In-person co-working for distributed teams

A few ideas to ensure quality time together.

Preamble: Distributed teams — is hybrid the way forward?

Distributed teamwork is one of the miracles of modern communications, it enables us to collaborate on projects with global teams and co-create with people we have never met in person. However as with any new technology, as we explore and test the possibilities of online work we are discovering strengths and weaknesses. Increasingly it is becoming clear that meeting in the real world is indispensable to create the deep human connection and vision alignment needed for big projects or newly forming teams. To answer this need we are seeing a hybrid model emerge in which teams meet in person for events and to initiate projects, to bond and align whilst daily work is done virtually.

We are social animals and the mechanisms for social bonding is wired into the core of our animal nature deeply beyond the control of the rational mind. Perhaps a few more generations of VR technology will allow enough fidelity that our brains accept digital avatars as real, yet it is clearly many decades before the online world will make possible the depth of human bond which is created when sharing a meal, a deep conversation, drinking, smoking, dancing or climbing a mountain together. Nevertheless I believe that a few days or weeks of skillfully facilitated co-present time can generate enough connection and alignment to carry a team through months of happy virtual work.

For virtual teams real-world face-to-face time is expensive requiring travel, accommodation and separation from daily routine so this time is very precious and such real-world collaboration sessions need to be well planned and carefully organised in order to extract maximum benefit from the time spent together.

A few ideas for maximum-impact real-world co-creation

Collaboration is key to what sets our species apart from other animals so it is natural to assume that simply putting smart people together into a room is all that is required to spark co-creation. However in my experience without clear goals, team spirit and a framework for co-creation the most likely result from a roomful of intelligent people is much conversation and a frustration about lack of process. Collective intelligence needs alignment & structure to emerge. Given enough time it is possible to emerge these naturally, but time is the commodity most lacking today and most new teams are likely to stumble and fail before they emerge their own collaboration framework.

Based on many-year experience of work in virtual teams and some experience organising retreats and workshops I want to share a few recommendation for teams to get maximum benefit from precious time spent together. I am a beginner in event organisation so this article is as much an invitation to a conversation, a request for pointing out flaws or lacks in my thinking as it is an attempt at sharing what I know.

The assumption in this article is that the virtual team is only able to meet infrequently — once every few months, or once a year making the time together is highly precious and worthy of careful planning and preparation.

Preparation

Good preparation assures that everyone arrives at the session aligned in expectations of what is to be achieved, with a shared understanding of the schedule, expected outcomes and roles — who is responsible for what.

Realistic Goals

Having clearly stated goals is perhaps the most important for creating shared expectation of an event. Goals should include development of the human-side of the team, not just “work” items. Developing human connection, building team spirit and motivation is a key outcome of a good in-person event.

For e.g.:

  • Build team connection & spirit
  • Create a shared vision
  • Discuss team values
  • Plan upcoming year

Clear outcomes/deliverables

I see goals as more high-level/aspirational whilst outcomes/deliverables are concrete documents or decisions which are to be co-created.

For e.g.:

  • Create high-level plan for upcoming year’s work
  • Design new support process
  • Elect back-end architect for next 12 months

Defined process

A well designed & facilitated discussion, ideation or co-creation event has a structure which empowers and liberates all the participants.

Removing confusion as to what is to be discussed when, what is to be achieved, who is responsible for facilitating creates clarity enabling everyone to focus on co-creation rather than wasting precious together time trying to get organised. At the same time it should be understood that there is much value to free-form conversation in building connection and alignment. Especially when teams come together for the first time, they need to be given the time and space for free discussion.

In my experience giving adequate time for free-form discussion, alternating more and less structured sessions gives the right balance of opening up space for connecting & bonding and driving co-creation forward.

For informal teams, or teams which are just forming or where all members are not present it needs to be defined what the scope of the decision making of the co-present group is. What can be decided at the worksession and what the decision making process is.

Reasonable Schedule

Since the fidelity, energy and joy of co-present discussion is higher than of online conversation there is an urge to load the agenda with too items trying. Trying to get everyone’s topics of interest on the agenda, trying to get everything done. This can result in prioritising “doing” over discussion, connection — the human time.

Resist.

Better cover three things in great depth creating a strong shared vision and deep alignment than a cursory discussion of two dozen agenda items.

Pre-work — reading, questions, exercises

In order to build a shared idea base it is often useful to request participants to do preparatory work before an in-person event. Reading about a particular workshop processes, articles or videos relevant to the work or even just re-reading key internal documents which are to be discussed.

I find questions to be an incredibly powerful way of sparking and guiding ideation so it can be very valuable to ask all participants to consider a few key questions before the event.

Timing should be carefully considered when sending pre-work to participants. If it’s sent too far in advance of the event there is no sense of urgency and many people will put it aside and forget, if too close there is not enough time. A few days to a week is perhaps ideal. Furthermore if there are many items for pre-reading there is a higher chance they will all be read if they are sent out in manageable chunks.

Online pre-session

It makes sense to hold an online pre-session to review proposed goals, outcomes, schedule and process for the real-life session. Getting good initial alignment before the session opens up more time for co-creation and and quality human time when participants are co-present.

In the rush of getting organised it can appear easiest to just leave this review for the first session of an in-person event, but it really is better do it beforehand and leave the first in-person hour for human time — chit-chat, coffee & general conversation, allowing everyone to settle into the space and the group.

