Try Banning Mute in Meetings

The phrase of 2020 has become – “Sorry I was on mute” this has become a little bit of a running joke and I feel sure that nearly all of us have experienced it in almost every meeting.

Sorry I was on mute Button | Zazzle.com

But what would happen if we leaned in to the situation and simply asked people to NOT mute during meetings?

In small meetings (those under 10 people) it is bizarrely powerful. One of the things we lose with the mute button is the little murmurs of approval the laughing at jokes and even the noises of disagreement.

People often worry about the background noises, especially dogs or children but the reality is that in a small group these are much less distracting than you think they are. Unless it is particularly loud it generally doesn’t disrupt the conversation when it is a small group.

It can take a little getting used to but after a while it really improves the engagement in the meetings and for me at least it acts in a way to hold me accountable for paying attention, especially when I know people will hear my typing, the awareness causes me to pay more attention.

But what about just being in the room with others?

So I have taken this a step further and our team has an informal policy that if you are working solo you should default to hanging out in a room (voice call) with anyone else on the team that is also working solo.

This has an incredible impact on the team building impact for a remote team. Spontaneous conversations spark up and people chat as they work. I enjoy just listening to the buzz as others talk and do not find it distracting. We get to know each other more and it seems that just being in close proximity encourages more personal conversations about our histories and personal life. Just by hanging out today I learned about fishing for fun not for food and no-barbed hooks. We had a fascinating discussion about sales tax on cars and a pretty intense discussion on whether government was even needed. How many of your recent remote meetings have resulted in you getting to know your team better?

But background noise is not for everyone and we also have a room for quiet working. Which means the team can hang out nearby and can be pulled in when needed but are able to work quietly if they prefer that.

The lesson for me in this is that when you have set up your audio correctly background noise is much less distracting than you think it is, and that the quiet spaces are opportunities to build relationships and engage with your team.

Try an experiment

I’d encourage you to try it for a week, ban the mute button and try to spend time in the same audio space as your team when solo working and see the impact on your team.

Why do we have physical offices?

Seems an odd question when for over a hundred years this has been the default option, we have never questioned it and often the benefits have seemed so obvious it is rare when they are articulated. But are the benefits clear and are the benefits restricted to a physical office or are there other ways we can achieve the same outcomes?

The benefits

For most people the benefits of offices are universal truths, we accept them unquestioningly. We have seen the benefits first hand and understand them. No one questions the value of proximity to co-workers and many/most leaders have “open door” policies to benefit from that proximity to their employees and the valuable interactions it enables.

If we chose to build a physical office what would we expect?

I asked people to describe why we had a physical office, the responses below sum up the majority of the responses.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

At what cost

The benefits of a physical office are significant. So much so that we accept the considerable costs as a necessary expense to achieve the outcomes desired.

  • Office buildings are expensive, rent, bills, furniture, support staff, maintenance
  • Time, commuting takes hours for each employee everyday
  • Money, commuting is expensive, parking, food, clothing
  • Geographical limitations to hiring
  • Geographical limitations to growth
  • Flexibility – work is usually relatively inflexible
  • Meeting space is often limited by physical space
  • Growth is limited by physical space
  • Work-life balance.

But how do we maintain all or most of the benefits when remote?

What I have found odd is that since going remote many people have accepted that they have ‘lost‘ all of the benefits of a physical office. They have adopted a stance of mitigation of the loss, often abandoning practices that made them successful. I would like us to take a deep breath and look at the benefits and ask ourselves “can we achieve the same outcomes in this new environment?”. The benefits still hold true, let’s not just accept them as unattainable and look for ways of reaching the same outcomes.

Co-located Teams

I see some underlying themes in the benefits, many relate to the productivity benefits of co-located teams. In software delivery at least it is acknowledged that co-located teams are significantly more productive. The speed of feedback looks is a critical factor in building complex and often ambiguous situations. There is rarely one solution to a software problem and the ability to discuss and pivot quickly is crucial. This benefits significantly from real-time interactions and fast response times getting answers to questions quickly increases productivity.

