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InfoQ Homepage Presentations QCon Remote Teams Panel: Opportunities, Challenges and New Practices

QCon Remote Teams Panel: Opportunities, Challenges and New Practices



Kaleem Clarkson, Anjuan Simmons and Tammy Bjelland discuss remote work, personal experiences they have had including the good, the not-so-good, and the downright disasters.


Kaleem Clarkson is chief operating officer at blendmeinc. Anjuan Simmons is engineering coach at helpscout. Tammy Bjelland is the founder and CEO of Workplaceless.

About the conference

QCon Plus is a virtual conference for senior software engineers and architects that covers the trends, best practices, and solutions leveraged by the world's most innovative software organizations.


Hogbin: I'm wondering if we can just do a quick round robin on who you are, and what your session was.

Simmons: I'm an engineering coach at Help Scout. I gave a talk on managing scattered teams.

Bjelland: I'm Tammy Bjelland. I'm the founder and CEO of Workplaceless. My session was on balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication for more effective virtual teams.

Clarkson: I'm Kaleem Clarkson. The session that I talked about was how to evaluate the remote employee experience. I'm with a consultancy called Blend Me, Inc. We help improve the remote employee experience.

Hogbin: My name is Emma Hogbin. I am with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is a very long way of saying I write software for disaster response.

The Dangers of Lacking a Common Terminology for Describing Teams

We've had a few different ways of describing teams. Anjuan, I loved your term for scattered, as opposed to hybrid, or remote, or distributed, or those kinds of things. I'm wondering maybe if you can tell us a little bit about the danger of not having a common term or not having a way of everyone understanding what that word means. It's like with remote and hybrid, and work from home. What do you think the dangers are for not having that common terminology?

Simmons: Standards are important. We all work in software, some may be working in hardware. We think about your USB devices, whether it's a USB camera, or a USB microphone, USB anything, there's a standard connector that you know it's just going to work. If you don't have that standard vocabulary, then you've risked having incompatibility in just concepts. The beauty of having a common terminology, a common vocabulary, is that it's easy to just talk. You get past defining terms, and the terms are understood by all, that you can get past the vocabulary and get into the heavier concepts. That's why it's so important that we all are consistent in terminology, because we risk confusion if we don't have a shared understanding of what these words mean.

Hogbin: Do either of you want to disagree with that?

Bjelland: Definitely do not want to disagree. Just want to make it clear that that is definitely a benefit of having that shared understanding of language. There is a danger in avoiding coming to agreement of what those terms mean. I think that having this question be the first question is important, because to make effective remote work a possibility you need to first define what that means. I think introducing new terms is fine and good, especially because there are different connotations to different terms. As long as everyone has a shared understanding of what that means, that isn't necessarily a detriment. I would caution against not accepting other terms or not identifying with other terms.

One of the things that we commonly see with organizations is refusing to accept that they should follow remote proven practices, because they say that they are not remote if not everybody is remote. There's a danger in that. We tend to see it with organizations claiming that they're hybrid, and so they can't possibly be remote. That is not really the case. Hybrid is just a filler term to designate some people are in the office, and some people are working remotely. You can call it scattered, but you need to be really specific about what that means in your organization. Having that conversation is really the first opportunity to invite everyone involved to think differently about how work is getting done.

Clarkson: Personally, I don't like scattered. We got to have a little friction right away. Scattered to me feels disjointed. It feels not organized. I personally don't like that term. I feel as an industry, it would be great if we all got together and agreed on terms. I know it's impossible. I know it's not the case. To me, when you talk about remote work/telework, I always give homage to the original term because I like history. I feel that there are different models of remote work/telework. I feel that there are different models of those, whether it's fully distributed, all-remote, hybrid-remote is an actual thing, not just hybrid. Telecommuting is still a thing. As an industry, we're an industry, we're a new industry. We haven't been around like the statistical association, stats or psychology association. All our faculty folks, Harvard folks, researchers, hopefully in the next 10 or 15 years, we're going to have some of these things defined. We all know what an office is. We don't have to have this debate on, office doesn't mean that or whatever. To me, I think it's crucial for all of us to move forward, because when companies are talking about, come work for our hybrid company. Right now, we've seen all these crazy definitions of what hybrid could mean. It could mean one day a week working remotely. To me, that's 100% non-hybrid. I think definitions are critical. I think we're in a new space, that's new and it hasn't been defined yet. Hopefully, leaders, advocates, and everybody, researchers can eventually come to some agreement as to what each one of those models actually are.

