Improving the remote experience: treadmill

Last year I decided to add an improvement to my home office, a treadmill. I thought about during the total lock-down we suffered in Spain in spring 2020. The reason for not trying it earlier was that I was skeptical about keeping my productivity level high while walking on the treadmill. Finally I made the decision to try out and asked for one to The Three Wise Men. They were kind enough to bring it.

After a few weeks using it, I would like to report about it since several of my colleagues at MBition/Daimler asked me about it. I hope that reading about my experience is useful to you.

Select the right treadmill

I started by doing some research on which treadmill to buy. The main characteristics that led my decision were:

  • Walking vs running: I wanted a treadmill for walking, not for running. There are quite a few models that has 6 to 7 km/h as speed limit and no support or add-ons to hold on to while walking. The intention is to avoid any clashing with my standing desk converter.
  • I am a big man so I need a big treadmill: the market offers treadmills with different length, surface and weight limits. I searched for one that can afford a big man like me and that was as wide as possible. Falling from it was a concern.
  • Remote control: since you will be walking while working, you need a way to control the treadmill remotely, either with a remote control, an app or similar. I selected one with a remote control.
  • With wheels: I need to move the treadmill often since I alternate using the treadmill with working standing up or seated. I wanted one with wheels so it is easier to move. Moving it to clean the office was also a requirement. Treadmills are heavy.
  • Limited investment: my idea was to try out first so I did not want to invest a lot up front. If it works, I will invest more in a replacement when needed.
  • Pay attention to the noise level: my treadmill is noisy although not enough to be annoying or to be heard by others while in video calls. Check the specifications, I did not so I simply was a little lucky..

I bought this model, produced by 2WD, ASIN/model B08GLTX8LK, through Amazon for €299. I had no issues with the purchase.

Usage

I use now the treadmill between 2.5 and 3.5 hours a day. I started using it between 5 and 6 hours but soon I got hurt in one foot which forced me to stop for some time. First lesson learnt: take it easy, specially if, like myself, you are not in great shape.

At first I ended up so tired that it was hard for me to keep good levels of concentration during the last part of any working day. As I get more used to using the treadmill, I feel more energetic in general so that tiredness is little by little going away. My productivity is increasing overtime, specially compared to the first few days. The last few weeks I even have energy left to do some additional soft exercise after work.

I started walking at 2 km/h. I increased to 2.5 km/h after 2 weeks. A few weeks later I tried 3 km/h but it was harder for me to concentrate. It is too fast for now. There is a slight mismatch by the way between the speed and the distance walked marked by the treadmill. I think that the average speed I walk is a little below 2.5 km/h. In am currently walking around 7-8.5 kms (10k steps is around 8 kms). In any case, I try to reach the 6.5 kms mark every day. I am accomplishing it regularly during the last few weeks.

Can I work normally while walking?

This is the question most colleagues ask me. The answer is yes… for most activities.

My experience is that I can work normally while walking, keeping good productivity levels, while performing most type of activities, specially during most meetings.

In which activities have I detected a reduction of productivity?

I detected a productivity decrease in those activities which require high levels of concentration or creativity like complex meetings that I facilitate and include many participants, those times when I need to come up with new ideas, analysis of complex data, etc. The good news is that I did detect this productivity reduction early. The longer I have been using the treadmill though, the more type tasks I can do without noticing a productivity reduction. So I plan to try again during the coming weeks some of those activities that I dropped early on while walking.

Walking is helping me a lot to go through those days with back to back meetings. I pay better attention and get less bored compared to standing up. As I get more used to walking, my energy levels during the afternoons are increasing, as mentioned, which helps me to get through the last couple of hours during long working days. It was not like that at first though, so plan accordingly.

The unexpected surprises

The treadmill uses IR to connect to the remote control which interferes with an IR-based device I had at my office, the HDMI hub. I use two laptops and two monitors and used the HDMI hub to have one of the two screens assigned to one of the laptops. The default config though is to have both monitors assigned to my working laptop. I did not find a way to prevent such interference so I had to remove the HDMI hub. I am looking for alternatives although the impact in my daily workflow is low. The problem was easy to detect because every time I turned the treadmill on, one of my screens turned off although both laptops detected the corresponding monitor. So the takeaway is: watch out for IR interference.

