A summary of my participation at OSS EU / ELCE 2018

ELCE 2018 has been a key event each of my 3 years at Codethink. It is an interesting conference from the technical and business point of view. This year the event was collocated again with several others, like the Open Source Summit Europe (OSS EU). It took place in Edinburgh, UK, I city I find particularly beautiful and enjoyable.

CIP, the Linux Foundation Initiative for Civil Infrastructure, has the event as a key milestone. The group organises a booth and a face to face meeting of the Technical Steering Committee (TSC) the day before the event starts. So for me ELCE is a day longer. The other main task for me at this event is supporting Codethink business development and community engagement actions, since I represent the company at the Linux Foundation.

During the CIP TSC face to face meeting, I did a short presentation of one of the projects I am putting effort on lately: BuildStream. I also described the project among several people I know during the event, asking them to try out the integration tool and provide me feedback. The tool has matured quite a lot the last few months and I am interested in collecting feedback from experienced developers and software integrators.

Lukas Bulwahn is leading an interesting effort to create a safety Linux related initiative at the Linux Foundation, including a Safety Critical Systems track at the event. I attended the last day of the conference to these talks. My colleagues Ben Dooks, senior kernel developer and Codehtink’s CEO Paul Sherwood, presented there a couple of topics we have been working on lately. I found the track interesting and learnt a few things. I hope such track consolidates and more automotive companies participate in the future.

Codethink sponsored the event and had a booth to recruit new developers. I backed up my colleague Tim a couple of times during the first two days of the event which allowed me to talk to a couple of of potential hires. It is always interesting to find out what motivates others about the company your are working for.

During the second day of the event I took some time to visit some booths and learn about what other companies are doing, as well as attending to a couple of talks. I also had several interesting meetings and conversations with old friends and former colleagues, visited again the Edinburgh Castle, this time at night, and managed to try a few whiskies from the Highlands. Not everything was to be work, right?

kernelci.org is an initiative I feel attached to since it was born during my time as Director at Linaro, promoted by engineers from my department, specially Kevin Hilman. Time has demonstrated that the project has helped the Linux Kernel tremendously. I hope kernelci.org get a successful second life under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation.

At Akademy 2018 a group of KDE people agreed to put effort in showcasing KDE software at embedded events to demonstrate that Plasma Mobile is a credible option as HMI for automotive R&D environments. At ELCE 2018, we showed Plasma Mobile and a couple of applications on top of a YOCTO based system on a Raspberry Pi 3 with a 7″ touchscreen. Showing the same technologies across different form factors (a mobile, a Pinebook, a laptop with openSUSE and the mentioned RPi3) was impressive. Sadly my RPi3 worked only the first day because it burned. I guess I have taken it to too many events. RIP my dear….

I would like to highlight how excited I got when I saw the KDE booth at this event, the fantastic work that Adrian, Jonathan, Kenny and Paul did there and the significant impact KDE had. Getting out of the comfort zone is never easy, but usually worth it. I am looking forward to show further progress at FOSDEM and the Embedded World early in 2019.

Except surprises, this will be the last event of the year for me. It is time to prepare next year’s agenda. I will see you all at FOSDEM 2019. Thanks Codethink for sponsoring my participation at ELCE 2018.

Working in distributed / remote environments 4: one on ones (1:1s)

An important part of any (people) manager’s work is to evaluate how things are going for your team members, the people under your responsibility. When managing distributed or remote teams, the one on ones (1:1) become even more relevant than in collocated environments. In extreme cases, they represent the only opportunity a manager to have an honest conversation with a member of your team.

The older I get, the more relevance I provide to 1:1s. I have found myself in several occasions feeling that my manager did not paid enough attention to me, to the problems myself or my department or team were going through, that affected my motivation, the project I was working on or the organization as a whole. If is not a fun feeling, specially in remote environments, where isolation plays against you. In all cases, there was a common factor: 1:1s did not work well.

Whenever I can, I like to have short but frequent 1:1 with my team members. My preferred option is a weekly 25 minutes meeting through video chat, at the beginning of the day. I try to avoid 1:1s late in the afternoons, depending on time zones. This is tough to achieve when working with Asians (I am located in CET/WET), but it is worth making the effort.

Why weekly 1:1s

A significant number of people tend to dislike such frequent meetings initially, specially when working remotely remote. In my experience, it is often underestimated how important it is to have a healthy channel with your manager, specially when times get rough for whatever reason: personal reasons, due to frictions with colleagues, workload peaks, changes within the organization, strategy shifts, etc.