  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together

Collaboration and co-location of teams is a crucial aspect of an Agile mindset, I believe we should be focusing on tools and processes that enable ongoing interactions and collaboration. We have too long focused on planned video conferences with set start and end times. That is not how most of us are used to working, we want ad-hoc and ongoing interactions with our teams. We want to feel co-located and able to freely interact and communicate with them. This is a significant gap in the market for online collaboration tools.

It is also evident that the current trend is to focus on asynchronous work and flexibility for employees. Companies leading the way with this have a heavy emphasis on 100% flexibility and asynchronous work. All work communication must be in writing and have the expectation of a delayed response. The goal being working around the clock and extreme flexibility for employees.

However, the cracks in this policy are already beginning to show. Flexibility is alluring in the short-term (not to mention the west coast salaries) but the lack of human interactions becomes a strain very quickly and they are modifying their model to include scheduled non-work interactions with colleagues to offset the lack of engagement and need for human interaction. This is hard to make work as it feels forced and artificial unlike ad-hoc natural interactions that occur when you are working in close proximity with each other. I personally favor a highly flexible work environment that balances large amounts of online co-location and collaboration. Our teams have similar working hours with a target of a number of overlapping hours each day where they work in the same virtual spaces having natural interactions. This works much better and is building relationships in a natural manner rather than forcing it.

Sense of community

Engagement is very difficult to measure but is a significant factor in the success of a business, many businesses put a great deal of effort in to their culture and identity and in the desire to have their employees feel they are part of something. To build relationships with co-workers and leadership. We have discovered that the better those relationships are the more successful the business will be.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other

Results from a Gallup survey of US employees showed that more than half of respondents who said they had a work best friend also reported feeling passionate about their job, with a strong connection to their company. Only 10% of people who didn’t have a close friend at work could say the same.

There are numerous studies on this topic and the conclusion is generally that friendships and relationships at work have a direct correlation to productivity, engagement and turnover.
The sense of connectivity to your peers has a strong correlation with mental and physical health as well as productivity.

In my opinion this aspect of work-life has been grossly under appreciated in the transition to remote working. The focus has been on flexibility rather than engagement. I believe this is short-sighted and that in the long run putting effort into encouraging and enabling employee interactions will be far more beneficial than flexibility.

Presence for Customers and Candidates

A physical location provides a destination and a statement to potential customers and employees. It allows visibility of how the business operates. It allows a more significant connection for people.

  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

This is perhaps the hardest to see an obvious remote alternative too. Obviously a significant internet presence is essential these days but most sales is about building relationships and establishing trust. This is so much slower and harder from a remote setting. However, it does open opportunities for co-working where companies are able to collaborate together and to see the teams working in real time.

Summary

Having created and managed a remote office for the last two year it has become evident to me that for us to achieve the same outcomes from a remote office as we have in a physical office we need to ask why we do things the way we do. We should seek the appropriate outcomes. In my opinion success in the transition to a remote office is built on four pillars.

  1. The ability for spontaneous interactions. Absolutely minimal barriers to ad-hoc conversations and interactions with your co-workers. And when I say minimal I mean minimal, every click, every text message, every potential second lost is a barrier and impedes the flow of communication and hurts productivity.
  2. A sense of situational awareness. Knowing who in your team is online and available, who is offline where people are and who they are currently interacting with is crucial to enabling the spontaneous interactions and creating the feeling you are part of an energized team.
  3. A sense of proximity or community. Feeling close to your team, the ability to casually interact with them and closely collaborate helps build relationships and creates a sense of engagement. This leads to higher productivity, lower turnover and better mental and physical health.
  4. Finally the ability to interact in small groups, the one constraint that being remote does create is the ability to participate effectively in discussions, multiple small groups is more effective than large groups even in physical offices but being remote this is magnified.

It is my belief that an effective long-term remote office strategy should be built on these pillars. It offers a great balance of flexibility with collaboration and interactions. It is great for both employee and employer. I’d like to see more tools supporting this way of working and more businesses acknowledging the need for interactions.

Remote work doesn’t have to mean working alone.