I trickier surprise for which I have not found a solution yet is the problems associated with the PLC. I have my office connected to the living room, where the fiber router is located, through PLC. This has been my default set up since years in several houses. Something related with the treadmill makes the link between both PLC devices unstable which ends up in connectivity issues. I have a backup connection for the cable link which is a wifi replicator including a specific wifi network for the devices I use for work (in other jobs I used to play with boards which required a testing network). So sometimes I have to use wifi instead of cable because the link between both PLC devices get unstable. It took me a while to detect the source of issues. After testing the PLC device in every plug of my office, I ended up finding one which makes the connectivity issues tolerable. Still I am searching for a solution here..

The takeaway is that the treadmill consumes quite some power and might have spurious looses that might turn network connectivity through PLC unstable.

Other points to consider

Some days I start the working day walking and some others I walk after lunch or when I have back to back meetings. I tend to change the set up putting or removing the treadmill no more than once a day. Usually I have an additional set up change when I push down my Varidesk to work seated. The idea is to reduce configuration changes to the minimum.

The standing desk converter I have is big enough to allow me to hold on to it while walking when I do not have my hands on the keyboard. That have saved me from falling down during meetings more than once. Be careful, falling down is a real risk. Take precautions.

Get professional advice about walking with or without shoes. In my case, I walk without shoes. This decision might change in the future. My knees are awful due to injuries from my basketball times. Pay attention to the way you walk. When you get tired, your walking style changes and you might end up hurting yourself.

My treadmill has a limit of 100 minutes. When it reaches that threshold, it stops. I was annoyed at first but it has ended up being a great thing. I used to work in cycles of 110 or 120 minutes but sometimes I loose track of time and this hard stop helps. While walking, my working cycles are now shorter which help my concentration levels, specially at the end of the day.

Obviously during meetings participants notice that I am walking. Be ready for questions and jokes. Having a treadmill is not mainstream yet. Ah, and do not fall while in a meeting.

Conclusions

At first I overdid it, got hurt and tired fast so my productivity in the afternoons dropped. In my second try I took it easier and the experience is getting better overtime. Six weeks after being back at using the treadmill I am improving. I will soon be ready to increase the time walking and the type of activities I execute while on the treadmill.

I think it will take me another few weeks before the benefits for my health and shape become evident. I can see early signs though. So in general I find the experience positive so far although I expect to get better after a few more weeks when, in addition to the walking done on the treadmill, I have energy to complement such exercise with additional one on regular basis. The same applies to the level of concentration while doing the most demanding tasks.

The connectivity issues I am experiencing are unfortunate although tolerable. I need to find a solution.

So yes, I totally recommend to get yourself a treadmill. Results will show up sooner or later depending on your prior shape. I think that if you are in better shape than I was when I got it, which is not hard, results will be noticeable in a couple of months, probably less.

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:

The Remote Journey: references to start

Introduction

I started my professional career in an archipelago and I have been involved in Open Source for years so managing remote software related teams, departments and even organizations has been the default for me. I have been also working as consultant in a remote-friendly environment and now I am working at MBition remotely. I believe I am familiar with many aspect of the The Remote Journey, which is a topic I am interested on beyond my work, since it is tightly related to the way of life I want to live.

Remote work is a fairly mature topic at individual (software development), team and department level. It is maturing at company level too which means that there are already resources in internet that will cover most of the basic questions and topics that most of the companies struggling today with moving from colocated directly to remote-only environments might have.

This forced shift will have a major impact in every aspect of the company, in you as professional and in the way you understand your work, which is why I strongly recommend that you make yourself and your colleagues aware of the challenge and embrace it, which means to me at least two things:

  • Be ready to challenge most of what you currently know about how you work, how your colleagues work.
  • Be open to learn. Read and talk about what you and your colleagues are going through assuming that no, you do not have the situation under control. You will need to learn again what under control means.

The good news is that this worldwide crisis will change the way we all see remote work, hopefully for the better.

The Remote Journey

The journey from being co-located to a remote-only environment has different stages. There is no agreement on how to name them but in general, I will define them in the following way:

  • Co-located: teams/departments are located in the same physical location (office).
  • Distributed: teams/departments are located in different physical locations (office).
  • Remote-friendly: the workforce of the organization can work at a different location than the office part of the time. A mature remote-firnedly environment has a minority but significant part of the workforce working remotely and coming to the office frequently. Usually these workers are related with sales, support, business development… When it comes to product development or services, those remoters are senior professionals with wide experience in remote working so they can overcome the technical, process and cultural gaps they face on daily basis due to living in a colocated culture.
  • Remote-first: most of the workforce works remotely. The office is usually reduced to specific areas of the company like labs, administration, HR, junior developers… Mature remote-first environments usually have their workforce distributed across different time-zones/countries.
  • Remote-only: there is no office or when there is, working from it is voluntary. Employees are supposed to work from home/coworkings, including supporting services and departments like admin, HR, etc.

