Tag: remote work

Working and leading remotely

As MoodleNet Lead, I’m part of a remote team. If you look at the org chart, I’m nominally the manager of the other three members of my team, but it doesn’t feel like that (at least to me). We’re all working on our areas of expertise and mine happens to be strategy, making sure the team’s OK, and interfacing with the rest of the organisation.

I’m always looking to get better at what I do, so a ‘crash course’ for managing remote teams by Andreas Klinger piqued my interest. There’s a lot of overlap with John O’Duinn’s book on distributed teams, especially in his emphasis of the difference between various types of remote working:

There is a bunch of different setups people call “remote teams”.

  • Satellite teams
    • 2 or more teams are in different offices.
  • Remote employees
    • most of the team is in an office, but a few single employees are remote
  • Fully distributed teams
    • everybody is remote
  • Remote first teams
    • which are “basically” fully distributed
    • but have a non-critical-mass office
    • they focus on remote-friendly communication

When i speak of remote teams, i mean fully distributed teams and, if done right, remote-first teams. I consider all the other one’s hybrid setups.

Using these terms, the Open Badges team at Mozilla was ‘Remote first’, and when I joined Moodle I was a ‘Remote employee’, and now the MoodleNet team is ‘Fully distributed’.

Some things are easier when you work remotely, and some things are harder. One thing that’s definitely more difficult is running effective meetings:

Everybody loves meetings… right? But especially for remote teams, they are expensive, take effort and are – frankly – exhausting.

If you are 5 people, remote team:

  • You need to announce meetings upfront
  • You need to take notes b/c not everyone needs to join
  • Be on time
  • Have a meeting agenda
  • Make sure it’s not overtime
  • Communicate further related information in slack
  • etc

[…]

And this is not only about meetings. Meetings are just a straightforward example here. It’s true for any aspect of communication or teamwork. Remote teams need 5x the process.

I’m a big believer in working openly and documenting all the things. It saves hassle, it makes community contributions easier, and it builds trust. When everything’s out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide.

Working remotely is difficult because you have to be emotionally mature to do it effectively. You’re dealing with people who aren’t physically co-present, meaning you have to over-communicate intention, provide empathy at a distance, and not over-react by reading something into a communication that wasn’t intended. This takes time and practice.

Ideally, as remote team lead, you want what Laura Thomson at Mozilla calls Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, meaning that you don’t just get your ducks in a row, you have self-organising ducks. As Klinger points out:

In remote teams, you need to set up in a way people can be as autonomously as they need. Autonomously doesn’t mean “left alone” it means “be able to run alone” (when needed).

Think of people as “fast decision maker units” and team communication as “slow input/output”. Both are needed to function efficiently, but you want to avoid the slow part when it’s not essential.

At the basis of remote work is trust. There’s no way I can see what my colleagues are doing 99% of the time while they’re working on the same project as me. The same goes for me. Some people talk about having to ‘earn’ trust, but once you’ve taken someone through the hiring process, it’s better just to give them your trust until they act in a way which makes you question it.

Source: Klinger.io (via Dense Discovery)

Dealing with the downsides of remote working

A colleague, who also works remotely, shared this article recently. Although I enjoy working remotely, it’s not without its downsides.

The author, Martin De Wulf, is a coder writing for an audience of software engineers. That’s not me, but I do work in the world of tech. The things that De Wulf says makes remote working stressful are:

  1. Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  2. Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  3. Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  4. Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  5. Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  6. Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  7. You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  8. Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

I’ve managed to deal with at least half of this list. Here’s some suggestions.

  • Video conference calls: they’re not a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but they’re a lot better than audio only or just relying on emails and text chats.
  • Home office: I have one separate to the house. Also, it sounds ridiculous but I’ve got a sign I bought on eBay that slides between ‘free’ (green) and ‘busy’ (red).
  • Travel: at every opportunity. Even though it takes me away from my wife and kids, I do see mine a lot more than the average office worker.
  • Realistic expectations: four hours of solid ‘knowledge work’ per day plus emails and admin tasks is enough.

Source: Hacker Noon

How to defuse remote work issues

Good advice here about resolving difficulties with a remote co-worker.

When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”) Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”) Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”) Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.

Working remotely is great, but it can be an emotional rollercoaster.

Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.

Source: Harvard Business Review