Hi, guys. Hi friends. Thanks for joining us today. My name is Steph Yiu. I work at WordPress.com.
I’m Davis Shaver, I work at Fusion.
And both of us work remotely/distributed, which is why we wanted to do the session with you today. My company is a hundred percent distributed and we’re 350ish people at this point and my team that I work on is 34, and of the 34 people, I manage 15 of them, so it’s a tough—it’s a tough adjustment, I’ve been working remotely for three years. My first year was really, really hard, it was super-rough, and I didn’t really realize how hard it was until I finished the year and I realized how much I had learned about myself in working remotely. So that’s sort of the thinking behind why Davis and I wanted to do the session together.
And so I joined Fusion as our second remote hire this October. Daniel being our first remote hire as director of engineering, and I had to start thinking about being remote in an intentional way that I hadn’t really before. So I’m one of the co-organizers of hacks/hackers Philly with Erika Owens, and she’s in a similar boat being remote with Open News, and she said Steph was putting together a session on the topic and encouraged me to get involved and I came aboard.
And so the way that we’re breaking down our session today is we actually have two exercises we’re going to run with you guys and the whole concept is that we want you to think about remote communication in terms of your role, so meaning what you spend the majority of your time doing and working on, and then the second exercise will be focused on remote communication as part of your personality. I think that one of the toughest things about working remotely is that you may not realize that everyone you work you may have different goals. We’re going to jump right in because it have you exercise.
So the prompts on the screen, my biggest message here is don’t overthink it. We’ve broken our world into 3 major roles. Which do you spend 50% of your time doing? Is it organizing and managing your internal team? Is it collaborating on the actual work, doing code, design, code review? Or are you primarily working with our teams or clients to do external communications?
Each of the roles has a color. On the tables, you will find on one of the table post-it note pack that corresponds to that color. Find your color and you’ll be with your group. So let’s break.
All the builders? Should we break builders down to two groups? Would that be helpful? How many of you do code? And how many of you do design products type of stuff? Let’s break down to code and design product, is that OK? Just to keep the groups a little smaller.
So I’m glad you guys are all introducing yourselves. I’m going to explain the exercise real quick. It’s actually all on the slide so I don’t need to explain much. What tools do you use to do your work?
Talk amongst yourselves. Write them down on post-it notes and follow the directions to populate our wall appropriately marked wall.
Any kind of tool?
Any kind of tools, whatever. GitHub, Asana, any tool you use, turn them out on your post-it notes and throw them up on the wall.
OK, folks, we have three minutes left in this breakout.
We’ll type this up, by the way, at the end:
OK, guys, we’re going to move into the next part of the exercise. Anyone want to share any observations or surprises that you heard during your individual breakouts?
I am going to put my copresenter on the spot, to give us an explanation of why did you write privacy screen?
Oh, so this group a lot of us manage people or work like basically managing teams and team members, and so a lot of what we do is actually not public, we can’t share it with our team, so we talked about a lot of tools that we use a that is not publicly available. So for me I use an app called lighthouse to track all my one on one chats with team members because that’s not public information and so we just talked a little bit about privacy, and so I have like, if you can see a privacy screen on my phone, just the stuff I do, it also just client information is sensitive, too.
Cool, yeah. Well, we’re going to type this up and put it on the GIST after the fact. But it’s cool to see the overlap. GitHub Skype, big winners.
OK, part 2. Challenges. What’s the biggest challenge you have doing your role remotely? What do you do about about it? Talk about some strategies with your group and we’re going to come back as a group and share them together: … … [group activity]
OK, guy, thanks, that was ten minutes. We’d like to go around to each group and hear what your biggest pinpoint is and maybe an idea for how you’ve been addressing it in your own organization. So let’s start with Daniel and Will and Steph.
So we’re the organizers, but I think our by far biggest pain point is communication. And being organized is hard enough but there’s a lot of tools out there. We talked about specifically when you’re making decisions how to keep everybody informed was a big one the.
