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InfoQ Homepage Presentations Navigating the New Remote Normal

Navigating the New Remote Normal

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Summary

Lisette Sutherland discusses how to navigate the new world of working as a hybrid team, sharing ideas for what it means to be “present” at work and how to create that sense of team even when you're virtual.

Bio

Lisette Sutherland is a remote-working German-born American living in the Netherlands who is totally jazzed by the fact that it’s possible to work from anywhere. In fact, it’s not just possible; it’s completely productively workable – if done right. Her company, Collaboration Superpowers, shares just how to do it right in a variety of formats:

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Transcript

Sutherland: My name is Lisette Sutherland. I'm the director of a company called Collaboration Superpowers. We help people work together anywhere. What I wanted to do in my presentation today was talk to you about how to navigate the new remote normal, whatever that looks like. Mostly, really, how to navigate this new hybrid world of working where some of us will be back in the office and some of us will be remote. We all know earlier this year, it's 2020, COVID-19 sent everyone home to work. Many remote working doubters saw that when necessary, it was actually possible to work together anywhere. It was, however, a bumpy ride, as we all discovered that working at home during a pandemic is not the same thing as working at home or working remotely. Even seasoned remote workers were experiencing significant stress and disruption to their day. Between working at home with our families, and online schooling, and navigating the various rules of the lockdown, figuring out all the technology, there was a lot of fodder for a bumpy ride. However, many of us did it. In the process, we smoothed out the bumps, and we realized that remote working was not only possible, but in some instances, it was preferable.

The Remote Setup

As we're still in and out of lockdown, some people don't want to go back to the office, even when it's safe to do so. They don't miss the commute. They don't miss the office politics. They're more productive at home. They like the freedom that remote working offers. In my presentations all over the world for the last few months, I've been asking the question, when it's safe to do so, do you want to go back to the office or do you want to work remote, 100%? Do you want to be hybrid? Overwhelming, I would say 80% to 90% of every poll I've done, the answer is people want to be hybrid. They want to spend some days at the office and be some days remote.

The Future of Work Is Choice

Really, what I think it comes down to is that everybody wants the freedom to choose when and where they're most productive. We hear a lot on social media these days, "The future of work is remote." Actually, I think the future of work is choice. We want to have the choice to work when and where we're most productive. We're adults and we can choose that for ourselves.

The Remote Working Scale

Not only do individuals get to choose, but companies get to choose as well. There's a whole scale that Buffer has put out there, and also Matt Mullenweg has put out there. Had a very good interview with Sam Harris. You can just Google that and look it up. It's an excellent interview. They talk about the scale that companies exist on from being office based all the way over here, and then going along the scale to become all the way distributed with nomads. That means you have people working all over the world, in all different time zones, with nomads, meaning that people are also moving around, so you're completely time zone independent.

Regardless of where you are on this scale, the important thing is that we start to think about how we can all become remote first. Because regardless of whether or not we want people to work remotely, we want to have the systems and processes in place to be able to work remotely in case there's a reason to do so. Before the pandemic, I was using examples like sick children at home, or the plumber that's going to come sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Work shouldn't have to stop just because we can't get to a particular location. Now though, with COVID, it has become more of a dramatic example, and being remote first has all of a sudden become imperative for company survival. Now is the time to set our remote teams up for success. I'm hoping to share with you my best tips today for how to do that.

There's No One Right Way

Everything that I'm presenting to you is coming from the over 200 interviews that I've done with remote teams. These are teams whose business models depend on successfully bridging distance. You can find all of those interviews for free on the website. They're in video and podcast form. If you want, I've got it also in a book. Feel free to get the book here. That's a low cost way of getting all the information at once. The one thing that I've learned from all the interviews that I've done is that there's no one right way. I wish there were. I would love to sell a silver bullet formula that would help everybody succeed. However, there is no one right way. The name of the game is experimentation, and learning, and figuring out what works for us and what works for our team. Because when we get it right, the payoff is huge. We as individuals have the freedom to design our own lifestyles and work when and where we're most productive. We can train for marathons, or avoid the commute, or just design our own workdays. Companies get a stronger and more connected workforce where the only variable that is holding people together is something other than location. I think that these are really exciting times. The capabilities that it's giving us now are pretty incredible.