If you experience such resistance, I recommend you to invest some time early on to justify why you will schedule these weekly 1:1s. Do not take for granted they will agree with them. I provide the following arguments:

  • If I am the new guy, I need to learn about how things work so I need help. Having frequent meetings the first couple of months will help me to shorten my on-boarding process.
  • If you are trying to push changes, you want your direct reports to participate in the decision making process. Use these meetings to get feedback from them.
  • If anybody under your direct responsibility just joined the team, you want to make sure their landing process is smooth, specially if they manage a team themselves.

There are two additional points that help to overcome significant resistance to have weekly 1:1s:

  1. When there is no relevant topic to talk about or the team is experiencing a working peak, the meeting can be skipped if there is a common agreement. I rarely skip two 1:1s in a row though.
  2. These meetings are primarily to deal with people management topics, not execution topics.

In most cases, if you have regular performance evaluations, there are always topics to go over during these 25 minutes slots, that might help to develop your colleagues professional career and performance. As a manager, it is a great learning experience too.

There is a special case I try to pay special attention to. There are times in which a member of your team is already overloaded with too many meetings. Your priority then is to offload that person and clear her agenda. 1:1s become then the desired useful tool. The same principle applies to you. If you perceive the 1:1 with your manager as inopportune, you might need to take a closer look at your agenda. They never are, or should be.

Ground rules on 1:1s

Before the first 1:1 with a member of my team, I prepare a shared document including the most important ground rules for the meeting. Most  ground rules are generic so I will focus on those influenced by the special nature of a distributed or remote environment (D.R.E.):

  • Meeting goal: write down clearly the meeting goals and priorities. I recommend to put people management topics first and, only when those are covered or there is none, move on onto other kind of topics. In the absence of face to face interactions with her colleagues, other managers or yourself, these kind of meetings might be the only chance to deal with people management topics a person might have in your organization.
  • Use corporate approved channels only: this might sound like an obvious advice but there are occasions where it might become a topic>
    • I have found many engineers, specially in the Open Source space, unhappy with using proprietary tools or tools that imply the installation of an application or a plug-in that track data from their machines. This specially sensitive for contractors. Be sensitive with this case if you can.
    • When working in Open Source projects, having a clear separation between what is or is not confidential might not be easy. Confidential information should flow in corporate approved channels only. 1:1s should be consider as such so the default video chat tool might not meet legal requirements in this regard.
  • Define the process to change the schedule of the meetings: the idea is to be flexible about when to meet but strict about how the process of changing the schedule of the meeting should be done, specially when it comes to notify changes in advance. Both parties need to consider how difficult it is to manage agendas when working in distributed environments where people is located in a a wide range of time zones.
  • Start on time: add this explicitly along with how to communicate that you will be late. Remember that if people around you systematically joins late, you will end up reproducing such behaviour. This is a hard personal battle to fight.
    • What has worked for me in the past with people that systematically joins late is to agree to make a note in the shared document when your counterpart or yourself arrive late. In the performance evaluation, when you find several of these notes, the point become a topic as something to pay attention to in the coming evaluation period.
    • The toughest situation comes when executives or customers are frequently late, specially when they are not remote. Do not let the situation get into a point in which you become passive aggressive about it. If you give up with them, you will end up giving up with your team too. Make it a point.
  • Describe what is the shared document for and how to use it: I will come to this later.
  • Add links to the description of key processes and HR documentation: mature companies in distributed environments tend to have well defined written processes. The escalation process is just an example. I like to explain it so the other person understand what will it happen when he request you to escalate a topic.
  • Add the contact information of the participants: I find it very handy.

The shared 1:1 document

The mission of this document is to track those conversation points that any of the participants consider relevant enough. Every time I make sure we both agree with the written text. This is extremely important to me. If there is no agreement, we work on the redaction of the text until we do. I there is no possibility to reach an agreement, both entries, mine and hers should be included.

In my experience, the shared document only works well if it is confidential.

The goal is to reflect when a common understanding has been reached and, if it hasn’t, where is the discrepancy. By default, I suggest to track at least the following topics in the shared document:

  • Agenda: during the week I introduce an entry in the document for every topic I want to raise in the meeting, if there is time. Sometimes there is no time so adding some description of the topic prevent you from having a additional meeting to deal with them. It also helps me as a self note. I tend to easily forget the topics I want to raise during these meetings, specially when I have several with different people during the week, or they are bi-weekly instead of weekly.
  • Escalations: when for whatever reason I have to escalate a point, I make sure it is written down in the document, in agreement the other person. This is very helpful when the escalation process or the resolution takes some time.
  • ToDos: sometimes the outcome of a conversation is a task. I keep track of them and who is assigned to.
  • Points related with the performance evaluation process: these points should only be written down under agreement.
  • Outcome of interesting conversations for one of both parties.

