This is a transcript of Episode 5 – remote and distributed working. You can also listen to episode 5.
If you think about the word “Remote”: someone is remote to you but, for them, they’re not remote.
You need the travel to share the context and build the relationships.
If you get to three months and you haven’t had face-to-face time, it starts to, you start to become strangers again.
Welcome to Feel – a podcast about leadership. My name’s Andy Kelk. So far in this series we’ve covered four different topics around culture, motivation, influence and talent. If you’ve not heard those episodes already, you can get them from iTunes or FeelPodcast.org
In this episode, we’re looking at remote and distributed working. Does everyone need to be in the same room to succeed?
A couple of years ago, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer caused a stir by decreeing that employees would no longer be allowed to work remotely. A lot of debate ensued over the choice between fostering collaboration through geographical closeness and providing flexibility with remote working. Richard Branson weighed into the discussion: “To successfully work with other people,” he said “you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.”
I spoke with leaders who can see both sides of the story to find out where the balance lies between being together and working as you see fit. Em Campbell-Pretty, an enterprise lean and agile coach, is a believer in the value of people working in the same place.
I’m definitely not a fan of working distributed. But I understand there’s realities. But I really, honestly believe that most organisations are doing it on cost basis and it’s a false economy.
Working remotely as an individual, I’ve never really been keen on it for people who are part of scrum teams. I think it hurts the team.
Working as part of a team is an order of magnitude easier if everyone is in the same place at the same time. Kerri Rusnak, formerly of the REA Group explains.
Remote working for short periods of time is fine but I think ongoing it is not, it does not create a collaborative environment and I want people in the office. I want people in the office at the same time. Now if, as a team, we decide that’s from ten til six, that’s fine; if we decide it’s seven til three, that’s fine; I don’t care; if we decide that we’re going to have a siesta in the afternoon for three hours and then we’re going to come back to work, let’s do that.
But the reason it’s important is from a process… if you think of it as you have a factory and you have a series of assembly lines and they all join and you turn two or three of those assembly lines off, you’re going to end up with wastage at various points because somebody’s generated all this work and needs to hand it to somebody else in terms of a conversation or a review or whatever it is. And then that person’s not there, all of a sudden there’s a standstill, there’s an overproductivity in one and there’s an absolute mountain of work to come back to for the other person. And while the third line down might be still working for a while, then they’re going to hit the backup on that productivity as well. So there’s a very practical aspect to that.
The other one is around cultural norms, being able to have the conversations which you need to have enough face time with somebody and observation about what they’re like day-to-day, what’s normal for them, in terms of when they drink coffee, when they’re reading the board, how they normally, the tone of their voice, you pick up all of these things subconsciously about people. If they’re not in front of you, and that’s a limitation perhaps at this stage of just the technologies. So perhaps if we get better technology you can see them doing that but they happen to be projected onto a screen, that’s fine.
But until we have that, you miss that. And then when you get an email you don’t have context because you don’t know is that normal for them? or they actually really pissed today? Are they really angry about something? or are they down? Or are they responding to something else? Are they stressed out? What’s going on with them? You don’t know the context that they’re coming from. And you have to have that filter of context plus message to make any meaning. If you don’t have both parts, you’re kind of lost.
However, both Em and Kerri agree that you do need to have some amount of flexibility for people to live their own lives. So how do you decide when and how people can work remotely? Em Campbell-Pretty:
I think my instinct these days would be to say it’s a team decision. So, you need to work from home for whatever reason, you work it out with your team and it comes down to: is the team going to be OK that day or number of days; does the team know that you need quiet time to think. Most agile teams have a reasonable amount of empathy so I think, for me, it’s a team thing.
We’ve talked about empathetic teams before in this series and empathy is one of the main results of people being together as Alex Stokes, consultant and founder of agily.com.au describes.
You know, a lot of it is trust. So, once you meet people, you put a face to a name and you’ve talked about some little chitty-chat that’s got nothing to do with your daily work then you’ve had that social exchange and then “Now I like you, because I’ve got something in common with you.” So then work stuff becomes much easier. So how do you do that if you’re in Germany and in a different timezone to me? I guess you just work harder at it and, to be honest, people are doing it, they’re doing it anyway.
Many teams use co-location as a way of building trust and empathy in their teams. But being physically close and having a strong team are not necessarily the same thing. Neil Killick, agile portfolio manager at MYOB explains.