Areas to Focus On to Set Ourselves Up For Success

While I said that there's no one right way to get remote working right, there are three areas that we can focus on in order to set ourselves up for success. They're these universal areas. I want to just dive into that. The first thing that we need to do is define what is normal behavior for our team, and what does success look like? Then we're going to talk about, how do we modify how we communicate with each other when we're working online? Then I want to show you how we can explore new ways of being present. What does it mean to go to work in a modern-day virtual workforce?

Define What Is Normal and Expected

First, let's dive into what is normal and what is expected. When we work together in the same place, we can see what people are working on. We tend to have an understanding of each other's behavior because we can easily observe people and make inferences. When we go remote, we have to make our behavior more explicit so that there is less room for confusion. I like to make the analogy, actually was an example given by Howard Esbin of the company Prelude in the interview that I did with him years ago, he said, "You would never just get a sports team together or an orchestra together and say, 'Ok, play.'" The same is true with remote teams, we should never just get a team together and say, "Ok, go work." Yet that is often what happens.

Create a Team Agreement

We can tune our team by collectively crafting a team agreement together. A team agreement just delineates the important team protocols, including, what information are we going to share? What are the security protocols that are expected? How are we going to communicate with each other? How do we know what each other are doing? Essentially, the team agreement provides a foundational glue that just help binds the team together. It's true in part because creating a basic set of guidelines really decreases the possibility of misinterpretation and disconnection on the team because it gives people a platform for discussion. No longer do we have to say like, "Bob, you did something wrong." It's more like, "We've got an agreement in place and the protocols weren't followed. Do we need to reevaluate the protocols, or does something else need to happen?" It puts a layer in between for that. The team agreement is generally something that the entire team agrees on.

One of the people that I interviewed was Beat Buhlmann. He is the head of EMEA for Evernote. What they did there is they just defined their etiquettes. What are the etiquettes for their meetings, for email, for how they're going to use their calendar? What's expected in their home office? What are they going to use for their tasks? Then, of course, they're using Slack, but any group chat system. You want to define what your etiquettes are going to be in that. Another really easy place to start with team agreements is just to agree on the tools that you're going to use. A lot of times remote teams just get started and people use whatever tools they like, which is great. If you want to work together as a team, you're going to have to align on the tools. Not only what are the tools that are you going to use, but when are you going to use them. An example that Beat gave in the interview was, you would never email the fire department if your house is on fire. There are protocols that need to be put in place. Some of them seem common sense. Actually, when we have these discussions with our teams, we can find that people really have lots of different preferences. It's just really good to iron that out.

On top of the etiquettes that we're talking about, we also need to define, what does success look like for our team? What are the expectations of team members? This is a mindset shift from going time based, so we're working between 9:00 and 5:00 is the typical norm, or results based. When we go remote, we inherently go to results based working. Thus, we need to redefine what our expectations are. What did those results look like? It's easy to ask that question, but really think about your own work and how you would define results on a weekly basis, for example. Just do a hypothetical question. It is actually a shift not only in the mind that needs to happen, but also in our ways of working.

One of the companies that is on the remote.co website, where I found a couple of quotes, 10up, I really liked this quote. They said, "Any business that effectively measures employee productivity, surely isn't relying on anything having to do with physical location." When we're remote, we're forced to measure productivity by far more objective metrics and things like time in the building. I also asked many people this question of, do you have a team agreement in place? Be thinking about your own answer, of course. I mean a written team agreement, not just protocols that everybody acts this way, but actually something formal written down.

Interestingly enough, pre-COVID, only 20% of any poll participants ever had some team agreement in place. Post-COVID, it's up to 50% to 60%. For those of you that don't have a team agreement in place, I have free templates available on the Collaboration Superpowers website. Please go to that site and download your free templates. You don't have to do it alone. For the people that do have team agreements in place, a good reminder is review your team agreements regularly. They're living documents. The way that we work as a team evolves, and so do the tools and the apps that we use, because there's new things coming out every day. We want to regularly revisit what we've agreed to as a team. I usually recommend every three months, every six months seems a little bit long, because really, you'll be surprised by how much evolution happens. In any case, team agreement templates are available. Feel free to use them.

