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Remote Collaboration: Respect For Who’s Not in the Room

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision in February 2013 to prohibit full-time teleworking, it seemed like the first time anyone had applied the brakes to the speeding locomotive we call distributed work teams and teleworking. Although the initial reaction to Yahoo’s policy was mostly shock and outrage, it was soon followed by a smattering of support from calmer players who acknowledged that, indeed, some things simply work better when people work in the same physical location.

We who work with nonprofits and technology have been trying for years to strike the right balance between the reach and efficiency of remote teams vs. the trust and spontaneity that comes with on-site collaboration. For meetings, when is it important to have everybody “in the room”? When can you lose the room altogether? The answer depends on several factors, including who is meeting and why.

Here are seven ideas to help you plan and execute successful meetings — with and without remote participants.

Courtney Clark
Courtney Clark

1. Sharing physical space is important at the outset of a working relationship.

“At the beginning of the project, it’s important to get to know the people and their work. Whether you talk about their weekend, or what they had for breakfast, you get a connection,” says Courtney Clark, Content Strategy Lead at Forum One Communications, a digital communications consulting firm based in Alexandria, VA. “They need to trust you, and you need to have a rapport with them. That’s easier in person. Even if you just walk with them through the office, enter the conference room, and enjoy the view, you have a shared experience. But when you join a conference call, you get on and — boom — you start the meeting.”

 2. The bigger the crisis, the simpler the tools you should use.

Difficult conversations don’t get easier when you add audio or video glitches. You need to communicate as soon as possible, and as simply as possible.

“If we have a major issue, I wouldn’t buy a plane ticket,” says Courtney. “I would get on the phone. You want to use what the client is comfortable with and familiar with. ”

Konstantin von Schmidt-Pauli, lead business consultant at Aquilent in Laurel, MD adds, “I’m not shy about bringing bad news, if it has to be brought to the forefront. If there’s a concern about the project, we would choose a faceless remote connection, like a conference call or screen-sharing to discuss and present the issue. Skype and other video options may not work with Government attendees since many agencies block access based on security concerns.”

Face-to-face video conferencing remains clunky and risky for meetings with clients. “It’s rare for me to do face-to-face remote meetings with clients,” says Courtney, “because they usually don’t have the same tools, or they’re using their personal accounts. For some, if they’re using Skype at all, it’s with their grandchildren.”

Konstantin von Schmidt-Pauli
Konstantin von Schmidt-Pauli

3. If you’re including remote participants, no matter how few, then include them.

Being mindful of the needs of remote participants is part of a corporate culture, so get in the habit of appointing an advocate — or just being the advocate — for the remotes, even in small meetings. If a person in the room says something that’s too quiet for the microphone or speakerphone, ask them to repeat it, or repeat it yourself for the benefit of the remotes.

It may take months, even a year, but over time, it catches on like a good habit. At biweekly senior staff meetings of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, several lipstick-sized wireless microphones are scattered around the room, and staff have learned to reach for one before they start talking, because they know colleagues from London and Hong Kong are usually joining by phone, as well as U.S. colleagues who might be traveling or working from home.

Konstantin adds, “Sometimes you’ll hear the sound of silence, if people are afraid to give an opinion on something. If I’m the one calling the meeting, I have to be the proactive person on the call, and make sure that proper decoding and encoding happens. One thing you find in face-to-face, but even more so in virtualized meetings, is that just because people don’t speak up doesn’t mean they don’t have questions. I usually finish the call with action items, repeating them. And I always follow up with an email to reiterate.”

 4. Offer no handouts unless everybody has them, and show no visuals unless everybody can see them.

The presence of remote participants is not unexpected, at least for recurring meetings. So if somebody walks into your meeting with a stack of handouts and starts their talk with an apology to those on the phone, politely suggest that they save their talk until a subsequent meeting, when they’ve had the time to distribute their materials to the remotes. They’ll soon get the message that this must not be an afterthought. And let’s face it: failure to send materials in advance makes for a less effective meeting, period — for the remote as well as in-the-room participants. As with #3 above, this can become part of your organization’s culture.

