How to bring background conversations to remote teams?

A common complaint about remote work is the missed camaraderie of working physically together with colleagues in the same office.  Beyond missing face-to-face bump-ins and hallway conversations, something less obvious is missing that helps teams feel connected — it’s the interruption, the background conversations that we found disruptive but actually sparks spontaneous discussion and learning.  

While  working remotely, our calls are constrained to only those who participate.  In the office, many of these discussions may happen in the open.  A marketing manager might overhear a discussion between two product managers discussing roadmap; an engineer might overhear an excited account manager talking about a new customer account; an administrator might overhear a funny story that happened this weekend at the football game.  These cases of informative, motiviating, and empathy building conversations are siloed when teams work remotely but they’re necessary to help teams feel connected.

Missing Office ‘Background Conversations’

At Loop Team, we’ve thought a lot about how we can bring ‘background’ conversations to remote teams.  While not all discussions need to be public, there are plenty of conversations that should be shared.  In Loop Team, when a meeting or discussion turns informative, thought-provoking, or generally helpful to the team at large, participants can toggle a ‘Go Live’ button in the conference window to share their discussion with everyone in the workspace.  This action serves as an invitation to teammates that this particular discussion is open to those that would like to follow along live.  

A meeting set to ‘Go Live’ replicates background conversations in two ways:

As a spinout of Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where technologies like SIRI (Apple) and Nuance were created, Loop Team’s real-time keyword summarization capabilities serve to show teammates in real-time the topics being discussed in conversations.  Users can also see who’s talking and click to view the live screen share from the meeting.  

Listen In to live team discussions

The closest thing to office background conversations is Loop Team’s ‘Listen In’ feature.  Tapping ‘Listen In’ enables the audio of the live conversation letting users hear the meeting without the formality of joining the meeting and feeling obligated to participate.  Teammates may not need to join, but simply knowing that team members discussed ‘new pricing’ or ‘user analytics’ gives non-participants a sense of what’s happening in the organization — just like when these discussions occur in the physical office.  

Let us know how these features work for your team.  

The Two Generations of Distributed Teams

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

When we were building Loop Team pre-COVID, we classified remote teams into 3 buckets:

Co-located: These teams were often global and primarily worked together in an office but may have also had a few team members who worked full-time from home.

Partially Distributed: Mostly because of the scarcity of engineering talent, these teams typically had a core office and then full-time remote engineers usually working within similar time zones of HQ.

Fully Distributed: This was a more rare configuration but had the most vocal advocates of remote work. They were often very small companies with globally distributed team members.

As we were interviewing these different remote workers, there was consistent thematic feedback, especially amongst those in co-located and partially distributed teams, citing a sense of disconnect from the mothership — a la feeling “out of the loop.” However, when interviewing fully distributed team members, the feedback was different. Many were quite happy and were actively evangelizing their best practices and playbooks.

Consistent in many of these playbooks was a general push towards heavy documentation and sharing. This intuitively made sense, if you’re distributed across a lot of time zones or otherwise, it’s simply good practice to capture everything and disseminate since your team primarily operates asynchronously as there is no geographical center of influence. Workplace video meetings tended to be scheduled but the best practice was to leverage that medium only when necessary. One to one video was for team bonding versus collaboration. The default behavior was to document, share and operate more asynchronously whether via text or pre-recorded video.

Enter COVID

As many have said, almost a cliche now, COVID has accelerated remote work 10 years in 3 months — but the COVID generation of distributed teams are different. Whereas pre-COVID the number of fully distributed teams over 25 employees was far and few between; today, a great majority of medium to large organizations are now remote.  And even more interestingly, most of these teams are fully distributed while also in similar time zones. In addition, unlike the first generation of distributed teams, these companies onboarded the better part of their teams in-person, at an office and previously worked and collaborated together in a physical location. These teams enjoyed the benefits of office camaraderie and hallway conversations and also some of the negatives of in-office work like noisy background conversations and frequent interruptions.

