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.

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