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Connecting remotely

How to be human in a digital world

When the first lock-down as a result of the pandemic was announced, I was angry. Having been working remotely for years prior to the pandemic, I was very familiar with how technology amplifies any communication issues that might exist. I also know that the most common problem amongst teams is communication. It is rare to find a team that communicates well. I was not happy to be forced to go remote full-time.

However, a year later, I am enjoying remote work so much I don’t think I ever want to return to an office environment again. I’ve come to appreciate the benefits to my quality of life, which in turn increases the quality of my work. I’ve also learned how to more effectively communicate online as a result of being forced to work remotely.

Benefits of remote work

Before we jump into how to connect online, let’s first highlight the top three benefits of working remotely as building blocks for building relationships online.

1. Psychological safety increases

In an open-space office I always felt I had to be careful what I say as there’s bound to be someone overhearing the tail end of a conversation without the necessary context to make up a story of their own.

A lot of energy was wasted in curating thoughts before spoken while in an open office environment, and as a result the message was often diluted and open to misunderstanding, or not said at all.

In a remote setting, it feels like being in a safe little bubble where I can say exactly what I want without risking being overheard by the wrong people or my message getting misinterpreted.

The result has been that my relationships with my co-workers have improved. Because we feel safe to vent, ask stupid questions, or chat about non-work related stuff and be more casual with each other, we are more relaxed with each other, know each other better, and thus work much better together.

2. More time to think

One of the biggest issues in an office environment is that people tend to spend a lot of energy trying to look busy. Inevitably, according to Murphy’s Law, if you are busy for 7 hours of the day and spend just 10 minutes relaxing by playing a game or scrolling through social media, your manager will walk past your desk exactly during the 10 minutes of downtime.

Managers often (wrongly) believe that the busier teams are, the more productive they are. Efficiency is often measured in how busy everyone is, rather than the quality of the products delivered.

This might be more true for a production plant where the more efficient machines are used the more products can be produced. However, even a production plant needs to be designed so that there aren’t any pile-up of resources in one area to create bottlenecks.

In a knowledge work environment, the busier you are, the probability of being unproductive increases exponentially — a topic for a separate post — but watch The Resource Utilization Trap by Henrik Kniberg below for a brief summary of why being busy is not necessarily productive.

Having worked on my own and as a knowledge worker for a long time, I know that I’m most productive when I go for a walk on the beach, or take a 5 minute power nap when I’m tired, or just doing nothing. It’s when I’m not busy when insights and answers to complex problems surface in my mind. I need to create space for new ideas to come in. When, however, I’m busy, my work is boring and predictable — not what defines success for a product manager.

When working fulltime, I tend to be most productive over weekends when I have time to think and process the past week. By doing nothing, I end up doing so much think-work that it is more productive than an entire week of busy-work in the office.

Working remotely frees me up to think more and do less, which makes me more productive, and happier. Win-win.

3. Healthier eating and exercise habits

Commuting to the office and back creates a lot of time pressure, even if your office is around the corner. I used to either end up not eating anything for lunch, overdosing on coffee, or simply grabbing the closest thing I can find which is usually either very unhealthy or very expensive.

Working from home, however, I’ve come to love having the time to prepare a healthy breakfast and the facilities to cook a decent meal for lunch. The saved energy and increased health makes me more likely to feel like exercise, compounding my more healthy habits.

I use my daily home yoga routine as a physical switch that separates my work day from my non-work day. As a result I am much healthier and thus can think more clearly and have more energy. My productivity at work increased as a result because I’m much better able to focus on the work at hand and regulate my stress better.

How to connect remotely

Knowing some of the key benefits of working remotely, let’s move on to the real topic at hand, namely how to connect remotely. Being tool agnostic and focusing on the human aspect of relationships which can be applied in any type of environment, here are my top tips for building and strengthening online relationships.

1. Include a topic that doesn’t involve work at all

My first rule of thumb is that whenever I have a call with someone, especially new contacts, we first talk about something that doesn’t involve any work at all.

Human-to-human conversation to just get to know someone first, like we do when we’re on holiday or in a relaxed setting where we spontaneously engage in conversation with someone we don’t know yet.

You don’t build relationships by only focusing on the transaction at hand. And if there’s no relationship, there’s no sustainability from a business perspective. People stay loyal to the relationship, not the transaction.

It’s surprisingly easy to find something to talk about. All you need to do is pay attention a little more to the sounds, images and comments around you during the conversation.

You can easily start a conversation by commenting about a background picture someone uses. Or you could respond to the background sound of a pet and talk about that. Or use the interruption of a child to find out more about the other person’s family life. Or simply ask curious questions.

The easiest method though is just to start talking about something personal about yourself. The other person will reciprocate and soon you will feel more connected than before.

We have a lot more in common than we would like to believe and being in a home environment makes it so much easier to get to know the human behind the colleague.

2. Don’t schedule every meeting

I’m always surprised to hear how un-common this approach to managing time is. Most people I speak to tend to schedule most to all remote conversations.

In an office, though, you don’t only talk to your co-workers when there’s a meeting scheduled, so why would you do it in an online environment?

My rule of thumb is that I only schedule meetings when external customers are involved; more than two people needed in a conversation; or it is a regular check-in like a goal setting on a Monday.

The rest of the conversations are fluid. It happens when it is required and with the people needed to make a good decision.

