Molood Ceccarelli: Tips on surviving remote work during the COVID-19 crisis
In this episode, the first one recorded since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, Richard interviews Molood Ceccarelli. Molood is an agile coach, the founder of the Remote Forever Summit, and CEO of Remote Forever. As someone who dedicated her carrier to helping remote teams to excel, Molood is uniquely qualified to help us organize our work in these strange times. When you finish listening to this episode, connect with Molood on Twitter and LinkedIn, participate in her Summit, and subscribe to her newsletter at remoteforever.com.
Hi, friends. Welcome back to With Great People, the podcast for high performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. This is the first episode we’ve recorded since the COVID-19 outbreak began disrupting our world. Lives are lost, businesses shut down, human interactions went from offices, parks and restaurants to computer screens. All this remoteness is very strange for most of us, but for others, it’s business as usual. In this episode, I talk with Molood Ceccarelli, an agile leader, founder of Remote Forever Summit and CEO of Remote Forever. There’s hardly a better positioned person to guide us on building and managing remote teams, so I invite you to sit back as Molood shares her thoughts on remote work and distributed teams.
To support this podcast, visit my website Kasperowski.com. Our guest today is Molood Ceccarelli. Hi, Molood. How are you?
Hi, Richard. Thanks for having me. I’m pretty okay. How about you?
I am also pretty okay. Will you introduce yourself for our listeners?
I am Molood Ceccarelli. I’m the founder of Remote Forever and the host of Remote Forever Summit, the first summit that was created to bring remote working into the agile world.
This is the first podcast that I’m recording in the COVID-19 era.
Oh wow. I feel so honored.
Yeah. This was actually a special recording date that we set because of the work that you’ve been doing for the last amount of years related to remote work. What else could you say about that?
My background is in software development and agile coaching. I discovered agile almost a decade ago, and I fell in love with it. I kept educating myself and getting clients and working at many different companies to see how they work. One of the things that I’ve been helping many clients do is transform from traditional ways of working, traditional ways of creating businesses, developing businesses, but with a focus of software development. I’ve been helping them transform from those traditional ways into modern ways of working, which we call agile as a generic umbrella term for that thing. A few years ago, I had a retrospective with myself on a Sunday sitting in a cafe, sipping my coffee, and I realized that there was not a single team I had been a part of that was not remote in some sense.
I thought, wait a minute, there is that principle in the agile manifesto that talks about co-location as a prerequisite to becoming agile, to having effective communication, and all this work, all those many years I’ve been doing is helping people collaborate effectively remotely. There is something there. There is a need to change this conception, this perception that people have. The company that I founded and the conference that I founded was practically to help people who believed in agile, which I know are many. It’s not very hard to fall in love with agile.
I wanted to empower them to understand that remote working is not a challenge, but rather the reality of how work is done and to help them understand and learn how to embrace remote working in their agile environments to be more effective.
All right. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Up until recently, I would tell people that if they care about some new developments, if they’re working on some new innovation project that’s really important to their organization, then you want to have those people co-locate. Obviously that’s not happening right now.
No. Unfortunately, it’s been the case for a few years. Remote is just part of our reality and it’s easier to accept it and work with it rather than resisting it and opposing it.
Yeah. All right. This podcast is about teams. I like to ask people about the best team of their life. Any kind of team at all, a work team, a non-work team, any group of two or more people who have some alignment on some shared goal. What’s the best team of your life?
The best teams of my life… I’ve been part of quite great teams. I think the first best team that I was a part of was when it was still in school, when I was doing my master’s studies. I was voted to president of the International Student Committee. That was like a volunteer organization of 12 people welcoming international students into the school. I say it was a great team because, first of all, people weren’t paid to contribute, to get work done, which means that they were really like intrinsically motivated to get that work done, and also because from the outside it looked like the organization was only creating parties and trips, whereas what was really happening behind the scene was lots and lots and lots of communication and collaboration and brainstorming.
I developed my character as a leader in that group quite a lot, and I saw like practically everyone in that organization continued to become leaders in their own life in one way or another. In my work, I’ve also been part of great teams. Most of the work teams that I work with, and I call them great, were teams that started from a place of not being able to understand each other, not being able to collaborate together, and then ending up being amazing, fascinating, high performing, like really, really in sync. They felt like a family. You know?
I really love that. It felt like a family. Okay. Pick one of these teams.
Take yourself back to it. It sounds like this will be easy for you. You had some really strong memories and sensations about both of these groups. If you could summarize the sensation of being with that group of people, doing that work together, what is one word you could use to summarize that?
