How to (not) break firewood on a remote site


I joined the InfoWatch team recently. Almost immediately I noticed that the developers took the opportunity to work remotely, and for products this was somehow considered inappropriate. When we, the products, approached the “self-isolation” activities, we did not have the experience of remote collaboration. And it didn’t bother me too much, but looking at the statistics and what is happening in neighboring countries, we realized that we couldn’t avoid separation, and decided to conduct “exercises”. For one day, all employees were asked to work from home.

And so, what turned out:

  • It is better to come to web meetings in advance (at least 5 minutes) to check the sound and video or update the client of the conference service.
  • An important role is played by the quality of the headphones and microphone. If possible, it is best to purchase a good call center headset with a narrowly focused microphone. Believe me, this significantly improves the quality of communication, excluding extraneous noise. I will not recommend a specific company, although it was through their headset that Neil Armstrong announced his first step on the Moon. And he was heard well!
  • You need to use a good communication channel. Everything seems to be obvious here. Some of my friends found that one operator at nominally equal speed does not accept outgoing data streams well. Someone needed a static IP service.
  • You should definitely read what the IT team writes, because there was no recording of conversations when they were needed (and this was not an IT error).

In one day, we caught only obvious technical and organizational problems. But when they plunged into the “self-isolation” mode completely, something else appeared that was not obvious:

  • It’s inconvenient to use conference services without direct integration with Outlook (when Outlook automatically creates an appointment in the service and inserts a link to it directly into the invitation): double job of booking an appointment first in the calendar, then in the service itself, then updating the meeting with a link to the conference room from service.
  • Video conferencing services introduce almost elusive delays that seriously affect the quality of communication. In addition, the usual methods of managing communication work worse: facial expressions and gestures, looking at which, colleagues better understand at what point is it appropriate for anyone to enter into a conversation. Turning on the video here helps poorly. And we still have not developed for ourselves any rules / ethics that would allow us to communicate through video as naturally as it happens in a personal meeting.

Technical problems can be solved somewhere (as with better internet), somewhere – no (delays), but you can adapt to them. Organizational problems turned out to be much more unpleasant:

  • In a large organization, at any given time, someone definitely has communication problems. This systemically degrades the capabilities and speed of decision making. Due to difficulties in connecting one of the key newsmakers, meetings were broken, decision-making was delayed.
  • On the one hand, on a remote site it turned out to be much easier to plan your personal time, but quickly getting together and making some kind of decision was no longer so simple. Previously, it was enough to raise your head and to exchange a couple of phrases with someone or go to the next office, but now you need to at least call and even get through.
  • Due to the fact that you have to sit at home, it became unclear what was the team doing? If at the office the head usually half-listens to the conversations of his wards (and thus keeps his finger on the pulse), then there simply is nothing to listen to, and reading the JIRA activity tape is, well, a very interesting pastime.
  • Colleagues plunged into their inner cosmos: the feeling of “one wave” was gone, each in solving their problems went his own way.
  • Have you tried brainstorming on a remote site? With those same delays, without the ability to actively interact with gestures and facial expressions?

Organizational problems began to be fought with organizational measures.

What we did and what tools we used on the remote:

  • It turned out that you can maintain the general direction of movement using a process that describes the steps and their results (but not the content of the steps).
  • For structuring communications began to use a specialized tool. We chose Slack: it helps organize communication around channels and streams. But according to my personal observations, it is better suited for communicating medium-sized (from 10 to 20) in terms of team size. By the way, a small find: a greeting in the morning in the chat allows the employee to indicate that he is ready to participate in the common work, and to the leader – to ensure that the team is gathering, and does this at an acceptable time.
  • For task management, we took Trello. I liked that the cards are easily and quickly created, in structure they are simple, but at the same time quite functional. You can quickly modify the board.

We did not want to create complex processes (we believe that complex ones do not work), so we took the basic of three steps (“backlog”, “in work”, “completed”) and after a while added it with the “done” column.

It turned out conveniently: at the beginning of the week you type tasks for yourself and shift them to “in work”. At the end of the week you check and talk about how many tasks are in the “completed” status on general synchronization. After the meeting, we transfer unnecessary cards to the “done” column. According to the results of work, for some time, we analyze the structure of our load in the “done” column (we use tags to mark the meaning). But my team did not like this service (it is inconvenient to work with your cards if there is a common board), and it is inconvenient to view the department loading if the boards are separate. Therefore, we decided to return to JIRA, reorganizing the processes for remote work modeled on Trello.

  • Often, for the best quality of communication, we turn off the video. But it turned out that for heated discussions it is better to ask everyone to turn the cameras back on – maximum contact and eye contact (albeit through the screen) helps to find the best solution faster.

A separate class of problems is personal:

  • The schedule is too loose, and the work tends to gobble up all the time.
  • If in the office you move between the meeting rooms and at least somehow move, then here you are constantly hanging out in front of your laptop and if meetings are full of a significant part of the day – then, to put it mildly, tiring.
  • The dog does not understand why I am at home all the time, but at the same time I do not play with her or walk.

How I managed to solve personal problems on the remote:

  • I tightened the discipline, but added variety to the discipline. I do not allow myself to leave work for the evening when “everyone will calm down”, instead to devote time for thoughtful work within the day and not be distracted by meetings.
  • I included physical activities in my plan: firewood (refreshing, you know), walking and playing with a dog. Another life hack: you can dress more officially at the beginning of the working day, and at the end of the “working” clothes to take off. Does this eliminate the questions “are you busy” at home? And especially from their unceremonious fit into the frame at any convenient and inconvenient occasion.

In general, I still had the feeling that “communications were sagging slightly” (there is not enough personal communication and pereshichivanie with colleagues), but the work did not stop and the quality does not drop. And if I ask what I recommend to the leaders of remote teams, I’ll say this by dividing the recommendations into technical and organizational:

Technical recommendations:

  • Provide the team with good call center headsets with directional microphones.
  • Do not forbid the team to use “shadow IT”, it is better to try to understand what is wrong with the officially authorized tools and bring them to mind, or legalize the “shadow”.
  • Build a transparent (accessible to other departments too) work planning tool inside the iteration (we have JIRA).

Important organizational points:

  • Set the boundaries of working hours within the day. It’s even better to set aside a separate workplace, and work only there.
  • Diversify the day (plan physical activity, chat with loved ones, play).
  • And last, and most important: in your conditions, something else may work. Love your team and just give them the opportunity to do their job the way it is IM (first of all to them, and then to you) is convenient. But let the result be as you need it.

I sincerely wish you success!

Please share your knowledge about the rules / ethics of communication through web-conferences, so that their participants can better navigate when and to whom it is necessary to start / end a speech and what should be replaced by such necessary gestures and facial expressions?

Author: Stepan Cheap

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