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 in 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.

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