Today’s letter is F, and our phrase for today is face to face conversation. You may say, “Ok, I know what face to face conversation means, and so what more is there to explore here?” Well, you’ll be surprised. This is quite a weighty topic. Why? Because agile really emphasizes the importance of face to face conversation and collaboration. But, in our world today, in our work environments, we’re actually going to a very distributed type framework. People are working from home, we’re contracting and consulting what people and resources that are in different cities, states, even different countries, and countries in different timezones. So, we’re actually cultivating an environment where people are very rarely face to face, thanks to technology. We have conference calls, email, text, and instant message.
The need to be face to face is an anomaly. It’s rare you have a meeting and not have someone dialed in in some form or fashion. It’s getting rather tricky, because there is a lot of value and a lot to benefit from being face to face. People treat and act completely different when you’re looking someone in their face vs. sending them an email, a text, or having a phone conversation. It gives you the opportunity to respond to body language, eye contact, and nonverbal cues. As I was developing my skill set as a business analyst in IT, we had whole classes on understanding people’s body language. Well, how do you know if what the person is saying is reflected in their body language if you’re not even face to face conversation? These are some of the mini challenges of our new distributed and virtual world. That’s what I want to focus on.
How do you build a face to face conversation culture when your team is distributed and remote? I found a source that I want to share with you: zapier.com. It’s referred to as Chapter 2 of 14, and this particular chapter was written by Wade Foster. Its actual title is “How to Build Culture in a Remote Team.” I just put a twist on it: how to build a face to face conversation culture with a remote and distributed team. I’m going to pick out certain points from this article, but I encourage you to read the whole article for yourself and explore. It starts by talking about what we refer in agile as co-located teams. Co-located teams are the equivalent of a face-to-face team. That means we’re all sitting in the same location, working the same hours, and when we need to communicate, we’re right there sometimes at arm’s length. We’re right there and able to connect and have those ad-hoc conversations.
He starts off by saying that having a co-located team can give you the false since that you have a healthy team and that you don’t need team building. People sometimes think that just by having you in the same space and area, you somehow are going to form a team magically. Wade’s article says that’s not the case. Case in point, one person once said to him that they were having culture problems with their team, and so they solved it by buying a foosball table. Sure, people gather around the foosball table and let off some steam and take their mind off of work for a few minutes, but did it really build a team culture? Let’s talk about it.
What do we mean by a team culture? That means a team where people are trusting each other, and they can be open and honest; they’re openly communicating with each other. Can a foosball table really do all of that? That’s what he means by being co-located can sometimes give you this false sense of a healthy team or a team culture. Furthermore, that statement about buying a foosball table to address culture issues is flawed, because it makes it seem like it’s not something that you have to work at. What Wade Foster emphasizes in his article is that when you really respect what it takes to build a healthy, collaborative team, you know that it takes some work. You have to put in time, effort, and resources.
With that said, he provides us with seven points to consider when it comes to building a face to face conversation culture, especially, even when, and in spite of teammates being thousands of miles apart. I’ll tell you, I’m going to take some of his points out of order because I actually liked some of the really key points the further down that we went. I’m going to start with what’s in his article as number six: Trust is the Foundation.
When it comes to face to face conversation and remote teams, you have to have trust in your trust that they’re capable and competent, that they have something to contribute, that they have work ethics and that they want to do the right thing. What that’s saying, basically, is you still, at the same time, allow people to make mistakes. That’s when you really test trust. If you trust someone, you assume that they want to do the right things and they intend to do the right things, but they just made a mistake. You can be willing to forgive them. When you don’t have trust, people start to question your intent, your purpose, your ethics, and even your capabilities. Then once you start not trusting people, then there’s resentment. There might even be jealousy and ultimately, you might start sabotaging each other or even have vendettas.
I’m sure some of you can relate. All this goes on in the workplace when people don’t trust each other. Another manifestation is fingerpointing. Trust is the foundation. You see why, now, I wanted to address that one first. He goes on to say the beauty of trusting your teammates is that often times your teammates reward you. Most people genuinely want to do a good job. In a remote team there aren’t any silly rules about having to CYA and/or having to focus on sitting in a seat. I’m candy-coating what he’s saying here, because he actually uses a little bit of different language.
What he’s saying is that in the real world, there are these rules about having your butts in a seat for certain hours of the day, and managers see that as you being productive. Well, in a trust environment, a culture of trust, you trust that people are going to do the right things whether or not you can see them. If they’re not getting them done, it’s not because they don’t want to, they’re lazy, or they’re avoiding work. There is a good reason. That’s what trust allows you to do with your teammates. And just as you trust your teammates, you also want to be trusted. In other words, you don’t want to be questioned, challenged, or doubted.