I have seen a number of articles recently that refer to the stages of remote work or maturity of your remote team as a linear progression to only one possible Nirvana. The Nirvana in question appears to be 100% independence, 100% asynchronous communication and no need to ever have any work-related human contact at all. Some companies even go so far as to explicitly not allow work related conversations insisting that all are in writing to avoid knowledge silos.

Whilst I understand the reasoning I find myself disagreeing with this conclusion. Yes – Being remote opens up the possibility of hiring from anywhere in the world, which means that there are the potential of round the clock time zones. Yes – being able to work whenever you want around your other commitments and family demands is an amazing benefit. And Yes the inevitable consequence if those are taken to the limits can lead to a conclusion that effective asynchronous written communication as the necessary means of communication. But it is not the only possible outcome.

For some companies especially those embracing full flexibility or round the clock time zones this may be desirable on some level. But I do not see it as the inevitable solution nor a desirable solution for all. Just like in the office there are different solutions depending on the circumstances.

How much flexibility is necessary?

Not all companies will have employees around the world or even want to. Many will already be in a single time-zone or a few closely connected ones so time zones are not an issue. And when it comes to flexibility how much do you really need? Is that flexibility worth trading human contact?
I used to work in an office, including drive time I was committing a 10-11 hour block of time every day. Now I am at home we adopt a core-hour system where we ask people to be available for meetings in a daily 6 hours window. Essentially if there is a team meeting booked in that time period we expect you to make every effort to be there, but this gives a huge amount of flexibility. I have more flexibility than I could possibly need especially in comparison to an office. I have gone from 11 committed hours to 2 or 3 per day with a lot of flexibility around that. Some may want more flexibility than this but if it means giving up human contact that extra flexibility comes with a very high price tag.

If I have sufficient flexibility and I don’t need round the clock time zones, why then would I choose a policy of avoiding human contact? In a pre-covid world it has become a widely accepted truth that co-located cross-functional teams are more effective and more productive. Agile prefers Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. I’ll happily trade some small loss of flexibility for a highly interactive and effective team.

Our History

Two years ago when I was asked to create an all remote Agile software development office I began with the assumption that this meant effective interactions and extensive collaboration.
The principles behind the manifesto spell out some essentials:

Business people and developers must work
together daily throughout the project.

Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.

The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.

None of that supports asynchronous written communication. So you could say that we went against the crowd when creating a remote workforce as we prioritized real-time human-human interactions and rejected, where possible, written interactions.

We should be pioneers in creating remote Agile teams with a focus on co-working and collaboration.

The path less followed

Going against the crowd is always risky, but part of being Agile is that We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. At the time I felt we were in a position to experiment, not with remote work, that was a commitment the company had made, but on how we implemented our remote office. I worked very closely with a like minded colleague and we came up with a plan for Remote Agile Teams. We decided that we would become pioneers in creating an environment for remote Agile teams with a heavy focus on co-working and collaboration.

We were already largely working as external contractors and not in a situation where we were working as closely as we would ideally like with stakeholders. Just like everywhere else, business-side stakeholders are busy and we were often limited to planned meetings and infrequent touch points. It became increasingly apparent that remote working actually gave us more opportunities to work closely with the business side. Perhaps not face to face physically but our interactions were more effective and more frequent than before. This increased interaction has led to far better outcomes. Because we were all remote there were fewer barriers to interactions with clients.

It was liberating to witness business-side representatives reduce their turnaround time on critical features. It was nice to no longer worry about booking our highly sought-after meeting rooms. And lastly, it was reassuring to realize that the focus should not be on face to face but on determining the appropriate form of communication given the constraints. With a newly established and excellent track record, we began reevaluating these principles and felt confident enough in our abilities to embrace the spirit of the Agile principle and even build upon them in a virtual office setting. 

But to do so we needed the right environment, an environment where business stakeholders and delivery teams could effortlessly work closely together daily. Real-time collaboration was key, and we intentionally removed as many barriers as we could to allow for effective communication channels. We relied on training, the right tools, and clear expectations to make this happen.