The default expectation for many of these overnight distributed organizations was to look at the best practices of successful teams working fully distributed pre-COVID, but the largest examples of these remote work pioneers (eg Invision) may have only been ~1K employees with no more than 25% of their workforce in any given country. In addition, they were often remote-first on day 1 and onboarded their new teammates remotely — it’s a vastly different experience from the COVID-19 transition and their remote work playbooks reflected this.

The new generation of distributed teams have pre-existing trust from their “in-office days”, value synchronous communication, have the capacity to meet offline when COVID subsides, and likely will return to the office in some hybrid capacity.  We’re still in the early innings in terms of learning and creating new best practices for post-COVID distributed teams, but new playbooks are being written that expand on fully-distributed best practices for this second generation. I, having previously managed a first generation partially distributed team, am excited to see the next set of productivity tools being developed for these teams.

 

15 Ideas for Remote Work Rituals

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

In light of what is happening, creating opportunities for your distributed team to connect personally is more critical than ever. In the spirit of this, I’ve collated various work rituals from customers, friends and others to share.

Why are rituals important?

In-office teams have the benefit of natural camaraderie and human connectedness. Your colleague may talk about a fun new board game they’ve recently played while you’re having a conversation in the break room; the next thing you know, every Tuesday is Board Game night at the office.

These non-work related rituals create opportunities to strengthen team bonds, morale, communication, and connections outside of typical work interactions. In distributed teams, rituals don’t tend to form organically because there is simply less opportunity for serendipitous connection. As a result, it is critical for leaders, managers, founders and the like to be more proactive in creating opportunities for team members to connect.

Here are some ritual ideas to consider for your team

In no particular order, choose 1 or more and start doing it, regularly!

🥡   Weekly team virtual lunch – even better, fund their Doordash or handle their food orders

🖼   Share a photo of life at least once a week – it gives team members a glimpse into your life beyond work and will almost always spark some conversation. You can even make it themed each week (eg messy desk pictures)

🧘🏿‍♀️  Zoom meditation or yoga sessions – this may sound a bit crazy but the teams that we’ve spoken to that do this, love this

🎧   Live DJ on Fridays – it’s fun to just watch someone spin on Zoom as you wrap-up your week

👥   Arrange hyper-local meetups – this may only be possible if you have distributed teammates in similar regions – make sure to fund coffee, drinks or meals for them to meet on some regular cadence

🍕 Virtual brown bags – I’m sure this came with free pizza when held in the office but keep it going when virtual. It allows those who don’t normally get to present opportunities to present + you can pair it with your weekly team lunch. Also, it doesn’t just need to be about work, just have someone “Share a skill” (eg how to make sourdough bread 🙂

🎮  Gaming sessions – this might be the most obvious and I am working to aggregate some online games that are fun and team building. At Loop Team, we most recently finished, 2 Truths, 1 Lie and a virtual escape room with Puzzle Break. We’re about to start some virtual quiz/trivia games.

🔥  Wednesday bonfires – yes, that may sound crazy but we heard a team that set up a bonfire in their backyard and they do a regular virtual camping trip with their team. It’s a good opportunity to have “watercooler chat” while watching the fire.

🗣  Start some recurring meetings with ice breakers – each week, choose a new ice breaker question and lead with it. It’s a great way to learn more about teammates, especially those that work across teams that you don’t normally interact with.

🎼  Collaborative music playlists – lots of different apps to make this happen but it gives different team members an opportunity to be DJ for the day

🌅  Meme/GIF and/or Zoom background battles – it seems Instagram celebrities have also picked-up on this and custom Zoom backgrounds are now a business!

🎁  Play White Elephant – yes, this is the same game you may already play over the Christmas holidays but do it with your team virtually. Once you finish, have the gifts shipped out.

☕️  Virtual coffee chats – on Slack, you have great plugins like Donut but take this a step further and make it live. Each week randomly pair with someone you don’t work with closely that you can chat with for 15 minutes or more. It’s a great way to connect and gain empathy with other teams in your organization.

