Working on and supporting a virtual/remote team

A couple of my recent jobs — Palm and Cisco — involved working on teams where most of the members were remote and spread across the country, and in some cases overseas.

There are advantages and challenges to remote teams. A huge advantage is that members can live where they want and aren’t chained to desks, giving them more freedom to live their lives as they want — and there’s no commute, which in my case, freed up 90 minutes a day that were otherwise wasted driving, so I could spend more time working.

The big challenges to this environment is to keep everyone in good communication, and to build that camaraderie that helps a team work well together. Here are some of the tools and techniques I’ve found that have worked well.

The Team sync-up

One of the best ways I’ve seen to keep a team in sync is one of the oldest: at Cisco we had a weekly virtual staff meeting where we always did the following:
* Updates and basic info from the boss
* discussion of upcoming events and milestones
* round robin where everyone does a quick update and can raise issues/questions to the group, which generally turned into a later meeting for resolution
* A deeper dive into some topic by one of the team members

We kept these to one hour, generally on a 10-10-20-20 minute segment format, and things got delegated to offline resolution with updates back in the next meeting rather than having something bog down or sidetrack the entire team.

Doing this kind of sync up early in the week helps focus the work for that week; I like Tuesday morning, since Monday can too often turn into “sorry, have to fix what broke over the weekend” day and you want these meetings to happen reliably and get the team into a rhythm.

It takes some discipline: you need a timekeeper and a team willing to start on time and stay on focus and not ramble — but it works well and scales to larger groups pretty well (within limits, but we found it working with upwards of 20-25).

Online group conferencing

Working on a remote team takes a lot of communication between members, either 1-1 or in small groups around projects. Enabling that communication to work easily and without technical hassles is crucial.

Email is on the front line here, and frankly, it’s a poor tool for many of the jobs its asked to cover. there’s no common storage of info, there’s no way to know if what you have is current, and the challenge of keeping up with the inbox can become so time consuming and interruptive that you can’t focus on completing the task you’re supposed to be working on.

A while back I wrote a document on how to tame the e-mail monster as a tutorial to people who wanted help getting their inbox under control. I’ve found it amazing (and depressing) how many people aren’t using the basic tools email clients have, like folders and filters. A typical inbox contains a lot of things you know you don’t need to be interrupted for — so you can make email a lot more tolerable with some server side filters that shuffle those to holding place folders until you get around to reading them at a time of your choosing.

But you can only do so much with email to cut the noise. A bigger initiative we started was to try to retrain people to stop using email for everything. While I was there Cisco migrated to the Jive platform, which I really like, and they have their own product, Cisco Spark, which is a collaboration tool that is sort of like Slack, but different. The goal is to create spaces where groups can discuss things together or break out into sub groups for specific situations without it all going through and being archived in the email server data store.

Because that’s a huge problem for a couple of reasons: first, all of that historical knowledge is hidden in individual archives that only one person can access, and that person has to remember that the email existed and go find it, and when that person leaves the group? All of that knowledge is gone, or at best scattered across a dozen other archives where each has some partial bit of it. We all know people who save and archive every piece of email and have gigabytes stuffed onto the server (and their IT people hate them) — because it’s the only way they have to be able to access this stuff later, if they can remember how to find it.

Shifting this into a communal archive that everyone can access, and which gives you a complete and shared history of the group activity, is a huge advantage to teams. Tools like Jive and Cisco Spark or Slack are huge benefits to shifting this content from random hunks of disconnected data to a consolidated set of information that helps synchronize the team and gives you a permanent information set that all can use and new members that join the team later can reference to get up to speed.

Don’t believe me? Ask that person on your team who put half a day into a project only to be told that the spreadsheet had been updated a week ago, and oops, we forgot to add you to that email. Sorry.

What we did to help foster this post-email world was fairly simple and straightforward. We started with three team Jive spaces: one external facing to the rest of the company, one internal facing that was private to team members, and our watercooler. that allowed us to create a data store and update area that shared info with all of the company, an internal one for managing the group and holding our internal documents, calendars and information, and other status info.

Gather around the watercooler

The watercooler exists for all of the non-business related chatter that goes on in a real office. Just because you are remote doesn’t mean this stuff doesn’t matter — this is the cement that bonds individuals into a team and builds the camaraderie and friendships that make working with each other fun. Too often it gets ignored on remote teams, but it’s crucial to make a team run well.

At Palm, we built it on Campfire, and it was actually a huge aspect of the team staying sane as everything got crazy and then started circling the drain on us. It gave us an outlet to discuss the stress and challenges and relieve some of the tension, and it was a place where we could sit down and get to know each other, and when things got tough, that was the bond that kept us working together to find a way to fix it. Watching the Watercooler in action at Palm convinced me how crucial this kind of “let your hair down” space was to building positive attitudes on the team, so when I went shifted to Cisco, I suggested to my boss we do the same, he bought into the idea with enthusiasm, and off we went.