Any other topic can be translated to the document if any party wants to. My 1:1 shared documents frequently have the following sections:

  1. Document title: 1:1 (name surname):Agustín B.B. (this helps me to find the document easily.
  2. Contact info of both parties.
  3. Index
  4. Entry for each meeting with the following heading: Meeting #. Weekday YYYY/MM/DD
    1. Closed ToDos (on this week)
    2. Agenda items
    3. Open ToDos

Some other tips I recommend you to consider when it comes to using the document are:

  • Be short and accurate. This is not about tracking everything. It is not about taking minutes but about sharing a common understanding and agreeing on the outcomes.
  • Provide context. This document is meant to be consulted several times per year, like during performance reviews, for instance.
  • Although the document is confidential, write as if it is not. This is a general rule, in my opinion, to every communication.

Meeting how-to

I always start the meeting asking the person on the screen if there is any point she wants to raise. If an additional meeting is needed to go over the agenda, it should be because there was no chance to go over my points.

In my experience people with none or little experience in distributed or remote environments tend to avoid raising topics at the very beginning of the conversation. Being direct, adapted to the environment, takes some time. It is a learning process we all have gone through. If that is the case, I ask general questions about how is she doing. If nothing is raised, I like to check a couple more times during the meeting.

Only if there is time left after people management topics have been discussed, I introduce execution related topics. In any case, I like to dedicate some minutes to work unrelated topics, at the beginning or the end of the meeting depending on the agenda.

I like to configure the calendar to get a notification in my screen 5 and 1 min before the end of the meeting so I avoid cutting down the conversation abruptly. It is so easy to loose track of time…

Some additional points to consider

Do not forget about the intrinsic limitations of a communication through video chat, specially when feelings are involved. Compared to a face to face conversations, this is a serious handicap you will have to overcome as manager. Creating the right atmosphere during the good times will help you a lot when rougher times arrive, and they will.

These meetings might be the only chance for your counterpart to “talk to” or get “first hand information from” the organization. The impact of your words might get magnified by these two circumstances.

Since the nature of the relations between peers is different in remote environments than in collocated ones, managers has a higher chance to get “caught by surprise” during the one on ones by a problem, complain or a demand you had no previous information of.  If that is the case, be transparent about it and ask for some time to digest the information and provide a credible answer. Schedule another meeting if necessary. There is no award for providing a quick answer.

Do not underestimate the language barrier. It is already hard enough to talk with a manager openly through a screen about a sensitive topic. Add the fact that you have to do it in a language other than your mother tongue and you will soon realise that the shared document might work as a great ally. Cultural barriers are also higher to overcome in remote environments, as I have mentioned in previous posts of this series.

Conclusions

1:1 meetings are an essential “resource” for any manager. As expected, the remote or distributed nature of a working environment has a significant impact on this “tool” which makes it harder to master, at least in my opinion.

I prefer to have frequent and short check points than infrequent and long meetings. I also prefer to schedule an additional meeting than overrun the current one, since you loose very little time in joining/dropping from a meeting when working remotely. This might not be the case in distributed environments.

I like to create, pay attention to and put effort in translating the outcomes of interesting conversations into a shared and confidential document, keeping in mind that 1:1s are above all, about having an honest, transparent and direct conversations. Having them through internet makes the communication tougher which requires a higher doses of experience from any manager to make them meaningful, specially during stormy weather.

Working in distributed / remote environments 3: weekly meetings (II)

This is the second and last post of the Weekly Meetings series. If you haven’t read the first one, I recommend you do before reading this one.

Where?

There is a very simple rule in distributed environments. If one of the participants in the weekly meeting is remote or at a different office, everybody is remote, or should be.

Take advantage of what the technology provides and participate in the meeting from your desk instead of from the meeting room together with part of the team. I pointed several reasons for this in a previous post. Let me develop further:

  • You do not have a white board to support your explanations. You will need a virtual one and its usage is more effective when everybody can collaborate, getting the same experience. There are plenty of tools nowadays for this purpose. Your screen is your projector. If you need to show something to others, sharing your screen becomes trivial compared to the set up required in a meeting room, no matter how prepared it is.
  • Let me insist on how important it is for building a healthy team that everybody lives the same experience at meetings. It is not just that participation and follow up is harder to those who are not present in the meeting room, it is that the meeting becomes less efficient because those joining remotely become listeners instead of active participants.
  • When teams are used to meetings at their desks, efficiency increases. It is easier to start on time, the sound quality is uniform, less time is wasted in moving to the meeting room, flexibility to organise meetings significantly increase, etc.

