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Stay Amazing Together When Life Is Hard

In this episode, Richard is discussing how to keep your team thriving even in this new era of remote work, by using the Core Protocols and the Team Transformation Canvas. You can read more about it here

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Richard Kasperowski 00:10 – Hi, friends. Welcome back to With Great People, the podcast for high-performance teams. I am Richard Kasperowski. In this episode I share some of my thoughts from right around when global health crisis began. And rather than introducing any further, we’ll just jump right in. To support this podcast, visit my website kasperowski.com.

High-Performance Remote Teams

First, and most importantly, how are you and the people you love the most? My wish for you is good health.

This global health crisis is unprecedented in every sense—medical, economic, social, and psychological. We’re in uncharted waters for humankind. It’s a time of uncertainty, and it’s testing people’s resourcefulness to the limit.

Suddenly we’re all working remotely—at least the fortunate ones of us who can. I’m genuinely grateful to be able to continue working remotely with clients and colleagues. I’m thankful I still have enough revenue to support myself, my family, and my team of amazing employees and contractors. (And I’m sad that so many of us have lost the ability to earn a living working jobs that can’t be done online.)

We’re learning to work with our colleagues while physically distant from them. The circumstances are far from ideal. This crisis was a big surprise, and we didn’t plan for this transition. We’re not prepared. We’re coping with stress and anxiety, with kids and other caring responsibilities. The global economy and many businesses are in crisis.

The world is wobbling on its axis. Everyone has figured out how to use Zoom, Slack, and myriad other tech tools by now (or they will soon). But to thrive, we need to maintain real human connection. Tools like the Core Protocols will help us not just survive but thrive. The Protocols weren’t designed for remote collaboration, but they can be adapted. They can help groups to maintain that sense of closeness on which real connection blossoms and great work gets done. Remember that Core Commitment number 11 commits us to use the Protocols as a set and as written… unless something else works better. So they were always designed, as open-source tools, to be adapted and updated in changing circumstances. Here’s what’s been working for me with my remote teams.

Passing, Checking Out, and Checking In with remote teams

Remember the Pass protocol, which lets you opt-out of an activity while staying present with your teammates? We use the Pass protocol to opt-out of specific conversations and activities, and the Check Out protocol to physically exit the team’s workspace. These agreements commit us to be fully engaged and present when we are not checked out, and for taking responsibility for indicating when we disengage.

With our conversations now online, we need to be more intentional about these protocols. The good news is that the language and specifics still work. Passing can be as simple as typing the words, “I pass,” in an email thread or collaboration platform. It’s more than a courtesy to your colleagues to ensure your status is evident at any time—they can’t just look at you and see that you’re not participating in an activity. They need you to explicitly say so.

Checking Out is a little different in virtual space—there is no physical room for you to exit. You can quickly check out of a video call or collaboration thread electronically—it’s as easy as ending the video call, working on something else, or walking away from the computer. And it’s easier than in physical space: no one can physically follow you out of the room and try to pull you back in. No matter how you exit the “team space,” the best practice is to explicitly say or type, “I’m checking out.” Your teammates want to know what’s happening with you—did your Internet connection die? Did your laptop lose power? Should they wait for you to return? Let them know before you exit.

What about all those alerts and notifications from Slack, Jira, WhatsApp, text messages, email, and more? Can you really check out when it seems like everyone has access to you all the time? Does it seem like your teammates are too chatty, always messaging you and each other? Stop complaining about their chattiness. It’s up to manage your apps’ notifications. Do you have a respond-within-X-amount-of-time agreement with your teammates? Then make sure you respond within X amount of time. If you need to be immediately responsive, leave those notifications on for the right channels in the right apps. Want some focus time? Then disable notifications, temporarily or long-term. Dig into the settings of your communication apps. Control your apps’ alerts to get the best results from yourself and your team.

The emotion Check In protocol assumes new importance in remote teams, especially when everyone is stressed. You cannot glean any insight into your colleagues’ mood, energy level, or well-being via the text-and-emoji of a Slack message. It’s easy to guess wrong or misinterpret a quickly written message. To really connect with each other, it’s vital to deliberately communicate how glad/sad/mad/afraid we are.

It’s a great way to start the day, a great way to reconnect with each other. Just say, hi, here I am logged on and beginning my workday, present with all of you even though we’re not in the same building. It’s easy to check-in synchronously on a video call. On my best teams, we start every meeting with an emotion check-in. It only takes a moment, and the rest of the meeting is so easy afterward. And you can do it asynchronously—create a #checkin channel in your Slack, and invite everyone to use it at least once a day.

The uncertainties with which we’re living mean that our status can change fast. Again, no one will know or be able to support you or make allowances for it unless you share. So checking in regularly throughout the day is essential.

And when you’re all getting on with your work, remember that being checked in doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to drop everything and chat with anyone who wants to talk about anything at any time. Like always, you’re responsible to yourself and your team, to ensure that whatever you’re doing right now is the best use of your time.

Asking for help and making things better

The Ask for Help and Perfection Game protocols both work well in text-based online settings. Their direct and assertive linguistic frameworks enable great clarity.

It’s important to have conversations in the open as much as possible in remote work, so everyone can follow along and understand the team’s flow. To ensure a message isn’t lost in the stream, it’s an excellent idea to @tag the person you’re requesting to assist you—@richard, will you help me with X?, or @josh, will you play perfection game with me?

It’s your choice whether to peel off to a private chat or keep the Ask for Help or Perfection Game response in the team’s channel. If your “requestee” is free to jump in and collaborate, you might take it private, so you’re not distracting the rest of the team. But if multiple people are playing Perfection Game with you, then you’ll probably keep it in public. Perfection Game’s positivity bias to help you all build on each other’s ideas to make things even better—that’s the whole idea!

