Hey, my name’s Ian. I’m a Senior Consulting Software Engineer at 8th Light’s Pod Services division. And I have struggled with remote collaboration for a long time.
Before the pandemic, I struggled with in-person communication, so I went out of my way to study Theatre, Narrative Improv, Status Relationships, Suzuki, Viewpoints, Laban, and Story Structure to try and get a grasp on what I was unconsciously doing, how that was impacting my colleagues, and how to coordinate as part of a team when we did not all share a singular brain. By the end, I had gotten pretty good at not teeing my teammates off.
One thing I have learned after the pandemic is that the relationship between remote collaboration and in-person collaboration is a lot like the relationship between stage acting and film acting. They share a lot of basic principles, but there are some very significant differences. I’ll be going over the differences.
The Terrifying Truth about remote work
The first thing is to state the obvious about working remotely:
- There is no commute.
- There is no office.
- You are alone in a room miles away from almost everyone.
- No one can hear you scream.
Let’s unpack all that. First of all, you might have noticed the commute to work is a lot shorter when working remote. Crawl out of bed. By the time you reach your desk the commute is over. Or is it?! (We’ll come back to this point.)
Second, there is no office. This may seem obvious, but it really needs to be emphasized because there were a number of things you (and just about everyone else on the planet) were taking for granted about being in a physically co-located office.
But before I start on the office, I need to go over some basics of what we were taking for granted about ourselves: our social senses. We humans evolved in small tribes where we survived not by our wits alone. We may be smart enough to design tools and tell stories to each other, but that's not enough for humanity to succeed the way it has. It is not by brilliant individuals that we have made our mark on this planet. It was by our ability to work together as a team that brought the cave bear and the mammoth to extinction. It was teamwork that allowed us to reach the moon. And though we glorify the artistic individual, the art and poetry we have produced was not done in a vacuum. Society, teamwork, family, regardless of their foibles, enabled the arts to flourish. And we have about 100,000 years of genetic coding baked into our biology to optimize for this cooperative trait.
As you might suspect, there was no Zoom 100,000 years ago. Even writing as we know it didn't show up until about 5,000 years ago. So our genes have not had time to optimize themselves for remote communication. Luckily, our genetic code is resillient enough to adapt to the limitations of the tools we have created.
It's also important to note that not everyone gets the same toolset of social senses right out the gate. This biological diversity is fortunate because it acts as insurance. The species isn't locked into one strategy and unable to pivot. So if you find yourself reading this and saying "No, that 'aint me, I don't got no social sense," be proud you're different. Humanity needs you.
And one more sticky point: this social sense can be misinterpreted, ignored, or poorly used. It can take time to unlearn the habits of dysfunction passed down from family, from the school yard, or from business culture. For me, it is a constant effort to cultivate and reinterpret my social senses. I am fortunate that I have the opportunity to rediscover and wield them appropriately. Some of my peers may not have this opportunity. I need empathy and support for them. Some others, more fortunate than I, have been granted these precious skills from family, society, or circumstance. Much is expected of those with such opportunity.
Regardless though, of what exact genetic toolset of social senses are in your biology, and with what skill you use them, there is one undeniable truth about them all: those senses were optimized for when you are physically present with your teammates. Which brings us back to what we were taking for granted about co-located offices.
In a physical office, all of the senses are employed in bringing us information about our teammates without us having to work too hard for it. We catch glimpses of our teammates as we move to our desks in the morning. We hear our teammates when they pace around the office, or as they focus on a problem, even as they breathe out a huff of excitement. And, whether we like it or not, our social senses are giving us an effortless feed of data on our teammates' moods and states.
There are many times when these senses are helpful. You don’t have to put conscious effort into telling people how you are feeling, if you need help, or if you need to be left alone. We pretty much instinctively know.
There are other times when this is bad, like when someone puts their fish sandwich in the microwave for lunch. Every day. For a whole week.
And there are other times where business has taken social team necessities (like water cooler chat) so far for granted, that it is standard policy to frown on chit-chat so that work actually gets done. But that all gets flipped upside down when we bring in the third point about remote work.
