It has already been 3 month since I joined the MailChimp as a remote engineering manager. As you may expect if you read my original post, my team, mostly based in Atlanta, is effectively operating as a fully distributed team. This change was a radical shift for the team and it catalyzed changes in our communication habits, which I will cover in part 2 of this post. This update will focus on the transition to the “1 remote, all remotes” rule in my workplace.
People genuinely want to “include” remotes in the conversation (meetings). From a logistical and spatial point of view, the practical practice is to have people “dial-in” into a conference room. I shared in my original post how this approach creates a power dynamic shift in the conversation.
To put it more bluntly : when someone is dialed in, it’s just a matter of time until they “tune out”. The bigger and more active the in-room group is, the faster the drifting out happens.
As a meeting organizer, asking “how can I make remotes feel included” is the wrong way to look at it.
A better way would be “how can I get 100% of my remotes’ participation” in this meeting.
Our AV team has been working hard to make things better for remotes. My current favorite setup is as follow:
- Zoom meeting : we used to use Google hangouts, but the fact that it does not support a gallery view where every participants has the same window size is a non-starter.
- Headset with microphones : every employee can request a headset with an attached microphone. This has allowed my 3 Atlanta based team members to dial in from their desk, next to each other. Bonus point for noise-cancelling microphones.
- Defined meeting ethics and guidelines : unmute to indicate your intention to talk, dial in from a webcam or your laptop, watch out for backlighting …
What about big groups ?
This is a very valid concern and a limitation to the above rule. With that said, if most of your “big group” meetings require everyone’s participation, you may want to rethink the purpose of the meeting.
A good meeting is a meeting where every participant knows what is expected out of them.
If a participant just needs to be informed of the outcome of the discussion, sharing meeting notes is usually sufficient.
As a meeting organizer, consider people’s time their most precious commodity. Next time you schedule a meeting, ask yourself if every attendee knows what their expected contribution is — if their active participation is not required, consider doing them a favor by not inviting them and sharing meeting notes instead.
Is your group still too big? In the past week, I attended 2 fully-distributed meetings with 20 participants and it went very smoothly. I also just found a setting in zoom to enable a 49 participants in gallery view.
What about privacy if you dial in from your desk ?
Most companies have the same issue — not enough meeting rooms. I mentioned earlier that a good work-around was to dial in from your desk using a good set of noise cancelling microphone and headsets. This can be an issue for some sensitive discussions.
If you can’t find a quiet spot in the office and if no-one should be able to hear what you’re saying (without hearing the rest of the conversation since you’re using headsets), you still have a few options!
- Phone booth
Work with your facilities team to develop “phone booth”, with the following requirements:
- 1 person size : the idea is to dial in from your laptop or make a phone call, not have 2 people dialed in
- No electric plug (so people don’t camp in the booth)
- No A/V equipment
- Good lighting
- As sound proof as possible
- Scattered around the office
2. Start of day / end of day meeting time
This may work well for recurring meetings without too many time zones involved. The idea here is to encourage people to attend the meeting from the quiet space of their home, if they are comfortable with this idea.
3. Use someone’s office
Can you borrow someone’s office for the duration of the meeting ?
4. All in one room
That may be the more extreme approach, but it works too! Have all your local participants dial-in individually from their laptop and using headsets. This will require diligence in being muted by default and un-mute to speak, but it has been done and was pretty successful.
Note : You may be thinking here : there’s a camera for this — yes, technology can provide you a close-up view of all participants in a single room. Technology will not help you with enforcing social speaking norms. The point of dialing in remotely is to avoid the power dynamic effect created by having multiple people in a single room. Having everyone dialed-in in the exact same conditions (1 camera, 1 headset, 1 microphone) is still the best way to level the playing field.
How would I go about convincing my peers to try it?
As a remote engineering manager, it is easier for me to push my team towards an all-distributed format than as a remote IC.
As a remote or collaborator wanting to be an ally for remotes, your best approach may be to invite others onto the remote empathy journey.
- As a meeting organizer, try dialing in remotely
- As an ally, encourage the participants to dial-in remotely
What was your experience ? Did people feel like they were “drifting off”, or “tuning out” ? What about in an all-distributed fashion ?
I won’t lie — it will not be easy and it will take time. Find allies, share your experience, share this blog post, and celebrate successes.
Fun with all-distributed meetings
I do have a dedicated office, but I also have my dog constantly asking to come in and out the door, which is not a great experience when I’m in a meeting.
We recently switched to using Zoom at work, and the “virtual background” features peaked my interest — so here it is :
In the next part of this update, i will cover the communication processes my team started to develop around our distributed setup. None of them are reserved to distributed team, but they became crucial in our environment.