How do we know what’s going on when we’re working in remote or hybrid organisations? How do we get the right information to the right people, find what we need and bump into ideas that can lead to something else? Distributed workplaces make it hard, but not impossible. This post explores some of the ways that can enable sharing that helps teams remember, and people bump into information.
The way things used to be.
When everyone is in the same place, overheard conversations, corridor chats or things on walls support organisational sharing. We might have found things out through casual conversations, overhearing conversations, ambient awareness or joining office-based sharing sessions we see happening nearby.
In some of my previous workplaces, teams and programmes proudly displayed their work and artefacts on walls. Displaying work on walls makes it easier for people to see them, teams to point at them, and they generally increase awareness of what is going on.
Being in the same offices made it simpler to form personal relationships and trust from working proximity; knowing what was going on was more likely to be a by-product of office working.
It also increased the chances of serendipitous moments, something I’m really interested in (See my earlier blog post Assisted Serendipity, Random Coffee and the power of the unstructured meeting)
Things are different now.
In a distributed office, it’s simply harder to know what’s going on. Harder because a lot of sharing happened in liminal spaces, the time between or transitioning to other things, on the way to a meeting room, chatting over lunch, or casually looking at other team’s artefacts.
Working from home changes everything, so we must be more intentional about creating new habits to create similar effects.
How can we replicate office-based sharing while distributed?
This question isn’t new, but it affects nearly all companies now and has been at the front of my mind.
I asked a question about it on various social media platforms and collated the answers in this post, along with my own experience and ideas.
The question I asked was:
Hello folks, how have you replicated having things on walls like goals / vision / roadmaps / users /service maps to help teams and organisations remember / ponder / bump into artefacts in a hybrid, remote world? I’m collating what’s worked for people. Thanks.
The essence of the question is three parts:
- What routes can we use to communicate in a distributed / hybrid environment?
- How do we hear the things that are important to us without them getting lost in a sea of communication?
- How can sharing enable serendipitous moments happen in a distributed / hybrid environment?
What function did walls play?
Although I asked about walls in my initial question, trying to replicate a wall digitally is not the answer. Tools like Miro, Mural and others will allow you to create a massive online whiteboard, but that’s not the same; they are not discoverable in the same way. So, I’ve defined what those walls did for people into these three themes.
- Maintaining and reinforcing the team’s memory
- Reaching outside the team boundaries
- Creating opportunities for serendipitous moments
The rest of this post will include tips and approaches for each of these, and alongside that, here are some fundamental principles to keep in mind.
Fundamental Principles for information sharing
- Go to where people are
- Little and often
- Repetition, repetition, repetition
Go to where people are
Find out where people are hanging out and meet them there, whether physically or virtually, or create new places to be. This might be in digital spaces they regularly visit, like workflow boards, documentation tools, meetings, team habits, or physical spaces. Think about how to be inclusive and reach everyone, regardless of their access needs.
Little and often
People can get overwhelmed by the amount of information shared around organisations; if the information is too detailed, people tend to glaze over; for example, a team’s Jira board is impenetrable for people outside the team. Find ways to share snippets of information, both synchronously and asynchronously, that people can follow up on if they want to.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
People need to hear things many times to remember them, ideally from different people. You cannot say something once and expect anyone to remember it; make repetition a habit. Try also to say things in different ways to reinforce messages and keep interest.
Tips and ideas
Maintaining and reinforcing the team’s memory
Think about the team’s short-term and long-term memory.
Short-term memory includes what you are working on now, your current goal, the team vision, the decisions you have recently made, which users you are focussed on, who you regularly work with, what assets you are using, and your team charter.
Think about trying some of these activities to reinforce team memory, and make sure you give some consideration to ones that also build team connections and strengthen team bonds.
- Use online workflow boards to manage work (like Trello and Jira), and add columns for quick links to relevant and timely information.
- Regularly share things on team chat channels (like Slack or MS Teams) yourselves or using bots.
- Create a team blog for regular updates outside of your standup.
- Have a team page that changes to show the most relevant concerns of the day and create a habit of looking at it first thing in the morning.
- Have things on screen when talking about them, either screen sharing or video backgrounds.
- Refer to things like goals, focus or insights at the beginning of every meeting, and if relevant, take time to review them together.
- Hold regular team collaboration sessions, either working together on the same thing or working on different things with your camera on.