I originally created one, more or less as an experiment, using wordpress on a hosted server I had with the P2 theme, which is really kind of a micro-blogging, almost Tumblr-esque thing. It worked great initially with the team using it to share things they were doing away from work and generally chatting, but we found usage trailed over time because it wasn’t convenient — people had to remember to visit.

Convenience is a key among busy people, so when we had a chance, we created a watercooler spare on the Jive site and moved it there. That way as they used Jive for their other tasks it was there if they wanted to take a break and catch up, but it was out of the way if they were trying to focus and get a task done.

This separation is crucial, just like I think it’s crucial to teach your email system to cloister stuff you know can wait until you’re ready to get to it — because the more you co-mingle the work and non-work, the more the non-critical is given the same priority and interruption capability as the critical, the more you thrash and the less you are able to focus on the important stuff, because you’re spending more time and mental energy simply trying to figure out which pieces of info ARE important.

So it’s important you make some basic design decisions to help encourage this separation of important and chatter: and to me that means creating a chatter space is important to help teams bond and get to know each other, but you can’t do it in a way where that gets in the way of the primary tasks of the group. Make sure your team has a watercooler to head to when they need to break their focus for a bit — but don’t mingle it with the real work going on.

Excel, that thing you love to hate

It seems like the bigger the company, the more you can expect Excel to be a key tool in the toolbox — which is a mixed blessing on a number of levels. When you’re dealing with numbers, excel is great. When you find people using Excel for any number of tasks from Todo lists to full on customer databases, sometimes you just want to sigh, take them aside, and kick them in the ankle. Unfortunately, for many people, Excel is their hammer, and every bloody piece of data in the universe becomes a nail to be beaten into submission by it.

That problem isn’t easily solvable unless you can make other, better tools available, and management makes a commitment to “encouraging” Excel abusers to break the habit. The reality is, Excel works at this stuff, for some definition of work, and that’s not going away easily or soon.

There’s a bigger issue with Excel: it’s a single user, non-shared hunk of content. Which means it’s constantly being passed around in email or on a server, and it’s impossible to know if you have the current revision of the sheet, and god help you if two people update the same sheet separately and need to merge them together. As much as I wish people would use better tools than Excel for some of the tasks they wedge into it, the real problem is the logistics of non-sharable data in a collaborative environment.

We found what I feel was a pretty good answer for that: Smartsheet. Think of it as a collaborative, cloud-based Excel clone (because it is), where you can load the Excel doc into Smartsheet, share the content with a team, give some members edit abilities, and now, you have that data in a single location where it can be updated and shared and all of the sync and distribution issues go away.

We made it a habit that any time we saw a spreadsheet being passed around, we did the “why isn’t this in Smartsheet?” dance about it, and I ended up starting up a bit of a side business in taking spreadsheets from the tech-adverse and doing the import and cleanup for them.

What I found was that the tool worked very nicely for almost everything people commonly did with Excel; I can only remember one sheet that I sent back to someone because it wouldn’t work in Smartsheet, and most took between 5 minutes to validate data and a couple of hours to clean up the occasional import confusion.

In some ways, I think getting those random excel spreadsheets wandering around email threads and disappearing into archives and shifting them into cloud-collaborative forms might be even more useful than convincing people to shift conversations off of email into group environments like Jive or Slack. Lots of confusion and sync errors go away with this, and I saw nothing but good results. Like so many of these initiatives, though, it requires upper management to both support it and do some enforcement to help users make the shift and re-train their habits; if management doesn’t make these kind of changes a priority and push people to do it, inertia will keep them in the old habits and the shift will falter. It’s really up to them to set an expectation that these newer tools will be used — and use them as well.

Video and Web conferencing

One reality of a remote team is that to some degree or another, you’re going to rely on meetings, because the impromptu chat in the hallway isn’t going to happen, and email or slack simply doesn’t replace the ability to hash something out quickly that happens when you sit down and talk to each other.

So you don’t fight having meetings, you manage them. What I’ve found works is to always have an agenda before starting, even if that agenda is “we need to hash out a strategy for this bug, should only take 10 minutes”. Then keep to the agenda and limit how much people take the meeting down ratholes or turn it into ten minutes of a private conversation between two attendees that the rest of us have to live through. I like setting expectations on how long each agenda item should take, and if something starts running long, you can either wind it up and revisit it later, choose to defer other agenda items to a later time, or ask that a separate meeting be set up to dig into that item deeper and move on.

The key is that the agenda drives the meeting, not the discussion, and if the two start to diverge, the meeting owner needs to bring them back in line. That takes some active management, but it’ll help teach everyone to stay on focus and keep moving the meeting forward. As meeting owner you NEED to manage it.