With that said, the next point is that you have to show your work. This is where agile and the daily scrum meeting give you that platform. Because someone can’t see you and because they may not have a background, history or relationship with you, the only way they know that you are getting work done, doing your part, carrying your load is that you have to show your work. That’s one of the things you heard on a previous episode where I talked about daily standups. Talk about what you accomplished yesterday, what you plan to accomplish today, and what is impeding your accomplishments.
I use that language accomplishments specifically. You’re showing them that not only am I working—day after day when you say, “I’m working on a screen,” your teammates don’t necessarily have a good gauge on your progress. When you say, “I accomplished getting the start button,” “I accomplished getting the stop button,” or “I accomplished getting a drop-down list,” you’re talking about what you’ve done. Language is so important, and so is sharing with your team what you’re getting done. Being completely transparent. Sometimes I have to coach teams to over communicate. It may seem trivial, obvious, all of the above, but regardless, communicate to your teammates.
Those were two at the bottom of the list that I wanted to start out with. Now I’m going to roll back up to some of the ones at the top of the list. Number three is realizing that building a face to face conversation culture is more than a ping-pong table, but at the same time, use the ping-pong table analogy. The ping-pong table is a place where people can gather, let off a little steam, have a little fun, and take their minds off of whatever is the pressure that they might be feeling. Maybe even have some banter about work or not about work. It ultimately can unite the team. Well, when the team is remote, you have to come up with a virtual ping-pong table. What is that thing that you can do to build a team culture where they can relax and even be themselves or be something other than that worker?
The virtual ping-pong table for some of my teams has been everyone taking turns telling a joke or coming up with an inspirational quote. It was something we did at the end of our standups. For others, it might be a fun chant. Others might have a theme Friday where everyone wears their favorite hat or their favorite t-shirt or a team t-shirt. After the standup or even before the standup, we just took a few minutes for everyone to talk about that hat or t-shirt, or bring something from your favorite vacation. Bring a family photo. Just something for everyone to rally around. It was our virtual ping-pong table, so keep that in mind. There is some significance to the ping-pong table, but you have to work at finding a way of doing it virtually.
The next point, number four, is culture is about how you work. So, the ping-pong table is great. It lets you have some fun and let off some steam, but ultimately a team culture is how your work. The team needs to have conversations and communicate about how they want to work and then also coming up with a way of recognizing and rewarding teammembers when they are contributing and/or going above and beyond their contributions. And so things that you sometimes don’t have to talk about when you’re colocated, you have to talk about and make the effort to talk about them when you’re remote. What are going to be our core hours; how are we going to communicate when someone needs to step away, take a break, or has to be out of the office and can’t carry their load for whatever reason; when are we going to communicate; are we going to work 40 hours or are we going to work 80 hours.
That’s a prime example. People don’t often talk and have to say, “Well, we’re going to put in a little extra,” or, “Are you able to put in a little extra? It looks like, based on our commitment, we might have to do a little more than our 40 hours. Is everybody on the team willing and capable, or who on the team is willing and capable?” If someone’s not willing or capable, maybe that doesn’t mean they get punished, but recognizing that over the course of a project or a year, then at some point, everybody makes some sacrifice when its needed, but maybe just not every sprint or every time when there’s a call for overtime. That’s something you have to explicitly have a discussion about.
My example about sometimes we might have to push the 40-hour envelope. Well, that’s also when the team talks about, “Well, how will we reward or compensate ourselves for going above and beyond? Will we take, collectively, a half-day off one Friday? Will we consider that when we determine our velocity for the next sprint, that everyone’s due a comp day?” These are things that you talk through instead of assuming and expecting, especially with remote teams so that there is, in fact, clear guidelines so that things are fair on both sides of the equation. If the remote team has been working 60-hour days whereas the domestic team may have only been working 45 hours, how will the team balance out? Maybe only the remote team will take the Friday half-day. These are things, again, so that the team feels like there’s a sense of fairness, recognition, and consistency.
Let’s elaborate on the next point. Tools allow for collaboration. For example, a co-located office develops its own personality through inside jokes, shared experiences and a collaborative environment, such as that ping-pong table or even having things like white boards, whereas a remote team needs to develop something similar. The easiest way to do this is with your day-to-day tool set. Find out what tools there are that allow you to create that ad-hoc communication. I can remember, for example, one of our teams, everybody was feeling kind of stressed. We were trying to push and get a particularly challenging feature out, and someone in the corner of our whiteboard drew a picture of a hangman with the person’s tongue sticking out. Here’s another one: Slack. In your virtual office, you have to have some slack time.