How many participants?

Since it is significantly easier to manage a meeting in person than remotely, I recommend to reduce the number of participants in these weekly meetings in distributed and/or remote environments.

It is a common mistake to assume that the ideal team size does not necessarily need to change when moving from collocated to remote. In my experience, distributed teams should be smaller than collocated teams. Remote ones should be even smaller.

Weekly meetings with 8 participants in a room are manageable if the team is disciplined. That is not the case, in my experience, with such meetings through video chat.

Meeting Length

I mentioned in the previous post that meetings in distributed and remote environments should be short. People gets tired of looking at a screen and talking through a mic. I also mentioned already that due to the need of talking once at a time, these meetings have a slower page, which bores people to death.

If you can, make them no longer than 30 minutes. Allow a little more for chit-chat if there are plenty of topics. but in general, avoid reaching the one hour mark. If you reach it on constant basis, analyse and distil the topics, try to preparation them better, send the descriptions in advance, promote offline discussions before bringing the topic to the meeting, control the time better, etc.

And if still is unavoidable, split the meeting in two 30 min meetings if your team can afford it in terms of agenda. Remember that for some, these meetings might require a personal sacrifice because they might need to happen very early or late at night. Two 30 min meetings are far more productive than an hour long meeting when managed correctly.

If any topic requires significantly more time than you can afford during the weekly meeting, propose an “ad hoc” meeting for it. Make sure though that the schedule of such future meeting becomes a a topic on the current meeting. Remember that schedule meetings for the whole team is hard, specially through asynchronous methods.

When?

Applications like Doodle or Pollunit (there are more) can help you and your team to decide in which time slots are better to schedule any meeting. The weekly team meeting is a good example. Every serious calendar has a free/busy time feature that allows you to avoid conflicts. Make sure you master them.

Ensure everybody adds in their calendars the working hours and you define yours so you get an alert when you are trying to schedule a meeting out of somebody’s working hours. I think I did not mention this on the post about the calendar tool. 😮

Serge Broslavsky showed my a trick I use ever since. In a sheet, he added the names of the team members (column B) and the UTC hours of the day (row 2). Then he marked in green, orange and red the times in which meetings were acceptable for each team member. When you have to manage a large number of people around the globe, that simple visualization makes scheduling meetings easier.

Avoid scheduling meetings out of green working hours. If you cannot, try at least to avoid putting any colleague in a position in which they cannot negotiate their own agenda in amber or red hours. In remote environments with different time zones involved, people need to be flexible about their availability, but being flexible does not mean there is no impact. Remember to promote the culture you would like to live in.

As mentioned previously, in DRE it is important to arrive to the meeting prepared so I tend to avoid “first time in the morning” meetings. Like everybody else, I hate interruptions so I tend to concentrate half hour meetings in 2 hours slots and have 1 or 2 hours slots free of meetings, at least a couple of days a week. Promote among participants to reserve a free slot before your team meeting starts.

If you are managing managers, it is extremely important to decide if you want to have your weekly team meeting before or after your colleagues (managers) have had their own weekly team meetings. By default I would prefer to have my weekly meeting after all my managers have had theirs but that depends on the type of job and how is it organised.

Roles

I like to pre-assign roles to avoid any discussion about who should play which role. I add to the meeting ground rules how the roles are selected. Pre-defined rotation is a system I have used. Let the team choose the one they prefer. The point is to start the meeting already knowing who does what. Start the meeting confirming who plays each role, after allowing one or two minutes for chitchatting. The roles are:

  • Scribe: everybody takes notes. Is one of the good things about having every participant in front of their laptops. But there is somebody responsible for completing the notes, record them and publish them.
  • Timer: this is critical since meetings needs to be short so participants need to be concise. The timer not just controls the time assigned to each topic but also that nobody goes off-topic or eat all the available time.
  • Topic lead: the meeting agenda should include a topic lead for each topic. That is the person in charge of making the discussion at the meeting worth it which frequently means that the right information has been sent in advance, questions has been asked and answered and that participants understand what is the expected outcome of the meeting. It will also ensure that the notes reflect the state of the art and will highlight if the topic needs a follow up in the next meeting, for instance. If there are actions points, the topic lead will ensure they have been recorded and/or properly tracked.
  • Meeting owner: I mentioned that you, as manager, should be the meeting owner which does not mean you manage the meeting. Make sure your role is clear, set the boundaries of such role and use your “power” wisely. Assign a person that will substitute you when you are absent.

You can add more roles but I only do in extraordinary occasions.

