Working in distributed teams
Fix the missing watercooler

by Markus Tacker

Working in distributed teams: Fix the missing watercooler

This post series is a summary of my talk about the challenge working in distributed teams. Find the other parts here.

The watercooler is a symbol for a central place in an office building where everyone walks by multiple times per day and which enables informal, accidental meetings.

How important this place is can be seen in this picture: this is the atrium in the Pixar Headquarter. Steve Jobs himself altered the initial concept of the architect and placed facilities like the restrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms next to each other in a central location to ensure employees need to leave their seclusion and bump into each other once in while. For Jobs only this would enable great ideas to form, information to spread and problems to be solved quickly. It also facilitates building relationships with colleagues and a sense of belonging. This obviously is lacking if you have no physical office but it is vital for every creative team to have an insight into what is happening in the whole organization.

Working out loud

The way to fix this is probably not new to you but I can’t stress it enough: Start working out loud. You need to provide your coworkers with a constant stream of information about:

  • what you are working on
  • what your impediments are

With this information available everyone can start making the connections to their own projects and contribute to solutions for your problems. This can’t happen if you are away from your coworkers and only share a finished result of your work once every other week. Obviously there is the need for a tool for that and by all means do not use email!

I am having great results by using a team chat like Slack for the asynchronous sharing of what’s happening. Even if you don’t know Slack, you will be familiar with the concept of chat rooms: a tool like Slack enables you to have as many rooms as you like. This is different to Skype for instance where you only have a contact list and ad-hoc group chats. In Slack (or IRC if you like) a history of messages is kept and even if people join a room at a later point, they can re-read everything that has happened regarding the topic. Everyone is able to start following a certain topic and can contribute to it.

There are usual three kinds of rooms:

  1. Long-lasting general topic like #tech, #marketing and #hiring - I’d say they usually emerge around every role you have in your organisation; you could say these are communities of practice … but are also used to communicate news from these groups to the whole company in a less technical way.
  2. Project-specific topics like #website-relaunch or #our-mobile-app in which you exchange about the progress of the project, these usually have a diverse mix of people from all disciplines.
  3. Short-lived topics like #launch-of-big-feature, #special-event which deal usually have a high volume of exchange only for a few days and then can be discarded.

This granularity helps to better control the amount of information they will need to consume because following everything is impossible. You need to care about this! Of course we as developers have channels where every commit from our repositories is posted, but I don’t get notified about every message in such a channel, I selectively read them a few times a day. Slack enables you to specify notification settings per channel and even have different settings depending on the device so you can have more notifications if you are on your desktop or only a few important ones if you are traveling. Make sure that the tool you are using has this type of granularity when it comes to notifications and educate all your users about them.

More bandwidth: video chat

So much for the asynchronous part of working out loud but you will also need something that has a lot more bandwidth than text: video chat.

Everything that develops into a discussion with more than a few messages should be taken to video. I always enjoy using Google Hangouts but if you don’t want to use Google services (like we did at my last company) you should check out Goto Meeting which is free for even more than three people and worked for my team very good. Both services offer a screen sharing option which is a real important feature for collaboration … and a universal one; yes there is software that enables real-time collaboration directly in your apps but screen sharing is universal. If you need to remotely fix things on coworkers computer, TeamViewer is great. All these tools work cross-platform which you need to keep in mind, too (and I am neither on Mac nor on Windows).

Video chat not only has more bandwith than text but it also enables nonverbal communication which is really important to fully understand each other. We often used it to hang out together with microphones muted and listening to music but everyone could just speak up to the room if they had a question. And sometimes people just need to vent, yes this may sound stupid but there is for instance something called rubber duck debugging which is a real thing!

… also for check-ins

Besides the ad-hoc meetings for increased bandwidth and the occasional team hangout during the day I use videochat for all recurring meetings like daily stand-ups. I call them check-ins.

Yes I know that there are tools that can collect daily stand-up information asynchronously (iDoneThis, Umantis Daily Highlights, a Slack bot) but I’m convinced that you should use every chance you have to actually see and hear each other.

  1. The daily standup is where everyone states what they are working on and what their impediements are. This takes just a minute per person and should be done after 15 minutes. Impediments need to be resolved immediately so we have reserved an additional 15 minutes after the daily for 1-on-1s to resolve any pending issues. Everyone in the team knows to keep this slot free for ad-hoc meetings. After that you can spread out again. Because the daily stand-ups deal with detailed technical topics we only did them within people of the same profession like developers, marketing, business people.
  2. Once a week we then had a product meeting which brought together a wider range of people, usually the product owner and if needed other specialists. This meeting took between one and two hours on every Monday and was used to plan the upcoming week and readjust the backlog.
  3. And finally there were our weekly lunches: Once a week on every Tuesday at 1pm everyone would gather together for a lunch. This is a great meeting because of its informal nature and you have a perfect ice-breaker for free: “what are you having for lunch over there?” That’s always fun! During the weekly lunch we’d go through every department and provide a brief update of what has happened. Bringing everyone together again creates the opportunity for cross-chatter and random connections.

Weekly Lunch

By the way: this is a large flatscreen where we connected to our remotees … what’s especially nice is that this large screen gives them a real physical presence because it provide a life-size image and a loud sound. And yes, getting the technology right is always a pain. You need good internet connections, good webcams (go for HD!) and good headsets … don’t go cheap on those.

But occasionally every technology will fail. Usually the internet connection of one person or the chat or video service entirely … which brings me to my first protip:

Protip #1: Have a fallback ready

In our case we usually had problems with the internet connection of one of our colleagues and some times goto meeting was down. So we made sure that everyone knew how to switch over to a telephone conference provider. The information was available in the wiki and as soon as problems arised we quickly switched to the fallback without much waiting in order to continue quickly without to many failed attempts. Obviously this requires you to a) find a fallback and b) test it once in a while. For video conferencing we used Talky as an alternative. And alternative for a not working internet connection is using a different medium, which is phones. MyTelco provides free dial in conference rooms, and usually everyone has flatrates on their phones these days.

So many tools, I know … That’s why, my second protip is:

Protip #2: Define a communication escalation process!

What this means is that you establish a common understanding in your team, which communication tool is used for what. At my last workplace we had these rules:

  • Slack is the main communication medium used to push information and to clarify questions, it is agreed upon that everyone is free to read messages in Slack whenever it suits them. It is asynchronous and everyone must be okay with the fact that there may be hours between your question and a response.
  • The authorative tool for managing tasks was not Slack but a task tracker (I'd recommend Trello). This is where you create an agreement about who is doing what and when. If you have an emergency you may call someone on his cellphone … and if you can’t answer a cell phone call you are supposed to call back as soon as possible.
  • We also defined for the IT what classifies as an emergency. Basically only if our product was not usable by all our customers, for instance if the server is down.
  • There was also a special email address you could use to report bugs that directly affect individual customers. We guaranteed that emails sent there would be dealt with within two hours during regular business hours.

But protip #3 is the most important one:

Protip #3: Everybody should work remotely, at least some days a week.

And here is why: if you never experience working remote you won’t understand how it feels to be cut off the water cooler and to not be included in the “offline” chatter or how important great equipment is. And this is especially true for the CEOs in every company. Go and scout a coworking space, work from home or even more crazy: visit your remotees …

Coming up: quality together-time

The second most important challenge is to ensure that the few occasions you will spend face-to-face with your colleagues is quality time. Read about it in Part 2 of this series.