034 - Focus Your Team to Embrace the Unknown

June 23, 2020

Given all the uncertainty that 2020 has seen, we assembled a panel of three world-class engineering leaders to discuss how they help their team stay focused and productive.

If you enjoy this episode, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Please send any questions or comments to podcast@pluralsight.com.


00:00:07.0 Daniel Blaser

Hello and welcome to All Hands on Tech, where today's leaders talk tomorrow's technology. I'm Daniel Blaser. 

Today's episode is all about helping your team stay focused while navigating uncertainty. The audio comes from a panel discussion that we hosted earlier this month and features our own Jeremy Morgan, along with three world-class engineering leaders. 

I'll leave it to Jeremy to introduce the participants and get the conversation started.

00:00:34.3 Jeremy Morgan

Edwige Robinson is an expert technologist, Women in Tech advocate, and a VP of Mobile Engineering Services at Comcast NBCUniversal. Patrick Kua is the founder of Tech Lead Academy, keynote speaker, and former CTO and Chief Scientist at N26. David Adsit is the CTO of Emmersion with over two decades of experience in engineering and leadership. 

We'll go ahead and jump right in here and say: when you have disruptive changes within your organization, or externally, how do you personally stay focused?

00:01:06.7 Edwige Robinson

For me, at the very high level as my focus starts early in the morning. I call it priming my mind. I want to ensure that I set my mind in a way that before I leave the house, before I even get to work, I'm in a positive mindset and I use meditation all the way. I used to take the train to Center City, Philadelphia. Today, I just take a little walk and I do my meditation and that allowed me to prime my mind in a positive manner. By doing so it allowed me to reduce reactiveness so that before you get into the business and craziness of the day, your mind is safe. It allows you to not be reactive when certain things happen. That's what I usually do to keep myself in a positive mindset.

00:01:59.8 Jeremy Morgan

Awesome, so it's like warming up your car, making sure that everything is operational and good in the morning. Patrick or David, do you have any?

00:02:08.8 Patrick Kua

Yeah, maybe I can jump in. I totally agree with Edwige as well. I think having that time is really key to not being reactive. I think to be an effective as a leader, you need to have your calm space. Similarly, for me, it's mornings as well. I tend to wake up early, have a tea, and then try to do some sport. It's changed a little bit now that things are a little bit more shut. It's been a little bit more things like yoga at home and then I can have a clear hour before really getting into the busyness of lots of different things. I think that key of actually making time to really think, prioritize, and consider where you're going to have the most impact I think is the most important thing, for me, to make sure that you're taking care of what's important for your team.

00:02:55.7 David Adsit

Yeah, I do something similar. I get up every morning and I go down to my home gym and start the day with a cardio workout and, usually, a podcast, or an audiobook, or even a book on the Kindle in front of the treadmill, so that I can get my mind awake with something challenging that will maybe set the tone for the day. Something that I'm trying to learn or whatever. I find that if I start with that, it gets done. If I try to fit it in during the day, or at the end of the day, it just doesn't happen. My days go better when I get that kind of a start.

00:03:34.7 Jeremy Morgan

How do you manage stressful situations in order to continue leading?

00:03:39.6 Patrick Kua

I think stressful situations are interesting because your first instinct is, probably, to react to the event. I think one of the things that I first learnt, when I was studying on my journey of leadership, was really about not reacting immediately because your brain is going to go into fight or defense mode. You're probably not going to think things clearly. I think my strategy, personally, is really to make sure that you take a breath. Depending on what it is, you might go for a walk to try to calm down to a point where you can think about what's happening in a little bit of a clearer mindset. I think there's two things that I think are key. One is really being able to understand and focus on the facts and separate that from all the opinions that people are throwing around about what they think happened. I think once you actually have the facts then you can actually come up with an idea about what you would personally do and approach that situation with.

00:04:37.5 Edwige Robinson

That's a really good one, Patrick. I do a lot of reframing. I don't know if you guys are using reframing. When something very stressful happened, I usually [inaudible] myself and the team to not react, as you mentioned Patrick. Not yet, immediately, but how can you reframe the situation? For example, somebody who says, "There's something going on. I cannot do anything about it". I will basically go back and tell the team member: "What is the one thing that you can do that you have control over?". You will not be able to change the whole situation but what is the one thing that you can do? 