Is Remote Work compatible with our software delivery practices?

As we follow the Agile principles, we were heavily relying on practices like Pair Programming, Mob Programming and Test-Driven Development. We strongly encourage automated delivery pipelines and team ownership of the code and of the product.  In a remote setting, this posed a challenge as we had to consider how we would ensure effective communication and how to deal with connection lag. 

To be successful we needed tools and environments that enable our teams to continue with pair programming just as they did in the office. In the office, developers would typically share control of a single computer but with two keyboards and two mice attached. Remotely this posed a harder challenge as we also had to factor in remote communication and lag. The ability to share screen control, see the same things, and communicate clearly in real-time became a challenge. It was crucial to find the right tools for this as it was far more complex than simply sharing a screen.

There were other practices that we needed to support remotely such as stand-ups and retrospectives which are closer to meetings but have individual attributes that needed to be maintained in a remote setting.

Proximity, Awareness & Spontaneity

In looking for ways to enable remote work effectively we did a lot of research and experiments. In our research three terms came up again and again. Proximity, Awareness & Spontaneity these are not simply features of a tool, but words that describe feelings people want to have when using a tool. Software to support remote workers like this is not just a collection of functionality but a virtual environment where we are able to recreate human to human interactions. The best tools allow people to engage on an emotional level.  We added breakout rooms as a 4th pillar to round off the expectations we had for a remote environment.

Summary

We created a virtual environment where collaboration and co-working was enabled, supported and effective. Yet, we didn’t follow the ‘standard’ work-from-home model that most remote workers are used to. Our environment can be described as a flexible all day interactive workspace which expects ongoing, frequent, and sometimes sporadic communication. We created a sense of situational awareness of our environment and of our colleagues to allow for spontaneous conversations between our team members and between our teams and our business-side stakeholders. We feel close to our colleagues and have minimal barriers to interactions with them. We have an environment where pairing and other agile practices are not only supported and seamlessly enabled but are effective and productive. 

We are a workplace that routinely over-communicates, extensively collaborates, and empowers team members to quickly discuss a solution and make decisions. We are able to do this throughout the day and often with short-notice or no-notice. We have working agreements that support variations in time zones but also reflect a need for high-frequency interactive collaboration. We have tools and policies that preserve our culture but allow us to grow and evolve with new work techniques. 

In short we are Agile in a remote setting. We believe we are pioneering an alternative to asynchronous working and are hopeful that this is the start of a rapid growing trend.

Two years ago I was asked to set up a remote office with the intent to grow an additional option for our employees and clients. Today we have numerous teams working in this environment, and due to Covid we now have over 500 software delivery team members working from home but still together, we are based all over the USA and in the UK. The patterns we set up for 100 employees scaled seamlessly for the rest of the company So after two years working with remote Agile Teams we can confidently say that not only is it possible to have remote Agile teams, but that they thrive and are exceptionally effective.

Virtual Co-Development Opportunities

When talking about the virtual office or remote working in general we often find ourselves comparing to a physical office and talking about how it is almost as good in a variety of situations. Or highlighting the indirect benefits to the business such as the ability to focus less time commuting, the improved happiness of employees, and lower turnover. These are all great but they are not easy benefits to convey to customers.

There are a few areas where a ‘virtual office’ is better and I previously described how we could be more Agile by being virtual but over the last few months we have discovered that we can solve some really fundamental business objectives for our clients without compromising on any of our values, standards, or profit margin.

Example case study

As an example: we have a client that historically outsourced much of their software needs to third parties, the result for them is a mismatch of tools that do not integrate well and have varying standards of quality. They also have problematic and often costly support models and the overhead of dealing with a myriad different vendors.
As a result they have now adopted a policy of owning and supporting their own tools and bringing back in house the tools that had previously been outsourced.

But this raises a number of issues. There are four issues in particular with this situation that they are seeking to resolve. I see these issues as being common to almost all engagements and all companies when they have identified a need for using an external software consultancy.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth: their IT department has limited capacity, the teams can only do so much and there is a lot of work to do. There are only so many people available to do it and they have a limited spectrum of skills. Conversely the value of the projects to the organisation is vast. However, limitations on hiring, head count and domain knowledge acquisition mean that the cost of delay justifies using a consultancy to bolster the capability.