Simmons: I definitely think definitions matter. I do think we need to be crisp in our definitions. The fact that you have definitions means that you can build on top of them. Think about restaurant. Every restaurant is going to have pots, pans, spatulas, spoons, heaters, it doesn't mean you're making all the same food. That means that those basics are in place so that someone can come along, like me, and then say, "I'm seeing something that looks scattered." I'm not trying to redefine things. I'm trying to add on top of the definitions and observation that we have people who were in offices working every day, who found themselves at home with their kids who were normally at school, maybe with a partner, who was also working with them. It's loud. They're having trouble getting work done. The way that they work is totally disrupted. That's scattered. I like that you're not comfortable with that, because it's not comfortable. I think that we have to be honest, that people, and often the tops of companies are trumpeting, "We're remote now." I'm like, really? Because that's not what the people who I talk to are saying. I think being honest and saying people feel like they've been thrown out into the wind is an honest way of describing the lived experiences of people. When you do that, you say, let's get good concepts into place to make this truly a remote environment where people can actually thrive.

Handling Conversations Where Some Parties Have Nothing to Contribute

Hogbin: You've got a difficult situation, what do you do when you can't walk over to the person's desk and have that calm, considered conversation when it gets really heated? Laura asks, creating relationships with your direct reports is very important. How do you make this connection with people who come to one-on-ones and say, "Don't have anything to talk about?" I've been here. How can you manage when your managers are asking you to micromanage your team? Who want to jumps in first, for those one-to-one conversations? This is not specific to remote, distributed, scattered, whatever you want to call it. This is a tough person question. How do you handle those conversations where the person says, I don't have anything to talk about, and you hope that they do?

Simmons: I've been there. I've had people, usually people who I'm newly managing, I don't have that relationship in place. They come and they just sit there. They're like, I don't really have anything to say today. You have to take ownership. You're the manager. You should manage the situation. Lara Hogan has created a great set of initial one-on-one conversations. Some of the things that are on the list are things like, "Hello, person I'm managing, how do you like to receive feedback?" Or, "Hello, person I'm managing, how do you like me to be involved in your work?" You can Google, Lara Hogan, first one-on-one questions. Ideally, these questions are being received by the person who you're asking, as I am interested in you. I want to get to know you, because I can only help you be successful, if I know you. I'm setting up these one-on-one sessions, so that I can be a better manager and support for you.

You got to put in the work. You have to show up every one-on-one, ready to talk. As you do the work and form the relationship, then you're going to see them open up. I've seen this happen over again, where if you provide a service to this person through the one-on-ones, then they will begin to see them as valuable. If someone said, I'll give you 100 bucks if you meet with me weekly, very few people are going to be like, "No, I'm good." They're going to be like, "Yes, I'm going to show up and get that 100 bucks," because they see the value. You have to make your one-on-ones valuable for your people. They see the best things that they want to invest time in building.

Bjelland: Those one-to-ones are a really valuable time to connect. In my presentation, I talked about this hierarchy of tasks that you can accomplish with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication. The hardest type of task to do asynchronously is really forge connections and really learn about who we are as people, and develop those deeper connections that allow us to continue that level of trust. Because that's how interpersonal trust is developed, is by developing those connections. Those one-on-one conversations should be the most valuable meetings that you have, because you are able to develop a much deeper sense of connection and trust than in any other type of meeting. If you go into those one-on-ones with that in mind, my primary goal is connecting. Then my secondary goal is supporting individual issues as they come up right now. You can adjust that level of priority depending on what is going to happen in the one-on-one. If an issue comes up and that needs to become the priority, that's fine. If you have nothing to talk about, always default back to that goal of connecting.