Yeah, if you’re managing a team of people and they’re all working remotely from you and you’re a core lead of the team, it’s hard to make sure that everyone in your team is marching in the same path towards something and if you’re not seeing them every single day and you can’t go hey, Daniel, what are you working on, you only see them on Slack or whatever, and also you don’t see how they’re feeling. Like in my old job, I could know if my colleague was having a bad day or a good day, and as team leads who are managing other people, that kind of context does not exist, and so talking about ways to mitigate that. So might do a check-in with every team member every two weeks on video, but, you know, everybody does it differently.
Our code builders?
So we have not one, but a whole bunch of challenges and I didn’t write down the solutions at all. So here they are. So if you’re a remote employee and you work on an otherwise not remote team, it can be easy to miss out on those in-person interactions and we talked a lot in general about the fact that working remotely comes at the expense of all that stuff you get from working in a group of people. We talked about lunch, how important it is in that way. Just being there with people not working but in a work context.
Any tactics that you guys discussed for simulating the benefits of colleague lunches and that kind of thing?
The beer thing.
Oh, yeah, sometimes when we lunch. We described several things but one was we’ll sometimes meet in a giant video chat with a beer. It’s kind of like having a beer, but –
Yeah, well, you know, you are having a beer, I hope.
Most of them just came down to having a meeting with no purpose, other than to—not even like oh, let’s have a meeting to catch up, let’s have a meeting, let’s just get on a video chat and –
Play YouTube videos.
Yeah, and hang out.
Yeah, I don’t know if anybody is from Vox.
I know you guys do that.
Yeah, like we started doing that, so on a like Thursdays, we have happy hours, like within the office, so sometimes we’ll just hop a hang-out chat open and whoever wants to talk can talk and sometimes we just do them like randomly throughout the day, where people just want to hang out towards the end of the day to talk about whatever. Like an open thing.
Cool. What other—any other pain points come out that seemed pretty chronic?
We just talked about the mechanics of remote working and how organizations can be better or worse at setting having sufficient infrastructure of having decent quality via conferences and sharing screen, things like that. It sucks to have to solve those problems every single time there’s an interaction.
Sometimes in particular partially remote and not remote meetings when there’s some combination, too, like ten people in the room and ten people remote can be horrible. Also two other things.
So what’s your tactic?
Not have the meeting?
I don’t have a tactic for that one. That’s a device that doesn’t really work.
There are like these remote presence devices,.
Double robotics, yeah.
But I kind of felt like I don’t want to get a telepresence robot that wanders the hall, that’s just weird. I want something that says don’t forget to take Martin to the meeting.
Cool. Anything else?
Yeah, two other quick ones. We talked about misunderstandings and conflicts. How it’s a challenge to resolve when not in person, but also the fact that you’re not necessarily forced to be right next to someone that you may be having a conflict with can be a good thing, too, and then we talked about distractions.
How it being—what’s the distraction? Because I can see you both sides having distractive –
Yeah, we mostly talked about working remotely as an occasion for more distraction, but I can also see for many working in an office setting there might also be distractions.
One thing that didn’t—I’m kind of interested from hearing from the more the sort of design side is the mechanics of actually building code and doing software development didn’t seem to be a problem for anyone. Yeah, kind of like—seems to work pretty well.
Hey, guys, Millie? Romley?
I think one of the biggest problems we identified was exactly kind of what you touched on, that initial brainstorming kind of white-boarding, how else can I call it? Just that initial like place where you really need—yeah, where you really need kind of fluid feedback, and I don’t think there is—there’s no one solution that provides that seamless kind of back and forth. And –
There’s also feedback sort of like you know, once the project kind of completed to a point, just like how can we kind of effectively talk about something, just not within a scheduled time without a hangout, but if you like come up with something, or you just want to bounce ideas off one another sometimes that’s harder to do without coworkers. One kind of interesting thing was that was brought up was culture and with language barriers, especially with those—I’m sorry?
Matthew, he works out of Costa Rica, but his team is like all over the world, so just sort of figuring out how do you tackle those barriers.
