remote, you have to be deliberate about managing the environment so people can make spontaneous connections.  We call this engineered serendipity.

About the Book Authors

BOOK AUTHOR - Lisette Sutherland creates online collaborative communities, specializing in web-based collaboration tools and online community management. Her goal is to get the best people working together regardless of location. She currently works as Happy Melly's Community Builder, coordinating the global marketing efforts and connecting pockets of knowledge all over the world to to turn work into a great and gratifying experience.

KEY CONTRIBUTOR - Elinor Slomba connects the arts and startup worlds to deepen understanding of principles necessary for innovation. From her home base in New Haven, Connecticut she collaborates remotely with professionals in visual, performance and literary arts as well as urban design, software and other technical fields.  Elinor integrates her arts management background with training in ethnographic field research and Agile frameworks to help highly creative people share models and build value across domains.

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