Recent years we have experienced leaps forward when it comes to remote collaboration tools.
With Slack and Teams we can now create chat rooms around topics and enjoy a continuous flow of communication.
Whiteboard tools such as Miro or Mural enable us to visualize complex issues online.
Google meet and Zoom are further tools that have made video conferencing readily available and easy to use.
It is almost as if we had been preparing for a pandemic all along.. almost.
This post looks at the potential problems we will face when we try to combine remote and on site work, especially during meetings and how we best approach them.
We’ve proven that remote work can be done but we risk a setback when continuing in a hybrid environment (local and remote simultaneously) unless we think it through and plan how to proceed to avoid the pitfalls.
Key factors to succeed
- Pick a strategy, local, remote or hybrid and plan for it properly; look at how you did things while remote
- Everyone works under the same conditions; locally or online
- Use powerful real time collaboration tools
- Get infrastructure with high bandwidth and high quality sound + video
- Train you staff to use your AV equipment and tools
- Schedule certain days for everyone to be at the office
The problem. Bad experiences with remote collaboration
Remote meetings with clusters of local people
All too common, the online meetings where a group who share a conference room starts talking with each other on a topic and the remote participants only pick up fragments of the conversation, much less being able to contribute to it. This is not a problem to be taken lightly, the remote participants will feel neglected and the situation fosters distrust and resentment.
The meetings without a collaborative space or video conferencing
A partner firm insisted on physical meetings instead of online and when we for once couldn’t meet on site we understood why they did. They used a dial in conferencing service without as much as screen sharing for a design meeting with ten participants. Needless to say, these meetings were not very productive. There were many misunderstandings and discussions that led nowhere since we could not see each other or any content we were supposed to collaborate around.
What to do?
How can we get around, or even solve the problems with these kind of meetings?
Pick a strategy
First, you need to think about what everyone will want to do; will people work from home most of the time or in the office? Should you plan days dedicated for everyone to meet in the office? The greater challenge will be if you have to accommodate for hybrid meetings (where some are remote and some local) in which case you’ll have to think carefully how you hold the meetings.
Using powerful tools for all collaborative sessions
When we hosted a design discussion we made sure we used video conferencing for the discussion, backed by an online whiteboard (in this case Miro). The meeting started with a drawing of a sequence diagram which we then used to go through the various calls between systems and how they should work – we could see everyones mouse cursors which helped tremendously understanding where each person had their focus any given moment.
After 2 hours we concluded that we had covered all outstanding questions and closed the scheduled 4 hour meeting.
Invest in infrastructure
The times remote collaboration between groups in separate conference rooms have worked, the conditions have been perfect, below I’ll list some factors that contributed to the successful meetings.
Massive wall mounted screens
You need space for both content and video or you will lose the personal connection when you show content. Two screens are ideal but one huge screen can also do it.
High bandwidth connections for all participants
I don’t think I can emphasise enough how important this is. If the sound stutter or the video freezes it will ruin your meeting and your participants will lose faith in the method.
High quality sound gear
If the remote participants are to have a chance of pitching in you need to make sure they can be heard well over the speakers but also that you have microphones so that everyone in the room can be heard well. For large conference rooms, consider an array of microphones, such as https://europe.yamaha.com/en/products/unified_communications/microphone_systems/rm-tt/index.html
Laptops and headphones
It’s worth trying to get everyone in the same room on a laptop and using headphones for audio – this gives everyone the same opportunity to speak and see content. It also enables your local participants to be more active if you are using a virtual whiteboard for instance.
Train your staff
Even with the most advanced technology you might fail if your users don’t know how to make use of the equipment. It would be a good investment to train everyone in how to set up collaborative spaces and video meetings
Hallway and coffee machine talks
A lot of communication is usually handled informally, at someone’s desk or at the coffee machine. If you have people permanently remote they will miss out on these conversations. You must strive to provide a platform where informal conversations can be held.
If your local workforce are able to work remotely part time you can schedule days where everyone meet up in person.
Questions to ask during your planning
The examples above show that working remotely is not just something that works because you have video conferencing. You need to identify what you’ve done to make it work during the past year.
- How do we do eg. standups remotely versus locally?
- How do we collaborate around issues? (eg. Design, code, review)
- How do we plan work / groom our backlog?
- What tools are we using when remote and what problems does this tool solve?
- What challenges have we had and solved?
- What has changed in how we do things since before the pandemic