Usually, by providing the team the power back to them to a certain degree, that allows people to reduce the stressful situation you're in. Usually, when people are stressed, and whether it is internal or external, it's because we lose the power to be able to do something about it. Or, if you want to be able to resolve it, but you don't have the solution, it creates a tremendous amount of stress. By reframing the situation, it doesn't mean that you don't believe that is the reality. By reframing, it allows you to refresh your mind and try to look at it in a positive manner, and how to solve it. Reframing is actually one of the tools that I use with my leaders. I also tell my direct to use that with their team members so that when something happens, we have a tool to go back to instead of being reactive.

00:06:08.8 David Adsit

I really like that. You have the opportunity, between the stimulus and the response, to pause and think. One of the things that I like to go back to in a stressful situation is that the way you behave when you are under stress is what you really believed anyway. If I set up processes and practices and techniques with my teams in a stressful situation, that's not the best time to re-evaluate everything that you're doing. That's a good time to lean into the things that you've been doing successfully and then, maybe, make some adjustments based on the updated information. That's one of the things that I like to do and one of the things that's been pretty successful with my team so far.

00:07:06.3 Jeremy Morgan

Do you all take an approach of taking time to make bigger decisions? All of your answers had the same theme. It was an inquiry before advocacy before just jumping and being reactive, as Edwige said. Do you all support, with big decisions, saying: "I'm going to take the time to make this decision and deliver it to the team" rather than right here and now? Do you all support that little time gap there just to give yourself a little bit of wiggle room to reflect?

00:07:46.6 Edwige Robinson

I think at a very high level, I usually bucket the decision-making in two big buckets. There's executive decisions I have to make as a leader: this is the way that we need to go, I made a decision, we need to move on it and execute on it, versus: there's a decision that I need to make but I want the input from the team. Whether the situation is a very stressful situation or a regular day, at a certain point I want the team to be part of the conversation so that they can come along. Usually, when a situation is very stressful, you want them to be part of the decision-making and tell them how the decision has been made, so that they don't think that you're just making a decision to kind of push things around. It's good to bring people along in how the decisions are made and what are the data points that you are using in order to make the decisions. That will usually reduce the resistance from the team once a decision is made.

00:08:45.0 David Adsit

I think that's right. I've seen that many times, where if you can bring someone into the decision-making process, they become a lot more invested in the outcome and really try to put all their effort into making that decision happen. On the other side, you sometimes have decisions that have to be made very urgently. If something's on fire, literally or metaphorically. We have those situations where the production database is suddenly spiking to 100%. We don't know why. What can we do? No one can use the website. Everything is down. You have a decision, then, of dig in and analyze it or restart everything and get it back to a baseline and then try to analyze it from the logs, knowing you're going to miss something. You're going to lose some fidelity. You don't always have the luxury of having a group to make that decision in those extremely urgent and rare circumstances. Sometimes you just have to say as a leader: "We're going to do this". By telling people we're going to do this, it gives them permission to start working towards a solution instead of getting stuck in a panic cycle. My decision-making strategy, most often, is to involve the team as much as possible. I think that is a great strategy and I really like that you brought that out.

00:10:16.1 Patrick Kua

I think that both of these approaches really resonate with me as well. I think one thing that I find helpful is to think about when you need to make a decision. When is the last responsible moment people talk about? There are those decisions like the incident outage where you can't really delay it. You might need to triage, take an action, make a decision quickly. But once an incident is at least patched, you might be able to create some more space to actually think about how you approach and engage the team a lot more.

I think, like David said as well, by giving a decision, sometimes that can create less stress for people because they're confident. Okay, we have some solution, maybe not the ideal solution, but we have an approach that we can try. In that process you might actually create some more time as well. I think that's probably the difficult thing about stressful situations. By its nature, these things tend to be a bit more emergencies where you don't have as much time to make. I think one of the strategies to try to find that time and decide which sort of decisions that you're making, is a key leadership skill to practice.

00:11:24.7 Jeremy Morgan

Without a crystal ball to see the future, how do you keep yourself motivated in times of instability?

00:11:32.0 Edwige Robinson

For me, one of the key things I usually do is to... I started to align myself with my family and the work that I do... Change is part of life and you're going to have issues. You're going to have inconsistency. You're going to have something coming your way. Again, it goes back to the mental hygiene. That's what... To me... People usually pass it along, but I feel like it's the bedrock for any motivation or any sustainability for your mind. You need to have a mental hygiene in a way that you keep yourself in a positive manner, regardless of what's coming your way. 

