Some easy steps to elevate remote working amongst colleagues and teams.
I’ve been a product designer for a few years now, working in different countries and environments, with clients in completely different time zones, colleagues in different offices geographically, working remotely due to coronavirus, and of course, worked full time in the office with colleagues.
Over this time something that really interests me is about enhancing the way people collaborate together, specifically remote collaboration. Hopefully, a few things I share here will inspire you with new ways to improve or create a thriving environment for people to work collaboratively while remote.
I’ll be going over setting up meetings, tooling, and etiquette and attitude. Talking about the things that I’ve seen and practiced that have made a positive difference to working and collaborating with people remotely.
Hybrid, remote, or the odd one out?
What kind of team are you in or trying to create? Is it one where some people come into the office every so often, maybe on set days? Is it that everybody is remote and some people get together in cafés or share co-working spaces. Is it that there’s an office and everyone goes in 5 days a week and maybe there’s an odd one? Irrespective of the above, fundamentally something that helps cater to remote working is the mindset that if one person is remote, it’s as if everyone is remote. That way there’s a level playing field and the people who are remote aren’t accidentally excluded.
A few of the topics that I’ll go through will provide tips and ideas on how you can leverage asynchronous ways of working to enhance collaboration.
Etiquette and attitude
There are plenty of tools available to enable and/or enhance the quality of remote working, but those tools don’t really matter unless everybody’s attitude is great and certain key behaviours are persistently maintained.
Key behaviours change and, of course, depend on the situation. Are you in a meeting room with everyone involved? Is it a meeting with everyone dialling in individually? Or maybe you are dialling in to a meeting that is being held in a room with people sat together behind one screen and microphone. Here are some things that you may already know,
- The mute button is your friend. If you’re dialling in and you’re at home or in a co-working space or in the office or even from a cafe, the mute button will guarantee that the person talking isn’t distracted and can maintain a train of thought, and people listening can focus on what they’re saying or showing. The meeting isn’t being disrupted by any noises that may appear outside of your control.
I’ve failed at this in the past, when at the team’s morning stand up I hadn’t muted myself, thinking it would be fine as normally my flat-mates are quiet, but this time one of them must have been in a hurry as they fell down the short flight of carpetted stairs and yelled out at the same time (they were absolutely fine, it was more amusing than anything) and everybody stopped the stand up concerned with what happened.
Also, if the person running the meeting is really paying attention un-muting yourself can also be used as an indicator that you want to talk.
- Show you want to talk or get involved. The team should agree or at least understand when colleagues want to get involved in the conversation. It could be turning off the mute button that indicates that you want to talk and somebody who is running the meeting can ensure that you get your chance to speak, however if you are in a noisy environment it’s gonna throw everybody off as you unmute to show off how noisy the cafe is… Some tools, such as Google Meet and Zoom, offer a ‘hand raised’ feature which may be the best way of indicating that you want to talk (probably why this feature was created). It also provides the order of people raising their hands.
If you’re in a video call, everybody should probably have their cameras turned on (it’s a video call, after all) and whoever is running the meeting, that way, can also see when somebody is trying to get involved due to visual cues from their body language (do they keep opening their mouth like a fish? Or stop sitting back and sit forwards?).
Ultimately everybody in your team are involved in these meetings should have a common way of understanding when somebody would like to speak.
Lastly, whoever is running the meeting or presentation should frequently pause and ensure everyone is doing ok and ask if they have any questions. Sometimes people are too polite or scared to interrupt to ask something, or their microphone sound isn’t picked up as strong as somebody elses.
- Turn your camera on during video calls. It’s not called a video call for nothing. Research indicates that most communication is non-verbal. How are people saying the things they’re saying, what’s their tone of voice and the speed they deliver the words? Are people listening in a still position or are they moving around a lot or shaking their head? What facial expressions are they expressing? As humans grow up these things become second nature. Essentially, without video being turned on the person talking can’t read the room and listeners can’t fully interprete the message being communicated. Think about it, have you ever had a conversation in slack via DMs that was confusing and ended up being a quick and easy 2 minute video call?
Key conversations, especially difficult ones, should be via video rather than in Slack DMs. Some of these tools such as slack offer a way for you to send a video that the receiver can view in their own time asynchronously. There is a tool called Loom that enable you to do the same sort of thing but in a way that enables you to organise and label videos in folders and receive comments and emoji reactions at specific time points as the video plays, making it mega contextual.