You are alone in a room. If you scream at the top of your lungs and writhe around on the floor, no one will know or come to your rescue, or even look on in disdain. Likewise, that candy wrapper you just 3-point-scored in the trash can across the kitchen? No one saw that. No one knows how epically cool you are, either.
So now that we’ve unearthed that existential horror, let’s talk about how we can respond to it.
The continual commute
So, remember how I mentioned that you wake up, roll out of bed, crawl to your desk, and the commute is over? It isn’t actually over. No one knows you’re there. Until you check-in. Right now in early 2021, we check-in using Slack. Who knows what that tool will be as things progress from here. But unless you post in Slack, no one knows you’re at work. They might assume you’re at work. They might find out when you have that first Zoom meeting of the day. But even if you don’t check in there, they’ll likely assume you’re working on something else.
Likewise, no one can see you smile at them going to or from the office snack cabinet. No one can see you struggling with that bug. No one can see you’re in a flow. No one is trying to drown out your booming voice while you’re on a client call.
So you must continually commute to work by checking in actively to let the rest of the team know how you’re feeling and what you’re working on. In doing so, you give them opportunities to support you and coordinate. And when they do this for you, it will give you that opportunity to contribute to the team’s success as well. I always get good vibes when I’ve helped make someone else’s day.
The only way you commute is by communications that are much more frequent and intentional than what you’re used to just broadcasting “for free” by your posture and physicality in an office where everyone can’t help but notice each other. It’s more work, but once you understand what the lift-demand is, you can devise tools to help. And the first tool is simply to reframe your thinking. Here are a few reframes I’ve found useful.
Know the hours that everyone else is on
It’s really hard to keep yourself motivated when you feel like everyone else is either still asleep, grabbing lunch, or is already having a cold one after a long, hard day of work. This isn’t always possible, but try to overlap hours as much as you can. Even a half-day can be tremendously helpful when you’re in Los Angeles and your colleagues are in Lebanon. If you’re working with a U.S. team, consider syncing up on the Central time zone. That’s close enough to everyone’s native time that it’s not too rough.
One very important lesson learned: Working on another timezone is not the same as getting over jet lag. With jet lag, the sun itself, and everyone around you, are helping you to adjust. In doing a digital commute that is more than two hours off, everything and everyone is out to stop you from adjusting to the new schedule.
Use status messages to clue in others
I haven’t really given this a shot, but it’s worth mentioning because I think it’s a good idea. Tracking how I’m feeling and what state of flow I’m in pulls me out of flow. If I’m in trouble, I usually don’t notice it unless someone else points it out. But they can’t. They can’t hear my cries for help.
If there is a way to do this though, it would be a big win for everyone on the team. They can know when you’re working hard on something, when you’re struggling, when you’re away from the keyboard, and when you’d welcome them bothering you. The real tools for this have not been developed, but as a starting place, Slack statuses might help. Perhaps one day you might consider building the tool that allows us all to both focus on our tasks and transmit our status like we, as primates, have honed over millennia of evolution to do without thinking. Maybe you’ll be the one to help us get back that nice sense of flow and togetherness we are all “programmed” to find enjoyable.
Try a Pomodoro Timer
As a stopgap before someone develops a tool that can help us really tell when we’re struggling, when we’re in flow, and when we’re disengaged or looking lost, try using a Pomodoro Timer. There are a number of apps available that will help break up your day into half-hour chunks, with 25 minutes of uninterrupted focus followed by a 5 minute break. This is another trick I’ve only heard about, but it might help to give you a chance to look up and give a status report, check in with colleagues, and make sure you’re aligned with the team’s objectives.
Post or it never happened!
To go up a step in communication, beyond signal flags in Slack is actually posting messages. This can take you out of flow, so the Pomodoro Timer might be a good call to help here too. Unless you say it out loud in a meeting or post it in your team’s chat, no one knows!
Likewise, even if you’re working well, unless you look up every once in a while and check in, you don’t know. The rest of the world may be on fire. That thing you were working on might not be the real priority. You won’t know unless you regularly check in and post that you have. Because no one knows you’ve checked in unless you actually post a reply.
