A few months ago I wrote an article on how to run an entire Design Sprint from different locations. After comparing my remote work with other remote companies I came across few principles, or challenges, we all had in common. Below I have listed them in no particular order.
Be a good communicator
People are social creatures who need to share their thoughts and if they are not in the same room, many communication channels disappear. It’s important enough to be very clear to your team (especially with different languages), but it’s even more important to make sure everyone is on the same page when working remotely. Jason Fried, CEO of the fully remote company Basecamp only hires people with excellent writing skills for this exact reason.
This is not limited to writing. Being able to speak clearly (dealing with connection issues in a call), eloquently and semantically correct will ensure that people keep listening. It’s also helpful if you’re able to maintain people’s attention (stage performers or entertainers are very good at this but more below).
As audible speech and written language sometimes don’t communicate the idea entirely, being able to illustrate thoughts with pen and paper is also very useful. UI designers have a good eye for emphasising bits of their sketches and communicating ideas very clearly.
Tips for practice:
Write about what you know (I’m doing this right now) and release it as fast as possible to see how many people read it. Based on comments and highlights in Medium you can see what you did right. Write more in the way that works.
Make sure everyone is in a different room
People always seek the easiest path to communicate, same goes for remote communication. It’s easier to talk over the phone than sending an email, it’s easier to talk in person than over the phone. Put a team in one room and they will collaborate perfectly, because everyone can talk. But having two teams in two different rooms will make them collaborate among each other perfectly, but less so between the teams. Even if you use a smart board, it might not have the same result as having everyone separated. It will take more effort to use any other technology than just speaking. Having everyone use the same communication channel removes this imbalance so if possible, make sure everyone is using a computer with headphones, in a silent room.
Know the process
This sounds self-explanatory but it’s not necessarily obvious. I’m taking the Design Sprint process as an example here but it obviously refers to any workshop process.
Knowing the Design Sprint by heart means that you need to be prepared for questions or for people not being clear about their tasks. Lack of clarity in the process will present problems and doubts in the stakeholders’ mind, which is not desirable. Make sure that people trust the process because otherwise you will have to convince them of it unnecessarily often.
Be the authority on the process
The facilitator needs to be an expert on all areas of the process, including the means of communication (the software he/she is working with to run the Sprint), and needs to take full responsibility and advantage of them. The Sprint process is very democratic but depending on the group there is still the chance that participants become nervous or bored. This must not happen, especially in remote work, because participants need to produce results at all times.
Jake Knapp always tells people to trust the process, but sometimes people need to be additionally convinced.
There will be doubts and questions and the facilitator needs to be able to answer them.
A pre-made presentation by the facilitator and a step-by-step overview of how time will be spent prepares the participants for what will happen and usually eliminates a lot of anxiety. The process is very tedious and participants need to be sure that at the end the result will be great. It’s also a good idea to remind people of the results and outcomes of each step along the process. It’s also great to show what people have to look forward to by the end of the workshop.
Or just wear a hat to display dominance. Wow, look at that hat.
Tips for practice:
Run workshops/sprints as many times as possible to gather as many questions as possible. Seek people who ask questions and learn from answering them. Put a timer on to create time pressure and make everyone has an incentive to to follow each step.
Maintain people’s attention
Keep an overview of everyone’s participation and mood. With Hangouts you can see everyone’s face and track the participation.
At Minerva University, professors run online seminars with more than 10 people and seeing them on screen they can talk to each participant individually to grab their attention. This makes sure that every participant contributes equally to the seminar. This especially applies to workshops where stakeholders are skeptical.
Also, it’s important to make sure that everyone’s face is clearly visible, so you can communicate to them clearly.
Tips for practice:
This is difficult to quantify as it requires a people-skill. Telling stories to strangers or doing some sort of performance art (stand up comedy, magic, acting, etc.) is certainly helpful. You will immediately see who is watching/listening. People will just leave if you’re doing something wrong.
Be empathic and give everyone space to speak
Google’s Project Aristotle was a research project on the most productive teams and the basic result was two common features. Among all participants in the most successful teams everyone had excellent skills in reading emotions and was good at being empathic and, everyone spoke approximately the same amount.
The speaking part is almost reduced to a minimum using Design Sprint principles. And to be sure that people keep following your voice, you can and should follow people’s faces and mouse cursors on the screen. If someone drifts off or you feel like they haven’t said anything in a while, ask them a question or talk to them to make sure they stay awake and alert. Try to read people’s emotions as much as possible from the video-images, it’s more important than you might think.
Give everyone a break from time to time
Several hours of workshop time are very intense for many people and everyone needs a break from time to time, even to just check their phone. 5–10 minutes every 50 minutes is a good thumb rule and works in local workshops too.
The hidden benefit in taking breaks in an online workshop is that people have time to reflect alone, reducing the chances of sparking unnecessary discussion, as it sometimes happens in a local workshop.
Select the most frictionless software to replicate real life and social dynamics
Humans always build tools to simplify an existing process, that’s an indicator of our intelligence and makes us solve problems faster. Digital software has not only made existing work easier but brings in additional benefits. Mural, RealtimeBoard, Basecamp, Slack, Hangouts are all tools which replicate a certain part of in-person collaboration using a technological tool. Some of them even go beyond that and explore how to increase the possibilities.
New tools are usually better than old ones, but it still always depends on how you use them.
Because there are many different structures in a local work setting, you need to think about which interaction patterns are crucial to making it efficient and what they consist of.
Do people speak to each other? Do they have an order in which they speak or is it an unstructured conversation? Do you have a moderator who needs to wear a special hat? The hat is a joke but sometimes you need to emphasize authority or a certain person.
Once you’ve identified the interaction patterns, choose the tool with an interface which provides the least psychological friction between user and output. If you have to compare a typewriter keyboard to a MacBook keyboard, you know that the typewriter has (even mechanically) more friction when you type out letters, so it’s more comfortable to type on a MacBook.
Think about the future
Working remotely does not end with video calls and message boards. There are still many problems and gaps which need to be filled. Virtual Reality will very likely play a big part in remote collaboration in the future, since it introduces another sense of perception and empathic collaboration will be easier when it’s possible to read people’s body language. Some tools may even be utilized beyond their designated use, in order to enhance an existing means of communication.
But there are many other issues which could arise and who knows, maybe you can help fix them!
If you have any comments or questions, leave them below or send me a message.
Also follow @kischiman on Instagram, I sometimes post stories with my work.