How to keep a productive team after 1 year of fully remote work

In a fast-paced, modern, and agile organization, with all the right tools and an established mentality of distributed teams, going fully remote overnight was the easy part. Even though we spent most of our working hours in the office, we were already geographically distributed over more than a dozen locations worldwide. This means we already […]

In a fast-paced, modern, and agile organization, with all the right tools and an established mentality of distributed teams, going fully remote overnight was the easy part. Even though we spent most of our working hours in the office, we were already geographically distributed over more than a dozen locations worldwide. This means we already had access to the tools we needed, plus a mindset geared towards a “transparent” location.

Additionally, my team was going through a good phase: we were finally stabilizing our dynamics with great communication, continually improving our processes, and had a clear plan for our quarterly goals.

As a result, during the first months of the pandemic lockdown, our productivity actually increased. We had fewer distractions and saved on commute times. However, we also had to stop other personal activities like going to the gym or football matches. As a result, we turned to work as an escape from our stressful situations.

We increased our social media activity over our company chat, video, and WhatsApp groups. We even started playing online games after work.

So, what changed? Why couldn’t we keep this routine going for the upcoming months while we wait for a vaccine that will allow us to go back to the office?

Fewer informal interactions

The first change was more obvious: after an overload of online social activity in the first months, with lots of virtual coffee meetings, meme sharing, home cooking pictures, we finally started to fall back to our more normal routines.

We realized we would have to stay at home much longer than we had anticipated. The initial adrenaline rush that came from the mix of fear and excitement of living in a post-apocalyptic movie faded. We started to get used to this “new normal,” as some liked to call it. Inevitably our social activities stalled and eventually returned to normal levels.

This meant the team’s interactions were reduced to mostly professional gatherings. We only met during sprint ceremonies and every communication required a meeting. Informal communication declined as a result. This includes the small, occasional private jokes that build a strong team spirit and the shared coffee break that allows us to share weekend photos, talk about our favorite hobbies, or share news of our kids. These small details are what builds strong personal bonds.

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings

At first we all felt we had more time to focus on work. However, the lack of sharing a physical place leads to an increased need to book time with other people. Messaging platforms like Slack or Google Chat are great tools to communicate in a team, but when you want to exchange ideas or you need someone’s attention for a couple of minutes you need to engage in a more focused conversation.

Instant messaging are “near real-time” conversations, and sometimes you need a quick answer or to exchange some ideas that are easier over a quick chat. At that moment you engage in a call using Zoom, Teams, or whatever is your preference. But to make sure that the other participants are available, you end up scheduling a meeting.

The pattern snowballed and eventually we all ended up with full agendas, having meetings that were usually unnecessary because you could quickly draw something on a whiteboard and ask for a quick opinion.

The decay of the shared consciousness

Shared consciousness is a concept I came across when reading Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal. It completely resonated with me at the time.

It is important for everyone on a team, and inside an organization, to have a shared understanding of the context and to be aware of what other people and teams are working on. It is crucial to understand how each person is contributing to the common goals. More importantly, it is crucial to remove information barriers that filter the level of details of what you share with other people, and rather let each individual or team have the liberty to select which pieces of information are relevant to them.

This improves collaboration and agility, as information flows faster, and can be used in each individual context, being enriched and shared in the form of contributions.

Inside a team this also contributes to a better alignment around the team goals and to team cohesion.

Because we had always shared a physical office, we didn’t have to implement specific strategies to keep a healthy shared consciousness. Working remotely fostered the creation of “task” silos — where everyone focused on their own task, and over time they became more disconnected from the overall team’s goals.

How to adapt?

The first step to overcome these issues is to be aware of them. For that, we already had the tools in place. We invest our time in doing both sprint and quarter retrospective ceremonies where we fostered radical honesty and candor among everyone on the team. We identify good and bad things, we take a deep dive in the discussion and we take improvement action items that we follow up in the next session.

The company also has monthly team health checks to evaluate multiple dimensions of each team’s day-to-day work, offering a great overview of how team members perceive the quality of the work they deliver, the healthiness of the backlog, the usefulness of the processes, and even a global assessment of team morale.

Next, we implemented the following strategies:

  • Social time before the team daily
  • Big rocks
  • Braintrust sessions
  • Product and technical design presentations

Social time before team daily

We started by implementing reserved virtual coffee time, two days per week, to replace the in-person social iterations. It worked for the first two months, but eventually became more of an obligation. Eventually, it was forgotten.

To fill that void we decided to show up earlier to the team daily scrum meeting, and reserve that time for informal interactions. We found that this venue to be more engaging and felt like less of an obligation. People can join whenever they want, and it always has a hard stop at the scheduled time of the daily meeting, so there aren’t any awkward moments of people feeling too uncomfortable to leave.

Big rocks

In order to prevent “task silos’’ we made a company-wide effort to align all the features under big rocks that define the high-level goals for the product in each quarter. Big rocks aggregate the epics and stories implemented at the different product components, and keep the team aligned on common objectives. Each person clearly understands the overall goal, has better visibility into how each task contributes to the goal, and how to interact with other people.

Braintrust sessions

Inspired by Pixar’s Braintrust Session, as mentioned in The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, we implemented sessions for each team member to share the details of their current tasks. Usually, we try to hold this session when the work is around 70% complete.

These sessions have two objectives. The first is to collect constructive feedback about the decisions made during the implementation of the task. We try to structure these sessions beginning with a small presentation, and then start a discussion where everybody participates by giving an opinion, recommending improvements, or even offering criticism. Sometimes a new pair of eyes can spot something we didn’t notice. We do this before the end of the task in order to incorporate the feedback or make adjustments.

The second objective is to fill the gap created by the isolation at home, raising the shared consciousness and even increasing the engagement of everyone on the team in each other’s tasks.

Product and technical design presentations

With the same objective of fighting the “task silos” and isolation, we recovered the practice of presenting to the team all the product and technical design documents. This has the objective of keeping everyone informed about the work that is currently implemented, the decisions, and trade-offs.

Celebrate the team victories

This applies not only to these special times, but, like everything else, it takes greater importance.Celebrate the simplest victories with the team, even the smallest achievements. It will both serve as a confirmation that the work we are producing at home, mostly isolated, is contributing to the team and company goals, and has visibility and importance.

Take this celebration to the next level after the big milestones, like a major product release. to Gather the team in a “virtual offsite” to make sure everyone takes the time to appreciate the accomplishments of the last cycle and realize the value contributed. Make it a full day away from work meetings and emails, and end the day with an informal team-building activity, such as a game of online pictionary.

Final notes

These are special times and special circumstances, and we are learning as we go. There are no previous lessons or books about how to handle all the changes and challenges we have been facing from the last long months. And it is not only dealing with remote work, it’s also dealing with all the human factors of how each of us reacted to this pandemic. This is an ongoing learning process and we need to adapt and evolve. What worked eight months ago, doesn’t work today, and in four months time we will need to adapt again.

How to keep a productive team after 1 year of fully remote work was originally published in Feedzai Techblog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Feedzai