You can read a little about these definitions here:

There is one undeniable fact though, remote-only organizations not just exists, they are successful. In my opinion, it is up to each organization how they want to transit through this journey and which stage is their target. Obviously the current crisis has left many companies with no choice but to jump most stages and go directly to becoming a remote-only organization for a while, but still they can learn from other people journeys. There are plenty of additional articles about the different stages and how routines, processes, methodologies, performance, evaluations, etc. are affected at every level (individual, team, dept. and organization). They should be easier to find now that you know some of the nomenclature.

Team ceremonies need to adapt

It is my belief that in general, habits change mindsets instead of the other way around. When walking through The Remote Journey together with teams and organizations, I put emphasis in the ceremonies as a way to drive the needed change at every level: personal, team, department and organization. If you successfully adapt the ceremonies, your are in a great position to modify people’s habits.

Personal ceremonies are that, personal. I will not get into them. There is plenty of literature in internet about how to face remote work, the advantages, the challenges and how to approach them. I have my own routines. They are not static although some of them have been with me for some time now. Some have been affected due to the confinement state we are in right now in Spain so I am adapting them to evaluate how they work. My advice in this regard is that you read about other people routines, identify yours, track them and experiment to find the right combination. Again, assume they will evolve over time.

I have written in the past several articles about team ceremonies. These articles have helped me to explain certain basic topics. You will need to find the routines that work for you and your colleagues though, in the same way that it happens at individual level. The articles were written thinking mostly about team leads at any level but hopefully there is plenty of useful stuff for team members too:

  • Working in distributed / remote environments 0: presentation.  Motivations, introductions and some definitions. The article includes the link to the rest of the series.
  • Working in distributed / remote environments 1: daily short meetings. Tips and recommendations about adapting the team daily meeting that is so popular on colocated environments.
  • Working in distributed / remote environments 2: the calendar tool. Comments about the increase of relevance for any team that the calendar has in remote environments together with some tips on how to use it.
  • Working in distributed / remote environments 3: weekly meetings (I) and (II). Teams meetings are an essential ceremony to drive change, detect issues early, solve conflicts. They are essential in remote environments. These two articles provide an overview of how relevant they are, why and how to adapt them to the remote nature of the team.
  • Working in distributed / remote environments 4: one on ones (1:1s). in co-located environments, 1:1s are not perceived as a priority by many. Only when the organization grows beyond certain point, this ceremony gets the attention that in my opinion it deserves. In remote environments you cannot wait to get “big enough”. The nature of the work environment force you to establish proactive measures to align, define expectation based on company, department, team and individual goals and evaluate, together with the workforce, progress. The articles provide tips to adapt 1:1s to a remote environment.

You will see that in the articles I use the term distributed and remote environments (DRE) to avoid referring to the different stages of the journey. This is for simplicity. Ceremonies might slightly change depending on the stage the organization is at.

Companies

It is always good to have references, right?

Remote-first and specially remote-only companies need to pay an extraordinary amount of attention to company culture. They usually provide plenty of resources to their employees about this topic. These organizations start hiring experienced remoters at first but as they grow, they realize they need to educate their workforce in remote working, which requires the development of contents. These two links might be a good starting point to find the right companies, what are they doing and why:

  • FlexJobs is an online job board specialised in remote work. They publish the main list of companies walking through their Remote Journey regularly.
  • If you are focusing in tech companies culture, you probably will prefer this article.

Reports about remote work

There are three interesting reports I recommend to read if you like the remote work topic:

I have used them in the past to open conversations about this topic with managers and HR departments, for instance.

Books

I have to admit that I haven’t found yet THE book about the topic, and I have been searching for years. This is the one I recommend:

  • Remote. Office Not Required. It is from 2013 but still (sadly) the best. It is based on the experience of 37signals (now Basecamp). Their authors have accumulated an extensive experience in remote organization since then.

If you are not into buying books (what?), this is an online free book written by Zapier, a popular company in this field.

Social media

  • Twitter: follow the hashtags #remotework #workfromhome . Besides plenty of advertisements from coworkings, you will find useful resources once in a while as well as blog posts.
  • Other social media references: those of you interested in digital nomads or digital travelers, can follow #digitalnomad hashtag on Twitter. I joined some time ago the Digital Nomads Telegram channel.