From where I'm from, I’m from the Ivory Coast, people used to say, "I'm happy today. I woke up and I have shoes on my feet". For somebody else listening, it was just a very low bar, but from where we're from you have to find the silver lining within whatever situation you're in, so that you can find a positive thing into it. To me, that's what I use to keep myself motivated no matter where I am. No matter what sickness that I am, coronavirus or whatever the situation is. We are all going through it and you need to find a way to reframe it and then have a mental hygiene.

00:12:53.1 Patrick Kua

I want to piggyback on something that Edwige said before which is that reframing around what you can control. I think that's one of those big things. There's so many different things that are happening around people during stressful moments that you literally can't control, things that are just happening around you but you can control how you react to it. You can control how much you engage with it. Particularly in these times with social media or news. One of the things I'm personally trying to do is limit the amount of time that I spend, because I know that each time I do it's generally going to be pretty depressing. 

I think refocusing on those things that you can control, and these are your actions, how you respond to events, and then also how you perceive those things. I think that's looking for the silver lining, and that reframing, trying to look for the opportunities and things. I think one other thing that really helps, particularly with teams, is really trying to also celebrate the things that people are doing. I'm a really big believer in trying to celebrate and focusing on those small wins because (a) it's about sort of recognition and feedback for people but, also, you have to really help motivate other people who may not realize what they are actually doing is actually having a positive impact. There are a couple of things that work for me.

00:14:06.3 David Adsit

As the two of you have been talking, it's had me thinking about some of the philosophies of stoicism and the modern update around mindfulness practice. I have some kids who suffer a bit with anxiety, especially around school, and it's been kind of heightened in the last few months. The practices of mindfulness, and being present in the moment, and recognizing how much of what's going on you don't have control over, but you do have control over your response. 

I can decide that I'm going to be happy because I have shoes on my feet, or I can decide that I'm going to be unhappy because of things that are wildly outside of my control. I like to bring some of those ideas into my approach to leadership, knowing that a lot of things are outside of our control. That doesn't mean that we have to feel a loss of control in a situation.

00:15:14.5 Jeremy Morgan

Do you all feel that there's a cultural aspect to that? As far as leadership goes, before you've ever been a leader you probably think the leaders are supposed to tell us what to do or the leaders are supposed to steer the ship. But what I've found in my career over the years is a leader sets the culture. Creating that culture would keep me motivated as a leader. If I knew that the people that were coming in every day, that I was leading, were happy to be there and happy to do what they're doing, then I'm happy. That made me personally happy. Do you guys feel the same way, where it's a cultural thing? If you can get the culture right and get them focused, that helps everybody focus on everything.

00:16:04.1 Edwige Robinson

Jeremy, I'm glad that you mentioned the culture because it's something that I usually compare to cooking. It takes time and everybody usually wouldn't want to talk about the ingredients that are required to build a culture. How do you build a culture so that when there's an issue, or when there's a problem, the team must still keep motivated. That's based on the working of trust with the team, mentoring the team, having those one-on-ones with them, and working with them very closely, especially when the going gets tough and when they make mistakes, so that they know that it's okay for them to make mistakes. In order to build that culture, you have to invest so much before... You have to do so much work before you can even establish the culture so that when the time comes, I want to keep my team motivated. 

Basically, you have to put money in the bank before you can withdraw, right? You can put a lot of money in your team bank so that when the going gets tough, and when you want to keep them motivated, you can go and withdraw the money that you put in. For me, to keep the team motivated is the trust that I built with them, day in and day out. I work with everybody in the team. I know their birthday. Most of them based on stuff that we've done in the past. I know who has kids, who has a family member. In this time right now that we pivot to remote working, not everybody is having a similar home experience. A lot of people are dealing with domestic violence. A lot of people are dealing with taking care of family members that are sick. By meeting the team where they are, in spite of everything going on, it allows you to develop the trust and also allows them to keep them motivated because they know that they have a leader that cares. Everything is intertwined, and I can probably pause over here.

00:18:00.0 Patrick Kua

I love your metaphor about the cooking as well because you have to do the preparation and you also have to clean up and keep the kitchen tidy once you're actually doing the cooking. With culture, one of the other metaphors I use is gardening. I'm actually really a terrible gardener but I think about this metaphor and you have seeds or plants. You can't force them to grow in the way that you want. You have to keep the soil fertilized. You have to provide the nutrition and enough sunlight, enough water, but not too much of either those things. 