Love. I think I actually heard it from you when I interviewed you in the conference. You said that love is a word that many people say. It stuck with me because my mother tongue, like I am bilingual, but one of my mother tongues is Farsi. In Farsi, there are quite a few words to describe love. When I first thought about the word love in English, it comes with like and dislike and hate. That is the category of words that you put together as this sensation or the opposite of it, whereas in Farsi, the culture and the language that I came from, there was a huge difference between a romantic love and a love that you feel for a team and the love that you feel for a family member and the love that you feel for God.
To me, like that word was like, wow, it actually embodies all of those concepts. When you work in a great team, you feel all kinds of love for the people that you work with. Does that make sense?
That totally makes sense. I giggled when you said love because so often I talked to people who work in organizations where the word is actually not allowed, right? I talk about this especially when I’m with people around New York City and they’re working in big finance companies. They actually tell me like, “We’re not allowed to use that word at work.”
Yeah, I understand that. I can understand why it wouldn’t be allowed, especially in the US, but at least I live in Sweden now and we can say anything.
You’re right. You’re right. My first language is English and the word love means a lot of different things. When I share this with people, I go through this extra explanation that I don’t mean romantic love when you’re talking about a work team in particular. It’s so interesting that you have more nuanced words than I have.
Indeed, but it’s hard to translate them cause they all translate to the love in English.
Yeah. I try to say things like friendship or brotherly love or camaraderie, but none of them are quite the same.
No, no, indeed. Being productive together like as a duo or as a trio, it has a specific word. Having unconditional love for a person, that is like what we call romantic love in English, that has a different word, but like having unconditional love for your mother is different from having unconditional love for your spouse. There are two different words that you use for that.
I love this. I love the nuance.
Yeah, it’s interesting.
What else do you mean about love with respect to that team or those teams?
The safety, like the psychological safety, to be vulnerable with each other in the environment that you’re working in, in the group of people, for it to be okay to fail, for it to be okay cry if you need to, exercise some other kind of emotion, or if somebody has a breakdown and they get angry and they shout, it’s okay and they get forgiven when they apologize later. The ability to have all kinds of emotions in a team, that’s what it comes down to in my opinion. I’m not very good with emotions. You’re putting me on the spot here. Emotions is actually something that I had to learn how to analyze because I grew up as a very, very logical person. The way I grew up, it was not okay to allow emotions to affect your decisions or your behavior.
I lived with that up until I was 18 or 19, and I suddenly entered an environment where there were people of all kinds, all kinds of educational backgrounds, people who had not gone through the kind of high IQ school that I went to. They were not brainwashed into thinking emotion is something that needs to be excluded from life. Only then was I challenged with the idea of feeling emotions as they happen. For me, it was totally okay to shut down all your emotions and process them at a time you have time, like two weeks later. Now that you’re asking me these, this is a journey that I started practically since I was like 19-20 up until now and it’s still not very natural for me to feel or to think about feelings.
Totally get what you’re saying. I kind of grew up the same way. You got a couple of decades head start on me in my emotional development. Congratulations.
Well, it wasn’t fully accepted by my very rational brain up until I was probably like 27-28. I was still trying to deny it. I was still trying to make the world fit to my reality rather than the opposite.
Make the world fit your reality. That’s sort of the theme going back to the idea of the remote teams and recognizing that remote teams are actually the facts versus the thing to fight against.
Yeah. That is part of the self-development. I read this internet meme or quotes. I don’t know who it is from. I just said it without mention to who has said it. They said, “An intelligent person would want to change the world. A wise person would want the change themselves.”
Right, and that’s very wise. All right. What else about these teams subjectively goes into making them as great as they were? How do you know subjectively that these were great teams?
That’s a very good question. Well, apart from the emotional part of it, like subjectively things that you can actually measure. I know that in organizations you say, “We can measure productivity,” and I think it’s extremely difficult to measure productivity, but I think you can measure quality and you can compare quality of the work that is creative compared to what was before the team was high-performing or before the team was even there. There were many things that happen like in those teams. I keep like sticking to the school one because I expanded on that a lot more than the work ones, so we’ll just go with that.
In that group of international students in a school in Sweden, we were like one of the very first generations of international students there and just to have a president who was not a native Swede was new. I was the first foreign president for that group. I was a person who challenged the status quo quite easily. It was very natural for me to do that. One of the things that we did was challenged the idea that the default language of the school was actually Swedish. We weren’t people who could understand Swedish, so we needed to actually translate everything into English for other people to be able to participate and understand. One of the things that I can compare, like years later I can look back at the website of the school and see that every detail is translated into English and that is a project that we all started.
