Let’s face it, since the onset of the pandemic, remote work has become the norm. Well, at least among organisations who have not risked a backlash by forcing employees back to a central office.
How do we choose to collaborate with our colleagues in a world where we usually each work from home?
When we need to work with someone else to achieve an outcome, we are often naturally inclined to want to speak with them, and have visual contact with them whilst we work together.
After all, if we work in the same office, that’s our natural default. So, when we are working together remotely, why not arrange a meeting using a video call tool like Zoom or Google Meet? What could be more natural? What could be more effective? And, what could go wrong?
Let’s assume for a moment that, in a remote context, an inclination to talk with our colleague via a video call is our natural default. So, we book a time in our calendars. Our colleague may already have a calendar that is almost full of meetings this week. In the end, we find a time, and our colleague accepts the meeting invitation.
Alternatively, we may use a tool like Slack to organise a more impromptu video call.
Now let’s consider how many people we typically need to collaborate with each week. Should we always default to communicating via video calls?
Or is there a better way?
When collaborating remotely, I think we need to be more thoughtful in how we strive to best work together. If we’re not careful, we can let our natural desire to communicate face to face get in the way. If we’re not thoughtful enough, we can let this natural default result in filling up our calendars with appointments to work together over video calls. And have you noticed the tendency to let meetings extend for longer than they have to, just to fill the allotted time?
So, we need to carefully exercise some deliberate thought about collaborating remotely. There are, after all, various ways in which we can collaborate.
What are our options for collaborating remotely that do not involve synchronous video or voice communication? Here are a few:
In general, opt to collaborate asynchronously in preference to synchronously whenever possible and appropriate.
In my humble opinion, in a remote working world, we should strive to make asynchronous collaboration the default. Having said that, it pays to be mindful that there is a spectrum at play. Some forms of communication are somewhere in the middle between asynchronous and synchronous.
Consider Slack, for example. In some cases, it is used as a way of broadcasting information without an expectation of a response. In others, one or more responses will be made over time. Then there are times when Slack exchanges are made more in real time, sometimes leading to synchronous huddles. A key point here is that these synchronous huddles are spontaneous rather than planned.
A Google document is usually more towards the asynchronous end of the spectrum, although there are times when it is an effective adjunct to a video call. More often, though, it is a means for two or more people to collaborate gradually over time. Feedback can be provided via comments, leading to a well documented outcome that is the basis for later work.
Then there are more permanent documents such as pages in wikis.
The book “Effective Remote Work” 1 calls this range of communication styles “the spectrum of synchronousness”. A subset is depicted below. A more complete discussion can be found in the book.
There are, most definitely, some situations when a scheduled video meeting is most appropriate.
Regular one-on-one meetings between employees and managers are the most obvious case in point. Also, there is a strong case for at least some team rituals to be synchronous. For daily stand-ups I have heard strong arguments for either asynchronous or synchronous collaboration. On balance, if time zones permit, a quick synchronous stand-up is, I think, preferable. The main argument in favour of this is to allow the team to connect as one team on a daily basis.
A more obvious example of a ritual that is undeniably more effective synchronously is a retrospective. I’ve participated in hundreds of retros over the years. To date I cannot recall one being attempted asynchronously.
Another scenario when a video meeting enhances collaboration, in my experience, is when attempts to collaborate asynchronously have not led to a breakthrough. Sometimes there is simply no substitute for talking with each other.
There are, unsurprisingly, times when members of a team will benefit from pairing or mobbing.
When someone has been attempting to solve a problem on their own but has reached an obstacle that is blocking their path, reaching out to a colleague to ask them to pair is an obviously helpful course of action. I used to call this explanatory debugging until someone alerted me to the term “rubber duck debugging”.
Synchronous mobbing sessions also have their benefits, for example when knowledge needs to be spread throughout a team.
An important aspect of learning is having the opportunity to spend extended periods of time working at your own pace. Whilst learning via mobbing and hearing presentations are both valuable ways of improving understanding, these will only take someone so far on their journey of deepening their knowledge.
So, it stands to reason that care should be taken to not expect individual contributors to attend meetings to the extent that they have limited time to work on their own.
When we think of the spectrum of communication styles, as depicted above, synchronous is furthest to the left, and asynchronous is furthest to the right.
In a collaborative team in which each member is remote, we need to consciously be prepared to shift right. We need to alter our mindset.
In his book, James Stanier delves more into the details of examples of how we can achieve this. He also examines the importances of being mindful of appropriate expectations of different mediums of communication. For example, if you need to briefly communicate with one or more people, and expect a reply within hours rather than immediately, a chat or SMS message is more appropriate than a video call or phone call.
We need to acknowledge that in a world of remote work we’re missing a key human element of working together. That is a feeling of connection.
As I alluded to earlier, at times when I have suggested that the team I’m working in move to async daily stand-ups, I’ve had to admit that a legitimate reason to resist this is to enable the team to have a few minutes of human connection, as close as can be achieved without being face to face.
I’ve worked remotely for more than 15 years. In that time I’ve always considered it important to schedule regular time working face to face, on site, with my team. COVID-19 changed that. Now that public health orders are no longer in place, I very much value the opportunities for occasional face to face connection. At Envato, these currently happen every six months.
Meanwhile, enabling human connection on a daily basis in a remote team via video calls is vitally important.
So, whilst in a remote team it’s important to deliberately shift right for much of the time, we need to strive to achieve a good balance. Synchronous meetings can be important and valuable, but we need to guard against the tendency to default to using video calls. Much of the time they’re not necessary.
Effective Remote Work: For Yourself, Your Team, and Your Company by James Stanier ↩
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