Chris Wolz
Chris Wolz

5. With remote employees, offer a mix of face-to-face vs. remote interactions.

Chris Wolz, President and CEO of Forum One, says his firm offers an all-company retreat every two years — most recently on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — to nurture interpersonal relationships across the team. His firm has 45 employees in Alexandria, 10 in Seattle, and another 20 — more than a quarter of his staff — who work remotely in other states or countries.

“We also have a monthly all-company meeting,” says Chris. “About two-thirds are here in the room, and one-third are remote. We have a conference call line, along with a Google hangout and screen-sharing.”  It’s a one-hour prepared meeting, with 7-10 presenters walking through slides over the first 50 minutes, and 5-10 minutes of Q&A at the end. “We typically get a handful of questions,” he adds, “and I’ll often call out the people in Seattle, San Francisco, etc. and ask them if they have questions.”

And what if there’s no room at all? That’s the case for Lullabot, an interactive strategy, design and development firm specializing in Drupal and open-source work. With no full-time office presence, Lullabot has a 100 percent “distributed” workforce.

“In my mind, ‘remote’ workers are remote to something – removed – from the center of activity. Things are happening somewhere and they’re not there,” wrote Jeff Robbins, CEO and co-founder of Lullabot in a March 2013 blog post. “By contrast, ‘distributed’ workers are simply spread out. There’s no implication of a center of activity. The activity is distributed across the team.”  Do take the time to read Jeff’s post; it’s a fresh perspective on where your employees really need to be working.

Jeff noted that Google hangouts, Facetime and other web video tools still face a few adoption challenges. First of all, they’re not very mobile; video requires you to be in front of your webcam, but on a phone call, you can walk around your house and multitask.  Also, many people are still self-conscious about how they look on a video camera, and would prefer to remakin faceless.  “But there’s a funny societal change happening now,” he adds. “With the culture of ‘selfies’, people are getting more used to seeing themselves now.”

6. If the nature of your work requires on-site collaboration, demand it — and support it.

For Konstantin’s team, which develops software via the agile methodology, co-location is key. “We have daily scrum meetings, 15 minutes, and we have a scrum wall showing what’s in progress,” he says. “What did we do yesterday, what are we doing today, and what are we doing tomorrow, and are there any blockers? Issues are handled offline. This would be very hard to manage as a distributed team. Eye contact and body language is key.”

“Our team recently moved into a brand new office space in our building, laid out for agile development,” he adds. “New cubicles, a dedicated scrum room, huddle rooms, etc. It’s a very collaborative environment, and it has reduced the need for emails.”

Jeff Robbins
Jeff Robbins

7. Pick a time zone

If you have employees in all parts of the world, it’s tempting to spread your meeting schedule around so that everybody gets to have a favorable time slot now and then.  Resist that temptation.  “As a species, we’ve evolved to be awake when the sun is up and asleep when the sun is down,” says Jeff.  “You have to pick a canonical time zone.” For Lullabot, it was an easy choice because they have mostly U.S.-based clients, and they like to make their developers directly accessible to those clients — ergo, an East Coast set of core hours.  “We have a twice-weekly staff call, and 11 a.m. Eastern time still works for both Europe and the West Coast.”

Your Turn

What have you learned about striking the right mix of on-site vs. remote meetings and collaboration? Share it in the Comments section below.

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For Best User Experience, Try Self-Inflicted Simplicity

We just can’t help ourselves. When we design websites, apps, and even human processes, we overestimate people’s appetite for complexity, and we underestimate how busy we all really are.  The result:  a horrible user experience.  A system cluttered with advanced features that nobody has time to even learn, much less use.

Amazingly, it all can be traced back to the era of Beowulf, that epic hero of Old English poetry.  What, you didn’t know that Beowulf had a younger brother named Bawuddif? He spawned a race of troublemakers who add complexity to our websites and operations. But you can resist the Bawuddifs with a little “self-inflicted simplicity.”

Find out more in this Ignite talk I gave at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, DC.  Unfortunately — or fortunately, perhaps — my video wasn’t captured, so you’ll have to make do with my slides and spoken narrative.