Distributed Teams: Deconstructing Myths and Sharing Techniques

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On Wednesday, 25 September 2019 I attended a presentation by Jay Hyett at the Melbourne Agile and Scrum User Group. As an individual that wants to move into a leadership role, as a member of a team that believes in a “remote first” workplace, and as an employee of a company that has offices across the globe, I was looking forward to getting lots of hints and tips that could help me in my role. I was not disappointed.

This article is a summary of what I took away from the presentation.

# Why are distributed teams required

Jay’s talk began with defining why Envato believes distributed teams are both beneficial and required.

Especially in industries that are not constrained by local legislation and requirements for geographic specific knowledge, it is rare (if not non-existent) that the best talent is located in a single geographic area. Even if this were the only productivity and skill based reason to embrace distributed teams, it would easily be enough justification; but there are other reasons to embrace it. By embracing distributed teams it also becomes significantly easier for a company to allow staff to work at a time and place that suits them. With employees empowered to adjust their location and schedule to suit their current workload and mind-frame companies can realise an increase in productivity from the individual. Additionally, by enabling staff to work remotely office costs can be reduced, employee happiness and satisfaction can be increased and even environmental benefits from reduced transportation congestion can be achieved.

Unless a role involves direct interaction with customers in a specific location (eg a retail sales role, a receptionist role or factory worker), there is little legitimate justification for an employee to be required to attend a specific location for work. If a role is not customer facing, as long as an employee actively works to be available for their fellow team members there is also minimal benefit to them being required to work prescribed hours.

# Types of remote working

Remote working can be loosely defined in four ways: outsourcing; distributed; work from home; and work from anywhere.

Many are familiar with outsourcing, where one or more roles are contracted to an external company. This could be due to international trade restrictions (eg a partnership with an international operator to employee people in another country), specialisation in some job functionalities (eg contracting web development to an agency), or simply for cost savings (eg international technical support centres).

Distributed working is when a team (or department) is located across multiple locations. This could be due to skill availability, cost savings, or potentially to improve the integration of geographically diverse organisations.

Work from home is when individuals are enabled to choose their work location for individual days. Often these arrangements will have limitations on the number of days an employee can work outside of the office, but the employee is expected to be within the same timezone as their primary location. These arrangements are often implemented to improve the life balance of employees, reduce financial and environmental transportation impacts and to be more inclusive of workers with non-work commitments.

A recent trend, especially within the IT industry, is to allow employees to work from anywhere. This allows individuals to relocate for longer periods of time, often to destinations that are geographically remote from their primary location and potentially in vastly different timezones. The key reason for this type of remote working is to improve the employee’s job satisfaction.

In the case of Envato, they have all of these remote working types in play. They have some outsourced job functions, a large amount of geographic diversity within departments, employees are allowed to work from home, and for three months each year employees can work from anywhere.

# Team Structure, Management & Alignment

During the presentation it was mentioned that adaptability is a key part of implementing a successful remote work policy. Envato is willing to constantly make changes to improve the integration of workers between multiple locations. The current implementation they have adopted is Scrum based, with a few optimisations for remote teams.

To reduce exclusion physical sprint walls and dedicated team spaces have been removed. This forces teams to keep digital sprint boards up to date, arrange “virtual” or online meetings and ceremonies, and interact through online tools. Envato has also found that aligning all teams to the same sprint cycle (2 weeks with a consistent start and end time across all teams) helps to improve the inclusion of all workers.

The last remaining off-line item Envato has is a launch wall which is used to align feature releases with support and marketing teams. This wall is currently being moved to an online version so it is accessible to all staff. This wall was started as with a high release cadence, customer facing teams were not always aware of a feature being released and would then be taken by surprise with a user seeking assistance with a new feature.

As well as ensuring digital tools are used for interactions, and sprints are aligned across the organisation, a number of additional team building and team alignment activities have been implemented. A fortnightly all-hands meeting occurs and is recorded for those who are unable to attend due to timezone differences; I forgot to ask if the timing of this meeting was varied to allow all workers in all timezones to attend the “live” event. A department level fortnightly showcase is also performed to ensure everyone in the department is aware of the work that has been completed; this ties in to a fortnightly company-wide demo which is rotated between departments (each department gets to host and present every six weeks).

To help with inclusivity and team building across the organisation Envato runs two hack weeks per year. Employees are able to form their own teams and then work in those teams for a week to develop a new item. One of the examples given for a hack week team was a satellite office forming a single team, the workers in this office were all in different teams, so although they worked in the same location, they did not normally work on the same tasks. During the hack week they were able to form a team, work on a single project and this helped them connect with each other.