Cost

Cost: The work could be outsourced and ownership retained if a consultancy firm is employed. After a period of knowledge handover the internal teams could support the software after the project is complete. However, hiring a large team of consultants is expensive, coordination and communication can be difficult. Integration with other tools at the client site is complex – often slow and painful, and knowledge handover is time consuming, all of this is very costly.

Outsourcing to a third party may be difficult from a budgeting perspective. Bespoke software projects are notoriously difficult to assess scope and cost and it is not unusually for projects to exceed initial estimates.

Knowledge

Knowledge/Expertise: The internal teams may not have the knowledge and experience necessary to do all of the work, especially in specialist areas like mobile application support and so it is often necessary to hire experts and then transfer knowledge to internal employees. Knowledge handover is time consuming and when done at the end of a project is often incomplete or doesn’t fully sink in. Risking later failures or expense.

Trust

Trust – Generally software is pretty opaque and so when there are problems or delays or unexpected work, or tasks that are more complex than anticipated clients are naturally anxious as it is hard to tell the difference between genuine problems or mismanagement. Trust is often unspoken and hard to rationalize, particularly when you are paying large sums of money for what is often a black box. It can sometimes seem like writing a blank cheque and hoping. Much of this is the nebulous nature of software and the every changing environment but when you are paying the bills this is a hard pill to swallow.

Co-Development

One of our common offerings is co-development this will generally resolve some of these problems.

Bandwidth: We can offer a co-development setup where we intermingle part of the client’s development team with our smaller team and work together on a project essentially half a team each. This is a great solution for this situation, the client retains ownership of the software, they are already working in the client’s IT environment with their employees, so integrating with other systems and teams is easier. Because the client is not committing a full team to the activity their bandwidth is maximized, they could essentially double their capability if they split all of their teams this way.

Knowledge: This method enables the consultancy to supply the expertise and the client to supply the domain knowledge. Knowledge is transferred throughout the project with no need for a clumsy handover period at the end. Knowledge gained by doing the work is far more valuable and reusable. It also shares knowledge of practices and processes in addition to the knowledge of the software.

Trust: By using a co-development effort it becomes a partnership, your team is part of the solution so you have much more insight into the situation so much more confidence in what is being reported. If there is a problem that is more complex than anticipated your own employees are engaged and able to offer transparent and unfiltered insight into the situation giving you far greater trust and awareness. As your team are part of the decisions there is less second guessing and more accepting that the decision made was the best with the information we had at the time. This is not a substitute for good planning and good management but it removes the nagging uncertainty when using a third party.

Cost: The main problem with this model is that unless the client is very close this becomes expensive and inconvenient. The development team needs to be prepared to work away from home for extended periods, there is a lot of lost time for travel. Generally speaking people do not enjoy working away for long periods and of course the client now has travel and accommodation costs on top of consultancy rates, making the service very expensive.

We essentially solved three of the problems but made the cost problem worse and added the complication of inconvenience to the employees. It limits this solution to those where cost is less of an issue or those local to the consultancy.

  • + Bandwidth:
  • – Cost & Inconvenience
  • + Knowledge
  • + Trust

Virtual Co-Development

Virtual co-development enables us to solve all of these problems. A Virtual co-development model brings all of the benefits of co-development listed above but by the virtue of being virtual there are no travel or accommodation costs, there is no time spent travelling. This cuts out a significant chunk of the cost with very little in the way of consequence.

The virtual nature also makes the team more accessible to the client and the home office, it essentially brings everyone closer.

Shifting to work virtually does come with a slight adjustment period and there are a few technical hurdles to be able to share screens and get access to client’s software environment but these are fairly trivial and common problems and access to a a VPN will resolve this generally and as most companies are already prepared for employees working remotely some of the time it is rarely a complicated request.

