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QCon Plus: Summary of the Remote Working Track

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The QCon Plus conference ran over three weeks in November, 2020. On Tuesday 17 November, Travis McPeak hosted the Best Practices for Remote Work track, aimed at sharing the learnings from world class remote companies about how to leverage remote working for the benefit of employees, customers and the organisation as a whole.

The first talk was by Anne Ricketts, founder of Lighthouse Communications & Communication Coach, titled Mastering Virtual Communication. She started by reflecting on lessons she has learned from being thrown into having to use virtual communication for most interactions:

  1. Stop comparing - accept that different mediums require different techniques
  2. Virtual communication requires more intention and planning
  3. There are techniques which can make virtual communication more productive and engaging and enjoyable

She then focused on explaining some of these techniques.

The first area she addressed was connection. She says that:

Connection is the foundation of communication.

In the virtual space there are some keys to creating connection in virtual events, both large and small. For small groups she recommends:

  • Encouraging people to unmute themselves - let everyone feel able to speak freely
  • Doing a 5-10 minute deep check-in with topics such as share the happy/crappy parts of your week, or share embarrassing/significant moments that have happened since the last time the group was together. When the facilitator models vulnerability by going first and being open about their real feelings, it encourages others to do so

For large groups she recommends:

  • Playing music
  • Encouraging people with a chat prompt - for instance, hold up a sign asking people to respond in a chat window with what makes a great virtual meeting?

She then explored the idea of deliberately establishing your online presence. She identified elements such as having video on, being careful about virtual backgrounds, the impact of lighting, being aware of camera angle and framing the image and looking directly at the camera.

Virtual meeting presence

She then explained the importance of brevity in online meetings. Focus on making space for others and getting to the point. Ensure the meeting has a clear goal, has a sharp agenda that is explicit about what will be covered (ideally expressed as a list of questions to be solved), keep the attendees to just the people who have a reason to be there and keep the meeting short.

She suggested a speaking structure to help keep content brief - PREP:

  • Point - put your point first
  • Reason - explain your reasoning quickly
  • Example - provide an example which reinforces your point
  • Point summarized - summarize your point succinctly

She then discussed the challenge of having people participate in virtual meetings. She identified the top three participation challenges as:

  1. Audience looks disengaged
  2. Same people always talk
  3. Awkward silences

To overcome these she suggested the following ideas:

  • Engage the audience at least every five minutes - asking for clear physical signals in response to a question or statement
  • Put people into breakout rooms in pairs or small groups to share ideas and then summarize back to the larger group
  • Reframe your thinking about silence as a productive pause to give people the time they need to reflect rather than feeling silence as pressure

 

The second talk was by Lisette Sutherland, author of Work Together Anywhere. She spoke about Navigating the New Remote Normal, exploring how to be successful as hybrid teams and what it means to be truly present at work today.

She acknowledged the bumpy ride we have experienced as companies were forced into remote working by the COVID-19 pandemic which was definitely not the type of remote working which had been the trend before then. Remote working under pandemic conditions is not the same as normal remote work. She said that:

Even seasoned remote workers were experiencing stress and disruption to their day.

Despite this, she says that we have figured out that remote working is not only possible; for some people, in some instances it is preferable.

In her speaking engagements over the last months she has been polling the audience about their desire to go back to working in the office with three choices - all in-person work, all remote work, hybrid of in-person and remote. The overwhelming response has been a desire for hybrid working environments where people can spend some days in the office and some working remotely.

Everybody wants the freedom to choose when and where they are most productive - the future of work is choice.

She discussed the remote working scale and how companies range from being fully in-person to fully distributed with nomads. She pointed out that irrespective where you are on the scale, all organisations need to be prepared to become remote-first if needed. She emphasised that there is no one right way - every organisation, team and individual is unique and the approach should be as unique as the people in the organisation.

She identified three steps that teams need to take to adapt to the new way of working:

  1. Define what is normal and expected
  2. Modify how we communicate
  3. Explore new ways of being present

One of the most important steps for a team to define what is normal is to craft a team agreement which provides guidelines for expectations on each other, how they work together, the tools they use, protocols for using those tools, and how they hold each other accountable. She pointed out that moving to remote work inherently requires a shift from time/activity-based working to results-based working.

She discussed the situation where, at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, many companies tried to replicate the in-person environment remotely, which resulted in unsustainable levels of online meetings, Zoom fatigue and disengagement. She pointed out that remote work is a completely different type of work medium to in person, so we need to design how we communicate to accommodate the new medium.