# Tooling

As part of maintaining remote teams it is necessary to select online tooling to facilitate many aspects of the business. During the presentation specific tools were mentioned for a number of functions. Instead of concentrating on the particular tools, I’ll review the key functions the tools play.

As mentioned previously, remote teams cause a requirement for online sprint boards. Most IT employees will be familiar with these and already use them either in addition to, or in place of physical sprint boards.

Remotes teams also generates a requirement for a shared whiteboard solution. If one or more people are not located in the same location it becomes impossible for all meeting attendees to utilise a physical whiteboard. To resolve this there are solutions that enable many users to interact with a shared space as if it were a whiteboard.

Many teams use a whiteboard as part of their retrospective at the end of each sprint. As this is not possible with a remote team one of the many online retrospective solutions is used.

A dedicated roadmap solution is also used to ensure roadmaps are generated collaboratively and can be viewed by any staff member at any time.

One of the key challenges for remote teams is communications. To ensure everyone is included in conversations a number of different solutions are required. The first is a general text-based chat with both private messaging and group chats, most offerings also have the capability of screen sharing, video and audio. A solution suitable for different meeting sizes is also required; this could be reusing the test-based chat’s video functionality for smaller meetings, but will require a video conferencing solution (potentially with associated hardware) for larger meetings; in terms of larger meetings a soft microphone was also mentioned so it can be thrown around a room but limits each location to only having one person talking at a time.

Additional tools were also mentioned for code pairing, collaborative documentation, and goal/OKR and performance management.

# Tips for working remotely

Working remotely can present a number of challenges. One of the biggest challenges for some people is motivation. To help motivate yourself and to ensure you’re focused on your work there are several things that can help: planning, dress, increased communication and location.

By setting a fixed start and end time for the day it can help to provide the feeling of structure that is created in an office environment. This in turn helps with adjusting mindset, blocking distractions and improving focus. Dressing the same as you would if attending work will also help to set this mindset; if you choose to work in your pyjamas you’ll likely feel like it’s a lazy Sunday and will be open to distraction and relaxation.

To help maintain the sense of inclusion and to help your coworkers know what is happening it is important to “work out loud”. Provide regular updates via a text chat application about what you’re working on; let your team know when you’re starting and ending the day; and tell them when you’re heading out for lunch. This helps to both demonstrate that you’re actively engaged, but also helps others know when you’re focused, when you’re able to respond to questions, and also how you’re progressing toward sprint goals.

The location you work from can also be important. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different locations for different types of work. If it’s a nice day and you’ve got a meeting there’s nothing wrong with sitting in the backyard (assuming the ambient noise isn’t too loud), if you need to concentrate maybe heading to the library would suit you.

As well as considering the the motivation aspects of working remotely, it’s important to plan your day to avoid burn-out triggers and ensure you work in a maintainable way. If you don’t take breaks, you don’t leave your workstation or you continue working for too long you will ultimately experience negative consequences (these could be physical or mental health, family impacts or other items).

If your working from home it can be easy to over work; ensure you have a hard cut-off for the end of the day; make sure you pack-up all the work related items, or close the door to the home office. If you don’t put a hard barrier in place it’s easy to continue thinking about work after hours, just pop back to the computer for a few minutes, and before you know it you’ve been working on an idea for several hours and the children as wondering if you’ve cancelled dinner.

During the work day remember to take breaks. This can be as simple as a walk to the kitchen for some water, walking a lap of the lounge room, or step outside for a breath of fresh air. In an office environment we often take breaks from work in the form of chatting to co-workers or walking to a cafe (or the kitchen) for a drink; when working remotely we sometimes don’t get the opportunity for this.

Another item to consider is to refuse back-to-back meetings. In an office environment you stand up between each meeting, maybe just to greet people as they enter the room, but more often to move to a different meeting room. When you’re attending meetings via video conferencing you don’t get the chance to stand-up from your desk, especially if you just click a few buttons on the screen to leave one virtual meeting room and join another. If the meetings must be held consecutively, arrange with meeting organisers to schedule short meetings; this is where 5 minutes is removed for every 30 minutes of meeting. If meetings organisers come on board with this then meetings start at 5 minutes past the hour and finish at 5 minutes to the hour; a traditional 30 minute meeting would run from 5 past the hour to on the half hour, or from on the half hour to 5 minutes to the hour; a traditional 60 minute meeting would run from 5 past the hour to 5 to the hour; this will mean there is time to leave the desk, take a toilet break, and grab a drink at least once per hour; as a side-effect it also reduces wasted time waiting for meeting rooms in the office.