That lasting impact, that was something that we created. I set quality subjectively. When I think about software teams, quality becomes very centric when the team is high performing. It’s not any more an afterthought. It’s not like you have a developed code and would just wait until users report bugs and then we fix them, but instead it becomes very centric. You send your code review to someone and they instantly gave you feedback about quality issues. Whereas if you didn’t care, if the team was not really high performing, or it was not really connected in that way, the person might just do like a quick review and say, “Yeah, the formatting is fine. Nothing breaks. It compiles. Let’s ship it.”
I would stick to quality. That is something that I care for a lot. Maybe it’s because I was a tester for a while.
We have a lot of parallels in our lives. My first jobs were as a tester as well.
Were you also tricked into it? Because I was totally tricked into it. I was hired as a developer and then I was pushed into being a tester.
I was not tricked into it, but I had a lot of fun with my job. I had this idea that the computer was laughing at me if I did anything repetitive. I always wrote code and automated things so the computer wouldn’t laugh at me.
That’s a very good one. That’s so cute too. I worked mostly with hardware testing, so it was a little different. I worked very, very close to hardware. I had to test the compiler like seriously. I had to learn an operating system that the company I was working at had created precisely for their systems. All the Linux and Windows and all those things that I had learned before was useless. I learned Solaris and I learned their operating system.
There was something you said. I love this idea of quality, quality becomes centric, it’s not an afterthought. You said something else, the work that you did had lasting impact.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Indeed. I think that is also apparent in many companies that you can see. Those Fortune 500 companies that you see in the same top list for hundreds of years, there is something about them that is working and it is creating a lasting impact. I am very impressed by a particular company that I had read about. That’s Barbie. It’s a weird example to say, but Barbie is a company that has been profitable for… I don’t know, I think it’s about a hundred years now. I did a case study on that company and I realized like how they have embraced and adapted their products to the emerging markets, to the emerging mindset in the societies. It’s fascinating. It’s a simple, simple product. There’s nothing to it if you think about it.
You mean the Barbie doll?
Yes, the Barbie doll. It’s a very weird product.
I even bought one this year as a silly gift for my wife, a particular themed Barbie. They have all these themed Barbies now, so this was the Frida Kahlo Barbie.
In the ’60s, you were not the audience I was at company. The audience was the parents of 13 year olds, but they have understood that the market is changing. They have understood that nowadays grownups buy each other these kind of gifts just to make each other happy. It’s this very fascinating if you think about the business, but there are many businesses that have lasted that long. It’s just a silly example. It’s easy to relate to it because everyone knows what they are, but just look at Lego, for example. Lego is another company that was targeting kids and now they have expanded into organizations. Corporations are actually paying those people money to buy those Lego bricks that they were once only meant for kids.
I’d love to see organizations that create lasting impact or adapt their products and their services to meet the changing environments. It’s really like coming back to change yourself. You know? Don’t change the world, changed yourself.
That wisdom to change yourself. Is there anything else object of about these teams that somebody from the outside could observe and maybe measure that made them so great?
I think the team itself might appear as slightly dysfunctional to the outer eye because they would argue openly, they would disagree openly, and you might see lots of tension, but also lots of laughter. It might be confusing for a person to look at the team from the outside or just pop in every once in a while and see their interactions. You see that also in a lot of families, right?
There is love, but there is also a dysfunction in every family that I know of anyway. But I think I’m answering your subjective and objective questions completely backwards. The audience listening to this, please understand that the first question was subjective and apparently I answered the objective, and now we’re talking about objective and I’m answering the subjective. But the products that they create, the services that they create, if a person looks at it from the outside, I think the word integrity comes to mind. You see that the product has integrity and not just in terms of components like in a technical term, but also in terms of ethics or what they stand for. It’s very clear that the product is representing the vision of a company that is bigger than just that product.
I’m letting that sink in. I love this idea of integrity, the total alignment of all of the pieces, both the artifacts that we’re building together and all of us is as humans. Like you added, and it’s bigger than just us or the product we built, right? It aligns with everything, the organization, is about bigger than us. Maybe it even has integrity. It’s integral with some big important virtue like love.
Maybe it’s an expression of love.
We’re making it sound like the companies working in the defense industry who are creating weapons can’t possibly have good teams, which is totally not true. Good teams can exist in any industry, in any business really, but it’s the integrity of like the mission of the company, the mission of the business, and the goal that the team is pursuing and the way that they do it.
Yeah. I usually use the word alignment for that and I like this idea, my brain is getting adjusted a little bit here, of calling it integrity. This perfect alignment of everything is perfect integrity.
Alignment is a good word too.
How about some behaviors of one or both of these sets of teams? What are some concrete behaviors that you engaged in together that led to your successes?