The event

A key benefit of time spent together is creating a human connection & bond which lays the foundation for effective collaboration. Creating trust, meaningful relationships, team bonding and alignment can be catalysed through good facilitation and team building exercises, nevertheless it is a human process and requires ample time.

This is particularly true for volunteer teams where all motivation for the project is intrinsic — vision alignment & team connection are even more important for these teams.

First session — setting the stage

It is a joyous yet tense time when a team finally meets in person. Everyone comes with their own mix of expectations, anticipation, and tension. For a good event it is important to begin well, allowing adequate time for building human connection, aligning expectations, understanding of process and aims.

The first session is important as it sets the stage for the whole event. The first session should include:

  • (If needed) Introductions
  • Check-in round of sharing how everyone is feeling in the moment.
  • Review of process, especially group decision making (for example roomio below)
  • A review of goals, outcomes, schedule and process
  • Get all participants to approve the process & schedule, discussing & updating until everyone is willing to agree.

Roomio — easy hand-signals for group decision making

From the EnspiralRoomio” process:

  • Thumbs up = Agree (want proposal to go ahead)
  • Thumb on side = Abstain (whatever the group decides I’m happy with)
  • Thumbs down = Disagree (think we can do better)
  • Hand up = Block (vetoes the decision)

Thumbs down means — “the current proposal is not-good enough, let’s continue talking and improve this” whilst “hands-up block” is an indication of strong disapproval i.e. “if this proposal goes through I’m out of the group”. In both cases the person disapproving is required to state their reasons for the objection.

Centrally & Visibly Post the Schedule

Usually one finds that the schedule drifts as important items take extra time and discussions take longer or less than expected. Nevertheless it greatly improves participants comfort to know what the actual schedule going forward is going to be.

Suggestion: Post schedule on wall with sessions listed on individual post-its which are reorganised regularly to show a realistic timetable.

A visibly posted schedule also makes everyone aware of what’s left to be covered — hopefully helping to focus discussion when time starts running short.

Analog tools over digital

Work in virtual teams by necessity revolves around online collaboration tools so it is natural to try and continue using these tools at an in-person event, however human time is precious, having everyone with their computer in-front of them creates a barrier and distraction to the free-flow of discussion & ideation. There are many simple but highly effective ways to use white-boards, large pieces of paper & post-its to facilitate in-person co-creation.

The analog outputs need to be transcribed into the digital tools used by the team, but often it’s good enough to take a photo of the created artefacts & paste them into digital documents.

Vary discussion & co-creation formats — circle, pop-corn, individual work, post-its, etc.

In most un-structured environments “pop-corn” (everyone speaks when they want to) is the default way of group discussion. However this can result in more vocal participants dominating the conversation, doing “circle rounds” i.e. asking everyone’s input one-by-one ensures that everyone gets time to voice their opinion. However rounds are not ideal for everything — in a larger group they take a lot of time, and they force everyone to speak even when they might not want to. Furthermore there are studies which show that group discussion is not the best for collective intelligence so individual think time which is then brought into the group is also needed. See: Brainstorming Is Dumb.

Clearly a good balance of group discussion, small team work, individual work is the best and especially for multi-day events ensures variety to keep the event enjoyable and on track.

Wrap-up — what’s next, who’s doing what

At the end of the event it is really valuable to take time to review what was decided including the plans for what happens next and especially who’s responsible for what.

This serves the benefit of ensuring everyone has the same understanding of what was agreed, as well as creating forward momentum for follow-on virtual collaboration.

Celebrate!

Being together in person is not just about “getting stuff done” building human connection is just as important and thus planning celebratory meals and activities is very important for a good event. Eating, dancing

Note on alcohol: For a team which meets only rarely every moment together is a celebration so there is a temptation to enhance the joy every meal with alcohol. The caution is that if in a multi-day event every evening, or every lunch and dinner is heavily alcoholic the co-creative effectiveness or quality decreases. Whilst this might be anathema to some, I believe it is best if the organisers clearly delineate “alcoholic” and non-alcoholic meals & days planning out post-meal & next-morning activities to accommodate participants anticipated mind-state.

Post-session

Gather learnings

Doing a “how did it go” review is critical for any major undertakings including events & worksessions, learning is perhaps the most important skill for every organisation. While there is something to be said for gathering post-feedback at the end of the event when things are fresh in people’s minds, I believe that people will not want to criticise in order to not spoil a good atmosphere or that bringing up criticisms will end the event on a negative note where the natural tendency to let things be might have let everyone leave smiling. Moreover doing a deep review including extracting learnings requires more thought and energy which participants might well not have at the end of an intense session, thus I like to collect feedback & learnings afterwards in a shared document.

I like to use the following three questions to focus the review:

  1. Gratitudes — start on a positive note, also often times discover many things which others were happy about which you didn’t notice. Gratitude is the key to happiness, including team happiness!
  • What went well?
  • What should we do again?
  1. Learnings — after any event we all have things which we are unhappy about or think should have been done better, stating these in the form of learnings helps steer the conversation away from a complaining session towards framing as actionable points.
  • How can we improve?
  • What should we do differently in the future (and how)?
  1. Questions — sometimes we notice things which we are neither positive nor see how they could be improved yet seem worth noting, the questions category is for these observations.

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