Friday, 25 November 2016

Finding the vibe of a dispersed team

Recently there has been an unexpected change in my work environment. Just after midnight on the 14th of November, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck New Zealand. The earthquake caused significant damage across the upper South Island and lower North Island, including in Wellington where I am based. My work building is currently closed due to earthquake damage.

I work with over 30 testers who are spread across 18 delivery teams. In a co-located environment that's a challenging number of people to juggle. Now that everyone is working from home, there are new obstacles in trying to lead, support and coach the testers that I work with.

In the past fortnight I've been doing a lot of reading about distributed teams. Though some of the advice is relevant, most of it doesn't apply to our situation. We're not distributed in the traditional sense, across multiple cities, countries and timezones. Though we're set up for remote work, it hasn't been our go-to model. We're still close enough that relatively regular face-to-face meetings are possible.

Instead of distributed, I've started to think of us as dispersed.

The biggest challenge so far, in our first fortnight as a dispersed team, has been in determining the vibe of the testing community. The vibe of the team is the atmosphere they create: what is communicated to and felt by others. The vibe comes from feelings of the individuals within the team.

In a co-located environment, there are a lot of opportunities to determine the vibe. The most obvious is our weekly Testing Afternoon Tea. This is a purely social gathering every Tuesday afternoon at 3pm. We have a roster for who provides the afternoon tea, all of the testers meet in the kitchen area, and spend around 15 minutes catching up. The meeting is unstructured, the conversations are serendipitous.

When everyone turns up to afternoon tea, stays for the entire 15 minutes, and there is a hum of conversation, the vibe of the team feels happy and relaxed. When it is difficult to detach people from their desks, people grab food then leave, and the conversations are mostly cathartic, the vibe of the team feels stressed and frustrated. Often, there's a mixture of both.

But even when the testing team are not together, I am reading the vibe from our co-location. For example, I'll often wander the floor in the morning when stand ups are happening. I look at how many people from outside the team are attending. When I spot multiple delivery managers and product owners with a single team, that may be a sign that the team is under pressure or suffering dysfunction. If it seems like the testers are not contributing, or they have closed body language, that may be a sign of frustration or despondence.

The vibe helps me determine where to focus my attention. It's important to be able to offer timely support to the people who need it, even if they may not think to ask. It's important to determine whether it's an appropriate time to think about formal learning, or if it's better to give people space to focus on their delivery demands. It's important to recognise when to push people and when to leave them alone.

Facing the reality of coaching a dispersed team feels a little bit like being blindfolded. The lack of co-location has removed one of my senses. How do I find the vibe of a dispersed team?

I find working at home quite isolating, so the first action I took was to try and reduce the feeling of being far away from everybody else. Though our communication is now primarily through online channels, we are only dispersed and not distributed.

At the start of this week, I asked the testers to check-in to tell me which suburb of the city they were working from and whether they had all the equipment they needed to work effectively. Through the morning I received responses that I used to create a map of our locations. We are now spread across an area of approximately 600 square kilometres or 230 square miles:

Working locations of testers before and after the earthquake

The information in the map is specific enough to be useful but general enough to be widely shared. Markers are by suburb, not personal address, and are labelled by first name only. Tribe groupings are shown by colour and in separate layers so that they can be toggled so that it's possible to see, for example, where all our mobile testers are located.

Creating the map was a way to re-assert that we are still a community. I felt this was a pre-requisite of keeping the testers connected to each other and mindful of the support available from their peers.

The check-in format that I used to gather the information at the start of the week worked well. It meant that everyone contributed to the discussion. I plan to start each week with a check-in of some description while we remain dispersed.

Next I started to consider how to create an environment for the informal gathering and conversation that would usually happen at our weekly afternoon tea. November is traditionally a busy time of year for our delivery as we work to release before the holiday period. Even when we're co-located, it can be hard to get people together. Any distraction from delivery had to have an element of purpose.

Communication was emphasised in everything that I read about distributed teams, with the message that more is better when people are working remotely. I wanted a daily rather than a weekly pulse, but it had to be designed for asynchronous communication. It wasn't feasible to attempt to book a daily appointment and gather people together.

I decided to make use of a book of objective thinking puzzles that I purchased some time ago but never completed. The puzzles are relatively quick, have a purpose in expanding thinking skills, are well suited to remote asynchronous communication, create enough interest that people participate, and offer the opportunity for some conversation outside of their core purpose.

The hardest Puzzle of the Day so far!

I've started to share a puzzle each morning with the testers via an online chat channel. This is keeping the channel active with conversation, which is essential for me to determine the vibe. I'm yet to determine importance within the patterns that I see. I don't assume that silence is bad. I don't assume that people who are active aren't under pressure. But I hope that encouraging informal conversations will start to provide rich information about how people are feeling, just as it did in the office.

Finally, I've started to attend meetings that I would usually skip in our co-located environment. This week the coaching team that I belong to attended two of our product tribe gatherings. These focus on sharing information that delivery teams need to succeed and recognising achievements in what we've already released to our customers.

The content is not directly relevant to me, but these events were a great opportunity to determine the vibe of those tribal groups and the testers within them. Having the ability to sense the atmosphere was worth the hassle of arranging transport and balancing calendar conflicts to attend. It was also a way to be visible, so that people remember to call on us for help too.