  • + Bandwidth
  • + Cost
  • + Knowledge
  • + Trust

Magic Bullet?

It is rare to be able to offer a solution that seemingly ticks all the boxes but this seems to me to be one of those rare opportunities where we are able to offer a better service for less cost, with less complications and without compromising profit margins, it really is a win-win situation.

The partnership style of this also reduces complications over scope and budget, it can be more easily budgeted for. By the partnership nature of the work budgets for the outsourced elements can be very accurate as they can be for a fixed duration – rather than arbitrary scope set before the product is fully understood or nebulous outcomes. There is no risk of being forced to extend because of incomplete work or scope change. The ongoing partnership means that the internal team can continue at any time with little or no hand-off. It becomes a much more clean and simple contract.

This model won’t suit everyone and is not ideal for all clients but for those with similar needs to the client above I feel this is a golden opportunity and one where being a virtual team is a clear and distinct advantage.

Can being remote enhance agility?

I am a very lucky person, I have my dream job. I work for a huge Solutions Provider as a member of their software consultancy group. The consultancy group has multiple physical offices in the St Louis area, and offices in Denver, New York and London. we have now decided to expand into the virtual space and launch a Virtual Office dedicated to collaborative software delivery. My role is to create this office, define the tools, practices, processes and then to build the team: hiring and supporting the staff and managing and growing the office. It is an incredible opportunity and it is not overstating to say that I wake up excited (and daunted) about it every day.

I wrote a while ago about the new role and about the challenge of remaining true to an Agile mindset. My goal was not to lose our agility as we became separated by technology and tools. https://yorkesoftware.com/2018/10/11/a-3-pipe-problem/

It was a surprise to discover that with the right attitudes and the right tools we are actually able to enhance our agility. We are actually more agile in a virtual space than we were in the physical space.

What is Agility?

To many this will sound like an exaggeration, but as a consultancy firm we sometimes operate in a less than optimal situation, there are challenges when you are working in a slightly abstracted situation. To be truly ‘Agile’ the goal is generally to get the team and business working together and to shorten feedback loops, deliver software quickly. But the reality is that ‘the business’ is a client. They are removed often physically which is bad enough but often they have other priorities and so are removed in an availability sense too. So whilst our teams are together, it is rare that we get the business (SMEs and Product Owners) on site and embedded with our team, when we can this is the ideal situation.

More often we get together for project kick-offs and planning and regularly for demos and retros. But stand-ups are often conducted via web conferencing tools, as are story writing and weekly planning/prioritization meetings. This puts a barrier between the team and the business, we do our best to break down these barriers but the reality is that they exist.

I call out being a consultancy as it is an extreme case but it also happens in most businesses, the PO and SMEs generally have another job and other priorities and the development team gets a slice of time and attention, so this is not unique to consultancy.

Brave New World

So understandably I went into this new venture with the expectation of doing my best to mitigate an already existing problem and to strive to not let it be worse in a Virtual Team.

In the early stages we found a tool called Sococo which is very hard to describe as technically it offers the same as many other remote communication tools, but it uses the metaphor of a physical office to make it easy for us to relate to the situation. When we used this tool something quite amazing happened, suddenly we were in the same metaphoric space as ‘the business’, we were truly working together. If I had a question for the PO I can drop by their office. If we need clarification from a SME we can invite them to join an Ad-hoc meeting.

We were no longer waiting for scheduled meetings to ask questions, we were chatting immediately. Feedback loops became immediate conversations, if someone was busy they would drop in between calls or other meetings rather than scheduling something formal. The casual nature of the metaphor brought us all together. This is how I imagined agile teams should behave in an office, but all too often logistics (read lack of meeting rooms) meant this was rarely a reality.

As a little tangent I worked with a delivery team a few years ago where the PO was available to the team all day but was in an office maybe a 60 second walk away. She made it clear the team could drop by or call her. But they never did. As an experiment I asked her to sit at a desk in the team area, immediately the team was a buzz of questions and conversation, we worked faster and discussions were spontaneous and relevant to the work at hand. This is how Sococo feels now. I can’t express how excited I am about it.