Remoteness isn’t so much about physical location it’s actually about your goals and whether they’re shared or not. When people are both fighting for the same thing and trying to achieve the same things, you actually find a way to work together to make that happen regardless of where you are geographically. And on the other end of the spectrum, you can be sitting next to someone and not talk to them and not have any idea what they’re doing or how it relates to what you’re doing.
So, co-location in itself isn’t actually… it’s almost like it’s the practice but it’s not the principle. It’s almost diving in with a practice and not understanding the real nuances of it. On the surface of it, getting people in a room – you feel like it’s always going to be the most effective way of achieving something and in most cases it is going to help if only to form relationships that are required to work with people.
If you’re trying to work with someone remotely and you’ve never actually met face-to-face and you haven’t built that initial trust and relationship it’s very difficult to meet good outcomes. So I’d always say that even if you are going to be working remotely with someone else, it’s still really important to get together at the beginning of that collaboration to have a better chance of success.
Jim and Michele McCarthy in their book “Software For Your Head” discuss the difference between geographical closeness and mental closeness. They describe some core protocols which include mechanisms for teams to “Check In” and become present.
As they say: “Whether the members of a team are dispersed across the world or crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in rows of cubicles, distance is always the central issue among collaborators. The remedy for distance is presence. The distance that must be surmounted, is the psychological distance (or the ‘headgap’) between people rather than the amount of physical space between their bodies”
So while physical presence can help as a short-cut to psychological presence, it’s not enough. We also need to work on how to bring people closer together mentally.
If we accept that physical presence is not always necessary, then we’re free to explore the benefits people get from being physically distant. Alex Stokes sees advantages to knowledge workers in having flexibility to remove themselves from a group.
The coding thing is almost a no-brainer. Because, geez, you can get a lot done when you’ve got peace and quiet and some time to think. And surely technology can afford us the ability to collaborate and pair-program. If we can play games online, surely we can do that stuff.
Neil Killick also sees the possibilities of getting people collaborating across physical distances.
I think my views on this have changed over the years. I’ve probably at the beginning, a bit dogmatic about the whole co-location thing and “It’s absolutely crucial for success” and as we’ve seen the reality of the global economy and how we work is that people do need more flexibility in working from home and working from other locations and working across countries and cities, etc. That’s the reality of modern working life and many many companies do it very very effectively.
One of the companies trying very hard to do remote working effectively is the REA Group. They have a number of teams located in Xi’an in China. I spoke to Kerri Rusnak when she was working with the REA Group and she sees lots of unexpected benefits from embracing remote work.
I think we’re doing a really great job here. I do think it is something worth pursuing because I think, even from a social context, it’s a responsibility we need to have in terms of generating income across other geographical areas in the world. And if we’re pushing the boundaries in terms of making remote working possible even when it’s not optimal. That pressure and that tension in the system will create a better outcome. And the more we can do that, that means that more people will be able to mobilise for example, unemployment in regions like Alice Springs.
You have a lot of people there who just don’t have employment. If you don’t have employment, you don’t drive education; if you don’t drive education you have a lower performing society. Now, if we can start dialing people in and making it such that they feel collaborative and part of the environment day-to-day then all of a sudden you’re getting a better result for a community. And the community then has a better result, is more productive, increases the overall standard of living for everybody within the broader community and then across the country.
And if we can start thinking about that from a global context in terms of mobilising near-shore development in developing countries, it’s great. And I’m actually really happy that costs start to increase and we’re like “Maybe we have to get out of China because the cost of labour’s increasing”. What a beautiful result that is. That’s a great result. “Maybe it’s time for us to move into Vietnam because it’s cheaper.” Perfect. Because you know what’s going to happen – again we mobilise that society and that society grows and becomes more educated and the amount of money that they get from that then has more positive benefits and you start to see a global chain reaction of things.
So if you can see the benefits of building a distributed team, how do you go about starting one? What are the hurdles? Mike Breeze, an iteration manager with the REA Group has worked closely with the team in China since the beginning.
It was terrifying at first because you’re meeting all these Chinese people. They’re all very good people but we make the joke all the time in Xi’an even now that they look the same to us and we look the same to them. So the immediate terror was “How am I going to learn all these people’s names let alone pronounce the names”. But we just jumped straight in, made a joke about sitting down and brute force phonetically learning how to say the names, and feeling stupid for a while and then it all just got more comfortable really quickly.
Aside from language, another hurdle can be the conversations which happen outside of formally arranged meetings. The side-conversations that people have without even thinking about who else needs to be in them. Kerri Rusnak has seen that be a challenge.
