Connection in an Isolating Age

diverse people around a globe with connected lines for relationships

Prior to these “unprecedented times” the tech space and project work was becoming more and more distributed across the globe.  By and large, we have found ways to be productive, but there has always been a gap between those at HQ and those working remotely.  Now that almost all of us are in the latter bucket, we’re finding more and more just how difficult it is to be assigned to a team but not feel like you’re part of it.

This post will deviate from game analogies, but lest you get too disappointed dear readers, I do have games to recommend.  Hang in there.

So many businesses have required on site work for so long is because there are so many built in benefits to physical presence in a traditional office setting. Consider hallways conversations, meeting up with people in the break room at lunch, or even being co-located for a team effort. It’s difficult to replace digitally, and requires intentional efforts to do so. 

Now that we’re in a position where we need to keep a distance, even from those in our same city, let’s look at some of the challenges these teams will face and approaches to resolve them.

Meeting Fatigue

Projects largely stand on ceremony in order to facilitate work and I can’t even count the number of meetings I have had to schedule over the years. We all hate them. I’m sorry I have to do it.  

In a completely distributed model, calendars are packed so full that a team member can’t reasonably get other work done during the day. But you still need to communicate. What to do?

Restructure the Schedule

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution as your organization and teams needs are going to differ, but some techniques include:

  • Bunch meetings together to reduce context switching.
  • Have a block of time of day that recurring meetings happen.
  • Have a designated day of week that no formal meetings are scheduled unless there is an urgent need.
  • Reduce meetings by 5-10 minutes at the beginning and/or the end to allow others with back to back scheduled time to take a bio break and allow them to prep and login to their next commitment on time.

Own Your Calendar

Book yourself a block of time to work on concentrated tasks. For me it has always been financials and reporting that needed uninterrupted focus.

Does It Need To Be A Meeting?

Chat programs have free bots (like Howdy for Slack) that can be leveraged to handle recurring information gathering.  As an example, you can run the nitty gritty of a stand-up by sending each team member questions, aggregating the responses and delivering the full report to a team channel.  This cuts down the time spent keeping people from running off topic or trying to solution in the stand-up.  Items that need to be discussed further can either be a thread or a smaller meeting can be called.

Running a hybrid approach is also an option, such as sending out the prompts for a retro, and using the output to drive the in-person portion.  This was you are getting the valuable collaboration, but still reducing the time commitment.

Enrich Connections

So now that we’ve cut a bunch of stuff off your plate, I’m now going to tell you to fill it back up.  The goal being to remove the filler keeping you from working but making the communication you do have with your team meaningful – either to the project or to your working relationship which only helps the projects.

Stand-up and Coffee

By leveraging a hybrid approach to gathering information for your stand-up prior to meeting, try relaxing the flow by booking a 30 minute window where you talk business first and then allow the team to just catch up while drinking their morning caffeine of choice.  

Blocking dedicated time in this way can reduce it bleeding into other meetings where focus is needed, and acknowledges your team as being made up of people who have other interests outside of work.  In a time where we are on our own except for meetings, we need the socialization to keep up morale and productivity.

The Virtual Hallway Conversation

A very important norm I have established in my teams to great success is when two or more people begin talking about a project related item that becomes a solutioning exercise, we notify the team chat and jump on an video call with an open invite.  Essentially, if it’s a conversation you would have asked someone if they have 5 minutes to join with a whiteboard, invite them to the video chat.

They don’t even have to participate if they are in the middle of something but they are able to listen and pipe up if needed. In many ways this has come as close to sitting next to each other and popping up to add to a discussion on the work as I’ve been able to get.

Adding in digital white board tools and recording the chats makes it even easier to track back to decisions and discussions that have taken place. This has saved my hide more than once and has made remote folks feel much more involved than just order taking to complete tasks.

Team Building

During a pandemic or even with a normal remote team, camaraderie is a challenge. 

Virtual happy hours have become increasingly popular, however much like in-person happy hours, you should be mindful of team members that do not drink for one reason or another. If it’s not something everyone will enjoy, then it shouldn’t be the only socializing activity you put together.

Online games are another way to cut loose and have fun. For a synchronous experience, I highly recommend hosting a Jackbox party through Zoom or similar.  I have hosted these company-wide to much hilarity.  Alternatively, you can start asynchronous play tournaments for a variety of games on Yucata where your team members can play at their convenience.  

One place I worked actually created a bot in HipChat to run an office-wide game of Monopoly by dividing us into teams.  Be creative and have fun with it!  Do video/photo scavenger hunts.  The opportunities are really endless even if we can’t physically get together.

Recognition

This is something I encourage PMs to build within their team in general but when you are working completely remote, celebrating even the mundane done well matters.  

Cultural Exchange

Celebrations

I encourage my teams to do more than just have a list of holidays in other locales to know when someone might be out.  I have in the past either pulled together information, or have asked team members who celebrate holidays that I may not to share their traditions with us and when it has passed make it a point to follow up and ask how it was and to see pictures if appropriate.

Study Up

More importantly though, if you are working with team members in other countries, I encourage you to learn more about the country, the history and the culture. While it is somewhat dated at this point, I find this book to still be a useful tool to teach you to break down cultures by orientations (public/private, individualistic/collectivist, etc) which enables you to avoid gaffs and develop better relationships.

Ask Questions

Ask your team members if they are open to answering your questions on their culture and country.  I have found my colleagues to be touched by genuine interest. 

Learn How to Pronounce Their Name!

As a follow-up to the above, ask the individual or someone you trust how to pronounce a name that you aren’t familiar with.  Continuing to say it poorly is disrespectful.  There are even sites to assist now! I love Pronounce Names and they even have a YouTube channel. Nameshouts is another that’s really good as well. There’s really no excuse to get this wrong anymore.

Language

Encourage video chat as often as possible.  When working in a language that is not everyone’s native language or where accents may differ, video is imperative to assist our brains in interpreting what is being said by matching lip reading with the audio.  This is also true for those who are hard of hearing or to help those in general with poor connections.


As many of us are working this out for the first time, just remember to extend grace when possible and help each other learn.

Crystal Larsh is a service delivery professional, managing a variety of technical projects in Austin, Texas. She has been leading teams in the project and product space since 2003. Valuing continuous growth, she has gained an MBA in eCommerce, a Masters in Project Management, and NPDP, PMP and Scrum Master certifications. She has used her education and over 15 years of experience to help bring up the next generation, particularly women in tech. Serving clients by trade. Gaming by hobby. Mother of two by love. Managing projects comes as naturally as breathing.

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