Practically, it usually starts with a casual chat conversation. When it gets too lengthy or confusing, we pick up the phone. When we need another person to join, we simply ping them in chat and include them in the meeting.

But not all conversations happens now, and often you need to continue a discussion or follow up. I also leave these invitations very open. Rather than specifying a time and date, I rather say let’s chat tomorrow, or tomorrow afternoon, leaving some space for movement. I then monitor your status to know when you’re available, and in a chat ask if you’re available for a chat when you are.

This approach takes the pressure off having to manage a schedule, which is especially hard in Microsoft Teams where there are no notifications at all.

3. Chat regularly with small conversations

As a rule of thumb I check-in first thing in the morning with all my direct team members with a simple good morning and some small talk over virtual coffee, the same as I would do in a normal office.

It’s an organic conversation that sometimes is about how grumpy the developer is and why, other times about an urgent bug fix that needs to be looked at, other times a simple one liner of “Good morning!” or a funny gif to communicate how I feel.

During the day, we connect regularly with each other with “small” conversations and questions. Sometimes it’s a one-liner. Other times it starts with a simple question and continue in a video call.

It’s about frequency more than duration.

Keeping the connections alive are much easier than trying to re-connect after a long time of not talking. The more frequently you talk to each other, the easier it is to ask for help and stay aligned.

The issues start happening when people rely on tools and meetings as only or main communication channel.

These small, regular conversations approach mean we rarely need long conversations or meetings. We correct errors close to real-time rather than wait for the next scheduled workshops, meaning that the quality of the code and the productivity both improves as a result.

4. Establish and clarify clear rules of engagement

One of the most common complaints I hear from remote workers is that they feel overwhelmed with a company chat where they feel they have to respond immediately and be active all the time to show that they’re productive.

In reality though, this means their attention is on monitoring the chat which makes them less productive on the work they should really be focused on. It also results in potentially a lot of important things falling through the cracks as something that was talked about but no one actioned and is forgotten the moment the thread moves past.

Instant chat is great for real-time or close to real-time conversations. If you want it now, that’s the place to put it. But everything doesn’t have to be done now.

Usually having to do something now is an interruption which causes a delay in the delivery time of all the items.

Use now-requests sparingly.

Explicitly define and agree on the communication rules for the team. What is the expected response time in different various channels and different teams? How do you update and use status updates within the company? What do you do with information in a chat that needs to be translated to a work item? What do you post in the chat vs on the workflow tool of your choice? What are each person’s preferred communication style, channel, frequency and time?

Clarify these rules of engagement to put everyone on the same page and make sure that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that work gets done and channels stay productive, without the unnecessary noise of a busy chat.

Remember. Time reading or responding in a chat is time not doing real work.

5. Know when to rely on tools and when to connect in person

This might seem obvious, yet, I’m always surprised at how bad people are at knowing when to use which communication channel, so here’s my obvious guide for when to use which.

  • For sharing information and relaying messages chat is perfect.
  • For ensuring all standard work items gets done rely on the tools and the processes in place.
  • For communicating process changes, important messages and making decisions, team meetings are great and following it up with a chat ideal. But the in-person communication is the essential part, with the chat follow-up the optional one, not the other way around.
  • For problem solving or dealing with complex tasks (complex being something that is not standard and straight forward, not necessarily just difficult options), connect in a voice call (with or without video and screen share) and follow up with a chat.
  • For personal feedback or negotiation, or a first time conversation with someone, always do it face-to-face (video call with your camera on).

Don’t have long conversation threads in chat. Don’t make important decisions or convey important information in chat. Don’t ever rely on the tool or written down tasks.

Use the right communication at the right time to solve the right problem.

People aren’t stupid, we just think differently, have different skills and backgrounds and seniority. What you might think is common sense as a one-liner instruction in a Jira task, might have multiple interpretations by the person needing to do the work.

It’s always more expensive to correct misunderstandings at the end than take 5 minutes to explain something in person. Click the dial button and have a voice interaction.

6. Add music

Sounds simple, but there’s nothing as awkward as an awkward silence. Especially online where everyone is scared that they might interrupt someone else.

Music not only breaks this silence and relax the participants, it has a special, unspoken about magic ingredient that bonds people together. By listening to the same music, our bio rhythms start synchronizing to the beat of the music and when everyone in the room is syncing to the same rhythm, people are subconsciously more connected than without music.

7. Mob together

And the grand finale, worthy for a post in itself and the default for me, do it together.

Mob design, mob program, and mob test.

Together is always better.

And it’s more fun.

When you schedule workshops for the whole cross-functional team to work together, magic happens. When you add an element of fun and turn it into an RPG, work becomes play. And when work becomes play, productivity increases so much that teams start over delivering that they soon run out of jobs-to-be-done. A problem most companies would love to have.

If you are a sceptic and think it can’t possibly be productive, watch this interview with Dan Puckett below by the Mob Mentality crew.

Whether you call it mobbing, swarming or ensemble <fill-in-the-blank>, tapping into the collective intelligence and having a real-time cross-functional team working on the same problem at the same time, only has benefits.

It reduces wait time; it increases the speed of decision making; it reduces work-in-progress; it limits and supports bottlenecks in real-time; it improves relationships; it improves knowledge-sharing; it increases quality; it is more engaging; it increases flow; it improves collaboration; it reduces procrastination; it teaches communication, respect, boundaries and discipline.

And of course, it’s more fun.

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun. www.funficient.com