I think the other exciting thing that you can be as a leader is really asking yourself what sort of garden, or what sort of culture, are you trying to cultivate? It's one of those things where it's really coming down to the things that you encourage or discourage, or you allow. I think that third category is really interesting because I've seen a lot of leaders who sort of fail to address, perhaps, behavior that's maybe not so helpful but implicitly they are allowing that behavior as well. That becomes part of that standing culture. I think about the metaphor of the weeding. You have to think about those, perhaps, undesirable behaviors or give a channel for that so that you can put them into the right place. Feedback is one of those tools to make sure people are actually hearing about what is that thing. I think the idea of gardening and cultivating culture is one of those things I think about when it comes to the team.

00:19:28.2 David Adsit

Yeah. I really like the focus on culture and around feedback. One of the things my leadership team has gone through recently is discussing the book 'Radical Candor', and how feedback needs to be given in the moment, and how it can be used to correct and direct. We have a few different things that we do, to that end. One of them is we have a peer-to-peer feedback system in our company where you can recognize someone for doing something that is aligned with one of our company values. By doing that, it then gets published to the Slack channel for the whole company and everybody gets to see “so and so did this” and I think that's aligned with our company value in this way. You get a bit of that individual treatment, that individual recognition, but it's coming from a peer, not necessarily from a leader. Which is interesting in that it also reveals to the leadership group a bit about how people are interpreting our company values, which is another opportunity to go back and feed that culture. Maybe someone is getting recognized for something that we really don't think is in alignment. Now we have two things to address in one-on-one conversations. Like, why did you think that this was the right way to behave and, also, why did you give this person recognition for behaving in this way? It's an opportunity to understand how people are interpreting the culture of the company. That's been really powerful for us as well.

00:21:25.8 Edwige Robinson

Good point. That’s an excellent point. As Patrick mentioned earlier, the behavior you've allowed becomes the culture. It's funny, sometimes, when people will have different... I call it the peacock of the team. They're allowed to do whatever they want to do, and people would be like, "Well..." but this person actually delivers very good. He's the amazing coder and you have to let him do whatever he wants. It's polluting the culture at the same time and you're not motivating the team by doing so. You're actually destroying the rest of the team in order to keep this one, aka "Rockstar". The behavior that you allow actually becomes the culture. As leaders, we need to be very conscious about it and be very careful of what we allow to happen.

00:22:19.4 David Adsit

I think we all have an opportunity to work with that one person at some point. It's almost like the test of your leadership philosophy. Now you've got the guy, what do you do? That's always a challenging situation, but I think you're right. You have to focus on what are you building? What are you trying to build? Are you building a company or are you building an individual's ego? If you are willing to focus on the needs of the overall product, company, and culture then it becomes very obvious what you need to do in that situation. One of the pithy the things people say about cultures: "It's what you do, it's who you hire and it's who you fire".

00:23:05.8 Jeremy Morgan

Focus is hard with a miles-long to-do list. We've all seen the huge, gigantic backlogs. How do you go about prioritizing what you and your team are focused on?

00:23:21.7 Edwige Robinson

That's the million dollar question, right?

00:23:22.1 David Adsit

This is the one that I'm most enthusiastic about. It all has to start from the company direction. There's a lot of different ways people talk about that: your company's strategy, your mission, your vision, the objectives, and key results that's been popularized in the last few years. It's all about deciding what is most important from a company strategy. 

How you do that is going to depend on the company that you're in. If you can get that strategy set then you now have something to evaluate what you're working on against. Am I aligned with the strategy? Am I working towards the strategy? Or, is what I'm doing necessary and tactical? Or, do I just not know? Should I be changing what I'm working on entirely? I found that this is a really powerful way of creating and maintaining alignment on my teams. One of the things that we do is we have a very strong culture of limiting the work in process. Context switching is a killer. I've read, and I don't have the reference so I'm not sure 100%, but I've heard, that for engineering groups, or engineers specifically, for every additional project you're working on there is a 20 percent productivity penalty for the context switch. Which means, by the time you get to five you are now in the negative productivity realm which isn't where any of us want to be. If we can focus on limiting the work in process then we can actually get things done more regularly and that actually allows us to deliver more value, faster.

00:25:26.1 Edwige Robinson

What I do with my team, at a very high level, I have different teams depending on if you're back-end, front-end, and related to the apps. At the very high level, we want to ensure that what they are working on not only aligns to the priority, but we also want to give them some capacity in order to work on innovation and some capacity to work on sustaining engineering, instead of them having to hide what they're doing behind the scenes. 