We have for –
It would be more difficult if you’re communicating primarily in text. Because you don’t have the other bandwidth from the face and gestures.
Yeah, that’s another problem. I mean one way we get around the feedback problem is we have just a 15-minute video meeting every single morning at exactly the same time. The problem for that is because the teams is dispersed all over the world, while it’s 9 a.m. for me, it’s 6 p.m. for the other person in Europe, so that can be a problem for them, but I mean eventually we will get used to it. I would say most people hate those meetings, but they’re really useful. Like, they’re necessary, we just wouldn’t be able to communicate without them.
I’m interested. The other—did the organizers or the coders, did you talk about standups in particular at all?
Interesting. OK, thanks, Matthew.
Could I ask a question? Because we’re some remote and some onsite, and one of the things that we get is that the onsite people we have a big projector, Chromecast, really low barrier of entry for doing collaborate coding, especially. Do the people working who work remotely, the hangout is saying, oh, it’s fucking up, and it’s horrible to use, do you still get that experience or does that higher barrier—
I heard you guys talking about Screenhero a little bit.
We use Screenhero, but it’s great. It’s definitely much better than Google hangouts.
But there’s no video. There’s no every face. So in terms of oh, like I’m having a problem with this, something or other, or what do you think of this thing that’s running on my local machine, it’s helpful and the audio is really good. That’s the thing that really gets me, it sounds like the person is inside your head.
We use zoom. Zoom.US, which has been very, very stable and lets you expand.
That’s the one you use for like the all-team?
Yeah, we have 25 people on zoom all the time, and it never crashes. You see screen and face.
Do you find with those tools as good as they are, that you are being as collaborative with your team as you would be in person?
I mean we have bunch of strategies to collaborate on code. That’s something we do more asynchronously. If you have somebody you want to look at code, you put it up there and over the next day take a look at it. For me personally that works better.
Thanks, man. OK, our communicators communicate?
We talked about daily standups, too, just you know, I think as a partial solution to solving the problem that has already been stated. To make sure people, especially remote people, are all kind of marching on a similar path to a similar goal. Time zones being the challenge there. I find it to be really helpful. I work at a small company, five people, so I mean the time zone thing isn’t killing us yet and another challenge that I’ll touch on is that there’s just so many tools.
Too many tools.
So in our case, I mean I think to like answer this most directly, coming up with some of the rules for documentation that like, if nothing else, comments always get added to like the tickets, for example, has worked well for us, but I also see that being a challenge on scale especially when there are multiple teams working on multiple projects and you can probably speak a little bit more to that. Also, Slack has been helpful to sort of being the caulk to fill in the cracks gaps in that so it’s not the exhaustive formalized solution necessarily but it smooths things over. Quick way to be in conversation whereas for us our tickets at GitHub and wikis at us have been more more like the authoritative formal record.
Yeah, I think most of what we talked about is problems with information management and having too much information and not knowing where to go to find something, or do you need to go like 8 places to figure out what’s going on with the project or oh, I left you, you know, an issue in you know, lighthouse, but I was looking at GitHub and that’s a big problem. Especially as like teams and projects grow and things get more complicated and you’re working remotely, so you may be doing things in interim ways and not even knowing about it, because it’s not something that gets passed around in the office. So we talked a lot about documentation, you know, internal, external, as a way to solve—not solve, but address that, if you have really good documentation that’s searchable that you could find, like that’s how you film gits, because everyone is reading off the same page if you do your documentation well, but it’s really hard to actually pull off and maintain continually and to make time for that, like no one wants to make time for writing down your process and what you’re doing.
Would you say that the internal blogs are helping that or are the most helpful thing.
I don’t know how we would survive without the internal blogs and having them searchable and we have like a meta search, so you can search all of them at once, but then still like, you get like a ton of information and you have like, I mean not like a Google-scale problem, but it’s hard to—another thing working remote is you can be calling two people in different cities can be calling something the same thing some totally different word and like you don’t even know the search word because you’re not in an office where it just gets shouted around at the lunch table. So I mean we talked a lot about documentation.