Clarkson: A lot of times in these one-on-ones, people are focused on the job, like what you're doing in the job. It makes sense. There's a colleague of mine, Garrett Rokosh, who does a lot of workshops on candor, like building a candor culture, and building meaningful connections. Asking most people who are in these transactional conversations, I'm 23 years old. I'm from New York. Conversations like that. Versus a question like, what's on your heart today? What are you struggling with? What are you passionate about? You don't have to talk about work to build connections, actually, probably build more connections not talking about work. Going into these meetings, for me, especially in a remote work setting where you're not around each other, to feed off people's energies and body language and stuff like that, it's more important to get to know the person. I would go in there with more questions around the connection, trying to dig deeper. Because somebody could just go on this whole limb of, "This whole George Floyd thing is just crushing my soul. I can't even think about work. Can you believe that that happened?" That conversation is going to be way more valuable to you than any type of, "What are the challenges you're having at work today?" Those are all transactional.

Hogbin: There's been a couple references to the list of questions. The question I use in my one-on-ones, which I have weekly with everyone on my team, I generally start it off with, how has your week been? They can choose to give me personal. They can choose to give me work. We sometimes talk exclusively about the personal side. We sometimes talk exclusively about the work side. Sometimes it's a mix. Sometimes I just sort of, yes, not really much happening this week. That's it. It's a 5-minute phone call that week, but we always have that time reserved. It doesn't have to be always one topic or always the other.

Criteria for Calculating Remote Workers' Comp

I'm going to start with, salaries for remote workers. I don't know if folks will have strong opinions on this one, whether they should be based on where the person lives or not. I certainly know our company's policy for lack of a better way of saying it. If anyone has anything that they want to jump in on this one?

Should salaries be based on where you're living and the cost of living for where you are? Certainly for me, it's basically a government organization and we've got a standard across the board, this is what this job is worth. Then we have a bump in pay if you're living in a more expensive region, but it's not a deduction in pay if you're living somewhere that's got a lower cost of living.

Simmons: At Help Scout, and I agree with my CEO, Nick Francis, is that we pay a rate based on the Boston Market, no matter where you live. We do not penalize people who want to live in rural areas, who want to live in other parts of the world. We believe that people should be paid for the work that they do, and doesn't matter where they live. Yes, I'm very passionate about this.

Clarkson: Originally, I was right on board with what he was saying. Then the more I thought about it, the more I believe that you can't pay everyone the same. Actually, just to start off with, I don't believe everyone should be paid the same, just in general. That's because you're basically incentivizing the underperformers. If everyone's the same, you're not incentivizing the people that work really hard. That's my first point there. Secondly, I do believe that you have to take into account where people live. As far as my favorite model, and I love Buffer, I reference Buffer all the time, their open salary calculator is amazing. What they do is they create a base rate that all positions earn for that task. Let's just use $50,000, for simplicity. $50,000, for an engineer is the base rate. Then you get a percentage based on where you live. Then you get a percentage based on how long you've been there. Then you get a percentage based on your performance reviews. The key I feel like for all of these things that we're talking about, is that it's transparent, and people know before they even apply for the job. I just think it does make sense. There's a lot of unintended consequences of paying one rate, no matter where you live. I'm just concerned that you're going to have a situation where maybe people are not looking to hire people from New York, people are looking not to hire people from San Francisco. I'm just a little afraid of some of the unintended consequences that could come from that.

Simmons: There are no perfect systems. There's no one way of paying people that has no downsides. I do think that one of the unintended consequences of paying people differently is that historically, we've paid women, not as fairly as we've paid men. We've paid black people, not as fairly as we've paid non-black people. One way to get away from that, to abstract a lot of the biases and the history behind that is to have, "We pay this rate, that's the same for everyone." I'd rather have the unintended consequence of maybe a low performer being paid more than a high performer. Honestly, if you have low performers, they probably shouldn't be working at your company anymore. There's a way to remedy that. There's no perfect system. We also have salary bands, meaning that we have levels and then bands within levels that are all publicly known. One of the major benefits is that we get away from a lot of the things that cause pay disparity based on race and based on gender.