📚  Create a book club – with less commute, many of us have more time to read. Create a recurring event to chat about recent books and share.

🏅 Start a challenge – not everyone may be up for a fitness challenge but simple out-of-box challenges can be helpful each week. For example, one team recorded jumping jacks done each day.

Above is just a sampling of ideas we’ve curated from our customers and networks. The beauty of rituals are that they are unique to your team and culture and in this fully distributed environment, more critical than ever to make your team more connected.

Why Do Zoom Calls Make Us So Tired?

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

With COVID 19, Zoom and web conferencing have become mission critical for enabling team members to communicate while at home. Pre-COVID, many of us already had days filled with meetings; and with COVID, the need for more face-to-face communication and daily meetings has grown (selfishly some of what we’re trying to solve at Loop Team).  With back-to-back virtual meetings, we are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and “feeling more tired” at the end of our workdays.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen several Twitter discussions extrapolating as to why a day of video conference calls is making one feel so tired.  I don’t think there is an exact answer, but I’ve collated below some of what I’ve read, as well as some tips that I found that may be helpful.

Why Do I Feel Tired?

1. Detailed in Nick Morgan’s book, called “Can You Hear Me?,” he discusses that in IRL (in real life), you can see people and their “body language” from head to toe, which enables you to interpret non-verbal cues including moods, feelings, reactions and more.  When virtual, you are unable to see body language nor even make proper eye contact, so your brain must work double-time to fill-in those missing non-verbal gaps.

2. When you are physically talking to someone, you look at the person. Web conferencing tools recognized this early and pushed “speaker view” as a default experience where the speaker is enlarged.  But speaker view makes it more difficult to see your whole team and some consider this not egalitarian.  As a result, some conferencing tools offer “gallery view” also known as “brady bunch view”, but this means you now have to subconsciously process multiple people at the same time which further exacerbates the problem detailed in #1. Scientists have also given this a name – it is known as “continuous partial attention.”

3. Extending on #2, you can’t make real eye contact when virtual. This gives a feeling of needing to be “always on” as if the paparazzi is following you.  In IRL, you know when someone is looking at you, and these intermittent breaks give you much needed moments to relax and close your eyes.

4. Working at an office not only creates work/life separation, but it also provides for natural breaks.  Between each office meeting, you are often walking to another room which provides a few minutes before and after the meeting that help to serve as a warm-up and cool-down period.  These “watercooler” moments help ease the transition to the more demanding and focused discussions. However, virtual meetings see little opportunity for side watercooler chat due to the formal nature of conference calls and the inability to have side discussion.

5. As alluded to in #3 and #4, our brains need frequent short naps, but the nature of virtual conferences make it challenging to find these healthy “time outs.” When virtual, every sound is amplified to the same volume regardless of whether or not you are wearing a headset. This is considered a feature, which makes sense with the varying microphone hardware across laptops and devices.  The pitfall though is that conversation audio has no depth and no conversation is private.  Everything is interruptive – you can’t zone out.

So What Can We Do?

1. Adjust your meetings to 20 or 25 minutes, especially if your schedule is back to back. These 5 to 10 minute breaks will give you an opportunity to stand-up and have a more natural break.

2. Schedule phone calls again. Yes, that may sound counterintuitive, but walk and talk where you don’t have to feel that you’re on camera all the time. Video use is becoming even more of a necessity to feel connection, but audio-only calls take the pressure off.

3. Have smaller meetings. The more people in the room, the more processing you have to do and the more your brain has to work. Smaller meetings encourage more watercooler chat which provides an opportunity for your brain to decompress.

4. Invest in an external camera and mount it to the TV. This obviously won’t work for everyone but the idea here is to have a camera that is farther away from your face so you don’t feel always on. In addition, the other party can now see the entirety of you so they can visually read when you are in and out of focus – which actually helps both sides. Of course, this won’t work if you are doing most of your calls from your PJs.

If you have other ideas and tips to help make video conference calls less mentally taxing, please share.