Awesome. Well, I’m going to turn it over to Steph for the second half of this little session.
Yeah, so thank you very much for sharing your challenges with your different role types. The next exercise that we’re going to work on is actually about your personality. And the reason why I bring this up is from personal experience, I think I told you guys in the beginning of the session that my first year working remotely was really difficult. I think it was because I didn’t have a lot of awareness about sort of my personality and my needs in terms of communication, and so one thing that I found about myself was just managing my own energy levels when working remotely. So I’m an extrovert and I draw energy from being and around people so when I am not near people, my energy decreases so over time I need to figure out a way to manage my energy level so that can I can be happy and consistent of work. And the way I solve that is I work out of a coworking space every day. I don’t work from home at all because I discovered that about myself. What motivates me and satisfies me about my job is working with my teammates. That’s for me, what drives me, what makes me happy at work, so I started to hone in and focus on that at work and trying to do more one-on-one conversations or chat with my teammates to try to like drive that.
That got noisy. I’ll move closer. So I think it’s really important to sort of understand what motivates you at work, and sort of what drives you and how to manage your energy levels. So for the next exercise, we’re actually going to do a little bit of a breakdown into groups ever personal types, and there’s so many ways to skin this cat, but this particular personality grouping is the NBI and it’s sort of based off left brain, right brain and how socially effectual you are and things like that. So L1s, as you’re reading this, I’m hoping that you’re starting to see yourself in a couple of them. L1s tend to be focused on the clear objective concrete, they’ll usually ask what is the point, what does this mean, and they value performance, results, and they’re kind of goal-oriented.
L2s are orderly reliable, methodical, systematic, they’ll usually ask how should we do this, what is the plan, what should be done first and they’re focused on process and details and routine. R1s tend to be curious, intuitive and creative and they’ll ask why not, what if, and can we try and they are focused or oriented towards future big ideas, and big picture.
And R2s are sociable, they have a lot of empathy and they will ask, how does everyone feel about that? Who will be involved and who will be affected? And they’re oriented towards relationships and people and feelings. Most people will kind of straddle two of these, and they’ll be like 75% 1 and 25% the other. I’ll ask you and see what you’re a majority of and we’re going to break out into these groups and so I think L1s will be here. L2s will be back there.
With the colors. How to use the colors.
OK, L1 colors. We we can do the colors. Yeah. L2, L1, and R2. Perfect.
And then once you’re in a group, we’re going to spend five minutes.
I’ll go back. So you’re going to spend five minutes talking about your—where do you get your energy from and what motivates you in work and then I’ll go back to that.
All right, guys. Hopefully you’ve taken this time to learn a little bit about what motivates you or what drives you at work, and hopefully understanding the core values of sort of what gives you energy at work or what excites you about your work, helps you march towards that so that you’re more excited about what you’re working on. The next exercise, we’re actually going to have your different personality types work together as a team. And what we’re going to do is you’re going to—you’re part of a nine-person team, this little group, each of your personality groups, and you guys are launching a big feature this fall. And you need to figure out, using the communication tools that we have shared earlier, how to brainstorm a marketing plan and then how to facilitate the execution across your team. So it’s how would you facilitate the brainstorming process, how would you put that process together, and then how would you disseminate that process across your team so that people actually follow the marketing plan that you guys put together, and then think about some of the stuff that we had talked about earlier about how difficult it is to make sure that everyone is marching towards the goal together. And then we’ll talk about your different personality types in terms of how we game up with a communication plan.
All right, we’re going to wrap up, because we’re at the hour. So we’re going to go around and quickly share some plans before we head out.
What group are you guys?
All right, guys, we’re going to wrap up. R1, how do you brainstorm a marketing plan’t?
So we said why not have an unlimited budget and so I mean not unlimited budget.
Big picture? What?
We thought—we think it’s really important to have empathy built across the team so kind of the things we are big together and also we thought it was cool to have a big end.
All about those big pictures.
All about TR1s.
