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This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
When co-workers or managers aren’t readily available, it may take more time to get help from others. To mitigate this, remote teams and workers need to develop practices that bridge information pockets.
An information pocket occurs when individual members of the same team have access to differing levels of information. Individuals could have access to more or less information depending on social relationships with peers or managers, their time zone overlap, their ability to ask for help, or whether they come to an office or not. Access to the outcome of decisions, or how to do administrative tasks like getting expenses approved, are examples of information that could form in pockets if it’s not broadcasted adequately. Confidential information, or other information that should be shared on a need-to-know basis, doesn’t count as information pockets.
Information pockets can lead to misalignment or slower progress when it comes to getting remote work done. To prevent these from developing, teams can invest in documentation and knowledge caches that keep individuals informed, and appropriate mechanisms for keeping each other updated asynchronously. Individual employees also have increased responsibility on their part to stay autonomously aligned, informed, and unblocked.
Organizations that embrace distributed work can help mitigate information pockets by using the following techniques.
Build a Handbook
A handbook (or content cache) is a written document that contains a company’s goals, policies, procedures, teams, methods, and any other relevant information for employees to do their work.
The GitLab handbook has become one of the most cited examples on how to do this well because it’s thorough and extremely transparent. Basecamp has an open-sourced handbook too, which is much simpler than GitLab’s.
Ideally, a company with a remote-first attitude is building their handbook from day one, starting with establishing and writing down its values and providing documentation on goals and working together. Using an established asynchronous collaborative tool like a knowledge base or wiki makes creating, adding to, and updating this kind of information easier, and can distribute the documentation requirements across people.
importantWriting a handbook on its own isn’t enough. This content has to be regularly and consistently maintained for it to be valuable. See more on the OAC Principle of document maintenance in Documentation: Less is More.
Company leadership, departments, and teams can help the organization be better informed by publishing regular updates on the state of the organization.
Stand-up meetings (or stand-ups), are short meetings—typically no more than 15 minutes—with the purpose of keeping teams informed and unblocked. Stand-ups typically happen daily at the same time, and are supposed to be brief—deep discussions or follow ups are pushed to other meetings or asynchronous documentation options.*
Stand-up formats vary from company to company and even team to team, but there’s usually a predetermined list of questions that every member is expected to answer. For example, Attlassian uses these prompts to generate their stand-up structure:
What did I work on yesterday?
What am I working on today?
What issues are blocking me?
The purpose of stand-ups isn’t necessarily to have a space for individuals to share their status, but rather to build a shared understanding of the state of the team. By exposing everyone to the same information, every team member has the opportunity to highlight risks they may anticipate to the success of any project, and to open the space for others to provide support or additional information. Stand-ups were originally intended to be synchronous.
“Share understanding of goals. Even if we thought we understood each other at the start (which we probably didn’t), our understanding drifts, as does the context within which we’re operating. A “team” where each team member is working toward different goals tends to be ineffective.
“Coordinate efforts. If the work doesn’t need to be coordinated, you don’t need a team. Conversely, if you have a team, I assume the work requires coordination. Poor coordination amongst team members tends to lead to poor outcomes.
“Share problems and improvements. One of the primary benefits of a team versus working alone, is that team members can help each other when someone encounters a problem or discovers a better way of doing something. A “team” where team members are not comfortable sharing problems and/or do not help each other tends to be ineffective.
“Identify as a team. It is very difficult to psychologically identify with a group if you don’t regularly engage with the group. You will not develop a strong sense of relatedness even if you believe them to be capable and pursuing the same goals.”
importantDistributed teams where all team members share a time zone overlap can choose to rely on daily stand-ups to converge on a shared understanding of the state of what they’re working on. If some team members are remote and others are located in an office, consider having everyone join the video call separately, regardless of location, so participation is even (being mindful of whether this isn’t disruptive to other people in the office).
Here’s a few tips for remote-team stand-ups:
Use video. It helps to not only have everyone join with their video on if possible, but to also use the “Brady Bunch” view that shows everyone on video as separate tiles, instead of one main video (whoever is currently speaking) as the main focus. This provides visibility for everyone, regardless of who is talking, and mimics an in-person stand-up more. Zoom provides this functionality, as do other conferencing platforms.
Use your documentation. Gathering “around” whatever you use to keep track of your team’s work—a kanban board or some form of project-management or tracking tool—keeps everyone on the same page and the meeting focused.