After the meeting, distribute minutes. Ask someone at each meeting to take notes and distribute them — as meeting organizer you are the wrong person to also be the note taker, because you should be actively involved in the meeting and managing the agenda and time, so you’re busy. Share the minutes on the group or project boards to the wider audience, which will help keep everyone in sync who isn’t there — and please, don’t just ask the woman in the meeting to take notes. You realize how outdated that is, right? Rotate it around the team.

A short, two person meeting probably doesn’t need more than a one line agenda and it may not need minutes, but I think it’s still a good idea to follow it up with at least an email noting what was discussed and what was agreed to, so there’s a written record and both people have it for reference later.

Manage the meeting, or it manages you.

I think it’s important to set some expectations on meeting hygiene, like meetings start when they’re scheduled to start, not ten minutes late while we wait for everyone else to wander in, and end when they’re scheduled to end, not fifteen minutes into the next meeting. In some ways you have to teach people how to behave in meetings, and if you chronically allow people to be ten minutes late, they know they can be, and they will.

Also, if the agenda ends before the time scheduled is up, end the meeting and give the time back to your attendees. There is nothing quite so painful as running out of agenda 45 minutes into a one hour meeting and having people see that as an opportunity to add new topics on the fly that nobody has had time to prepare for or think about.

A key aspect of managing meetings is managing attendees. If you want your attendees to take meetings seriously, only invite them if they need to be part of the conversation. Attendee bloat is a serious issue in most organizations — and I often see a “we’ll have everyone here in case we need to ask someone a question” and then they wonder why so many people are muted or away from the computer or multi-tasking email in all of the meetings: we teach them the habit that most meetings are a waste of their time, because they are. Keep the attendee list as small as possible, and be respectful of his busy all of your people are.

In return, you can expect them to be paying attention to the meeting and be respectful of the group they’re meeting with but you can’t have it both ways: if you bring people in and waste their time, they’re going to react by attempting to recover some of that time for what they ought to be doing instead. This not only creates potential conflict situations when someone is shown to have not been paying attention and is asked to actually join the meeting they were attending, it also builds a mental habit that meetings are a waste of time and can be ignored, so people end up doing it even in meetings they need to be active in.

Online Meeting tools

You’re going to spend a fair amount of time in online conferences, so you want tools that work reliably. At Cisco, we obviously used WebEx, and I found it overall reliable and with a good feature set. I’ve also had good luck with Citrix’s Go to Meeting.

Other vendors? I’ve run into challenges with many of them. My doctor’s organization has recently implemented web conferencing so you don’t need to go into the office to meet with your doctor, which is great, in theory. But one three tries, one simply refused to work with us, one hung and booted one or the other of us out every five minutes, and for the third, it worked, but the doctor’s office had him between his camera and his brightly lit window, so my entire conversation with him looked like a bad ransom demand call in a horror movie. Whatever vendor you use, I think it’s a good idea to explore options and try them out over time in varying conditions (including on an iPad in an Starbucks tethered to your phone) to see how well they work when not in demo from a salesperson.

Which is a way to point out that the tools really matter, and that as a member of a meeting, you need to worry about the quality of your audio and video.

Video is crucial in these meetings: I think an organization should mandate that if you are in a meeting, you will have your video enabled unless there’s a technical reason you can’t.

Like, for instance, if you’re driving — but honestly, I think attending meetings while driving should be banned, because not only are you distracted, your retention of the meeting is reduced by the need to focus on driving; it’s an unfortunate reality of scheduling, but it means people in the meeting aren’t fully there and can’t look at what’s being presented, can’t look up information to contribute — in other words, you’re hampering the meeting by participating in it while involved in another activity. But in reality, this isn’t going away, but IMHO, it should.

I strongly recommend companies invest in buying everyone a good webcam (the Logitech C920 — $70 works fine for this) and a good audio headset. As someone who has some hearing loss in the voice ranges, I can tell you that when people show up in these meetings with headsets that sound like they’re on Mars or that pick up all off the noise around them (do NOT use the microphone in the Logitech unless you’re hosting a group at the computer — nobody likes hearing you type) it can make these kinds of meetings utterly painful. And use your mute button.

Because of my hearing, I’ve experimented with any number of headsets, including in-ear, one-ear and two ear versions. I’ve ended up using two-ear versions because I find don’t follow the conversation nearly as well using just one ear to listen and I find them more comfortable over time as well. The obvious options for these are Jabra and Plantronics and I’ve used models from both and think they’re okay (but often I had the UI of operating them), but I’ve ended up moving a bit upscale and I now use Sennheiser, which I feel has both better speakers for the audio and a cleaner audio with good noise rejection. For my desktop I use the Sennheiser SC 660 about $140) which is a USB-wired device I also use while recording podcasts, and I also have a bluetooth version of that ($140) that’s paired to my phone. When I’m at home, I connect via the computer, when I’m on the road, I’ll use the phone and then connect in the iPad to see what’s being displayed.