Modify How We Communicate

I want to focus on, how do we modify how we communicate when we go remote? The obvious thing is that we all go online. When the lockdown started, many companies tried to mimic the office. What it resulted in was endless online meetings. Soon, we started to hear about Zoom fatigue. It really became a thing. My neighbors were complaining about the 3-hour conference calls that they were on without a break. Sounds like torture to me. The thing to realize is some things don't translate well.

Remote Is a Different Work Medium

Before I get into how things don't translate, I just want to quickly put the question in your head, how many hours a week are you currently spending in online meetings? Is it just a couple hours a week? Is it a lot? Really think about, how many hours do you spend in online meetings? A lot of people spend more than 20 hours a week in online meetings. Crazy, but everybody's work is different. The thing to realize is that remote work is a different medium. I like to make the analogy with radio and television. Both are broadcasting mediums, but you would design content for each of the mediums differently. The same thing is true with remote and in-person. They're both work mediums, but we need to design how we interact with those mediums differently. For example, online, we express ourselves differently. We use emojis and GIFs sometimes to show what our bodies would do. We show appreciation differently. We give feedback differently. We build trust differently.

Another thing that happens is the structure of our workday changes. No longer are we confined to 9:00 to 5:00 but rather we can now spread things out and do things differently. One of the keys to this new medium is being more conscientious about how we use our time. A really easy place to start is by shortening our online meetings. If you're doing a 1-hour online meeting right now, just shorten it to 45 minutes, 50 minutes, take a 10 to 15 minute break in between. Give yourself a chance to stand up. Look at something far in the distance. Stretch your body out. All of those things. If you're needing to go longer, the recommended time is every 40 minutes or so, take a 5 to 10 minute break if your meetings are going longer. That's the low hanging fruit. One of the things you could change instantly that will have a positive effect on how you're working.

However, when we start to go a little bit deeper, or I would say along the maturity scale, we need to question, do we really need that meeting to begin with, or, can the conversation be done asynchronously? For example, if we're just doing status updates, maybe that could be posted in a Slack channel or using a tool like I Done This, or something like that. Or, if you're going to a meeting to just give a presentation, maybe consider recording the presentation before the meeting starts. Then having everybody watch it before the meeting, and using your valuable online time for discussions and decision making. Or, instead of brainstorming together online, have everybody brainstorm before they come to the session. Then use your valuable time online for discussions and decision making. Getting better at asynchronous communication means less interruptions and more control over our workday. More importantly, it means less meetings overall. It also has the added benefit of giving everybody time to process and reply to information instead of going with knee jerk reactions. Those are the ones that often get made in timebox meetings.

I have this little yin-yang symbol up here to connotate that the ratio of asynchronous and synchronous work is different for every company. The key question to ask is, what do we need to discuss online together? How can we use our time together wisely and minimize the number of synchronous meetings that we have? The better you can get with this, the more you can progress along the remote maturity scale, if that is what your company wants. The idea is we want to reduce the number of meetings we need, and improve the meetings that we have.

We just talked about reducing the number of meetings that we need, I want to move on to improving the ones that we have. One of the quotes from the interviews that I did years ago was from AgileBill Krebs, and he said, "People think they want to be co-located. What we really want is high bandwidth communication." We want to be talking to the people online as if they're in the room next to us. I like to make the analogy with Star Trek, we want to push a button and say, "Lisette to Bridge, report," and Bridge reports. There's no coffee shop sounds, or screaming children in the background. It's just crystal clear high bandwidth communication. In order to have that, we need to have a really good internet connection. Having good internet is surprisingly important for remote communication. I interviewed Maarten Koopmans, who is a physicist and software developer, and he said that bandwidth is like oxygen. It should always be in plentiful supply. It's one of the critical pillars for remote working. That is true because of the need to communicate with technology and the sophistication that technology is having with video, it is really important to have the bandwidth to be able to accommodate that.

One of the companies that I interviewed not too long ago was Envato. They're based in Australia. Their company was founded by digital nomads. The CEOs and founders, they encourage their employees to travel three months of the year, at least they did before COVID. The rule was if you're going to travel, you have to have an internet speed of 20 megabits per second, download and upload, otherwise, you're considered on vacation. That's how important internet connection is.

