Having meetings with remote teams, via video or audio conference, can be a real pain. Along with disconnections, lousy internet, barking dogs or braying children and Luddites, they’re fraught with complications and are often one of the most hated types of meetings (next to annual performance reviews).
While those things I listed above can only be solved with better technology or more robust soundproofing, there is one remote team meeting problem that’s much more easily solved.
How it used to be
A while ago, I worked for a well-known newspaper in the U.K., helping build the next-gen homepage, for better ad delivery and targeted news yadda yadda. Anyway, the team of engineers I worked with were excellent. Half of them in London, included the senior technical folks and half were in Romania as an offshore team, we’d have all the regular scrum meetings, including daily standups, planning retrospective and various get-togethers in between.
When I started, the team had already been formed and operating for a while. The teams normal routine was to file into a meeting room, dial the remote team onto the screen and conduct the session with half the group standing in a room in London and the other half standing in a room in Romania.
It honestly sucked
The meetings worked kind of OK, the screen was reasonably sized and the audio equipment not too bad, but variously we’d suffer from:
- Being unable to hear what someone on the screen was saying.
- Trying to explain things with hand waving that would be better with a whiteboard.
- Getting deep into a conversation and forgetting the people on the screen.
- Trouble seeing the whiteboard.
When there were few people in the session, for example, just a quick breakout session with three or four people, we may only have one floating head on the screen. That person would invariably get excluded at points in the meeting as the conversation reached technological problem solving deep-dive business. I’m sure you’ve been in the flow, solving problems and a disembodied voice says “Uh, guys — still here.”
Planning and retrospectives were also a huge P.I.T.A. The London team favoured post-its and sharpies, but that’s hard to translate with a remote team. I ended up writing the Romanian post-its myself. It worked, but the engagement wasn’t very high.
We’d occasionally also suffer from internet problems, connection problems and various technical problems. It takes real discipline to remember that there’s someone else on the call. Even when you can see and hear them! It was frustrating, and I knew there must be a better way.
Interestingly though, the problems with remote meetings never made it onto the agenda of a retro. Still, it annoyed me enough to want to fix it.
The better way
The next standup we had, I made an announcement.
“I want to try something different for tomorrows standup. We’re all going to dial into the same Google Hangouts call and have the standup at our desks. Any objections?”
There were a few grumbles of the unusual nature of the request, but no one objected. So I executed the following:
- Updated the meeting invite to include a hangout link.
- Ensured everyone had the correct equipment — they did.
- Reminded everyone at the end of the day what we were doing in the morning.
The following day, we all dialled into the hangout.
It was fantastic.
Everyone had the same experience. Everyone was engaged; everyone was audible and visible. There was some real camaraderie (”I didn’t realise your beard had got so big!”) and we agreed to do it again the following day.
After a week of this, we realised this was the way forward. Standups become less of a rote update on what was going on to get it over with and more collaborative, more problems solving, help offered and engagement than we’d ever experienced.
We had a retrospective coming up, so I asked the team, at the end of standup, if they wanted to try the retro in the same way.
A resounding “YES”.
A bit more prep required for a retro
We usually used a whiteboard for our retros, and I didn’t want to change too much about how the retro worked, just the way people joined, so I looked about for an online solution. There are many; most you needed to pay for. As it was a test, I didn’t want to spend any money, so opted for webwhiteboard.com (I still use it now, it’s simple, works well and uncluttered).
The team loved it.
It wasn’t just the online whiteboard. What happened was better than I could imagine. Weeks and weeks of half-engaged retros were unleashed, and we had the best session we’ve ever had. The folks in Romania were off the hook with ideas they had for improvements. Not only did we have real engagement with problem-solving, we also experienced the most laughs in a meeting we’ve ever had. The picture below shows the outcome.
Planning was easier. We used Jira for that anyway
A few issues
Over the next few weeks, we noted that performance improved and the team became closer. The Romanian team were involved in a lot more day-to-day water-cooler chat than they had been before (”Hey, this is a good conversation, let’s dial in the others.”). When they visited the office, things were more comfortable and less like meeting strangers than they had been previously.
There were a couple of issues that came up as part of this change. Most notably, we were in an open-plan office, which meant that some of our colleagues could hear more of our conversations than they wanted to. Not an easily solved problem given the office layout, we just remained mindful of who we shared a room with and tried to keep noise to a minimum.
Still, the benefits of this new approach far outweighed any downside and it’s a method of engaging with remote teams I’ve used on every job since.
Don’t suffer floating head syndrome
So, if you’re struggling to engage a remote team because you’re all standing (or sitting) in one room and they’re doing the same on the other side of the world, level the playing field and ensure everyone has the same experience. Whether that Skype, Google Hangouts or Slack. The quality of engagement between your team will go up, you’ll have better, more fruitful meetings and your team will become closer, resulting in a better outcome all round.