Essentially, being able to see who’s talking to you or who you’re talking to elevates communication.
- The cursor is your digital finger. Unless everyone is in the same room looking at the same screen, using a physical finger isn’t useful for pointing at what you’re referring to or want to focus people’s attention on (and also increases the risk of fingerprints on your screen, eww). Even if there are multiple people or just one person dialling in or you’re all in the same room but sharing to a big screen, your cursor is your digital finger and using your cursor as your finger will help indicate where people should be looking.
If you want to be fancy, and are sharing something via Google Slides, presentation mode even has a pointer feature that resembles the laser dots that some people use on physical presentations.
- Establish when you’re available. In Google Calendar you can set working hours, which is particularly helpful for people in different timezones, and alternatively you could just block out time you need to focus, or to indicate a dentist appointment, or something else, feeling free to be as transparent as you want. You could have certain things as a verbal agreement with colleagues, but crucially adding it to the calendar ensures visibility for everyone.
Outside of establishing what you’re up to in your calendar (Focus time, Lunch, Gym, Dentist) leveraging tools like Slack with their status emojis can also help people during those times in a more immediate way. Also if you’re clocking out slightly early to go for a run during a beautiful sunset, if that isn’t a regular thing, let your team know in that slack channel that you’ve probably got set up with everybody and don’t do it if you’re in the middle of something important, of course
- Commitment and purpose are very important. If you’re in a meeting and you’re not adding or receiving value, why are you there? If you’re in a meeting but doing other work instead of being present (potentially being distracting due to keyboards being loud) why are you there?
Hopefully the calendar invite has got an agenda or goal that allows you to know what’s going on and you’re there for a reason. At the very least, however, don’t be distracting and if you shouldn’t be there at that moment, it’s likely to be ok to leave.
- Lastly, get to know everybody that you’ll be working with. Develop relationships with the people you’re going to be spending so much of your time with. If you have the opportunity to meet them face-to-face you should do it, it really will change the way you both work together when you understand their mannerisms and how they talk. Once you understand each other that way it becomes exponentially easier to communicate by written form and those asynchronous videos. Fundamentally building a relationship with the people you work with is extremely important to delivering high-quality work and just having fun. Relationships can be measured by trust, how much do they trust you with work and or personal things? How much do you trust the people you work with?
Not everything needs to be a meeting but when it does, there are a few key things that you can do to ensure that it runs smoothly and is an efficient use of time.
What’s the goal of the meeting and what will people be going through? Maybe you talked to everyone, or the key people, before setting the meeting up. There’s an important thing in product design called ‘recognition over recall’ which fundamentally means it’s easier for you to trigger people’s memories than to ask them to remember for themselves. Add the agenda or to-do list to the calendar agenda and go through it at the start of the meeting to ensure everyone is aligned.
What are the materials that this meeting will require? It’s probably obvious but ensuring all those materials are ready sometimes takes a few hours of preparation work, and that preparation work goes extremely far to ensuring a successful meeting, especially if it’s a workshop that requires interaction and participation. More specifically on workshops, if they do require interaction and participation, will everyone coming know how to use the tools, or/and there other tools that are more familiar and could be used to enhance and ensure participation? Are there things that people could do to ensure everybody is on the same page, such as sending pre-read material to participants if it exists, therefore helping get through the meeting and getting to the end of them with a sense of accomplishments and next steps.
Ensure that anybody who will be sharing stuff can actually share stuff. If it’s your first time trying to share something via a new computer or a different browser or programe, you might not have the right permissions turned on. It’s always best to double-check and make sure that they are turned on, even doing a practice run may be great.
Even if some people are remote or not, problems might happen. Somebody’s internet connection might go down, or somebody doesn’t have the right permissions to share their screen, or edit the interactive workshop file, or their microphone isn’t working… These things happen and it takes time to work out every different technical problem that may arise. Does it suck when that happens? Yes, but remember that there’s a solution to these things and being calm will help you discover it.
Lastly, if you can, make sure to record the meeting to then share with people who might not of been able to participate or may find interesting in the future. Watching recordings is something that can also help you improve your communication skills as you see how you come across, how your mannerisms are, and so on. This was something I began to notice when I was starting my YouTube carrier, I’d playback things and notice when I was not making any sense, or maybe sounding judgemental, without watching my own recordings I wouldn’t have been able to notice these blindspots.