What does that mean? I can remember when I would go into the office, and I actually felt less productive than when I worked from home. But I’m home alone. I’m up. I open my laptop. I get my coffee, and I could not move from one space for what felt like eight hours. When you’re in the office, people are going to stop by; you might stop by. You might be on your way to the break room to get a cup of coffee, and you bump into someone. When people come in in the morning, they’re going to say good morning, and you’re going to say good morning. There’s going to be some banter. There are all these casual and random banter that goes on in the office, and you can say around the water cooler. The other key thing, especially with agile, is that you have a lot of eavesdropping. You overhear someone say something, and you might jump into a conversation. Someone could do a drop-by and ask you a question.
All of these are slack activities, those watercolor, ad-hoc, impromptu. These are important. They’re helpful. They breakup the monotony. They can help with team building. You’re helping someone; someone’s helping you. But you don’t always get these when you’re remote or isolated, like when I worked at home, so you have to build slack. What I’ve done, and then through my coaching, we were encouraged to, from time to time, just do a pop-up hi or hello to other teammates. We were even told that after an hour of working, stop and just do a popup to a team member. “Hey, how’s it going? What are you working on? Everything going ok?” Just small, quick popups would be the equivalent of a virtual kind of watercolor or bumping into in the hall kind of conversation, which they refer to as the tool Slack.
Also, one of the things in the virtual community that we have at our disposal is different emoticons and memes. These are another form of slack, but a virtual interpretation of slack. It’s a way of sharing an emotion or a feeling, something to either make your other teammate laugh or to take notice. It’s also a way for us to blow off steam. Just fun ways of sharing what we might be feeling. We even have an exercise in our retrospect, where before we get started, everyone just draws on a piece of paper a form of an emoticon that expresses what they’re feeling about the project, about the team, about the most recent sprint, whatever’s relevant. I’ve seen everything from people with smiley faces to people where their heads have exploded to people having a blackeye, and all these emoticons allowed us to explore what it represented. So, where someone might not say, “I feel like I have a blackeye. I feel like I’ve been beat up. I feel like I’ve been attacked,” they might not ever express this, but the emoticon opens the door for that dialogue and conversation. Also keep that in mind.
Again, having hangouts, buddies, and go-to meetings. This is, again, an opportunity around that concept of Slack, where people can, from time to time, just go and hang out. Maybe it’s not just one on one. Take a couple of people, go to a hangout, and talk about something that might be a recurring theme in the team. Or buddy pairing. This is where you’re working on something and you want a second opinion. All that is once you have established that environment of trust, because you can have hangouts if you know people won’t abuse them. You can have and reach out to a buddy for help if you feel comfortable that people won’t see asking for help as a sign of weakness. That’s why as you can see, I started out most importantly with that trust factor in order for you to then leverage tools like hangouts and buddy pairs.
The next thing on my list, second to last, is the reward system. Having some way to virtually reward each other, and have the reward and recognition come from within the team; not a manager, not a project manager, and not even a scrum master but actual teammembers. One team used a gift card account, and so it was just a matter of adding dollars or points to a gift card. It was ongoing and always outstanding, and when someone did something that promoted the team or maybe they stepped up and did something that may have been a sacrifice for them, it was for the benefit of the team, so they would get points. The team as a whole could give a single person a point or people could vote on who could get a point. There are various ways you can set up these gift card accounts. Something worth looking into.
Foremost, above all else, from time to time incorporate an in-person meeting. For many teams, it’s what we call the iteration zero, the kickoff. At some point, it doesn’t matter if it’s one time, a limited time, having one face-to-face and having activities where people are paired and grouped together, it’s always that central point where people can go back to: “Remember that time?” It’s a shared memory. That in and of itself also cultivates a group. If you will humor me to give you one other point, sometimes the opportunity to have a shared event is there, even though it’s dispersed.
How one team did this is that they declared a community service day, so everyone within that sprint had adjusted the velocity so that the team could take a particular day for everyone to do something in their community. Although they were doing something local, when they came back together, in their standups both before and after, they described what they intended to do and then reported what they did. They even had pictures and a show-and-tell to share what they did. They often found common elements of what they did in their different environments. So, although they were doing them in different locations but on the same day, it cultivated a shared memory.
All that said, you can build the trust and communication that’s the equivalent of a face to face conversation, even with remote teams. It doesn’t happen by magic; you have to put in the time and effort, but you can be extremely successful.
You can catch up on any episode you may have missed by going to A – Z of Agile.