Some final tips

I will summarise some additional tips in no particular order:

  • Since the environment in these meetings is more hostile than face to face ones, making these weekly meetings short and to the point has to be an essential goal which requires more preparation in advance compared to face to face meetings.
  • Make sure the agenda is sent to participants in advance. Provide a time estimation to each topic, assign a person to lead each agenda topic and make sure you do not fill out the 30 min. I would recommend to not have a pre-defined agenda beyond 20 minutes. Meeting’s pace in DRE is slower than in face to face meetings. Include in the agenda time for AOB (Any Other Business) but be aware that this topic can be used to come to the meeting to discuss topics that has not been prepared in advance. Do not let anybody misuse AOB.
  • Every description, report, detailed opinion, statement or positioning should be sent in advance, as I have mentioned before, with enough time for others to read and answer in written form before the meeting. This saves long turns and explanations during the meeting.
  • When there are more topics than time, ensure those topics related with people management has preference. The others should wait until the next meeting or be a matter of a future “ad hoc” meeting. Since scheduling those topic-specific meetings is so complex, specially in remote environments, use the AOB section to schedule it or at least get a tentative date and time for it.
  • If part of the meeting deals with tasks, blockers etc., make sure the tickets have been updated in advanced so WIP (Work In Progress) can be clearly visualised by all participants. Provide the links to the dashboards to the participants in advance.
  • During the meeting, ensure that every time somebody makes a reference to a specific page, the link to that page, ticket, image, etc. is provided through chat to every participant.
  • I find slides very useful when describing a complex idea or when the amount of information to be provided is high. Screen-share is your friend here. I recommend though to make the slides available to everybody beyond that screen share. They will be easier to follow, participants can take notes, click on the links, etc..
  • I really like dashboards, specially kanban boards as a WIP visualization method (through tickets), even if you are not following the methodology. I use them during meetings to go through hot topics. When going over tickets, repeat the number and title of the ticket you are referring to more than once so everybody can follow you.
  • Predefine a way to communicate that somebody’s turn is taking way too long, or that the participant is repeating herself, that the information is irrelevant , etc. In summary, find a way for anybody to cut anybody politely. The timer role should be the default person for this, but everybody should participate on this tough task.
  • It is common that participants start talking while mute. It happens to me more often that I will ever recognise. There are video chat applications that has solutions for such cases like a notification, or the possibility for another participant to activate anybody’s mic. Try to use video chat apps with these features. If yours does not have it, use a keyword to notify to the person that she is talking while muted.
  • Since in a video conference only one person can talk at a time, muting participants should be a normal practice. Nobody should take offence. Sadly only most experienced people do not. Try to avoid muting people while speaking unless it is strictly necessary if your time has little or no prior experience working in distributed environments or remote. Assume by default that the muted person might have taken it as a rude gesture from you. Talk to the person offline to clarify the situation. Make it an acceptable practice (in specific circumstances) little by little.
  • When the connection of any participant introduces noise or is choppy, muting the affected participant is a must. Mention why you did it, and move on. You cannot afford stopping the meeting flow because of somebody’s bad connectivity. Participants should have alternatives for these cases. I usually have a 4G connection as secondary line in case my default internet connection fails. If the affected person is the topic leader, move on to the next topic. If it happens to a different pre-defined role, make the next person in the queue adopt the role. If it happens to you… well, use the opportunity to “lead by example”.
  • Do not join team meetings through wifi. Do not underestimate the amount of bandwidth that several participants require, even with the best video chat app or plug-in. No, shutting down your video camera is not ok. Take the meeting as seriously as everybody else.
  • Do not close the video chat room once the meeting ends. Allow some minutes for off-topic chatting. Stay once in a while a few extra minutes yourself to participate in those off-topic conversations.

It takes time for any team working in DRE to have smooth and productive team meetings. Keep pushing and do not accommodate, tendencies are usually perverse when it comes to meetings dynamics.

I would like to finish pointing that weekly team meetings for groups that work in distributed or remote environments (DRE) might be the only time where they get together during the week. It is essential to keep in mind how hard it is to generate a sense of team work when there is little or no face to face interaction. This action, the weekly team meeting, represent the best opportunity generate a team spirit, which is a fundamental mission for every manager.

I am sure I have left behind important tips or you might not agree with some of the above. Please let me know. This is not a science.

Working in distributed / remote environments 3: weekly meetings (I)

This is the first out of two parts dedicated to share my experience around weekly meetings in distributed and/or remote environments (DRE).

