Think about the last time you were on a conference call with someone in a different location. Did you run into any communication challenges -- technical, or otherwise? Did you find yourself trying to speak up but failing to get a word in? If there were multiple people on that call, did you find that everyone was able to participate?
Remote meetings are becoming increasingly commonplace. Not everyone you work with is able to sit down in the same room with you. For many of us, most of our meetings now include remote employees or team members from across the globe.
That's the trend we started to see at HubSpot. As we expand globally, more and more of our meetings and teams are spread out across our different offices. That doesn't just mean waking up early or staying up late to have a call with colleagues in Sydney. It means learning to work with our colleagues in a completely different (and potentially challenging) way.
After talking to other companies with growing numbers of remote employees (including Zapier CEO Wade Foster), our marketing team decided to do "Remote Week."
We had 3 goals for Remote Week:
- To work more effectively as a highly distributed team, and help pave the way for more effective collaboration across geographies for HubSpot as a whole.
- To cultivate empathy for full-time remote workers.
- To improve our communication with remote workers, and be at our best when working remotely.
And we had a couple of rules:
- Everyone on the team must be remote for the week. They could work from anywhere they wanted, but they could not be in a HubSpot office.
- Everyone must have an internet connection and be able to join meetings with video.
- No one should postpone or reschedule any meetings. They should try all different types of meetings while remote: 1:1s, team meetings, cross-functional meetings, etc.
After a week, we gathered feedback from everyone who participated, and discovered some common trends that will help us more effectively manage our remote employees moving forward.
Lessons From Remote Week
1) For larger meetings, you need a facilitator.
For meetings on the larger side, it can be a real challenge to ensure everyone's voice gets heard. Everyone is talking, side conversations happen between people in different locations, and before you know it the meeting is over and you didn't get the chance to weigh in on the discussion.
This is where the team facilitator comes in. The job of the facilitator is twofold: 1) Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk. 2) Recognize when side conversations happen so you can make sure these are shared with the full group.
To make sure everyone gets a chance to talk, it's important to notice when someone is trying to get a word in and keeps getting overlooked. A good way to spot this is to have the facilitator keep a lookout for "the goldfish face": the face someone makes when they keep opening and closing their mouth before they get the chance to actually say anything. By having a facilitator picking up on this and prompting participants to speak in turn, the issue can be eliminated.
Another issue with large remote meetings is side conversations that happen with people in the same location. For example, my team is spread out across Cambridge and Dublin. There are often side conversations that go on between the teams in Cambridge and Dublin by muting the call to say something to their colleague sitting next to them.
One effective way that we learned to solve this is making everyone go in a different room (even if they are in the same location) to give everyone a fair chance to speak and to make sure these side conversations derail the main discussion.
2) Take advantage of spontaneous discussions.
When you are physically in the same location as your colleagues, you have the opportunity for spontaneous conversations throughout the day. Whether it's a morning recap of the latest Game of Thrones episode, or a quick chat to hash out the details of a problem that couldn't be solved over email, these unplanned face-to-face meetings bring us closer to our colleagues and help us discover new perspectives.
During our remote week, we knew we needed a way to recreate the beauty of these spontaneous conversations. In practice, it takes a bit of effort. It means you have to be open to hoping on a quick, unplanned video call to answer a question or clarify the details of an email.
We also are big proponents of recording a quick video over Loom to communicate something when your team isn't all available for a live call. In fact, I have woken up to many Loom recordings from my team in Dublin to explain a detailed analysis or the latest experiment they wanted to run.
Having regular, open communication like this is key to avoiding any miscommunications and making sure your team still feels like a unit even if they do not see each other face to face.
3) Find your ideal routine, and stick to it.
In the morning I wake up, shower, get dressed, walk my dog, and catch the bus. I get to work, make my tea, do some morning reading, respond to emails, and start my day. I have my morning routine, and I have another routine at the end of the day to wrap up.
We are creatures of habit -- having a clear routine gives us structure and enables us to be productive. And that's doubly true for remote workers.
At the beginning of Remote Week a lot of us found that our routine was just off. We woke up and then were unsure what to do next. Do we start responding to emails? Do we work on that next experiment? Do we make breakfast? Workout? What do we do first? At the end of the day, we had the same conundrum. When do we stop working? Should we have dinner, and then go back to work?
Even when you work remotely and don't have to get into the office by a certain time, it's still important to have a routine. Though it took us all a couple of days to figure out how to structure our time during Remote Week, we eventually all figured out our own individual rhythms to ensure we were getting our work done without burning out.
4) Remain visible within your team even if you aren't actually visible.
If you are one of the only remote workers on your team, it can be easy to get heads down on your work and lose out on the regular communication that goes on with the rest of the team. Something that our team became very aware of during Remote Week was finding a way to remain available and visible to our colleagues even when we weren't directly in touch.
There are a couple of key you can stay on your team's radar, even when you're not in sight. One of them is through participation in team meetings. When you're remote, it's extremely important to speak up and share your thoughts during big discussions.
Another way to remain visible is to participate in group discussions over chat. At HubSpot we use Slack for our communications, and have cross-team channels devoted to everything from work-related projects to out-of-office interests, like yoga and dogs. It's easy to not participate in those discussions, but it's way more rewarding and valuable to share your ideas, the latest interesting article you read, or even what you did that weekend.
Even if you can't be physically visible in the office, it's important to stay visible within the organization.
5) It seems obvious, but you need good WiFi.
I saved the best, and arguably most important, for last. Ensuring you have the proper technology to do your job and stay in touch with colleagues is absolutely essential. It can be frustrating for everyone involved if all of a sudden your computer freezes, or your internet crashes and your call is disconnected. And you know that always happens when its least convenient.
Before you plan to work remotely (even if it's just for a day), test out the locations you plan to call in from. If you are working from home, make sure that you have a strong WiFi connection. Test it out with a friend or colleague ahead of time to make sure you'll be able to get your job done effectively and stay in touch with the necessary people.
If you think you might want to journey to an alternative location during your remote work week, test that out as well. I encourage my team to test out new coffee shops they want to work from during lower-stakes meetings -- like 1:1s with their manager -- instead of waiting until a larger team meeting. This reduces the danger of your technical difficulties impacting more people.
As you're getting your remote setup ready, figure out if you need other tech besides WiFi. Having a second monitor at home for example can help increase your efficiency. Having a standing desk is another way to make sure you get to move around during the day.
Taking Remote Week Back to the Office
Remote Week was a fantastic experience for the team. It gave us a unique opportunity to put ourselves in our teammates' shoes and truly understand the pros and cons of remote work.
Since this experience, we've learned to be more collaborative with our remote counterparts, make sure everyone has a voice in team meetings, and be more flexible when hoping on a quick video chat with a remote colleague. The next time you interact with a remote colleague, remember these lessons to ensure you build a productive and collaborative environment for your team and co-workers, no matter where they work.