Remote work tips: availability heat map

When your team goes remote or when you are creating a new remote or distributed team, you need to reconsider the most basic ground rules. Most are a given when colocated. One of these ground rules to reconsider is people’s availability.

At the office, you expect people to be available more or less at similar times, even if your organization promotes flexi-time or core hours, such expectation is mostly there. But when you go remote or even in the case of companies moving towards flexi-days (many will after COVID-19) availability is something that needs to be carefully considered and agreed within the context of the team or department.

This article will focus on one of those ground rules, availability, including a simple but powerful way of starting the conversation with your team members about it, which has a major impact in scheduling.

I have written before about the need to redefine those ground rules when going remote in several articles. I list them at the end of this article, in the References section. I mentioned in one of those articles that my former colleague back during my Linaro days, Serge Broslavsky, showed me a visualization to start the conversation about availability that I found so useful that I use it ever since. I have mastered it over time, have used it frequently and even assigned it a name: availability heat map. But before describing what it is, let me start by justifying why you should focus energy in reconsidering availability.

In remote environments, be explicit about availability

When remote, each team member works in a different environment even if they are located in the same geo area, time zone or if they share the same life style. I always assume as starting point that their environments might be very different from each other, so their availability might be too. It needs to be agreed, which requires a careful conversation.

Some people live with others at home (friends, partner, etc), they might have different responsibilities towards them and in some cases, those around them affect the environment in a way that it is not possible to assume that their availability will not be affected. In some cases, people work in cafes, coworking, etc. which involve other constrains.

Another typical case where availability becomes a topic is when having team members from different cultures. Different cultures have different approaches to lunch, for instance. Northern Europeans tend to have lunch very early, Central Europeans usually take lunch in no more than one hour (British even less in general). There are plenty of cultures out there that loves to promote to kill themselves slowly by eating fast and poorly at lunch :-). There are others though that take lunch seriously so they take more time. It is a social activity that, in some cases, is very important for families and at work. Latins tend to fall in that category. At the office, the environment influence these habits making them more homogeneous but that is not necessarily the case when working remotely, at least not on daily basis.

I have managed teams where the availability in summer changed compared to winter for people that lives up north or in very cold or warm areas. They might want to take advantage of the daylight during noon in winter or prefer to work during the mid-day because is too warm outside.

An interesting consequence of revisiting availability that I pay attention to is the expectations out of office hours related with communication channels. I have worked with people used to phone others when they are at the office but their colleagues are not. If I am at the office and the most of my team is too, it is ok to call who is not by phone. The heat map also helps to open a conversation about the consequences of not being available and what to expect. It helps these kind of people to understand which channel should be used to reach out to you and when.

A third interesting case is people that multitask or work in more than one project. Also teams with dependencies on other teams which have a different understanding of availability. This case is very frequent in remote environments. Discuss and agree on availability become a ground rule that should be taken seriously since day one.

What is the advantage of working from home if you cannot make your personal and work life compatible to some extend? A better life balance is a big win for both, the employee and the employer. Having a serious thought about availability is essential for achieving it. As a manager, I have had cases in which the remote workers where in coworkings instead of at home because the company did not provide to them the tools to create such balance. That should be avoided when possible.

My point is that going remote requires a conversation about availability that you most likely do not need to have at the office, so inexperienced managers or teams in remote work often take it from granted. Once they realize the problem, it might be hard to redefine availability or even impossible. In extreme cases, you might only find out when burning out is getting closer. Funny enough, I have found more of these cases among managers and freelancers than employed developers throughout my career. It has to do with team protection.

The availability heat map

In order to start such conversation, ask each member of your team or department to fill out the availability heat map as first step, ideally right after they join your organization. After analysing it, you will have a better idea of the impact that living in different environments as well as other factors like time zones and personal preferences will have over people’s availability. You will be in a much better position to discuss the team or department schedule, which will be reflected in the calendar (if possible), making it compatible with company policy or business needs.

In summary, make the availability explicit, compared to colocated environments, where availability is implicit in general. The availability heat map is a simple initial step to do so.

Who is it for

I have used the availability heat map with the following groups. I assume this extremely simple activity can work for additional groups:

  • Teams with members in different time zones.
  • Multicultural teams.
  • Large remote teams.
  • Teams with members who belong or support more than one team.
  • Teams with strong dependencies with people from other teams.
  • Teams with people with small kids.