Introduction

As a manager I cannot tell you how many times I have listened colleagues of mine complaining about having too many meetings, but specially about too many unproductive meetings. Sadly, they are frequently right. And you know what, for every meeting any engineer I have worked with usually have, I have three. And no, attending to meetings is not my job either. It has never been, thanks God. And yes, they usually are at least as unproductive as those the engineers complain about.

I wrote in a previous article that in person meetings are expensive, hard to manage and exhausting. I also mentioned that, in distributed or remote environments (DRE), meetings are even more expensive, harder to manage and far more exhausting.

You will find very few people who dislikes unproductive meetings more than I do. I am not a fan of long meetings either. The best way to avoid unproductive long meetings is to have a real purpose for them. And that purpose has its reflection on an agenda. In short, no agenda, no meeting.

So my first point is, if you are a manager, reserve a slot for a weekly meeting so everybody takes it in consideration in their agendas. But the meeting will only take place if there is an agenda. If your team is healthy, there will most likely be topics to discuss every time.

This principle applies to any professional environment, but due to the nature of DRE, unproductive meetings have a higher impact on participants. Keep that in mind specially when coming from co-located environments.

Who owns the weekly meeting?

I enjoy working in organizations where technical leadership roles are separated from other management roles like product or line management. I definitely recommend to have at least a clear separation between technical and people (organizational) leadership roles. When the tech lead is the line manager….

These weekly meetings can and should serve the team. At the same time, as a line manager, there are occasions in which you need the flexibility to modify the agenda or even own the meeting entirely.

So answering the question, you as manager own the meeting, which does not mean that you manage it, conduct it or even play an active role on it by default. In fact, I recommend not to. Just be clear about the possibility for you to change the agenda in short notice. Be wise about this power though. It might have some negative impact on your colleagues if it is abused.

Weekly meeting main goals

In my opinion, the weekly meeting has the following key goals in DRE:

Alignment

Autonomy is widely perceived as beneficial and a necessary step towards reaching mastery. But autonomy does not come for free, it is associated to a risk, specially as teams/ departments grow: that risk is called alignment.

As a manager in DRE, your number one goal is to promote alignment across the organization and specially across those under your responsibility. I explained this focus shift that any manager should face, referred to working in the open, which is a specific case of DRE, a few months ago.

So my recommendation is to focus these weekly meetings in improving alignment.

Discussions

There are times in which discussions through mailing lists or chat become so complex that the right approach is to discuss the topic in a meeting. There are other occasions in which the topic under discussion is sensitive to one or more team members. Those implicated in such discussions might benefit from a chat through video, experiencing the advantages that some body language and bigger doses of empathy might bring.

Call the attention of your colleagues when overdoing the discussions or when they reflect frustration and invite them to move the conversation to the coming weekly meeting.

Consensus

Alignment frequently requires consensus. Reaching  consensus through mailing lists or chats might be extremely hard, specially the last mile. One or more discussions through video chat might help.

Take some time during weekly meetings to work towards reaching consensus on key topics, instead of having one “ad hoc”meeting to solve it, at least until the discussion is mature enough. Remember that alignment is your outstanding challenge. Work on it on regular basis.

Conflict resolution

In order to understand how important team meetings are in DRE you need first to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses that remote communication has.

Strengths:

  • Direct
  • Aseptic
  • Accurate
  • Easily traceable and recordable.
  • Higher latency, which sometimes help.

There are also weaknesses:

  • Lack of body language which represent a significant decrement on the amount of information transmitted.
  • Requires experience to do it right.
  • Latency: sometimes plays against you.
  • Irony, humour, passion… hard to transmit emotions. So aseptic communication channels might play against you and your colleagues many times.
  • DRE communication is not taught at school. It takes time to master it. It is one of the great advantages of participating early on in your career in Open Source projects. You learn to communicate in DRE.

Back to the conflict resolution point, supporting written communications with conversations through video chat are extremely important in DRE to solve or contain all kind of conflicts, before they escalate.

Use weekly meetings to solve simple conflicts or to expose them. Take a deeper evaluation and potential solutions offline and come back to the team meeting with the result and evaluation. The message is that, when problems or conflicts affect the team, weekly meetings are a better forum to expose them than mails or chats.

More serious conflicts require a different approach. Using the weekly meeting to fully identify them, evaluate them or attempt to solve them might not be a good approach.

Hot topics

In DRE, it is significantly harder to schedule meetings in short notice than in collocated environments. It might also have a higher impact in people personal life.  I always recommend to reduce the drama associated to meetings announced in short notice. Having a scheduled weekly team meeting will significantly reduce that drama while having a positive impact on any team dynamics.

Most hot topics…. can wait one or two days for the weekly team meeting.