The Bottom Line on Web Conferencing

Use a reliable system, even if it costs a bit more money. Flakey services will drive your team nuts and reduce their productivity and morale.

Make video a requirement and remind people to turn their cameras on. Having the faces there and interacting makes for a stronger team over time and helps remind people to be in the meeting, not just attending it.

Audio matters, a lot. Don’t cheap out on your microphone and headset.

Be in the meeting, don’t just attend it. Multi-tasking is inevitable, but show respect to the other people attending. Meeting organizers need to be sensitive to your time and not invite you unless you’ll be an active participant, but you need to give feedback to them if the meetings aren’t useful and get yourself uninvited, rather than mute and ignore or simply don’t show up. Because it’s a big waste of everyone’s time if you don’t show up and they all wait 10 minutes for you because you didn’t really understand the purpose of the meeting.

Agendas. Minutes. It’s all about communication. Set expectations before, follow them during, and summarize after.

And realize that everyone has other things to do and not enough time to do them, and be respectful about that: keep meetings short, organized and on focus with the smallest audience needed to get the task done.

If you turn them into painful experiences, don’t get upset when people don’t treat them seriously and opt out or mute them on you. We’ve all been in this meeting and you don’t want to be the person trying to run it.

Google Docs, Dropbox, Box and their friends

I can hear readers of this yelling at their screens “but what about Google Docs and Google Hangouts?” — and yes, I know a lot of groups use these tools with good success, and they’re free.

I’ve worked with many vendors who drive their companies using them and they work well, to a degree. But there are challenges.

I find Google Hangouts problematic. It is better than trying to do it via Skype, except, of course, when it doesn’t work for obscure reasons. The big problem for me with Hangouts is it doesn’t scale to large groups well in my experience. You can run one with two people talking and many listening, but with 25 people equally participating? Not a fan.

And when you work with larger organizations like I’ve done, they can be squeamish about storing information in cloud-based systems they haven’t vetted for security, or with companies that might be competitors in some way. I once did a web redesign project where we were storing the project info and status in a Trello site, until the VP of IT found out, at which point it had to move to Excel stored on a Sharepoint (big sigh). But he had a legitimate worry of company sensitive information in a situation out of company control in a system they hadn’t researched.

Be sensitive to that. There are times when doing the Shadow IT dance makes sense, but there are times you need to be careful about company policies as well. While I don’t for a minute believe that a company like Google or Apple is monitoring content to snoop on competition, if you’re building a phone that is going to do battle with both companies, you have to think about wether using Google Docs — or iMessage, for that matter, pre-encryption — is a smart business practice.

There’s an advantage to cheap or free, but sometimes, you get what you pay for. What’s important is finding the tools that solve your problems, and do it reliably. an unreliable tool will kill productivity and morale, and that’s bad for whatever project you’re trying to accomplish.

The Executive Summary

Remote teams need to be handled differently than on-site ones; they need different tools and the management processes change somewhat. This is viewed as a problem by many managers, but in reality, it’s an opportunity: it opens you up to a larger group of competent people to add to your team, and it can make them more effective and efficient because they will be spending their time solving problems rather than driving to and from the place they work.

The people you hire onto these teams need to understand it’s not about playing on company time, and both sides need to come to grips with the idea that they’re there to solve problems, not put in 40 hours a week on a time clock.

It’s about accomplishing the task, not putting in the hours.

Remote teams need some tools to help turn them into happy and effective organizations: they need collaboration tools, written and verbal. They need the support tools like webcams and good headsets to enable that.

They also need management that treats their time with respect; meetings are a fact of life, probably even more than on-site groups, but can be rife with problems if you get into bad habits of letting meetings ramble or casting too wide a net on attendees.

Be respectful of your team, be efficient with your use of their time, and ask them to respect the team back in their activities, but you need to earn that respect, not order it.

I used to recommend organizations set aside periods of time, like Thursday afternoon, as “no meetings” so people have some focus time. In practice, this has never worked, because outside groups see that time as an opportunity, and organizations seem incapable of the “okay, we can schedule this meeting in just this once because it’s important” problem. So before you know it, it’s back to normal.

Instead, I now tell individuals to create focus blocks in their calendar by blocking out time where they can and not allowing meetings to creep into those blocks, but managing a calendar in this kind of environment is important enough to be its own posting some day.

And ultimately, making a remote team work comes down to a few key concepts: good tools, good communication, taking care in organization and execution, and respect for people’s time.

And when one of these teams clicks, it’s almost magical…