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?