Learn about the state of art.

As a manager, you get a significant amount of information about how things are going for your co-workers,team, department or organization in front of the coffee machine, at lunch or at the hall, listening and talking to those you work with. You do not have such luxury in DRE so weekly team meetings represent a unique opportunity to understand how things are going, beyond tickets, merge requests, reports, chat channels and mailing lists.

Following the same argument, employees get fewer information about how is the company doing when working remote. Weekly team meetings become an outstanding opportunity for them to ask you and comment about corporate related topics.

Escalations

In the same way that in DRE, you have limited opportunities to “talk to the team”, they have the same number of opportunities to “talk to the company”. As a manager, it is your responsibility to create the environment in which escalations are properly communicated, discussed, tracked and managed.

Team meetings, together with 1:1, become the default forum where to define and trigger escalations. No matter how flat your organization is, you need to define a clear escalation process that works for both, the company and the employees. This is specially true when you are, de facto, the default company interface because you are the line manager.

Participation.

In organizations or teams where people is spread in different time zones, joining a weekly meeting might involve sacrifices. Now imagine a colleague of yours joining a meeting at 22:00 to realise that 75% of the time has been consumed by a colleague describing a topic, summarising what she did about X or reporting about what somebody else did with Y.

Do you really expect that person to pay full attention?

In order to “encourage” participants to remain connected to the meeting, many managers and teams developed techniques that frequently do not apply to on line meetings. I love the “no laptops allowed” one.

But even face to face meetings, many of them does not work. The human brain have an outstanding capacity to take us somewhere else without others noticing. I developed such skill at college. The normal outcome in an online meeting where reporting is the norm and not the exception, is that participants listen while doing something else.

A waste of time and passion.

It is well known that the key to successful meetings is active participation. This is specially true in DRE. Looking into a screen and listening others through speakers is hard enough already. Add to it lack of participation and you will end in a set up for failure. Descriptions, reports, etc. should be provided to participants in advance. They should read them and come to the meeting ready to participate. Dependencies, blockers, feedback, etc. should be the meat of these weekly meetings.

It is amazing how effective meetings might become in DRE when participants develop the habit of sending and reading reports and descriptions in advance. Promote preparation in advance over longer meetings.

Participation comes with a challenge. Managing fluid conversations through video chat is hard. Experience and simple tips, like something that is equivalent to raise the hand (ask for turn) or a nice way to make somebody aware she is talking for too long, etc.  help a lot. Try some. Some video tools provide some nice solutions to mitigate this challenge.

Stay tuned for the second part of the post.

Working in distributed / remote environments 2: the calendar tool

One tool I think you should master as a manager in DRE (distributed or remote environments) is the calendar. It usually gets less attention that it deserves based on its significant impact in environments that promotes autonomy. Dealing with agendas in distributed or remote environments is so important that I recommend you to take the management of a calendar tool in your area of influence as a priority, specially when people is distributed across different timezones.

This post describes some basic features a good calendaring tool should have in my opinion and why they are important when working in DRE. I also provide some advices based on my experience. Feel free to comment if there are some others important to you that I haven’t mentioned. I would love to know about them.

Reflect your availability in the calendar

When managing collocated teams, co-workers know if you came to work that day, if you are at your desk…. Your co-workers might guess if you will be available later on and pass by your door on their way to the coffee machine to check when you return to your seat. That is not the case in DRE.

The calendar is the best tool you have to set up the right expectations about your availability among your colleagues. Make sure EVERY meeting, appointment, long call… everything that takes you more that 15-20 min. is reflected in your calendar, specially if it is a recurrent activity. Remember that being transparent about your availability is not just important for you, but also to your co-workers. They need to know when you are available for them.

When you do not answer a ping from your colleagues, they might wonder if you are sick, if you are dead, if you are ignoring them on purpose, if you are concentrated in something else or you are participating on an unexpected meeting. In the mid term, that uncertainty plays against you as a “remote” worker.

If there is a time window when you do not want to get disturbed, add the slot in the calendar. For instance:

  • I usually reserve 90 or 120 min. at lunch. It is well known that Spaniards take long lunchs but that is not the reason I reserve such slot. I like to have some time to work without disturbance and, at the same time, have some flexibility about when I eat. I usually add to the calendar a long lunch slot and try hard to prevent others from scheduling meetings during that time. It is not infallible but it helps.
  • I have worked with people that need to pick up their kids from school early in the afternoon, that visit their mother for lunch on Tuesdays, that pick up their partner at work early in the afternoon or that commute to a co-working space or Café after lunch. Add those slots to the calendar in such cases. Make sure your colleagues understand when you will not be available for them.
  • If tomorrow you have a hard stop time, add it to the calendar. Your colleague in the Canada might ping you at that time and wonder why you are not answering her.
  • If you will start later next Friday because you need go to the bank, again, add it to your calendar.