Reach out, say hi
It’s shocking how much it can mean to someone to just get a message from other members of the team that welcomes them. Whether you’re ramping up on a new project, or there’s a new joiner on the team, be sure to send an opening salvo of Slack messages that just get to understand the other person as a person. It’s tempting in work to focus purely on the task at hand. We have not designed socialization into our business software, and until we do, it’ll be on us to inject that personal touch into our communications. Done right, it builds trust and gives you another touch point to understand when someone needs attention or support.
It’s also a good practice to do this on the regular. It’s very easy to let communications slip. In the office, we could rely on our presence being enough of a check-in. But when working remote, it requires constant upkeep. Say hi, keep saying hi.
Dare to be annoying
This is a tough mental shift to make, but it’s a must. If you’re a junior developer, impostor syndrome is going to try to convince you that you should take care of things on your own. This can cause you to suffer in silence, which will only delay your deliveries. The team can’t support you since they have no idea you’re struggling. Fight that impostor syndrome. Dare to be annoying. Constantly. Own it. The team will love you for it.
Likewise, a similar mind game plays in the heads of senior devs and managers. “I don’t want to bother them...” it says. Bother them. If they’re in a flow, they’ll get back to you. If they have a Do-Not-Disturb signal up, trust that they mean it. You don’t have to Slack them then. But otherwise, if you never reach out, they won’t ever know that they can talk to you. Do this regularly, and forever.
In text, there is no subtext
It’s been said before by other voices, but it bears repeating. It is super-easy to misconstrue someone else’s text message and either add in subtext that they never meant, or fail to hear the subtext they’re trying to put into the communication. There are two ways to fight that.
Know yourself: Be careful as you craft messages. The way you are writing might convey unintended additional messages, or fail to convey the nuance you’re going for. For example, this blog post is very free, open, and casual, but it could easily be construed as flippant or arrogant. I know that about my tone and the way I write. In the interest of time, I’m mostly writing out the thoughts quickly because something is better than nothing. I’m also leaning into my own stylistic eccentricities because I don’t have time to scrub them out. That may not be the best strategy for the team you are on. Make sure that any style or tone in your communications is deliberate and intentional. Know the tradeoffs. And when possible, over-explain. Emojis and GIFs can help with that too.
Know who you’re talking to: Having an idea about how much trust, formality, and candidness are present in your team relationships—be it with a colleague, a reporting team member, or a manager—will help you to formulate Slack messages and emails that convey the meaning you mean rather than miscommunicating. I’ve gotten into fights over the tone of Slack messages before. It can happen. You might be asking, “But how can I know how new team members will react to me?” Well...
Choose the right bandwidth for communications
High to Low:
- Video Call
- Fancy Handwritten Note
- Slack or Email
- Not sending anything
When you first reach out, prefer higher bandwidths. This will allow you to get more context and nuance over who your teammates are. Sometimes all that's needed is a Slack message; but if you find yourself trading a lot of Slack messages, or needing to type a novel instead of a haiku, bumping up the bandwidth can both speed up the exchange and also allow for more nuance to come through via the tone of your voice, hand gestures, etc. It can also avoid arguments or misunderstandings that way. Getting on a video call is second-highest to meeting in-person (which we cannot do at the moment). This is because in person, your eyes are free to take in the whole situation, not just where the camera is fixed. Your other senses become engaged as well, and they deliver nuance that voice and video alone cannot capture. There's also the simple matter of seeing someone in three dimensions that for some reason makes a difference. After a video call, the next highest bandwidth communication medium is voice-only. Slack and email are second-last. Even Hand-written notes on vellum with a fancy quill are higher bandwidth communications than Slack messages. The only thing lower-bandwidth than a Slack message is not even sending a Slack message. Sending no information means either you are in perfect sync, or you do not need to coordinate at this time. It is the high-trust move that takes up most of the day in remote teamwork.
Get a sense of your colleague’s speaking voice
One thing you should make sure to do in higher bandwidth communications is get a sense of the person’s natural speaking style, tone, attitude, and word choice. That way, when you see those written down in Slack, you “hear it” in your own head in the voice of the person who sent it. This can give you a more reliable read on what your teammates and colleagues mean when they Slack messages to you.