Experiment with asynchronous stand-ups. If you don’t have full time zone overlap for everyone on the team, all is not lost. You can use all the asynchronous tools that are hopefully already a part of your communication architecture, such as chat, a forum, or wiki. Team members can update their information there, knowing that everyone else is doing the same, and check in regularly so everyone remains on the same page.
cautionSince stand-ups were initially designed with synchronous communication in mind, some of their benefits may be lost by making them asynchronous, and you may want to explore different options to achieve similar outcomes. Asynchronous stand-ups require the commitment of all team members in posting updates to the team’s channel of choice consistently, reading everyone’s updates, and jumping in to offer support if a colleague identifies blockers. In particular, some pitfalls you may want to watch out for if you adopt asynchronous stand-ups are:
Inconsistent execution or review.Stand-ups work when everyone pays attention to one another’s written updates, and especially to the notes about things that are blocking them that require another person’s help. Asynchronous stand-ups may lead to different members paying different levels of attention to updates, especially if updates come at a different time each day due to time zone differences.
Obfuscating risk. If team members are used to using stand-ups as the only place to highlight risk or blockers, moving to asynchronous communication can mean that real risks get buried in written status updates when they could be called out via more synchronous mechanisms. This is a concern especially for more junior employees, who may be less comfortable switching to a chat or a call to raise something they are concerned about. (It helps to have established protocols for when and how to do this, so no one is confused or reticent about doing so.)
Lower psychological safety in open channels. While generally we advocate for keeping as much communication as transparent as possible, when using open channels (such as large group chats) for async team stand-ups, having executives or external team members witnessing updates may lead team members to shy away from sharing “bad news.” A private channel may work if you have concerns about people with authority impacting the content of these updates.
Overall, stand-ups can be a very helpful mechanism for keeping small, project-focused teams aligned, especially if the team has less experience working together. For a team that has set their default status to “on track,” stand-ups may become more of a distraction or time sink than a benefit. It’s up to each team to decide what’s most effective for them, and to always be open to iterating and changing based on feedback or new information.
The frequency of updates will depend on the size and stage of your company. If the company is very small, a weekly or bimonthly update might be enough. It can be sent via email, published to an internal wiki or forum, or both, depending on your company’s communication preferences.
importantThis kind of communication isn’t intended to be a detailed status update. In an organization that assumes everyone is “on track,” written updates are instead best focused on broad trends, events, and modifications to any goals or strategy that might impact people. They are also an opportunity for employees to hear from managers and leaders, helping foster a sense of community and belonging.
Teams that don’t generally share mission-critical information can create opt-in newsletters or publish to their wiki on a predictable schedule (perhaps with a quick message in Slack saying that it’s available), so interested parties can subscribe or check information as needed. Managers and leaders who want to share their perspective on the current state of their own team can create regular updates with additional commentary, giving insight on what they may find challenging or exciting. Lara Hogan shares how she did this at Etsy here.
cautionBeware of overwhelming employees with too many messages or too much information to consume, lest these updates turn into something that people tune out. It’s wise to put as much effort into making your internal communications valuable and easy to consume as you put into communications to your customers. This means keeping updates focused, on topic, and engaging.
Company all-hands meetings have become a popular way to share company-wide information. If the time zone overlap in your team still allows for everyone in your company to attend, you should be able to host these via video conferencing; but remember you’re only one team member away from being in a position where a lack of time zone overlap means having everyone on the meeting isn’t possible anymore.
The value of these meetings, more than the updates, is in the conversation and connections that can happen between different team members. Questions, clarifications, and discussions enrich the experience. Atlassian has an excellent set of guidelines for running distributed all-hands meetings. Along with making sure to keep it a two-way dialogue and not shying away from tough subjects, they cover a couple additional aspects of successful distributed meetings:
Time zones. If you can’t get everyone’s schedules to align during sane hours, you can aim for the best possible overlap (Atlassian got to 80%), and then record the meeting.
When someone from outside the time zone overlap wants to share something, they record it in advance, and then it gets played during the meeting.
Live streaming. This might not be necessary for smaller companies, but at Atlassian’s size, with multiple offices in different cities, it made sense to invest in their own solution. The good news is they made it available via open source, so anyone can use it too.
Q&A. You can ask people to submit and up-vote questions in advance (asynchronously!), and have whomever is hosting that week’s meeting answer as many questions as possible.
Don’t forget the fun. Your all-hands meeting is another opportunity to allow for personal connection and help build social connections among distributed teams.*
importantConsider recording all-hands sessions and making them asynchronously available by default in case anyone can’t attend for any reason.
Eventually you may want to build the all-hands content from the regular updates, or vice-versa, to make it possible to distribute a written artifact with the most important topics all in one place. This would allow you to go back and summarize all this information at the end of the month, quarter, or year, and review how the organization did over a longer period of time.