Those with little or no experience working in DRE write mails or ping others through the chat to ask you for your availability. Experienced remote workers talk through the calendar… or should. An invitation is always a question, not a command. Notifications are king. Provide the justification for the appointment in the description or notes section of the calendar event, add the resources, include links…. reduce the mails and chat entries you create for things you can do with the Calendar tool.

Those managers who make heavy usage of the calendar do not have to create a fire to have and urgent “ad hoc” meeting. They simply add a key word in the appointment title, or use any other trick to avoid the need to communicate such urgency through a different channel, making “urgent noise”. Again, use the calendar to its full extend to avoid unnecessary communications, misunderstandings, unmet availability expectations, appointments at inconvenient times, etc.

And finally, remember that, when working with people across different time zones, it is very easy to make mistakes that affects people’s personal lives when managing appointments. Promote a culture where flexibility is compatible with the required availability. Intensive usage of a good calendaring tool helps to promote such culture, in my experience.

Confidentiality

I am a big fan of the “open by default” approach when it comes to information management so I try to reduce to the minimum the information I restrict from being accessible to others in general. The calendar tool is no exception.

As a manager, you will have meetings you do not want others to know about or are confidential by definition. Advanced calendaring tools provide options to restrict the information you share about appointments and availability. Pay attention to these features when deciding which calendar tool to use.

Team/department/product calendar

Translate your organization chart and product/service structure to the calendar tool and make sure your colleagues are subscribed or pay attention to the right calendars. This way, when you need to have a retrospective, define a release schedule, or communicate through video chat to your entire team a corporate decision, for example, you do not need to do anything special or use a complementary channel to get quorum. Remember that setting up meetings in DRE requires more coordination effort than in collocated environments. The usage of calendars significantly reduce the mount of coordination effort required.

Other useful calendars

There are specific events in any organization that can benefit from being managed through or reflected on a calendar tool when your teams are distributed or remote. I will put two examples. There are more.

Vacations calendar

In some countries, there are legal limitations to the information a company can share related with their employees. Assuming those restrictions, as a manager you need to evaluate the impact of a vacation request on the team, the department work or the project/corporate goals, etc. If your organisation does not have a Vacations/Holiday calendar, propose to HR the creation of one.

Having the vacations of your team members in a calendar together with other key dates, will help you to avoid unfortunate mistakes approving vacations. It will also help co-workers to check the availability of their colleagues, which explain why they are not or the chat that day. At the same time, they will self-manage the necessary availability of a qualified team member for key tasks during vacation times without you asking for it.

Bank holidays

It is not just that different countries have different bank holidays, it is also that some bank holidays are more important than others. depending on the religion or culture your co-workers practice or are part of.

As you can imaging, in DRE the bank holidays might become a topic when planning. Make sure you have a calendar that includes all the bank holidays affecting your team members, department or product team. It will be very useful, and not just for you as manager.

Evaluate the number of bank holidays that hit your team on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The natural tendency we all have is to take such opportunities to ask for one vacation day and end up enjoying 4 days off. Prevent extra work re-scheduling meetings later on the affected Mondays or Fridays.

Rooms/resource management

One of the most important features of modern calendar tools applied to distributed environments is the resource management integration: rooms, boards, projectors, etc. It is extremely important that the resources management is associated with the calendar so you have a single place where to create an appointment and book at the same time the needed resources. This feature for remote environments is less relevant.

Not just distributed, but open…

In asynchronous environments with higher latency than corporate ones, like Open Source projects, the email is an essential communication channel. Make sure you configure the calendar to send notifications and invitations through mail to better adapt the calendar to developers workflows when working in the open. If they make intensive use of a chat tool, send the notifications for important events through that channel too. But be clear about the complementary nature of these notifications. Paying attention to the calendar is, in any case, essential.

I find extremely useful when working in the open to have a public calendar with the most important events for my team or project, like conferences, release dates, monthly meetings, etc. It does not seem to be a widely adopted practice though.

Summary

I would summarise the post in three points:

  1. It is essential to provide a clear expectation of availability on regular basis when working in DRE. Calendars are of a great help.
  2. Promote the usage of calendars across the entire organization to enable a corporate culture where autonomy is an essential value.
  3. DRE represent a challenge in the conciliation between personal and professional life. Calendar tools help managers to prevent and detect undesired situations that might contribute to lower satisfactions levels or even burnouts.