You also need to maintain this by checking in regularly at higher bandwidths. Whatever voice in your head that you “hear” when reading Slack messages is only a model and will fall out of sync with the actual team member. This doesn’t mean you must always prefer Zoom with cameras on over everything. It means that you need at least some of that regularly to get a feel for who you’re working with.
Plan in social warmup/cooldown time
In video calls especially, but in any communication medium, plan in some time for social chat to happen before and after the official business of the call.
It’s become pretty standard in my world, and I surmise in many others, that when a meeting starts at 7:00, I need to have my mouse hovering over the join button at 6:58. If I click too early, I get nothing. If I click any later than 7:00, I look like I’m late. For someone who used to always be places 15 minutes early and called it “on-time,” this is just stressful.
Opening the meeting informally a few minutes early gives the participants a chance to chat, which they will not get outside of the meeting. Unlike an office where team members walk through corridors back to desks or to the snack bar after a meeting, in a remote-only world they are all alone, isolated outside of the meeting.
For that same reason, ending the meeting promptly at 8:00 without any social time after the official business is concluded chucks participants out of the group and jarringly right back into their isolated worlds alone. It’d be much more healthy to allow some post-business chat for a few minutes and let people filter out at will. Those used to remote calls might still want to leave on time. That’s fine too, but leave some room for socialization.
By allowing some room for non-business chat, there’s a chance for trust, understanding, and camaraderie to grow among the team members.
You’re allowed to turn off the camera
When I first started video conferencing my meeting, video conferencing my pairing sessions, video conferencing my numerous side projects, and video conferencing my friend-and-family time, I thought “higher bandwidth is always better, so best should be 100% video conferencing.” That is not true.
There is a major psychological difference between allowing yourself to be seen by other people and having a camera trained on your face. Cameras are merciless. They don’t blink, they never look away. They lock you in position and demand that you stay there. Every micro-expression, every scratch of the nose, what you are wearing, what’s in your background, how your lighting is handled, the camera’s angle, all of it matters. And it is relentless. Human beings will look away, check-in, not impose by staring all the time, but the camera is always watching.
As such, while it’s good to check in frequently with higher bandwidth in communications, keeping the camera on 100% of the time is not good for anyone. Team members should feel free to turn off their cameras. This, in balance with using higher bandwidth communications, can make sure that you and your team are not using psychological energy in meetings that could be applied to creativity and productivity.
Reading/Typing is not the same speed as Listening/Speaking
Another observation is that there will be some on the team who read and type faster than they listen and speak. There will be others on the team who are the reverse. Asynchronous standups, reading a Jira board, gaining context from reading tickets, typing out questions takes much more time for me than doing all of the above listening and speaking. Others are the reverse. Make sure you know which is faster for you, which is faster for the team as a whole, and make a conscious decision about what’s the most productive use for the team’s time.
Context sharing over pair programming can be a useful practice. By pairing on a problem where one developer has context and the other is acquiring context means that all that context loading and switching is done as part of productive developer time. This also helps with cross-team collaboration and quality control. And it allows for fresh eyes to see a problem without losing time gathering basic information.
Define processes explicitly
Regardless of what process you use, and what tools your team employs to coordinate, in remote work it is more essential than ever to know that process explicitly. In teams that are co-located, colleagues can just “get a feel” for what works and what doesn’t. When people are co-located, many good practices grow organically, unnamed and unnoticed by the team. A remote team must explicitly declare those practices.
Explicit declaration of process is an advantage regardless of the environment, however. Because you can’t improve upon what you are unaware of.
Experiment and iterate
Which brings me to my final point. Thank you for reading this far. With an explicit process in place, you can make adjustments, try experiments, and see the effect those adjustments have. Only when a process is explicit can you really design success without relying on chance.
Those practices that work can be repeated, learned more deeply, and enhanced. Those practices that don’t work can be worked around, controlled for, or removed.
This blog represents my current working knowledge of what I have found to be effective in remote collaboration. It’s also a record of experiments that did not work, and the lessons learned from those failures. But in a year, there will be other advances. In a year, we might all look back on this blog and say, “It was a nice beginning, but we know so much more now.” By experimenting and iterating, we can bring that latest wisdom to bear on the challenges we face, work as a team, and build our intended future together. I hope this guide and mental framework has helped toward that goal.