It is interesting when I go to China and I’ll do sessions with the team in terms of “Hey, this is where we’re up to, this is what we’re working on, and this is the why behind that” that they’re just like “Wow! Really!” Because you don’t realise that while the VC’s running, it’s just people working on tasks. And while we try to dial them in for as many meetings as possible, the meetings themselves are captured points in time, they’re snapshots in time of a state that exists and they might get that state every one month or three months from various levels of different messages.
They do not have the context of the informal conversation that happens day-to-day in the lunchroom, that happens in stand-ups when perhaps they can’t quite hear all the messages. That happen once people walk away from the stand-up and then you might get four people that are all of a sudden like “Hey guys, shall we talk about this?” and then a decision comes out of that. They go over and talk to somebody else. They talk to somebody else. All of a sudden, stuff has shifted within less than five minutes and they weren’t a part of any of that.
Multiply that 100 times over an iteration and iteration after iteration with two separate teams it becomes more of an issue. Of course, you learn to manage that better in terms of being more mindful about when those things happen what they usually look like and then dividing the work in such a way that they become more autonomous in terms of that work and driving that work themselves. Then it becomes more functional. But it is still a challenge.
How you break down the work is something that Mike Breeze has also spent a lot of time solving.
There’s a distance, obviously, and a time difference. So we concentrate more on making sure there’s clean work available so that there’s less need to come back and ask questions. You need to be available when the team up there needs to ask questions but if you have more of a focus on having the work clean so that when they pick up a story and go with it there’s less thrash.
And always, because of distance and the fact that they’re in a different location, is context. Giving enough business context so that they can make decisions on their own if we’re not there.
Seeing people face to face is important in building context and understanding. However, the value of a personal connection is only temporary. Em Campbell-Pretty:
That decays though. The one thing with that is it decays and it decays – not horrendously fast – but it does decay, it needs to be maintained. I get the feeling that if you get to three months and you haven’t had face-to-face time, you start to become strangers again.
When you have teams in different locations and you need to maximise face time, paying for travel and technology can be an expensive business. Alex Stokes has worked with an offshore team in China and seen the impact of not investing adequately.
It was so hard. Crazy stuff like my team didn’t even have access to dial internationally. How are you working? It was very hard to get these guys on the phone. They weren’t great at speaking English and our Mandarin was worse. They preferred to talk in email. That’s the kind of situation you walk into. Video conferences helped a lot. Seeing faces just seems to help an awful lot.
But going there was fantastic and meeting them but you can’t take the whole 40 person development team over there. I know REA do quite a lot of swapsies and so do ThoughtWorks – that’s good. But the company I worked for weren’t that generous. Really you need to pay that tax of travel to do that. We brought a lot of people over when we could but not as much as we would have liked to.
Mike Breeze is a person who has had to pay the tax of travel when working with the team in China.
We always tried to do 4 trips a year to Xi’an but we never managed to do it. So it was between 2 and 3 trips a year up to Xi’an and usually the same number of trips where we’d have some of the team come down from Xi’an to work with us here. That worked pretty well with us. That was about the right number.
And what we always noticed was – even with, we had amazing team morale and sense of team between the two sites and there’s genuine friendships, we’re still very good friends with the original people that were working on that team. Even with the close relationship, after a month or two where we hadn’t done any travel, whether it was Melbourne to Xi’an or Xi’an to Melbourne, we noticed that maybe due to a lack of shared context or perspective it got harder to communicate over the VC or via email or anything and as soon as we did some travel again that clicked back in. So we just always tried to make sure that we got some sort of travel every few months to make sure we were keeping in sync.
When I’m talking about it with other companies, not every company’s going to have the travel budget that we’ve insisted on for ourselves from the start. But every one of the delivery centres that I’ve seen in China, the ones that are really working well they’re doing regular travel backwards and forwards to support it. I think that’s a big difference between working as a partnership with the remote delivery centre versus just outsourcing where you’re throwing work over the fence to them. you need the travel to share the context and build the relationships.
In addition to traveling to be together, technology can play an important part in making everyone feel included. Steve Hardisty, a senior engineering manager at Etsy has used video conferencing software to bring people into the office.
One of the things I really like is having computers with cameras and their faces on so the person on the team, they have a computer on a pedestal with the camera so that you can see them at all times and they’ve got the camera pointing at their face and they can see you and they’ve got a microphone and you can have free conversations. They have stand-ups around that person’s monitor.