Bjelland: There is no perfect formula for determining a total rewards package. Every organization is going to have different needs. I can't say a blanket statement saying, this is the right way to do it for this type of company, or this type of company. I will expand a little bit on what Kaleem was saying in that transparency into compensation calculation and practices. I think that will have an enormous effect on individuals who are seeking jobs, and they have information that they can use to really weigh their options. That's the exciting impact I see is that there's more information out there. People have different models for calculating compensation. That's exciting from the people and HR perspective is that there's all sorts of different ways to do it. I think we're exploring lots of different formulas and options. I think that's good for organizations, and it's good for employees as well.

Clarkson: The one thing I did want to comment on that is, I 100% agree with you, as far as equal pay for women and minorities as well. The whole point of that calculator is it's a mix. Every engineer gets paid $50,000, period, and then those other things are all calculated, so that your home [inaudible 00:24:21] can't make much just because it's a thing that's visible, that's math without emotion. To me, I feel like there is a world that can have a happy medium. A lot of people really feel weird about public salaries. I don't know why. We have this thing that everyone can't know how much money I make, but every government job, public salaries are posted. If you're in a company and you're thinking about it and you're hesitant, don't trip. It is standard practice in government, and government is the U.S.'s largest employer.

Practical Tips for People across Multiple Time Zones

Hogbin: The question is basically saying, practical tips for people who are across multiple time zones.

Bjelland: This is definitely where asynchronous communication can really come and make a huge difference in that visibility and accessibility into information and also collaboration. That difference in time zones that you shared in the chat, that's very significant. The odds of being able to get everybody in the same Zoom or video conference room at the same time, on a regular basis is just not practical. Also, it is not productive, and can have a negative impact on employee well-being, and really being able to set boundaries and have autonomy over their work schedule. That is the benefit of remote work is being able to have more autonomy. Really doubling down on trying to improve asynchronous communication practices, and relying less on synchronous communication practices.

When I talk about that balance, I'm not talking about async all the time, forever and ever, never getting on a Zoom call. That is not what I mean. What I mean is if you can shift some of your current communication practices to asynchronous, think about the time that you're able to save. You can use some of that time savings to instead spend that synchronous time connecting with one another, doing some really complicated problem solving that does need multiple voices in the same room at the same time. It's about achieving a better balance. Just like with the compensation formulas, there's no perfect and ideal balance that is universal for all teams and organizations. It's really going to be on a one-on-one or an individual basis when it comes to what does improving that balance mean, and what are we striving for?

Clarkson: Let's put the asynchronous stuff aside, because that's obviously awesome. That's how you have to roll. If you want to do this right, you have to just be like, people are going to respond when they can. Plain and simple. Let's just pretend that we need to meet. I'm part of the Drupal community. I'm part of a working group called the event organizers' working group. It's a global working group. We host our meetings on Zoom every month. Because we want to be international, we're using UTC time, 12 a.m. and 12 p.m., UTC. Some people are going to be able to make it, some people are not. We did buy that as everything about remote work and hybrid is about trying to bring everyone equal. That's why we talked about in hybrid, all your meetings should be on Zoom versus have people in the office. If you are going to do that because there are going to be times, like Tammy said, you're going to have to have some synchronous meetings eventually, just share the pain. For some calls, I'm up at 5 a.m., once every other month, I got to get up at 5 a.m., and 6 a.m. Share the pain.

Simmons: I just want to plus everything that Kaleem and Tammy said. At Help Scout we do try to default to async. For example, our daily standups are in a Slack channel where everyone when they wake up and they can give their update, they share their standups in that Slack channel. We have daily standups in Slack, async. When we ever have to have a conversation, we create a document that is shared and made open for comments, so people can when it works for their time zone, add to that document. We very much have strong async practices. Again, Tammy, to your point, there are certain things that we do need to get synchronous on. We do have a weekly sync meeting across both of my teams. This practice was pretty much well established at Help Scout in general. We get on a Zoom, and we chat about the state of the work, where it is, and especially anything that's really complicated that does not lend itself to offline discussion. That's where we have those conversations. I think, knowing when you really need to get everybody in the same place, and at the same time, and knowing when you can be async. That's a lot of the art and the science of working remotely.