Daily Demos

An interesting thing has happened too, the team had an aspirational goal of daily demos, demonstrating completed stories and getting feedback on direction each day at stand-up. The aim was to challenge the team to keep stories small and to focus on shortening the feedback loop.

What happened instead was the realization that you don’t need to wait for stand-up. When a story was done the team would pull everyone together immediately get feedback and then discuss and plan what was next.

We realized that scheduled meetings for everything from story writing to stand-ups were primarily about availability of people and especially meeting rooms, they had little to do with the product or agility. When not restricted by availability of meeting rooms you can simply talk about what is needed when you need to. It is so liberating.
Naturally such a change requires a great deal of discipline to be effective but you have the potential to be focused on the shortest feedback loop, and reacting immediately.

By moving to a virtual environment we are becoming more agile than we were even together in the office, and having fun doing it. These may not sound like ground breaking discoveries but I can assure you they are having a profound impact on our work.

Are you pulling your weight?

A question I have been hearing a lot lately is how do you know whether an employee is putting in their hours, or not slacking off. This question seems to be particularly concerning for people in the context of working from home where the perception is that it is more prevalent.

The irony here of course is that being in the office is no measure of not slacking off, there have been many books written about different ways you can slack off whilst appearing to be busy.

I have heard tales of the productive worker that works hard all day long only later to discover they were working on a side project or even for a second employer. Long lunches, toilet breaks, extended coffee breaks, fake meetings, or just browsing the internet or discretely playing games on your mobile phone. Physical presence in an office is not an effective measure of whether you are slacking off.

The average American worker admits to wasting 2.09 hours a day, excluding lunch, according to 10,044 self-selected respondents in a survey released by America Online and Salary.com.

What does it mean to Pull your own weight?

Let’s take a little aside and explore the phrase “pulling your own weight” there are a few suggested origins of the phrase but the one I like best relates to the English Long-bowman, to be considered an ‘archer’ you had to be able to “pull your own weight” Longbows had a draw of up to 180 Lbs. You really did have to pull your own body weight.
An experienced archer could fire 12 aimed shots in a minute at ranges of 200-300 yards, although in battle they were expected to fire at a slower ‘sustainable pace’ of 6 aimed shots per minute. For context a modern bow draws at around 40 Lbs for women and 60 Lb for men.

In a modern terms we usually mean contributing proportionate to your role. We tend to think in terms of productivity and output. Despite this we often tend to focus on hours spent – hence the rise of slacking off at work, even though we can easily slack off time without being noticed, but it is far harder to slack off output or deny outcomes.

So how do you know whether your employees are working?

Personally I think that is the wrong question. When you explore deeper you discover that the employee surveys on why people slack off are far more interesting than the ways which they slack off.
Many described being bored as the primary reason, others felt that their job was easy. So it seems to be a question of engagement.

I suspect in other cases it is that you have hired the wrong people and better filtering at hiring would result in a more motivated workforce. Ironically when you have a motivated workforce getting them to take a break becomes more of a challenge.

So I guess what I am saying is that if you are a leader that is worried about whether your staff are working, then the issue is far more likely to be with you than it is with them.

  • Hire the right people. (Hungry Humble, Smart)*
  • Be clear what is expected of them.
  • Help them understand why it is important – and who benefits from their work.
  • Be interested in them as individuals.

Interestingly all of those actions fall to the leader rather than the employee.

If you follow these steps then I suspect that you won’t need to worry whether they are pulling their weight, you will be too busy trying to keep up with what they can achieve.

Where does the responsibility lay

If your employees are slacking off then it is a failure on the part of the leader not the employee. So when you hear someone ask how they can tell if an employee is doing their hours and not slacking off. Ask them if they have hired motivated people they can trust? Have they given clear objectives and set expectations? Do their employees understand the context and purpose of their role? Do you value them and do they know it?

If and when you do see someone slacking in a damaging way, take a look and see if the route cause is one of these 4 issues, you’d be surprised how often it is one of them.