Improve Your Infrastructure

When we're going to be working in this hybrid mode, though, not only is internet important, but our infrastructure becomes really important and we need to improve that. There's really easy ways to do that as individuals: a good webcam, some lighting, a good headset, and all of that. That will go a long way for creating that crystal clear communication. In our offices, we also need to make an upgrade. If you're sitting in an office like this, and you've got one of those old spider phones in the middle of the table where you have to lean over like, "Bob, it's Lisette." Those are so 1980s. We can do a lot better. There is a lot better technology out there right now.

For example, a room such as this. Many systems can do room setups like this. What's important to note is that the remote participants are present in the room. They're not just teeny tiny boxes across the top of the screen, or worse, sitting in a spider phone in the middle. They are large and present. The in-person participants are sitting facing the remote participants, or at least in the circle to make it more inclusive. That's important. Both in-person and remote are able to see the information that's being shared. No more having the camera pointing at a whiteboard where nobody can see what's there. The technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated. We need to make sure that our conference rooms are going to be set up for this work, because hybrid is the most difficult work. If we're all remote, it's one thing. If we're all in-person, it's one thing. When we start to mix, technology becomes critical.

There is lots of great technology out there, like the Meeting Owl, which is a 360 degree microphone and camera that acts as that spider phone. What it does for the remote participants is that it shows everybody that's in the room, and then it focuses on the person who's spoken last, up-close, so that you really get an idea of what's there. We want to reduce the number of meetings that we need and improve the meetings that we have.

Train Your Team

The other thing I recommend, of course, is to train your team. However, it is really important. A lot of people think, remote work? It's pajama bottoms, slippers, and umbrella drinks. It is not, of course. There are new ways of behaving, new ways of expressing ourselves. Training can be really important in terms of discovering what those things could be for your team.

Explore New Ways of Being Present

Let's talk about, what does it mean to be present in the modern-day workforce? How do we go to work? Of course, it's very easy, the webcam, that's the obvious one. A lot of people don't like turning the webcams on. "I'm in my yoga clothes," or, "My hair is not looking good." I'll have to say, when we go to the office, you also have to present yourself. When we go online, it's also important to be visible, not in every single instance. However, maybe even in your meeting, you just turn the cameras on for the first 5 minutes to say hello, and then to say goodbye. In the middle, turn it off. In general, more people are turning the cameras on. I really believe that the future of remote work is all through video. It just undeniably adds to remote working experience.

Group Chat Channels

The other side of it, though, of course, is that asynchronous communication again. Group chat is a great platform for just keeping tabs on the pulse of the work being done at any given time, both past and present. This is like a rapid, lightweight approach that facilitates much better communication than email can. It's company-wide, so just making the breadth and the ability to reach more people a lot easier. One, use your group chat channels, and then get really good at group chat. There's all kinds of etiquettes about that. I've got more information on the Collaboration Superpowers website that you can explore about the etiquettes around group chat, the things that you need to know.

Virtual Co-working

Let's start to talk about how people are actually working together online and being present. I'm going to go from the most common which I've been doing, the video and the group chat, almost every remote team has that. Now we're going to start to get a little bit far out. I want to talk about the concept of virtual co-working, which is the same thing as physical co-working, where you're working together in the same space, together, except for you're doing it online. One of the teams that I interviewed at Spotify, they actually have offices all over Europe, and then also in New York. Their teams worked together for years using Google Hangouts, a couple of years ago. What they would do is they would have a Hangout open at all times that would just connect with the videos, but then they have the microphones on mute so they can see each other. When they wanted to speak, they just unmute, talk in to the group, and then go back. It simulates what it's like to work in the office together.

My colleague, Gretchen and I, we worked together for 9 years. What we would do is we would say hello for 5 minutes with the video on, then turn it off and just keep the sound on because the video was really distracting for us. It was nice to be able to hear each other like, "I'm working on something. Can I ask you a quick question?" Or just to feel that sense that somebody is around. There are also many apps now for this. One of them is Focusmate. You get paired with a random person in the world, and then you get together and you do an hour of work, and get together and talk about what you've done.