One tip is to simply shorten our online meetings - reduce standard meeting times from 60 minutes to 40-45 minutes. Also be prepared to challenge the need for a meeting at all - for instance, instead of a status meeting, share status information asynchronously in a collaboration tool. How many meetings can be replaced with asynchronous communication?

She says that:

Getting better at asynchronous communication means less interruptions and more control over our work day, and less meetings overall.

The goal is to reduce the number of synchronous meetings we need and to improve those that we do have.

She emphasized the importance of good internet connectivity with high bandwidth for successful remote working. For hybrid working environments, it becomes important to upgrade the office technology infrastructure to enable remote participants to participate equally. Hybrid working is the most difficult way of working and good technology infrastructure is crucial for effective hybrid working.

Regarding presence in the modern workplace, she pointed out the minimum requirement is for people to turn their cameras on. Without the video interaction it is really difficult for people to engage effectively.

She pointed out the value of group chat tools for asynchronous interaction and the importance of having good etiquette around the use of group chat.

She then explained different approaches that organisations and teams are using for virtual coworking to bring people closer together despite being separated. These range from simple pair working with a video call open, to having cameras and large monitors in offices, to virtual office tools such as Sococo, to telepresence and virtual reality. She pointed to hologram technology as something that could be a game changer for remote presence.

She concluded by reinforcing her assertion that:

The future of work is choice - the ability for companies to choose how remote they want to be and the ability of the individual to choose when and where they want to work.

She pointed to The Oatmeal comic on why working from home is both awesome and horrible.

 

The third talk on the track was by Maria Gutierrez, Sr director of engineering and co-site lead at Intercom London, and Glenn Vanderburg, executive director at RE/MAX. Titled Intentional Distributed Teams, the talk explored what it means to take an intentional approach to forming and nurturing distributed teams, rather than the responsive approach which was the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They started by recapping the situation as it was at the end of 2019, with many companies experimenting with remote work but generally not on a large scale. Then in early 2020, COVID-19 caused companies to immediately shift to a fully-distributed, remote mode of working and they generally coped better than what was expected. They emphasised that this situation is not the norm, and that as the pandemic recedes the new normal will combine elements of the pre-pandemic approach and leverage what we have learned from the disruptive shifts in 2020.

Employees and employers have recognised the opportunities that remote working offer and they want to retain those benefits going forward, while also gaining back the benefits of in-person working. They said that:

In order to compete for top talent, employers need to get good at supporting remote workers and integrating them into their cultures.

Given this they said that it is time to be intentional about distributed teams.

They highlighted the benefits that intentional remote working can achieve:

  • Improved communications using asynchronous tools appropriately
  • Access to a larger pool of people and more flexibility around individual needs
  • Greater diversity and inclusion

They then identified the potential downsides and pitfalls that need to be taken into account:

  • This change requires serious commitment - half-hearted efforts will result in a worse experience for all involved
  • You need a critical mass of remote team members - avoid the single special case person to ensure that remote team members truly feel equal and part of the team and organisation
  • Remove any perceived glass ceilings that impact growth for individuals
  • Aim for compatible work styles/preferences
  • Treat people fairly and equitably irrespective of their working location
  • Bring people together and use that time for both social interaction and team cohesion

The best use of face-time for a distributed team is to get to know each other better which increases empathy and improves communication.

They emphasized the importance of ensuring that all members of the team feel that they are equal, which is a particular risk in a hybrid model - if any members of the team are remote the whole team needs to adopt a distributed style of work, using the same tools. They pointed out the importance of standardising on the best possible tools and identifying common practices for using the tools.

They then discussed the need for organisations to decide on the level of flexibility they want to support, from allowing some remote work to full work-from-home. They pointed out the importance of understanding the legal implications of the chosen approach, particularly when exploring having people work from locations outside of the country/state where the company is incorporated. Different countries/states have different privacy, employment and tax laws which may need to be taken into account.

They encouraged employers to identify the factors they want to optimise for and to carefully consider the approach to remote working based on the important factors. Employees in the era of remote working have far more options and employers need to ensure the value proposition they present is attractive to the people they want to engage. Employees care more about mission, culture and flexibility than they do about location today, so these need to be communicated clearly to current and future employees.

They pointed out that there is still a lot of learning that needs to happen for employers and employees, so be intentional, identify goals, do experiments, learn and adapt.

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