There’s a lot of communication at Etsy happens through IRC; so that creates a much more level playing field, of course. Also, having an advocate. So when we have remote engineers on teams I’ve directly managed, having someone on the team who’s much more cognisant of other people has always helped so “Oh, don’t forget about such and such a person” when we run any kind of meeting, when you have a postmortem, when you have a retro, when you have a planning meeting, whatever it might be. Making sure that the remote people are involved which sometimes is really hard.
Communicating via text-based conferencing software such as IRC, HipChat or Slack can certainly level the playing field. Neil Killick goes one step further from computers on pedestals to telepresence robots.
There’s even those robots that you can drive round the office and just go up to someone and have a conversation with them remotely. Your face is on an iPad and you’ve got the camera and you can see where you’re going, you drive up to someone’s desk and have a chat with them. At the moment this is still quite expensive technology but I imagine it’s not too long until it’ll be a lot easier to do that stuff.
When I visited Mike Breeze at REA’s Melbourne office, he showed me the always-on video conferencing system that they use to stay in touch with their team in China.
Let me describe what I’m seeing. I’m standing in an area of, we’ve got about 24 or 28 people who can sit in this team area and then right in the middle, right next to the window is a big TV screen, camera on the top of it and what I can see at the other end is the office in Xi’an. Mike, just talk me through how this works.
OK, so we call this our always-on set-up and the first thing there is that it’s always on. We have a simple set-up is a television like this, a camera and a microphone and in Xi’an, our team has exactly the same set-up. The idea is that we can see them during the day and they can see us during the day.
So I’m seeing now somebody walking across the office, I can see a couple of people sitting there pairing at a computer, I can see cards on the wall and I think you said before that we can actually move the camera as well. Can we give that a go?
We’ve moved beyond Skype and if I can work out how to use the remote control…
We’re zooming in on a poster which is probably an A3 poster and it’s at the other side of the room… in China.
We’ve evolved beyond the ghetto setup of Skype with remote cameras and we’re using some Cisco hardware and we’re sending it down a dedicated WAN link which we have bought from Telstra. And Telstra are big enough to have a dedicated line going into Xi’an which doesn’t go through the Great Firewall of China. So it’s stable and it’s uninterrupted and we get guaranteed bandwidth. And it really is changing very quickly the way we work with our teams.
And can we try some audio? Can we see if that’ll work?
Shall we call them over?
We’ll just get them to say hello to us.
Hey Shi Jie, Hi Shi Jie. Andy, meet Shi Jie.
Hi Shi Jie.
Nice to meet you!
But technology alone is not enough. It just creates a gateway between two locations. For success, you also need to breed team relationships. One way that Mike found to work is by using fun.
Here at REA, we eat lots of cake. There’s cakes everywhere, all the time. If we… it might be just shipping a really tough story or getting something done, we’ll buy cake and we’ll eat it together. So if we’ve done something together as a distributed team, we might order a cake for the team in Xi’an, we get one here and we bring the table over and we cut the cake and eat it together over the VC. And you have to choose a time where it’s appropriate to be eating cake in both locations – that’s no so hard, you just eat cake at any time. So things like that just to build that sense of team together.
One of the newer teams here at REA, they had a distributed bake-off earlier this year so they organised a recipe for each end, booked a meeting room, the lead up that end in Xi’an went and found all the ingredients, someone here got all the ingredients, and together while the VC was on they mixed all the ingredients. They made these cookies which didn’t need to be baked so mixed it all together, put them in the fridge and then came back later in the day and ate them together. So it’s basically finding any way that you can to build and bring a sense of team.
Building a sense of team might also require changing your perspective on who – and indeed where – you are. Neil Killick:
If you think about the word ‘remote’: someone is remote to you but for them they’re not remote. It’s very easy to categorise the people that aren’t you; you categorise them as something like the offshore team or the remote team or whatever. And actually, from their point of view, they are where they are and you’re the remote team.
Whether we’re remote or local, we need shared goals, close communication, empathy towards each other and systems of work that let us become autonomous. Technology will help us bridge the geographical divide but whether your colleague is next to you or a thousand miles away, you need to bridge the mental gap and work together to deliver success.
Next time on Feel; innovation – how are smart companies creating new ideas and getting everyone involved?
If you like what you hear in this series, please consider rating and reviewing the show on iTunes – it gives valuable feedback and helps others to find out about it. And if you want to discuss things directly, get in touch on twitter – @feelpodcast, or contact me via the website – feelpodcast.org
I’m Andy Kelk, this has been Feel. A big thank you to Alex Stokes, Em Campbell Pretty, Kerri Rusnak, Mike Breeze, Neil Killick and Steve Hardisty. The show’s music is by audionautix.com and our website is FeelPodcast.org