Facilitate Asynchronous Q&A
Question and answer (Q&A) spaces are double-sided information marketplaces. These spaces build collective knowledge and community spirit, and can contribute to employee engagement.
Ensuring that there are people who can answer questions (and have time dedicated to answer them completely) is important for the success of this effort. Departmental leaders and team managers can help fill this role and eventually delegate it to other team members.
Collecting common questions often leads to the creation of lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that you can include in your handbook. This practice creates resources that cross-reference each other and make it easier for people to stay informed.
As far as communication channels to use, internal forums are built specifically for this purpose. Chats can also work, but they can be disruptive, and are often difficult to search.
A few specific options you might want to offer in a Q&A space include:
A “newbie” channel. This establishes a clear place for questions that may be assumed as obvious knowledge. New and tenured employees alike can feel comfortable asking questions they may not have asked otherwise, for fear of embarrassment.
A “Today I Learned (TIL)” channel. Employees can share something that they learned recently. This practice reinforces a culture of ongoing learning, and spreads information between team members in different locations or time zones. It also gives opportunities to workers from very different teams to interact.
#TIL, or Today I Learned, is a popular lingo for describing anything you just learned. Our Slack TIL channel pulls in everything tagged with an emoji. It aggregates handy tech tips, trivia-ready facts, and pop-culture references, so we can all keep up with the times.Kayli Kunkel, Marketing Director, Postlight*
cautionQ&A spaces are not intended to be used as places to resolve tactical questions that specific day-to-day work depends on, like where the wireframes for the new pages are or if the problem for customer #235 has been solved. Project-management and similar domain-specific task-tracking tools are better suited for this purpose.
Individual Responsibilities for Alignment
Handbooks and Q&A spaces are only valuable if individuals actively use them. Greater autonomy brings greater individual responsibility and the need for self-management, requiring workers to be proactive and work independently, staying aligned, informed, and unblocked.
Some recommendations that remote workers can adopt to make this easier include:
Read the Updates
Build a habit of reading the company, departmental, and team updates. To do this, we recommend setting aside some time on your calendar every week or two, and avoiding any distractions so you can focus on reading. Even better, you can respond to the author with questions that will help you understand the update better. This also demonstrates interest and helps you build relationships. If your company uses mailing lists for updates, take some time to organize your lists with labels in your inbox so you can batch them together. If there is too much to get through, prioritize the updates that will help keep you in sync.
Contribute to Shared Knowledge
Help your team, and your future self, by documenting processes and procedures you know about in the company handbook. It takes a village to keep the company informed. If you figured something out that isn’t documented or created a new process, write it down! Don’t assume someone else will write it down for you. Effective distributed teams are communities, and maintaining organizational knowledge depends on community participation.
Participate in Q&A
When you participate in Q&A spaces, you’re hanging out by the virtual watercooler. You learn information that used to be the equivalent of hallway conversations. If there’s a forum, you typically can configure it to send you a digest of topics you follow on a regular basis. If your company uses chat for this instead, it helps to set some time on your calendar every week to catch up; it can be the same time you set aside to catch up on regular updates. If you can, help answer questions, as this benefits everyone. If more people are available to answer questions, or navigate the org chart to find answers, then the workload of keeping others informed is distributed among more people and individual efforts are lowered. Helping others answer questions for themselves, by showing them how to navigate the handbook or understand the organization, can also help lighten the load.
Research Before Asking
“Lazyweb” is the practice of asking for answers on forums or social media rather than doing research. This can be effective when you have a captive and knowledgeable audience ready to help provide you with information. It can also be a very effective way of annoying your co-workers, because it can communicate that you’d rather have other people do work for you. Before you reach out to the office oracle or tap someone’s shoulder in Slack, consider spending some time searching the handbook and available knowledge bases—like chat logs, forum topics, and any existing documentation—for the answer to a question you have. If you use Google Docs, your organization may have cloudsearch enabled, which allows you to search across shared documents, presentations, calendar, and even email.
importantNo matter what tools you use, it’s helpful to spend 10–15 minutes trying to answer your question before you post it. The opposite is also true: it makes no sense to spend hours looking for something that may be answered by others in a forum. As long as this information is not time sensitive or urgent, you can ask away and let the async oracle do its work while you work on something else.
For distributed teams, knowing where to share information or how and when to have discussions has become increasingly difficult thanks to the proliferation of communication and collaboration tools. To reduce the cognitive load and increase the effectiveness of how distributed teams collaborate, we suggest implementing a set of team agreements.
A team agreement (or a team contract) is a written document detailing how a team agrees to work together. Team agreements can describe procedures such as decision-making processes, how to get support, and the tools and communication methods that the team uses.
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