For many of us working from a different location (or indeed many different locations) with a range of different teams and collaborators has been the norm for a long time. We know that nearly everything we do in person can be done from afar. Talk, present, co-sketch, run retrospectives.
It’s only fair that we now help our collaborators and clients to get swiftly up to speed on the joys of taking charge of one’s own way of working.
Switching from working on-location to off-location makes a difference, sometimes an annoying difference. But in a work context, we owe it to the people who rely on us — be they clients, colleagues or collaborators — to be responsible and professional about it.
The secret to success — making sure the wheels of creativity, interaction and work continue spinning smoothly — is more about mindset than about tools (though they are important too).
It comes down to resilience, especially on an individual level. The new world of work has changed a lot and to be frank, we all need to get to grips with it. It’s a responsibility and also a privilege. Embrace it!
Let’s start with the most common activity — Meetings.
1. Level the playing field
When you run a video meeting make sure everyone in the room is heard through the microphone and seen on camera. It can even be a good idea if everyone goes online from individual devices despite being in the same physical location. This helps with focus and team dynamics (and sound quality too). This also ensures that the person presenting can pay equal attention to everyone attending.
Sometimes mixing and matching is the way to go.
In South-East Asia we recently ran a four-country meeting for a client. Managing Director Katarina Ivarsson and I were in Singapore with the client’s local team. Design Director Anders P Hellberg and Project Manager Axel Qvarfordt were supporting the Hong Kong team on location. Kuala Lumpur and Sydney dialled in on their own. We had cameras and microphones set up, nice lighting and good loudspeakers. This mix of physical presence and dial-ins created a supportive, effective, collaborative and relaxed atmosphere throughout the three-hour session.
As a meeting organizer you are the captain of the ship. You set and maintain the course.
Schedule the relevant amount of time, not what the calendar app has as its default. Need 10 minutes, schedule 10. Need 35, schedule 35.
Send out agendas and pre-reads well ahead of time. Listening to someone drone on about things we could have read up on in a flash is a bore.
Encourage those leaving early to inform you beforehand so that you can announce it if it’s relevant to the meeting’s purpouse.
Preparation is also about experience. At Manyone in Hong Kong, we have sent out boxes of physical samples ahead of call-ins about product design and manufacturing. Just so that everyone can literally get a feel for the materials.
3. Warm up before you start
Encourage socialising and shooting the proverbial breeze before online group meetings start. At Manyone Asia we do this on WhatsApp a few minutes before the scheduled kick-off time, and then we move to Zoom (or Teams or some other relevant tool) for the actual meeting.
It helps relax everyone and focus busy minds. And it ensures everyone is on time!
4. Introduce attendees
Quickly run through who is in the meeting. Full name and location! Nothing builds walls between participants as nicknames and internal references. Better avoid it.
5. Actively encourage participation
Segment the meeting into short chunks to allow input and questions. Ask for it pro-actively and make sure to check in with everyone. Especially those attendees who may not be used to the meeting format. And, equally important, don’t let the usual talkers go on forever. You’re the captain, run a tight ship!
6. Be emphatic!
Make sure everyone is comfortable, allow people to find their way. And always think “How Might We…”. In short, truly listen, and build on what is being said!
Working from afar is of course about more than meetings. Knowing what others are working on, being up to date on new happenings, delivering materials, and the social aspect — including meeting new people — is important too.
For this there is only two points of advice:
1. Make an effort!
Ask your colleagues how they are doing. Author a write-up at the end of the day and share it. Set up a lunch time video call with someone you want to get to know. Be proactive, plan ahead, find a way.
2. Tool + context matters
Use synchronous ways of communicating (any tool with immediacy, like voice calls and messaging apps) when everyone needs to participate in the here and now.
And use asynchronous tools (like Trello or Twist) when they are not. Benefits of asynchronous tools are that they tend to be highly searchable, and people’s contributions more considered and to the point when they can allocate time to contributing.
Organisations not used to people working from different locations tend to favour synchronous tools as the be-all solution. It fails every time. Synchronous is demanding of immediate attention and thus it will likely be intrusive. Those with more organisational and collaborative maturity value both types of tools equally.
This is a topic one could write several books about. There is always more to say. Yet it all comes down to just one thing: How we choose to make it work. We have full control over the way we work, and thus we can help others keep their professional wheels turning too. Let’s do it.
Jaan Orvet is a Design Strategist and Partner at Manyone Asia. He is co-author of State of Mind at Work, a book and workshop series that empowers professionals around the world to take charge of their own way of working.