Big pictures, big dollars, so the other thing was kind of like how do you build the empathy required for the remote, to day to day work, right? And great idea that we came up with was to have the managerial power of this particular project not in the hands of someone who’s in the main office.
Oh, but actually remote, OK.
So one of the other five, so in a satellite or fully remote, but then another idea was potentially to have not the same person, but people constantly moving between these three locations or whatever to build empathy and realize that oh, when you have that personal conversation at work that devolves into what are we going to do about this project, no one else is part of that and that kind of sucks. So those of kind of the big ideas that we had. I don’t know that those successfully lead us to a project but –
It was interesting to hear you guys talking about the big picture and the empathy of your team. Process friends? You guys are L1s, right? How does your team brainstorm?
your project or your marketing plan.
We decided that brainstorming was evil and shouldn’t be done.
We all hate brainstorming.
And then how do you guys come up with a plan, then.
So in direct response to that, we thought that, you know, have someone and it doesn’t really matter who, come up with an initial sort of draft an give that out to people to give feedback to and propose edits to and it can completely change from the beginning of the end and I think go through a process of brainstorming, but we called it something else.
And who did you ensure that your team marching towards the seem rhythm?
We were debating the tools in sort of the structure and forcing people to be concise through something like a doc, you know, Google docs, which is collaborative to a degree, Slack for sort of continuous communication, and I think, I don’t know, we’re in mid conversation on this one, but maybe actually using GitHub for something that’s not code-based but just to be able to track as like the document changes what the and the comments around that, and I think it would be searchable and time based in a way that Google docs and Slack are but present sort of challenges that GitHub might do the best job circumventing.
Social friends? R2s, how did you guys brainstorm and –
Despite being the big-picture idea types, we actually kind of echoed a lot of what Angie said about it’s important that there’s clearly defined parameters and beyond that, two smaller digestible chunks because if you try to brainstorm with nine different people in different locations, it can be difficult for someone who’s either remote or junior to the project to get their ideas heard, but if you break that up into more digestible chunks, that can help.
Last group? You guys were L2s, right?
How did you guys brainstorm and come up with a plan?
We were going to do a hangout with some sort of in-person real time communication with a decent brainstorming. Ever some initial requirement-gathering, so that it’s not just from scratch brainstorming. Use some actual white boards to draw things while brainstorming, assign some tasks, and use Jira, maybe, I guess this is not as much of a code project, maybe, but get others to record those tasks and use Slack a lot.
Awesome. Well, I think that wraps up our session today. So as a quick recap, just want to talk about a couple things that we discussed today. Amongst your roles, whether it’s organizer or builder or communicator, we have a slew of tools that we all use, some of them are the same, but some of them are very, very different. And within each role, you face different challenges, whether you’re a builder or you’re a communicator or organizer, there are different challenges that you face in terms of how do you collaborate in code review, how do you make sure the team is moving in the same direction? How do you talk to people externally who don’t understand how your team works internally and also we talked about personality types and motivations at work. You think about the people that you work with on a day-to-day basis, they are not all like you, they don’t communicate like you, they may communicate very differently from you. Some people may love video calls and brainstorming, some people may hate it, some people may love having regular check-ins, some people may not need that at all and want to work solo and for you personally you may need to have lots of in-person communication time to recharge yourself or may not need that, and I think it was interesting to hear about sort of how you guys set up your communication plans, some of you were really empathetic to your team members, some people wanted to kind of start with a brainstorming plan, with one person starting that and have other folks add on to it, I think the most important thing that we wanted to make sure that you left the session with is just communicate thoughtfully. Think about who you’re working with, since they may not have the same goals and drives and roles as you.
Yeah, I totally echo Steph. What stood out to me is that there isn’t a panacea, and there isn’t a right solution for running distributed efforts. Even as we were working through our own plan, we probably could have revised that a few more times, even, as we talked about the pros, cons of different strategies and. I guess we don’t really have time for this. But check out our links on bit.ly, or on both of our Twitter accounts, and thank you for coming.