Software, hardware, tooling…
Since the dawn of time tools have been an integral part of humanity and evolution. Without tools we wouldn’t constantly be striving for improvement.
So with a remote organisation, or colleagues that are remote, what are some tools that can really elevate the experience? (You may already have access to these things already, so it’s just about putting them to good use).
- Video cameras. These can be for the collective inside meeting rooms or for the individual via computers. Obviously, the higher quality is the better, but it has diminishing returns, even those basic 720p ones in your MacBook will suffice, there’s no need to have a 4K professional film camera for your home set up… unless you really want it of course. In the office it’s a bit different though, for meeting rooms the same WebCam that exists on a laptop won’t cut it in a big room that fits four people or more, in those meeting rooms has a high-quality video camera that can pan and zoom into whoever it is that’s talking is an ideal way of enabling remote participants to know who’s talking and what their body language is.
- Microphones. Computers come with microphones installed, and they’re not bad. But of course as soon as you encounter somebody with a slightly upgraded set up you can tell immediately when they have such a clear, deep, crisp, voice. Some people really value high-quality audio and some people don’t see the need for it, I’ll leave it up to you if you would like to be able to express yourself audibly in the clearest way possible. In the office again it’s very different if you are in a meeting room, if you have a microphone on the table, doesn’t need to be mega expensive just needs to capture audio from all sides, it can work as long as you haven’t got people in the meeting room hammering away on their keyboard or scraping their coffee mugs across the table, which that microphone will undoubtedly pick up and deafen all the participants who rely on the microphone to hear what’s going on in the room. The best microphones that I’ve seen in meeting rooms are the ones that come down from the ceiling over the table, making it so any vibrations on the table aren’t picked up and are omnidirectional, catching audio from everybody in that room.
- Video communication. This can be asynchronous or it can be in real time. You may have heard of tools like Zoom or Google meet which do a fantastic job at real-time video communication but not so much at asynchronous video communication. Then there are tools such as Loom which really excel at asynchronous video communication, and tools like Slack that are almost the jack of all trades since they enable real-time video communication, asynchronous video communication, and written communication. Being able to provide real-time and asynchronous video communication is important to the success of remote work.
- Written communication. An art that requires great listening skills and understanding of the people who will be receiving that written message. Fundamentally Slack handles this in real-time well, and people can search through Slack to find any sort of public communication. However, if there’s a topic that multiple people are conversing about, a colleague that is in a different time zone might not be able to participate in it or even see it unless they are tagged, meaning it’s not perfect (as nothing ever is). Documentation is another form of written communication, which is the process of recording key information, such as key decisions and moments of progress, in a timeless fashion destined for multiple people with different needs, and should display information to cater to those different needs. There are tools like Notion that are fantastic at documentation and keeping it well organised, Confluence that integrates seamlessly with Jira if that’s important to you. Tools like Google Docs and Google Sheets are also fantastic however they should be housed within something that everybody can access at any given moment.
- A shared calendar. Absolutely great for setting expectations between everybody, because how else will people know that in the next two weeks there’s going to be a cross disciplinary workshop with a specific agenda? It goes without saying that they should be digital and not a paper calendar. There are plenty of tools for this such as Outlook Google calendar or Apple calendar, and even new tools such as Amie combining calendar and a to do list. When creating events be mindful of people’s time, as in don’t make meetings longer than they need to be, and be mindful of the time of day for them, for example running a heavily intense workshop right at the start of the day on a Monday in the morning might not be well received.
- Of course email needs to make this list as well, although other than using it for communicating with people outside the organisation or sending farewell notes, I’m not sure how valuable it might be on a person to person level other than for certifying accountability.
Fundamentally working with others is about communication and there are always ways to elevate the quality of that. If you are working with people who are remote, if you’re in a remote organisation, or you are the person who is remote, I hope that these tips about setting expectations and clearly communicating things outside of just writing an email or through Slack can really elevate your experience and help you evangelise what it takes to collaborate meaningfully and generate high-quality work. There are many different things that can contribute to an effective remote working organisation but ultimately it all comes down to setting and agreeing guidelines between everybody, and some of the above might not be relevant and some of it might but it’s all up to a group of people deciding what works best for them at the end of the day.
If you enjoyed reading this and you have anything you want to ask me or add to this feel free to drop a comment. Now go forth and improve your relationships and ways of working amongst your remote colleagues!