Events

There are really good ones out there to learn about this topic:

  • The Remote Work Summit: a remote event with many interesting talks and material. You can get free passes to some content and online talks.
  • Nomad City: this event takes place in Gran Canaria, Spain (in English). It is a great one to meet digital nomads, digital travelers and remote workers as well as remote organizations leaders.
  • CoworkingEurope: it is not directly related with remote work but with flexible working spaces, but you can find useful references to companies and processes to follow from there. I have worked in coworking spaces at different locations around Europe. They are a great source of remote work knowledge.
  • I have been the last couple of years trying to join the Nomad Cruise. Let’s see if this year…

Summary

In my experience, going from colocated to remote-only environments changes way more things that you can expect at first. Keeping high levels of efficiency, alignment and workforce satisfaction requires time and effort. Do not underestimate them. The good news is that although not at the speed this crisis is forcing many to do, plenty of people and tech organizations have experienced such transition. Some have published lots of contents about their experiences moving through The Remote Journey or living and growing at a specific stage. Look for those content in internet. Hopefully they are easier to find after reading this article.

A single man experience is very limited though. You probably have experience too. Please share it as well as links to further content.

Nuevo grupo Meetup en San Miguel de La Palma, Islas Canarias, España

Una de las principales razones para unirme a Codethink era la posibilidad de trabajar en remoto desde mi casa en La Palma, Islas Canarias, España. Desgraciadamente, a los pocos meses de comenzar en esta empresa me di cuenta de que mi agenda de viajes era incompatible con vivir allí. El deficiente número de conexiones internacionales y la nula disponibilidad de una conexión directa al aeropuerto de Tenerife Sur hacían mis viajes complejos. Tampoco había internet lo suficientemente bueno por aquel entonces. De modo que tuve que elegir entre mudarme a una de las islas mayores o buscar otra localización. Acabé eligiendo Málaga, donde ya había vivido con anterioridad.

Sigo visitando La Palma con frecuencia. Cuando la actividad de la empresa baja trabajo en remoto desde aquí. El pasado año por fin llegó la fibra óptica a mi casa. La cobertura de esta tecnología está aumentando poco a poco en la isla. Aún no existen espacios coworking pero el movimiento de nómadas digitales en otras islas está creciendo tanto que espero que pronto llegue a La Palma. Esta isla tiene tanto que ofrecer…

Pero para llegar ahí hay que tener ciertos deberes hechos. El primero de ellos es crear una comunidad de profesionales y aposionados por la tecnología que vivan en la isla o la visiten frecuentemente. Sólo así podremos dar otros pasos para atraer a visitantes que quieran quedarse aquí unas semanas, mientras trabajan.

Así que despues de darle vueltas durante meses y diferentes conversaciones con amigos, me decidí a lanzar un grupo Meetup en La Palma, puesto que no existen precedentes en funcionamiento.

El nuevo grupo se llama San Miguel de La Palma tech lovers

La Palma se confunde habitualmente con Las Palmas, la capital de la isla de Gran Canaria y la ciudad más grande del archipiélago canario, de modo que he usado el nombre oficial completo de la isla para la denominación del grupo. Espero así evitar malentendidos entre quienes no conocen nuestra geografía.

Carezco de experiencia previa en la organización de grupos de Meetup pero sí en la organización de eventos technológicos de diversa escala, así que espero poder llevar adelante la iniciativa haciendo sentir a los interesados bienvenidos, promoviendo la organización de eventos así como la delegación en un futuro próximo de todas las responsabilidades en aquellos más entusiastas y eficientes. Esto debe ser una acción colectiva para tener éxito.

La Palma cuenta con una nutrida comunidad alemana así como de países como Holanda o Austria de modo que el grupo será multilingüe, lo que dificultará su gestión. Asimismo, como nuestro público objetivo es reducido en número y de intereses dispersos, debemos abarcar inicialmente diferentes temas, lo que incrementa aún más las dificultades de tener éxito.

Espero en cualquier caso que podamos construir una comunidad activa de tech lovers sobre la base de temas como el trabajo remoto, el software libre, herramienas web o marketing digital, procesos de trabajo modernos, etc. Será todo un reto. El planteamiento inicial es complementar las charlas y workshops con actividades al aire libre como el senderismo o la bici de montaña o astroturismo, tan populares en esta isla.

Únete al grupo. 

La constitución del grupo es solo el primer paso de un excitante viaje que vamos a disfrutar. Próximamente comenzaremos la organización de nuestra primera actividad. Estate atento.

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.