You're basically making the capacity very clear to everyone. Here’s the full, 100% capacity. 70% are going to be allocated to the strategy that we need to execute against. You have another 20% for sustaining engineering, and you have 10% to work on anything you want to do from your apps and everything else. By have that transparency upfront, it allows the team to be very focused on what we need to work on and what permissions they have in order to work on the things that they would love to work on. You know developers, they like to experiment. They like to work on certain things. You need to find a balance in the "Must do", the "Nice to have", and then we have sustained engineering which is updating the system. The stuff that we have to do, anyway, in order to maintain what we've already developed and delivered to production.

00:26:51.0 Patrick Kua

I think that's some key there, which is around the balance. I think there's this idea of balance of can people spend time on the innovation stuff or sustaining engineering type things. But another sort of balance I think about is, are you doing enough work on long-term and short-term things or are you just working on the here and the now? I think, particularly for leaders, this is something where, when you look at your backlog of things to do, if you're only just focusing on the things for this week, you're going to be hit with something, probably in the next couple of months, with something that you didn't really think about or plan for. Then, you suddenly have to deal with it. 

I think one of the things there is also making sure that you're balancing in terms of time horizons, or things that, as you maybe go up a hierarchy, you're thinking in longer and longer horizons to make sure that things are aligned. It connects back to what David was saying, which is really about making sure that there is a North Star. I think this is probably the hardest thing in a lot of organizations, in that most people have different goals that don't always align. I think this is one of the difficulties of you as a leader, trying to create a set of priorities of different stakeholders or different activities where it's clear about [inaudible] and time books. These are sort of ordered, ranked list of the most important things. I think that's one of the difficult things is, that to do that you have to be able to also say no, which was also a skill. Or, no, not yet because there's only a limited amount of time that you can spend on things.

00:28:19.2 Edwige Robinson

I love “no, not yet”. I need to use that more.

00:28:23.1 Patrick Kua

Next iteration, it's fine.

00:28:26.9 Jeremy Morgan

With the uncertainty brought on by recent global events that we all know about, it's changed business projections, and goals, and all of those things for businesses everywhere. How have you changed your strategies and approaches with your team?

00:28:45.1 David Adsit

One thing for us has been more of a reshuffling of priority based on our changing marketplace. We interact a lot with our customers on a regular basis. There have been items that have been on the list for "Not yet" but those items have become very urgent for some of our customers, or a large portion of our customers, so we've accelerated some of those which means deferring other things that we had considered higher priority. You really do have a limit to the number of things you can do at any given time. If you are taking on something else, that means one of the things that you were doing has to get taken off the list and put to the back or put somewhere. It's just not going to receive active work.

00:29:39.0 Edwige Robinson

We all know that with COVID-19 and corona, everything switched overnight from retail stores in physical locations to remote. Subsequently, I always tell my team; a change, whether it's welcome or not welcome, is a signal to adapt. It's a signal to pivot. Subsequently, with coronavirus and everything else, we know that we have to pivot our strategy to more digital. We know that we need to make accessibility easy for customers online, easy for them to make the payment online. Everything that we were doing at the store, we need to provide the same capability remotely to most of our agents, and most of our customers. You have to adjust your road map. You have to adjust your priority. You can't just keep going. Everybody knows what happened to Blockbuster. They didn't want to pivot and now they're no longer here. Everybody knows what happened to Circuit City, they didn't want to pivot, and God knows what happened to them. Any change, to me, is basically a signal that we need to adapt and change. You need to be able to revisit your road map and figure out what are the current needs of the market and adjust in order to meet the need.

00:30:55.5 David Adsit

One of the things there that I find really enables that is limiting your work in process. Again, going back to that same concept. If you have a six-month project and you're four months into it and suddenly: pandemic. Do you accept that you're going to lose those sunk costs and just abandon the project and shift to the new priority? Or, do you try to keep it limping along? Or, do you double down and hope to finish early so that you can tackle the next thing? So, slicing things into small batches, and limiting the number that you are actively working on, enables you to make the changes necessary when conditions change, and always do. That is one of the inevitable things, the market conditions always change. Whether it's global pandemic or whether it's just a new competitor who announces a product that is suddenly right in your space. 

Using history as an example, Kmart was doing everything right when Walmart destroyed them. They were focusing on all the right metrics for retail and they were doing better than their competitors, until Walmart came in and was doing five times better even than Kmart. Some of those things about cycling the product you have on shelves. They thought they were doing great because they were beating everybody else in the space, but the market conditions always change. We need to be able to react to that. One of the biggest strategies we use is by limiting the size of the things that we take on at any given time.

00:32:48.9 Edwige Robinson

I fully agree, that makes a lot of sense.

00:32:51.6 Patrick Kua

Absolutely agree. I want to take a bit of a different angle here, because I think one of the hard things about something like COVID at the moment is it’s tremendous amounts of change. Not just change that's happening in the industry but change to everything. I think one of the key things I think about as leader is taking care of the team and making sure that they're safe. I think this is the hard thing. Lives, personal lives, are blurring together with work lives. I've read reports about people being more productive, but also the signs that people can't disengage from work because they can't leave an office. That's potentially the consequence for burnout in the future. 

I think this is the hard thing of trying to make sure that you as a leader are taking care of your team, making sure that they're set up, things are accessible, that they have all the things they can be to be successful. At the same time, working with your organization to refocus on what are the most important things, which is what leaders should be focusing on anyway. Creating a clear path to shifting that. The difficulty is that takes some time in an organization to get agreement around. There's things that you can do to be really taking care of the health of your team, making sure that you're fostering a team culture that maybe was used to an in-person office but now has to build this remotely. You have to reset some of those behaviors and expectations. I think that's a particularly important thing in these times.

00:34:17.7 David Adsit

Yeah, it certainly is. One of the things that, for me, has become much more top-of-mind is the need to individualize for the circumstances of each member of a team. You may have had your standard policy around work from home or whatever, and all of a sudden it may not apply to certain people. You may find that you have... I think we've all found that we have certain people on our team who… they are a two-income household with children, and that means there's children on your Zoom calls which you never would have found acceptable in the past. But, suddenly, that is part of the individual’s life. 

We've often talked about, "Bring your whole self to work" but nobody really does. We all bring a curated representation of our self to work. Now, suddenly, work is in our homes in a way that it hasn't been in the past and now more of our self becomes present. That means an opportunity to build trust and connection across teams. But it also, if you don't have the right culture, it can bring fear. I've talked to people at some of the local leadership meetups here in Salt Lake City about how do you get people to engage on Zoom? Everybody on our team and in our company is leaving their cameras off when they're on Zoom so don't see anybody. We're losing that connection. I honestly don't know because everybody on my team is always on camera. They're craving that connection. But if they didn't, still there's a need to individualize our response based on what that person's circumstance actually is.

00:36:15.0 Jeremy Morgan

How have your meetings with your teams changed organically?

00:36:19.9 Edwige Robinson

My team knows, anybody that works with me knows, that I don't go to any meeting with no agenda. That's my big feeling; you need to have an agenda for a meeting. When we were at the office, we'd usually have clarity on the agenda. But now I'm working on the team in a way that we want to use the meeting only for decision making, or to align a few stakeholders or that status meeting. You don't need a meeting to provide a status. You don't need a meeting to provide some information. So we’ve got to cut down. I'm not going to call it wasteful but we're trying to be smarter about using everybody's time. 

As David mentioned, you go downstairs in your pajamas or whatever, you're at work. You cannot be on meetings from 8:00am all the way to 6-7:00pm. We're trying to adjust and alter the meetings in a way that people are only meeting in order for decision-making and if we need to get the stakeholders aligned. 

I also work with the team in a way that, in the meeting, we are coming together so that we can make a decision on X and we want to walk away with Y. If you need to do any lobbying before the meeting, go and do your lobbying, whatever you need to do, so you come prepared to the meeting in order to be productive. 

The second thing we've also done is, we also bring together most of the ritual that we’d have in the team. If several agile teams work on similar projects, we try to bring all the teams to do a ritual together, so that we can learn really quickly instead of separate, siloed rituals. We’re doing the ritual together. It has been very successful. 

The last thing that we've done, also, we reduce the meeting from 30 minutes to 20 minutes, and we use the first 10 minutes of the meeting to check on everybody. Everybody gets a chance to talk about their day and then we use the 20 minutes to actually talk about whatever you need to talk about. I've been getting a lot of good feedback and the team has been very grateful for that little gap of time that we've given to them, and to really use the time together to really make decisions.

00:38:37.9 David Adsit

We have needed to supplement some of our meetings with an opportunity to replace that in person contact that we've had in the past. We have introduced a couple of additional check-in type meetings through the week. Every Monday, we get the whole company together in the early afternoon, just for 15 minutes, just so that we can see everybody and share a couple of the successes that have happened in the last week as a way to reconnect and realign everybody who has been mostly disconnected most of the week. We've also refocused some of our meetings around building social connection, like you were talking about. Building some of the social connection as opposed to just doing what we would have typically done in the past, where we were already socially connected, we would just talk about specific work items. Now we have some of that, that we introduced as well and that's been very helpful.

00:39:48.2 Jeremy Morgan

What would you all say is the most important thing you've learned from moving to online meetings?

00:39:54.3 Edwige Robinson

Put some clothes on. I'm just kidding. One of the most important, to be honest with you, is to give people some... The same way that when we were at the office, when we come in, you chat a little bit. It's not because we are online that you should come right in and start working. You want to give people some time to come in, ask them about their day. Somebody wants to show them the coffee mug or whatever. You need to find a way to relax the team a little bit and then jump in into the work, as I mentioned earlier. That's the reason why we move... The meeting actually is 20 minutes and the first 10 minutes is checking on every everybody. It gives people time to go get some coffee, you know stand up from the previous meeting. A couple of key members actually mentioned to me that there was something related to the video, like David just mentioned. Some people don't want to be on video all the time. Some people are like, "I've been on video all morning. Now, I don't have my hair done, I don't want to be on video". It's okay to come and give people the option to choose to be on video or not on video so that they feel like they had the flexibility in between. Those are the key things that I've learned but, most importantly, to be okay with somebody. My dog jumped on me a couple of times, people have kids, and you just need to embrace all of it together and be okay to be interrupted every now and then.

00:41:27.4 Patrick Kua

For me, I think there’s been a couple of interesting lessons. I think one is the art of knowing how to run meetings well is even more important, in the online space, because you're trying to minimize how much time people are spending because video is tiring for a lot of people. I think managers, particularly, get hit by this in particular doing one-on-ones. Back-to-back one-on-ones can be really exhausting for a lot of people, for an entire day. I think the other thing is the experimenting with different interactive formats. Retrospectives, for instance, and trying out things like Miro boards, and trying to use these collaboration tools which a lot of organizations haven't gotten used to. I think trying to experiment with some of those tools and trying to do things more asynchronously. I think that's the art of do you need a meeting? Can this be done through another mechanism, either a design document or a Slack channel where people can post updates asynchronously? These are things that are definitely more prominent about good meeting hygiene.

00:42:31.0 David Adsit

That's definitely true. You both mentioned techniques that I have found essential. One of them is using an agenda. Why are we even meeting? I haven't been nearly so forceful about it, but I do appreciate that stance. Every meeting should have an agenda and, possibly, an exit criteria where once this is done, we're done. We don't have to use the full 50 minutes or whatever that was booked in the calendar because that's the default in Google Speedy meetings, or whatever. The Miro boards are something my team has been using recently. I think one of the things that we've missed are the physical whiteboards that we could all interact with. There's something about having that tactile, visceral experience and Miro is really helping bring some of that back, in a way that I didn't expect we would be able to get.

00:43:28.5 Patrick Kua

On the whiteboard thing, I've had some success playing around with a Microsoft Surface, actually. Or, the whiteboard and Surface seems to work quite well.

00:43:35.8 David Adsit

Because it's the touchscreen?

00:43:39.0 Patrick Kua

Touchscreen, but also syncs with Zoom so people can collaboratively do it at the same time with a whiteboard.

00:43:46.5 David Adsit

That's very cool. I really like that. One of the things my team has mentioned is that because we have had remote team members forever, a lot of it hasn't changed a ton. Some of the people have said, "Oh, well, we went from some people being remote and now everyone is effectively remote". That's leveled the playing field in some ways and made some things better because now everyone is feeling the pain, instead of just a couple of people, and then people share their ideas. Plus, having people with experience working remotely, they've been able to share some of the things that have worked well for them. That has actually been super helpful. I've appreciated that willingness of members of my teams to collaborate around creating a successful environment for the group.

00:44:46.9 Jeremy Morgan

I do have a question here from the audience, and we've answered some of this but it came in earlier, and it says, "When we were in the office, pre-COVID, my team had a really strong bond. The team had an identity and a culture that I was proud of. As we transitioned to fully remote work, I had to rely on that bond to keep everybody engaged and productive. I feel like team culture is eroding the longer we're remote, in spite of virtual team building, full-team meetings, optional lunch breaks etc. Our in-person interaction was such a critical component of the magic of this team. Do you have any suggestions on how to rebuild that with continuing remote work?".

00:45:27.5 Edwige Robinson

It's very important that everybody have to remember you cannot replace 100% of the human connection that we have. We are social beings. We are made to be connected and to touch each other and be together. The best we can do is, in a virtual environment, how we can work together to try to bring that, by talking all the time and trying to figure out some time to think up virtual coffee, virtual water coolers. I have all those things on my calendar, every now and then. Virtual coffee I'm awake from 7:30 in the morning. People can have 15 minutes, or virtual coffee. Then, usually on Thursdays and Tuesday, I have virtual water coolers where, for one hour, we have this open room that everybody can go and can talk. 

It would be unkind to our self to basically say we can 100% replace the connectivity and connection that we had at the office. I think that would not be attainable, but we can do our very best with, as I just mentioned, the water cooler and all that stuff to continue to stay connected. Everybody keeps forgetting about this: we still have phones. You can still call people on a cell phone and talk to them. You don't have to talk to people only through WebEx and Zoom. You will be surprised the amount of connectivity you can have by somebody hearing your voice. Even if they don't see you, hearing your voice and being able to talk to them. I don't know if that answered the question, but I wanted to add some perspective and reality check that the connection that we have is not 100% replaceable virtually.

00:47:16.1 Patrick Kua

I think that's completely true. I think it's one of the things where even rural remotes and fully remote companies or teams, they still try to come together once a year because you can't replace that face-to-face contact. Some of the things that you've already talked about touch upon this, which is the virtual water cooler and coffee breaks. I think the things that really build a team are those things where they spend time together sharing sort of common experiences. I think if you focus on what can you do in that way, how can people learn about each other a bit more, that isn't necessarily related to a task that they happen to be working on. Learn about the person behind the team member. 

Some teams that I'm working with, they might be doing a challenge where each of the team members take part in a common challenge, they share updates, and they can do that. It might be a baking challenge; it might be a sports challenge. One team which was doing daily push-ups and then they were posting how many pushups they've been able to do throughout the day. I think sharing common experiences, and facilitating that, and creating space. I don't think you can force some of those things, but you can at least see which things stick. Then, just try to focus on those common experiences, understanding that everyone's going to be in a very different part. You also can't expect everyone to take part. People have different constraints. Children or things they have to take care of at home. Trying to foster that and create those opportunities where people can have more of that personal contact, I think is key inside of a distributed team.

00:48:53.9 David Adsit

One of the things that has been part of our engineering culture has been playing board games at lunch. That has moved online and now our engineering team is hosting a once-a-week, casual gaming session online for anybody in the company who wants to participate. I think it's actually starting in about 10 minutes. It's just one of the things that has been part of our culture. I think that what you need to do is look at what has disappeared from your culture as you transition to online. What were the key things that people were doing but are not doing now? Find a way to replace that. One of the things that we've done is, for some of the team's, we've created just an open meeting room online, on Zoom. Anybody can just drop in and just hang out there. You keep working on whatever you're working on or whatever. It's not necessarily the same as our groups that do mob programming and pair programming, where they're together all the time. It's just open and you can jump in and connect with other people if you're just feeling that need to get out of your closed office space at home. There's a lot of techniques and some of them require that we invest a little bit more money than we would have previously. I don't buy board games for my team, but I might be willing to buy them a couple of digital board games if that helps keep the connection of the team going.

00:50:27.5 Jeremy Morgan

Thank you very much to all of you for participating in this. I think this has been great.

00:50:32.7 Edwige Robinson

Thank you so much. I just want to leave everybody listening right now: whenever you are in doubt, whether you're a leader at home or wherever you are, choose kindness. Choose love. Because, if you lead with kindness love and compassion, you can meet people where they are and you can bring them on board with you, trying to find them to pull them with you. Whenever in doubt, choose love and kindness.

00:51:00.9 Patrick Kua

Great closing words. Thank you very much for the discussion.

00:51:10.6 Daniel Blaser

Thank you for listening to All Hands on Tech. To see show notes and more info, go to pluralsight.com/podcast. Thanks again and have a great rest of your day.