The last couple of tips for working remotely were to help improve others’ perception of you when working remotely.

The first of these is to make sure you don’t fall into the “PJs and Netflix” perception. If you appear on a video conference call and you’re wearing your pyjamas, most will assume that you are having a lazy day and will spend the time watching Netflix (or another streaming service). Pyjamas can also be more prone to a “wardrobe malfunction” which could be embarrassing during a video call.

The second item is to turn your camera on during meetings and to mute the microphone when you aren’t talking. By turning the camera on (assuming sufficient bandwidth is available to not negatively impact the call) others can see that you are actively involved in the meeting and it improves their perception when working remotely. Muting the microphone helps to reduce the chance of audio feedback, and also means that any background noise is not amplified to other meeting attendees.

# Tips for working with remote workers

Organisations need to ensure they are appropriately set-up for remote workers. This means ensuring the technology used to is good, reliable and fit for purpose; all-hands, free-to-attend and any significant meetings need to be recorded for those in other timezones to watch during their work hours; “virtual water coolers” need to be provided as a space for remote workers (and those in the office) to chat informally; and a back-to-base week once or twice per year.

Teams also need to ensure they’re set-up and team members are empowered to facilitate a productive environment. Things to consider at a team level are shared agreements; a “one remote, all remote” policy, tools to cope with technical issues and location awareness.

The shared agreements for a team will include items such as a shared definition of done for all tasks, this will ensure everyone is able to know when a task is complete and how that will look. It’s also important to celebrate both the big and small wins, with one or more remote workers it may not be possible for everyone to attend a celebratory lunch, so ensure the small wins are also celebrated to constantly build the team and maintain their relationships. A policy about sending a “hello” and “goodbye” via an instant messenger to the team can also help other team members to know when someone is available, there’s also a psychological aspect relating to the social contract that I feel completely unqualified to discuss, but I feel it should be mentioned as it’s an important part of team comradery. One of the important shared agreements is to call out others in the team if they start rambling or losing focus during a meeting or video call; this can help keep everyone active in the meeting, and as trust builds team members can find humorous ways to do this and help build relationships.

The “one remote, all remote” policy helps to ensure no individual feels outcast from the team. If one person is working remotely then physical whiteboards are not permitted, a rule of only allowing one person to talk at a time should also be implemented (not just don’t interrupt the remote person, but don’t talk over anyone), prohibit side conversations as they can not only be distracting when bits of it are picked up by a microphone but the remote worker has no opportunity to become involved. It’s also important to be conscious of not allowing the meeting to continue during the walk back to workstations.

Technical issues are inevitable with video conferencing facilities. It could be a failing video camera, low call quality or a failing microphone. Teams should be prepared for this. Cards are available to visually express certain points such as “we can’t hear you”, or “mute your microphone”; video conferencing solutions should have a phone back-up solution so complete audio failures can be resolved; documents required for viewing should be shared in advance so streaming related issues can be resolved; and as other technical impediments arise solutions should be found for the next time they occur.

Teams should also be aware of location issues. If a meeting is always held at a specific time of day it may not be accessible to all staff throughout the world. There can be benefits in adjusting timing of the meeting so everyone has to make allowances for it at some point. Additionally, location specific measurements can mean that a small section of a group is always having to translate (examples of this are speed or temperature measures). For items that don’t require instant feedback asynchronous updates can be used, this means that each person in a team can provide their input at a time that is suitable for them (a great example of this would be an asynchronous daily scrum/stand-up, or performing continuous brainstorming for a sprint retrospective). When meeting times can’t be scheduled to allow for all timezones all team members should make a conscious effort to perform as much as possible asynchronously and keep the common session as short as possible.

On an individual level, people need to be aware of some of the limitations of technology and the challenges presented to remote workers. Speech should be slowed down for clarity, and pauses should be extended. This can allow people to translate where required, and also gives them a chance to interject in a conversation or presentation.

# Questions after the session

After the presentation I was left with a couple of questions.

Is there value in one face per screen?

Jay wasn’t able to answer this as Envato is only just experimenting with the concept. The idea behind the concept is that if one person is remote, everyone must be present on their own camera. Although a microphone may be shared for technical reasons this concept means that for anyone viewing the meeting it is not immediately obvious who is in a single room and who is remote.

What limitations are placed on work from anywhere timing?

This was somewhat answered during the presentation and also by questions from other people at the presentation. One of Jay’s coworkers was present and she talked about her experience working from her “home” country. During this it was mentioned that her trip was planned several months in advance and arrangements were made in relation to the types of work and timing of significant tasks to facilitate her trip.