Remember to use the protocol wording to ask directly for what you want, using the recommended syntax. ‘Will you..?’—no fluffy conditional oblique requests. That will make it easy for them to recognize the Ask for Help, and they’ll be able to decline or defer according to their own priorities, as the protocol recommends.

Getting aligned

It’s easier than ever for motivation to be challenged and for disengagement to set in when people are working in isolation.

Work through the Team Transformation Canvas, alone or with a colleague or mentor. It’s a great way to refocus on your why, and explore the real reason you are getting up and getting things done—doing your utmost under extreme circumstances, and remembering which values are important to you.

Even if you have done this exercise before, there might be new things blocking your way forward. This tool can help you identify and overcome your new blockers. And #stayathome is a perfect time to introspect and do a bit of inner work and transformation, getting yourself ready for the day you can emerge and spread your butterfly wings again in a new world.

Making great decisions together

The Decider and Resolution protocols work just great on video calls. The natural body language of thumb-up, thumb-down, flat-hand is only one reason to have your webcam on by default. Being able to quickly align around an agreed way forward through simple hand signals is an excellent tool for building connection across the miles, even if the decision itself isn’t high stakes. Some teams like a video call open all the time, perhaps on a second screen—but don’t forget the amount of data and bandwidth this eats, in case either become limited in supply where you are.

Video meeting platforms like Zoom have breakout room facilities. You can easily divide your team into smaller groups to work concurrently on different decisions, and then you can report back together and share them.

If your team is in asynchronous mode, you can use Decider and Resolution in written form. Just make your proposal clear, using the standard Decider syntax:

I propose _______________. 1-2-3

So it’s super clear that this is a Decider and to facilitate my teammate’s response, I usually add voting instructions and a deadline:

To vote, add a reaction to this message:
👍 for Yes, I support this proposal
🤚 for I support the team’s decision
👎 for No, I do not support this proposal (and add your Resolution idea in a response thread)
Voting ends on Friday at noon Boston time.

You can also use threading to pursue Resolution proactively. If you vote thumb-down, don’t wait for the proposer to invoke Resolution – when we’re asynchronous, too many sync points like that make decisions take too long. Just add on your “what it would take to get me in” in the message thread. Here’s a full example:

richard Apr 1st at 9:28 PM
I propose that we spend the weekend pair-programming the first iteration of our MVP. 1-2-3
To vote, add a reaction to this message:
👍 for Yes, I support this proposal
🤚 for I support the team’s decision
👎 for No, I do not support this proposal (and add your Resolution idea in a response thread)
Voting ends on Friday at noon Boston time.

Josh Grob 7 days ago
I am so close to being in. To get me in would like to see time a window set for each day so I can plan my weekend. Eg. Sat 10am-12pm EST, Sun 9-11am EST

richard 7 days ago
OK, I’ll adjust the proposal so you can turn your 👎 into a 👍.

Josh Grob 7 days ago
perfect, thank you

And now that you have this tool in your remote working toolset, use it. Start by making agreements with each other about how you work together remotely. For example, what is our “SLA” (service level agreement) with each other? If I ask a question on our team’s slack channel, what is the maximum amount of time I should have to wait for a response?

Investigating and checking things out

Failure to connect and communicate effectively is one of the reasons people dislike remote working, as well as one of the reasons teams fail at it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Agree on and adopt clear communication practices. Even in an emergency, agreeing on how to communicate with each other might be the most important thing to do first.

Agree that you’ll keep communicating and using the tools you’ve got the best way you can. Your tools might be more versatile than you imagined. Just because Slack defaults to text-based chat, for example, there’s nothing stopping you from recording an audio or video comment and uploading it if you’ve got something complicated to say. (Just keep in mind that it can’t be indexed or searched the same way.) Or if you can sketch out an idea or answer with pencil and paper, take a photo of it and upload that, instead of wondering how to redraw it with electronic tools.

Each team will need to work out its own recommendations: When is it better to chat in separate threads versus one continuous flow? When should we create new channels? When should we use private conversations? When is it better to stop typing and communicate via video chat?

Team consensus and practice on these things might take time to emerge. When you start working on your remote team agreements are forming, use the Investigate protocol to ask direct and nonjudgmental questions about your teammates’ suggestions. Try to increase your understanding of your teammates and your new work environment, to connect more strongly as a team. Use the Intention Check protocolto clarify context that might be missing (body language, for example) regarding a colleague’s behavior or actions. And use Protocol Check to keep each other on track whenever things start to go off the rails.

Above all, assume positive regard for your teammates. Remember that the lack of context in remote communications – it’s more likely that you are the one who has misunderstood. No one expresses themselves at their best when under conditions of high stress and uncertainty, and not everyone is comfortable writing or using the keyboard as their primary way of keeping in touch. If you seek clarification keeping all this in mind, you’ll get a constructive outcome.

On track for the future

Nobody knows when we will return to “normal” or what that normal will look like at the end of this pandemic. Indeed, few things are known at all—but I’ll stake a bet on one dead certainty: we will fix this situation by working together in teams.

And while the impact of this crisis is terrifying, take comfort in knowing that teams of scientists and experts are collaborating across continents, across political divides, across language barriers, like never before.

Humanity is facing its greatest challenge in living memory, but together—if we learn to cooperate, communicate, and create under new circumstances—we will prevail.

Take care, wash your hands, cover your mouth, and stay safe. And if I can help with anything, just ask.

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