What I am confident of though is that any efforts to monitor time in the office (or home) – such as time clocks, pressure sensors on seats, keystroke monitors, swipe cards on toilets, or a foreman to watch people – and of course a foreman for the foreman – obviously you need someone to watch the watchers. All will have minimal impact on people slacking but will have deeply damaging impact to productivity.

*Taken from The Ideal Team Player, by Patrick Lencioni

A 3-pipe problem

Sherlock Holmes was a master of deductive reasoning and problem solving, rarely was a problem beyond his capability. However, every once in a while he encountered problems that required a greater level of consideration, it would stretch his mind to it’s limits and required him not to be disturbed for an extended period, he described these as 3-pipe problems, he would need the time it took for him to smoke three pipes.

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I am no Holmes but I have the joy of a 3-pipe problem to immerse myself in. I have been asked to lead an endeavour to create, build and run a virtual office comprising of cross-functional teams that create software. The challenge is to grow an office but maintain agility, retain our company culture, and have the teams happy and engaged. Oh and be profitable too.

Where I have seen remote work successful in the past has been where there were clear tasks assigned and collaboration was a minor element of the work. My observations of many remote workplaces is that they focus on individual contributions, collaboration is asynchronous and there is a heavy overhead of management assigning tasks.

What I am envisioning is a workplace where the team is self organised, and whilst there is likely an increased element of asynchronous working it will be alongside effective collaboration. I see my role as identifying healthy boundaries that enable collaboration and creativity.

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Communication

Naturally communication is key, just as it is in brick and mortar offices, but when we are face to face we have a lifetime of skills to rely on. Instinctive awareness of body language, sensing mood and tone, not to mention touch – hand shakes and physical contact create bonds we don’t fully understand.

Remote teams communicating effectively is far more complex than simply joining a webex. I see the ability to communicate and collaborate as the number 1 challenge of this role.

Why this?

As an agile coach I strongly support the Agile manifesto (alongside Lean, ToC, and Lean Startup) and the manifesto favours individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It also advocates face to face communication. And yet I am taking on a role that is putting barriers between people and pretty soon I’ll be talking about how processes tools are vital for enhancing individuals in their interactions.

So why take on a job that seemingly flies in the face of this? The answer is twofold, First I believe the manifesto is a mindset for guiding teams in improving their way of working to get better at delivering software. I believe we can adhere to that mindset in this environment, I don’t see a conflict. Secondly I think that the focus and scope of the manifesto didn’t consider the larger picture and the changing state of the workers needs. Face to face is better – no argument from me, but it comes at a cost. We need to weigh up what is lost and what is gained from remote working and decide if what we gain is worth the sacrifice and I think with the right attitude, training and tools the desired outcome of effective collaboration can still be achieved and achieved in a way that is better for many team members.

What is more, I think this will be one of the most challenging coaching roles I have faced. Just like teams, coaching is far more effective face to face. The coaching may take on a different dynamic but I still very much see this as a coaching role.

Processes and Tools.

I warned you! To have effective communication and collaboration in a virtual workplace processes and tools are vital ,and are a prerequisite to the individuals and their interactions. But I don’t see a conflict here, in face to face communication there are processes and tools, we just don’t feel the need to mention them as they are natural to us.

Don’t shout, don’t mumble, don’t interrupt, pay attention, look at the speaker, be respectful. Lots of processes and a lot of non-verbal communication. And just watch for hand gestures or pens on post-it’s or whiteboards these are all tools, we hardly consider them that way and we certainly wouldn’t object to any of those processes or tools, they are necessary for our interactions.

In a virtual world the need is the same but the tools are different, tone of voice and body language are harder to decipher, so we need to be more attentive and more explicit. pen and paper are replaced with online collaboration tools, shared screens, electronic gestures and Slack messages to clarify misunderstandings.

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The scope of the task is daunting but I so excited about this. My employer is already a leader in Agile software delivery, this is the chance to demonstrate that we can be agile about flexible work environments without sacrificing what has made us successful: collaboration and self-organization.

This blog will continue to be Agile focused but I’ll also share some of the experiments as we discover what works for us.