It's still early days for our dispersed team. These are just a few things that I've done this week to try to lift the blindfold. I'm curious to hear from other people who coach across dispersed or distributed teams. How do you determine the atmosphere of your team? Where do you discover opportunities to support people? What suggestions do you have that I could try to apply?


  1. Hey Katrina,
    Really interesting to hear the challenges your team are facing, and I hope you all move home to your offices soon.
    Have you thought about people gathering to work at local libraries or cafés ? I find it's really important to be around other people, even if they are from other teams just being in the same location as other employees could help bolster morale and reduce isolation?

  2. Hi Katrina,

    Think distributed, think dispersed. My experience is that even a flight of stairs can be a boundary. I will focus on things I tell people in distributed environments and what worked for me over years.

    1. Stand-up like check ins every (other) day using whatever telco medium you have. Skype works fine, etc, etc. Important difference - it takes longer that way, and allow for social chit chat. It keeps the people together - And yes, it is hard to get all ppl together, but I suggest you try - maybe also smaller, changing groups

    2. Online chat is good, and everybody should be signed in all the (working) time now. However - be aware that typing takes longer than talking (for me at least :) and emotions get lost in typing - that is again why I urge you to try all out group call. It helps to talk and listen to people. Especially in trying times, which I am sure they are right now.

    3. When teaching about distributed development, I tell the managers that they must be willing to finance lots of travels. Admittedly, I have no idea, how transportation works right now after an earthquake like that - but try to get together and make it count. Ok it wont be 15 minutes, maybe it is an hour or two. But as you describe it very correctly, the "vibe" is important - and this is something you get only f2f.
    It is not for everyone, but you can go for "group work at home" (if people have big enough homes and opprtunities to work together --> huddle up in different ppl's houses or flats. Communication is easier between 6 groups as compared to 30 individuals, for example.
    Another option to come together: I would always know a cafe or restaurant in my area, which would help out and give us some room, especially in their slow hours. Ok, I do work in cafe's on a regular basis, even without earthquakes.
    Or: try out coworking spaces in your area - they are not too expensive normally, and I belive your company could shed out some money for times like that!

    4. Do you use things like corporate social networks? NOW, use them more. Make it very clear that everybody has to share information way more offensively and proactively. You can also create one or more always open chat groups.

    To answer the question on how to determine atmosphere. Well, depends on distance. What worked for me:
    Co-located: check in drop by with everyone in person preferably every other day, sit with people

    Off-site, in driving distance. Be there once a week (for a day), check in with local "leads" (not neccessarily hierarchy, more in a group dynamis sense) regularly via phone or chat.

    Off-site, different country/continent: check in with leads (see above) every two to 4 days by phone/skype (that is TALK), have a lot of online capabilities, chat always open, fly there every 6 to 8 weeks for at least a week, give everybody on location facetime (and yes, I did that for quite some time). I know a dev manager of a global company who works 1 week at every dev location and then moves on to the next (there aren't too many)

    I hope that helps a tiny bit. All the best of luck in definitely complicated and troubled times. Also open for further discussions - And I definitely would be interested how you get it to work --> because I am sure, you will!

    Best of luck

  3. Good luck Katrina and teams! I have no suggestions on how to find the vibe of your teams, but I have just read Matt Wynne's post describing how's distributed development team created their own vibe. Maybe there's something of use in there?

    (Couldn't figure out how to inline the link. Markdown doesn't appear to be enabled.)

  4. Great article, as per usual Katrina.

    The most influential test mentor I ever had gave me one piece of advice: while in the office with everyone else, take your headphones off, and *listen* to those around you. Nothing finds bugs faster than listening in to someone else's code review debate. Nothing promotes a test-focused mindset than an always-on tester listening out for chances to help grow it! This is pretty similar to Katrina's idea to absorb the daily stand-ups throughout the office; another great trick to feel the vibe of a workplace.

    Another influential leader of mine used to begin each team meeting with a question: "who's heard any goss? What's going on around the business?" You'd be surprised how much intel comes up when asked something like that. Someone'll have heard something while outside smoking, and someone else will have heard something useful at a meeting that no-one else went to.

    Both of those techniques are great for finding the vibe in-person, in the same office. But if you take the office away, you lose this serendipity fast. You can't accidentally observe / over-hear others as easily!

    I did remote work for a few months a couple of years ago, separated from my team by an ocean, a continent and 13 hours' worth of time-zones. If I had my time over again in that situation, I'd lean on the natural 'broadcasters' of the team, in the same way my former team lead used to in her meeting kick-offs. Find 'the friendly gossip', 'the always-keen drinking buddy', 'the wired-into-social-networks person' and 'the nurturer' type personalities (I'm sure there's many other variants!)... and make it their mission to share any news to the team in a loose and informal Slack channel. Maybe their news is as simple as "heads-up: team member X is running a bit late because of Y", or maybe it's more complex; "I saw on SnapChat that the devs are huddling in a Starbucks right now, deep in the weeds of architectural issue Z." Play to these peoples' strengths as bridge-builders and broadcasters; pivot those existing strengths so they become news correspondents. They're probably already better positioned than most 'formal' leads to have an eyes-on-the-ground approach, with access to a broader range of emotions of the team as a whole.

    As an alternative, the lead could go to those personalities one-on-one, to then centralise and filter the news... but that would take longer than empowering the 'broadcasters' to have the tools & recognition to do it themselves. I'd wager those people quickly mature with what they tell the world too, they'd probably end up being seen as bridge-builders to the wider business, and they might end up being rewarded as a result of their efforts.