I want to show some other video ways of people that are working together. What this picture is, is a team, where they have two teams in two different offices. What they've done is set up video cameras in each office, and they've got the video and sound on all day, which simulates what it's like to be in the office together. Then on the other side of this board here, they've got their task board. They're using some Kanban system, or a Trello card system. Some system where they're going from, doing, done, review, and just putting the card so everybody can see where the work is at and talk to each other throughout the day, just like what it's like to work in the office together.

There's another team that I went and visited, where they have a huge office in Australia and another huge office in China. What they've done is just set up video monitors all over both offices, so that you can accidentally bump into somebody in China, when you're in the Melbourne office. They hold their daily standups here. They actually have video games that they play together. This is how they're trying to bring their offices closer together and their cultures closer together, so you can actually hang out with each other online.

Virtual Offices

We'll start to get a little bit into the far out now. With virtual co-working, there are a number of different virtual offices now on the market. A virtual office is exactly what it sounds like. It's an office that you go to online. One of the more widely virtual office platforms is called Sococo. When you log in, you see a floor plan. Each one of these individual boxes represents a room. Each one of these colored dots represents a person in that room. You can only hear and see the people that are in the same room as you, but you can see where everybody is on the virtual floor plan. If I wanted to go from this room over to this room over here, then all I would need to do is just double click on that other room and I would be there.

Telepresence

The next form of technology is telepresence technology. These are basically drivable robots. You would log in on Zoom, just like you normally would, except for that you would drive them using the arrow keys on your keyboard. You would just beam in, drive them. Use the arrow keys on your keyboard. This is Suitable Technologies office and they had 50% of their workforce come in, in the flesh, and 50% would beam in via robot. That is a possibility. It's something that people are doing.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is becoming more popular. The Oculus Quest 2 is about to come out, and that is starting to change the game because the cost of the equipment is becoming lower, and the sophistication of the technology is incredible. Virtual reality has been in existence for decades. It's been widely used in small circles for classes and conferences like with telepresence. It's also used for military simulations. It just hasn't been widely used in the business community yet. I think that that's going to be coming more, as we start to try to figure out, how can we bring ourselves closer together?

Rumii

There are lots of different apps now for remote workers on the market. This one's called Rumii. You put on your goggles. Go into your virtual conference room. Stand around your virtual board with your virtual colleagues, and have your standup meetings or any meetings, really. There are lots of different technologies out there that remote teams are experimenting with. It's not so far out.

Hologram Technology

The other thing that's coming, which is here, but it's really right around the corner is hologram technology, where you can actually just beam in and present as a 3D hologram. I know it sounds very far out. This is my Star Wars reference. I know it seems very far out. I promise, holograms are right around the corner. When the technology gets good enough, this could be a game changer.

Summary

What we talked about is we defined, what is normal behavior? What the expectations are for our team. What success looks like? We've talked about how we need to modify how we communicate together. We've talked about, how can we explore new ways of being present? The future of work is choice. The ability to choose on our companies how remote we want to be, and the ability for the individual to choose when and where to work. It turns out that having that choice is also surprisingly hard. There's no one right way. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. The reason is because working from home is both awesome and horrible. I should actually say working from anywhere, is both awesome and horrible. If you haven't seen the oatmeal comic, it is really worth seeing. It's very funny. Because when we work from home, all of a sudden, we have to put our own boundaries in place. That can be surprisingly hard.

I like to make the analogy for losing weight. Anybody that has lost weight knows the formula is easy. We just have to eat less and move more. The execution of that is surprisingly hard. Working from home, and having that work-life blend can also be surprisingly hard because we need to create proper boundaries for ourselves, and we need to maintain them ourselves. However, when we get it right, the payoff is huge. We as individuals get the freedom to design our own lifestyles and work when and where we're most productive. Companies get a stronger, more productive and connected workforce. As we go in and out of lockdowns around the world and try to navigate this new way of working together, we can at the very least use this opportunity to become remote first, where possible. Now is the time to set our teams up and ourselves up to succeed.

Resources

I've got a super kit available on the website for free. This will give you icebreakers, time zone tips, remote meeting tips, all kinds of things. You can just download that for free. I can give you a discount on the "Work Together Anywhere" handbook if you just use the code WTA30. There's the URL for that. I really encourage people to train your teams. It's not pajama bottoms and umbrella drinks. There's a little more to it than that. Getting the proper training that you need is really important.

 

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Recorded at:

Feb 07, 2021

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