Then, like you said about sharing the pain, that when we have those sync meetings, we try to rotate it so that everyone's not always paying the price of having to get up early or stay late. There are times where certain people do have to take a cut. I love that concept. I think that that's an often not well known concept, is that you shouldn't have any region always paying the price, always being the one that is made uncomfortable. You should let everyone get the opportunity to share that. I love that idea of sharing the pain. I think that more people need to think that way when you have a scattered team.

Hogbin: I'm going to throw in this one on mine in terms of our time zones, because we certainly go all around the world. My general approach is management should have the worst time of it. I should never as a manager ask my direct reports to be showing up in a time that's not convenient for them, so I was trying to take the burden of the pain, which sometimes means I'm a little bit grumpy in my meetings. They have to help me with self-care to remind me to take some time off if the 7 a.m. meeting is not quite jiving with me anymore.

Clarkson: Once you get that super cup of coffee, it feels pretty good.

Bjelland: Don't assume what other people's preferences are. My preference is to have meetings during typical working hours in my time zone. For team members of mine that are caregivers, for instance, that might not be the best time for them. Having a shared space where everyone shares what their preferences are, and their availability for meetings, I think is really key. Don't ever assume that your preferences are somebody else's preferences.

Clarkson: Survey, when are you the most productive? You got to do it, during the pandemic and after.

Simmons: That's one of those early one-on-one questions, which is asking that.

Should Cameras be Mandatory?

Hogbin: I promised that I would ask the camera on, or camera off, should camera be mandatory? The camera question. I'm hoping that Tammy you'll reference the pyramid, because I bet there will be different times when a camera may be more mandatory than other times.

Bjelland: This is one of those things that I actually changed my opinion on from before the pandemic to during the pandemic. Before the pandemic I was absolutely cameras on. That is the way to generate those connections and to see the human beings behind the screen. During the pandemic, when everyone was on-screen for literally every single social interaction, like to meet with friends, to meet with family, I myself as a Zoom veteran, I was exhausted. I did not want to be on camera anymore. I still don't really want to be on camera anymore. I've absolutely changed my tune when it comes to cameras on. I think that when you are first meeting people, it really is helpful. When you're developing that relationship with other people, I think it's absolutely helpful.

With team members that I'm working with all the time, we connect by phone now. We don't need to have that camera on all the time, because what's really important is identifying what that purpose of that interaction is. If it's connecting and it's generating that initial connection, I think that cameras on is helpful. For many other purposes, you don't need to have cameras on. Definitely turn your own camera view off, if you have that functionality available to you, because seeing yourself on camera, the research shows that it does have a negative impact on your overall being. Depending on who you are, there's no blanket statement for anything. That's my take on it is, use cameras when it will have a noticeable impact on developing those relationships and connecting, otherwise you can use sparingly.

Simmons: I'm totally with you. I think it's chef's choice. If having your camera on works for you, have it on, if it doesn't, turn it off. I think that we all stare at this Eye of Sauron every day, this webcam eye, this all-seeing eye looking at you. We are just learning about how hectic that is, all day long and having to get ready and having to be on, that's exhausting. Some people thrive in it. Some people are like, I just want to just be able to be in my PJs and not worry about how I look. That's cool too. Do what works for you.

Clarkson: I'm still in my PJs. I just got a fancy shirt on. I love [inaudible 00:35:59] before cameras off meetings. I think if you're a manager or an administrator, I think setting the default of cameras off just in general is a good idea. I really do love the idea of having scheduled cameras off meetings. I think it significantly helps. I think it's great. I was a cameras on all the time. Like, you must do it because we're trying to stay engaged. It wasn't until I attended this Workplaceless, about BIPOC professionals in the remote sense. Me being a BIPOC professional I didn't even think of it. Everyone doesn't have an environment where the camera can be turned on where they feel comfortable. We've talked about psychological safety and feeling like you can be yourself at work. Everyone has different situations, and I never once thought of that, one time. When someone said that I was like, there's inequities in just that. I think [inaudible 00:37:15]. We're learning every single day. Cameras off meetings I think are important.


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Recorded at:

Feb 18, 2022