Long-term memory includes how your team got to where they are, from inception to now, what decisions helped along the way, how the team membership changes over time, and team wins and celebrations. Use these to help stay on target, when new people join the team, new stakeholders appear, and as a way to remind yourselves of how far you’ve come.
- Document and share your team story; see How Teams Remember from Giles Turnbull and Once upon a time… using project stories to document your team’s progress from DXW for examples of how to do that.
- Add reminders of your journey to your show and tells.
- Create a team playbook that documents how you work together
- Document decisions along the way in an accessible place.
Reaching outside the team boundaries
There are good reasons to share information, learning and issues wider than your team. It might be that you collaborate with other parts of the organisation, work interests other teams or people, you need to keep stakeholders or supporters up to date, or you want to share approaches and ideas with other people in your practice.
Sharing your team’s work internally
- Hold show and tells and invite people to join; keep them short and relevant. Invite people to ask you follow-up questions. Add shorter versions of these to company-wide meetings.
- Publish short (2min) videos of what you are up to and create a company viewing time to watch them together.
- Write weeknotes to keep people involved and ensure people can subscribe to them; see Giles Turnbull’s post about weeknotes for tips.
- Curate walls that people will see if they do come into the office, make it easy to clear and easy to read.
- Use team pages, a master slide pack or an online whiteboard (e.g. this one from the Department for Levelling up Housing and Local Communities) to tell your story and collate links, and share this with relevant people.
Sharing your team’s work externally (and internally)
- Blog in the open, share your work in progress and learnings as you go. Put those updates where anyone can see them (you can also do this with weeknotes, for example, these open weeknotes from the Welsh Revenue Authority)
- Create short weekly roundups, for example, these weekly round-up Instagram stories from Moving Brands.
Sharing across your organisation
- Create communities of practice to build connections, learn, share knowledge and collaborate with people with the same practice across different teams.
- Hold regular company-wide events with team updates and an open invite for anyone to share.
- Create and send newsletters across the company and give teams the opportunity to share something in them.
Creating opportunities for serendipitous moments
Serendipitous moments are where relationships are built, and magic can happen. You can’t create these moments, but you can create opportunities for them to occur. Think about creating the space for unstructured conversations between peers or allowing new connections to form between people that wouldn’t otherwise meet; develop a habit of taking time to build trust, which is an essential foundation for sharing more openly. In addition to the tips above:
- Set up random coffees that allow people to build trust, swap ideas and create connections.
- Make Show and Tells open to everyone in the company so that people can drop in.
- Allow comms to come from everywhere, use them to share ideas, approaches, small wins and bigger news, and use the comms team as an enabler for everyone to share internally and externally.
- Schedule weekly huddles to catch up and talk about what’s going on, see this video from Simon Sinek for an example.
Some thoughts on going to where people physically are
People are spending more time working from home, so think about how to get appropriate and timely information to them in meaningful, inclusive and fun ways.
Here are some ideas on how physical objects might help.
- Printed coffee mugs are great for reinforcing a team vision or charter
- Stickers can help keep short information close to hand, like the image or values above from Martin Jordan.
- Second, monitors at home can act like a wall of relevant information.
- Mini desktop printers, for example, the no longer made Little Printers, could send messages to people (like a little fax machine).
- Posters that are sent out, picked up or printed at home for people to put up in their home working spaces could be a way to share different information each week.
- Screen savers, desktop wallpaper and desktop broadcast tools can be used send news, messages and short notices.
Distributed workplaces are now the norm rather than the exception. Which means communication, sharing, and serendipity are something that we all have to care about. As it’s all still pretty new, we need to make a concerted effort and try things out to see what works, iterate and try again. Use this post to inspire you, or share your own approaches in the comments below.
Some thank yous
List people who responded to my question with valuable responses, in no particular order.
Adrian Howard, Ian Ames, Thomas Dugaro, Maike Küper, Joe Lanman, Rob Whiting, Alaric Snell-Pym, Mark Kilby, Dan Abel, Jennifer Pullos, Oli L, Daniel Sack, Scott Drayton, Ian Thomas, David Heath, Gareth Bragg, Nick Maidment, Stuart Grant, Jay Greasley, Neil Williams, Lisa Riemers, Alan Wright, Jay Spanton, Jon Ayre, Oliver Quinlan, Andy Blair, Martin Jordan, Teresa Bridgeman, Anne Collis, Valerie Paur, Hilary Hall, Chris Burns, Rochelle Dancel, Stephen Mounsey, Paul Smith, Stephen Walker, Rochell Dancel and César González Palomo.