Color scheme

I tend to use four colors in the availability heat map. Each color has a specific meaning. The goal is to assign a color to each hour of the day, as shown in the example. I came to this scheme over time. You can adapt it to your experience or environment :

  • Green: you are in front of the computer and available for the rest of the team on regular basis.
  • Yellow: you might be available although it cannot be assumed by default. It might depend on the day, time of the year, workload.
  • Amber: you are usually unreachable at these hours unless it is planned in advance. It is an undesired time slot for you by default.
  • Red: you are available if an emergency or under very unusual circumstances only.

The usual ratios of hours I have worked with in the past are 4-6 green hours, 2-6 yellow hours, 2-4 amber and 8-12 red ones. Do not try to show many green hours at first. This exercise is not to demonstrate you work 8 or more hours a day, which it is a common mistake among junior (i remote work) newcomers when they join a new organization or team. The price in your schedule might be very high and eventually unsustainable over time.

Explain the exercise

My recommendation is that you explain face to face (video chat) to the affected people the exercise, with your availability already introduced, before asking others to fill out theirs. People from different cultures and background respond differently to this activity based on cultural factors or prior experience with managers and remote work. In my experience, some people take at first this exercise as a control one, specially if you are the manager or PO instead of the Scrum Master or facilitator.

The goal is to find out the ideal time slots for scheduling activities but at the same time, as manager, you can take this opportunity to learn about people constrains and desires when it comes to working hours. I use this action as starting point for some 1:1 conversations. I mentioned before that when remote, each employee works in a different environment and such environment affects their performance. As a remote manager, you have to learn about it and provide guidance on how to establish a good balance so they maximize work efficiency in a sustainable way. It is not about interfering into their personal lives. The line is thin.

The example

In this example, we have five team members where the last two live in different time zones, UTC-5 and UTC+2. After each member fills out their desired/expected availability, the conversation about scheduling becomes easier. Each team member as well as managers and other supporting roles have a simple way to understand what kind of sacrifices each member might have to do to be available to their colleagues, making their availability compatible with the business needs as well as their team needs (ideally those should be very similar). The scheduling of the team and department ceremonies and other company activities hopefully become easier now. Understanding when the real time communication is effective and when the work should become asynchronous also become simpler.

In this case, thanks to the fact that Kentavious is an early bird and that Kyle is used to working with people in Europe, from the US East Coast and Brazil, they have already adapted their availability to work with those on these time zones. As you can see, the approach to lunch is different for each team member. In addition, Anthony has to finish work early and Marc prefers to work before going to bed, which is a common pattern among parents with small kids.

According to the map, there are two overlapping hours. If I would be the manager or part of this team, I would talk to them in group to expose that increasing the number of overlapping times bring benefits to the overall performance of the team. I would talk individually then with each member to find out a way to have one or two additional overlapping hours. In general, I would consider three or four hours of overlapping availability enough as starting point in this case. I always favor a homogeneous expectation of availability throughout the week that having “special” days where your schedule changes. In a previous job I had my “Tuesdays for Asia” and my “Thursdays for US” and believe me, it was not fun.

After a conversation and decision process, it would be good to update the availability heat map. I suggest to make it available to others. If your organization or project is formed by many teams, you might want to add the availability heat map to your team landing page. In my experience, it helps when scheduling activities with specific teams by people which are not directly related to them on regular basis.

If you have a tool where you can create and maintain a team calendar, try to add the common available hours there and make them visible to others. If your team is a service or support team to other teams, you might want a more powerful tool to communicate your availability but the availability heat map might do the job at high level.

There are tools out there to accomplish the same goal than the availability heat map, but I like simplicity and I never needed anything more complex, assuming you have a powerful corporate calendaring tool.

Finally, please keep in mind that the availability heat map is a dynamic visualization. Revisit this ground rule on regular basis, at least on summer and winter. Small but significant changes might apply.

Summary

In a variety of use cases, especially related with remote work, there are basic ground rules that need to be reconsidered. Availability is one of them.

The availability heat map is an extremely simple action that can provide a first overview of the overlapping times and can trigger a conversation to increase or adapt those hours, as previous step to define when the team ceremonies might or should take place, how the communication should happen when, etc.. It is also an interesting action to trigger 1:1 conversations with your managee or colleagues. It s simple and easy to adapt to many use cases.

If you have a different way to reach the same goal, please let me know. If you like this idea and will adopt it, please let me know how it goes and which adaptations you did. I am always interested in improving the availability heat map.

Thanks Serge.

References

Previous articles I wrote related with remote work: