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Recap: lessons learned from Atlassian customers on how to adapt to working on distributed teams

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic served as a forcing function to re-evaluate the way teams worked together. In fact, many companies are re-learning how to collaborate with their teams. As some move towards being a fully distributed workforce, Atlassian included, we are interviewing those who have worked on distributed teams before so that we may learn insights and share them with customers along the way.

This is a recap article on a select group of interviews conducted with our customers. For six of those interviews shared on Atlassian Community, see below.

 

ONBOARDING

Learning new processes is even harder when joining a new team. Not just about difficulting forging relationships.

We needed more formal training...I went through an overview, you guys will really live and breathe it...but there was still a lot of disconnect...and we needed more time...

It was a lot easier when people were in an office. [We'd say] 'come to this meeting with me and let me show you how we run it...and it's difficult to really get people to get it [now].

-Lindsay Czopur 

Live exposure: consider including shadow opportunities even if a team member simply watches someone work through their shared screen or silently observes a normally two-person meeting. Passive learning needs to be more intentional when not colocated.

“When we were told to work from home, we would waste most of meeting time because people would connect and then not connect…and we stopped trying to meet for a long time until we decided we had to find a way to meet.”

-Pargab Sala 

Accessibility: not everyone has access to the same internet speed, let alone tools. Home office desks and chairs are great, but so is high internet speed, webcams, and noise cancellation headphones. Stable internet appears to be the biggest need for teams outside the US, western Europe, and Australia.

 

COMMUNICATION

Over-communication and documentation are paramount.

When we finish a meeting, we finish for all of us. We are not allowed to continue talking about a topic after a meeting because we are losing half the audience.

-Fabian Lopez 

Inclusive decision-making: co-located meetings have a habit of starting en route to a conference room, continuing out the door, or picking up in the hallway. When this happens, discussions exclude those not in the building. While distributed workforces reduce this, 1:1 side chats can still happen.

Consider 1:1 conversations in slack channels instead of DMs, group chats in slack channels so that additional invites can view past documentation, and decisions made with all key players included so that a minority of key players are able to participate instead of reacting to a majority consensus.

 

Working agreements: consider setting working agreements for collaboration at the start of every new project along with regular retros on whether those working agreements are being enforced or should be revised.

Are meetings engaging enough? Check for eye movement. Are those signing on during less traditional hours less active in meetings? Try changing the meeting time to see if there’s a difference. Are async updates working? If sharing updates happens but no one comments, consider a live meeting at a low frequency.

 

INCLUSION

Social time, making room for non-work and non-transactional conversations, and both small and large group hang time appears to be natural ritual development areas. But, detecting where teammates feel left out is being overlooked.

What we’re doing is that we’re listening and paying attention to how people interact, listening for keywords like “I need” or “We should” or “I’m annoyed by” or “I’m slowed down by.” And then we decide, “do I act in that moment, follow up with that person, do these people seem like they will resolve on their own…”

- Season Hughes

Expressing ourselves is hard on our own: unless it’s hardwired into a culture, the answer to “how are you” is not supposed to be long-winded, especially in large groups. Many teams use ice breakers to give people direction on what to share. Chatbot prompts are helpful prompts for those who need time to reflect or express themselves via emoji reactions or support for comments that resonate.

Consider creating triggers to a) signal permission to share how people feel and b) provide specific areas that teammates can weigh in on as they may not be able to pinpoint challenges areas.

When your staff is working behind a screen and you're only seeing them at scheduled meetings, you have to inherently believe that you can trust everyone...take it for granted and have them prove you wrong.

-Jeff Tillett 

Jeff, a manager of a large distributed team, who also helped his company scale other teams to working distributed as well, believes it’s table-stakes to assume everyone is doing what they need to do. So for managers, he believes it’s more important to ensure everyone feels resourced, feels seen, and most importantly, has the space to share how they feel about things other than their respective ship lists.

 

Recognition: much of our recognition is quieter--buried slack comments, in-the-moment emoji reactions, or 1:1 congrats.

Consider finding unexpected time to recognize teammates, especially apart from team appreciation rituals, mentions in monthly team newsletters, or upon launches. Remembering what teammates do in front of others by both managers and individual contributes is even more impactful during a time when team members feel less seen for their work.

 

EVOLVING WAYS OF WORKING

There’s a consensus that not everyone adjusts to new ways of working at the same time. It requires patience and empathy and extra support for teammates that need it.

Emphasize things kindly. Lead by example. Keep following your own policies, and if they don't make sense, then change. We are all learning...very quickly.

What's changed is having to help shepard lots of other people that are not used to working [like this]...let's remind ourselves "why are we here?"

- David Liao

Dedicated responsibility: much like we have FTOs/drivers on projects and leads for teams, it appears to pay off when a designated team member is charged with improving team cohesion, communication, etc. One customer said she wishes the company had a task force just for shifting work. Two others said that the teams with program managers make the difference in someone assessing what team preferences are and adjusting work for those needs.

Consider working groups charged with addressing very specific needs, right-sized for the population of staff that have those needs (workings group within each org vs working groups to address the whole company). Also, consider creating working groups as needs arise as opposed to one large group ready to tackle issues as they arise.

 

Incorporate rest into rhythms: giving people more time to complete work is helpful, but descoping efforts or restrategizing an approach might be even better. Unlike the other themes on this page, only a couple of customers mentioned this, but I think it’s important.

Weekends may no longer be enough to break up the week. After a heavy sprint or long-term project, perhaps that’s when the team can collectively take time off. Perhaps GSD days should be mandatory. And for cross-functional teams with different schedules, find a way to break up long stretches by the individual to avoid burnout.

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