Gosh, that’s a lot of behaviors because I’m observant of behaviors and I’m very careful about what is a behavior and what is an interpretation of a behavior. Let’s visualize it. I could be seeing someone who is breathing heavily, shaking their head left or right, nodding up and down, and looking frequently at their watch and not knowing like what that means. I could interpret that observation, that behavior that I’m seeing as, okay, this person is nervous, this person is in a hurry, or maybe this person just really, really needs to go to the bathroom. It could be anything. I could see that behavior and interpret it in so many different ways. The problem is that we often look at some behavior and we’d jump into interpreting it.
Instead of asking the person, “So what does that behavior mean, or what is that behavior telling me,” we say, “Oh, are you nervous? Oh, do you need to go out?” We jump into conclusion and that becomes an interpretation that can cause conflicts. Some of the behaviors that I can say I have seen is, for example, taking long quiet pauses and allowing the other person to finish their thought. If you look at it more deeply, it could be that you’re creating space for all types of thinking, for all types of learning, and for all kinds of communication styles to co-exist together and you’re allowing for that to happen, but that is an interpretation that I’m having. The behavior that I have seen is taking long pauses.
All right. I love this distinction between the behavior and the interpretation. Taking long pauses and that…
Another behavior could be creating information in a transparent way. That is even in schools like over a decade ago where cloud-based collaboration tools were not yet a common thing, we made it so easy for people to access information about what was being developed, what was being decided. There was no decision made behind closed doors without the involvement of the people who were impacted by that decision. We have really embraced the idea of democracy. We were creating a party, like a freaking party, for 30 people, and we made sure that all those 30 people, they had their voices heard. We ave bigger events for a thousand people. For those events, of course, you couldn’t ask every single individual, but we took a sample and we surveyed them and we talked to them.
We made sure that we had everything taken care of. The next word that comes to my mind is a word that actually defines a very fundamental of my personality and that is inclusion. I think one of the things that happens in great teams is that one or several people are constantly thinking about inclusion and behaving in a way that allows everyone to exist fully the way that they are.
I love that definition of inclusion, allowing everybody to exist fully the way that they are. I learn every time I do one of these interviews.
It’s the same for me. We all learn.
My understanding of the word inclusion, we just tweaked it a little bit and I love that.
What was it before? Can I ask questions too?
Inclusion has become a jargony word for companies, for human resources, departments inside companies. It has superseded the previous jargony word diversity. Somebody taught me this, I love this distinction between diversity and inclusion that somebody taught me in totally relates to the way you’re talking about it, diversity is like inviting a lot of different people to your party and inclusion is making sure everybody has a great time.
I like that.
It’s very intentional and I’m reflecting on some of my teams and realizing that I could adjust my behaviors a little bit to make sure more people are included in the things I’m doing or subgroups of us are doing.
This is another thing that I have learned in my self-development journey because inclusion comes naturally to me. I look around. There was a person who was a leadership trainer. I took this class with this guy, I think I was 16, and one of the feedbacks that he gave me was, “You have like a helicopter vision. You see everyone and you make sure that everyone is included.” Then it didn’t really speak to me. I was a child. I was just having a good time. I was having fun in that training that was like outdoors and camping and all of that. But later on it came back to me and I realized that it is indeed a person that I am. I do do that even without thinking about it, but now I’m becoming more intentional about understanding like who are the individuals?
What are their needs? If the group is very, very big, thinking about the subgroups that exists in the community and making sure that their needs are met. One of the really weird things that I do as an individual who presents a lot in different conferences in different places is that when I create presentation slides, I have this tiny app that I use to make sure that the color blind people will see the colors fine. I check every single slide to make sure it that those people are included, I started doing this when I learned that a very big portion of the society are color blind, and I also realized that people don’t say that about themselves. They kind of tend to hide it and cope with it and they don’t say it openly.
Another thing that I tend to do or I did that before creating my slides this way was asking if there was any color blind person and I realized people don’t say, “It’s me.” I changed my behavior and I adapt my own presentations to meet them.
So many nuggets of wisdom. Thank you.
Well, you’re very welcome. Really the same thing applies with remote working. Remote working enables a lot of different kinds of people to be able to contribute and it also removes lots and lots of fears that people have. Interesting examples of that is a close friend of mine who is very, very tall and she had a lot of like self-image issues growing up because she’s that tall. She had problems finding dates and things like that. A great thing that I have noticed that is happening for her working remotely is that people can’t see how tall she is, so they accept her for who she is, the way she talks, the way she thinks, and the way she behaves. She’s an amazing person. Her appearance, like her tallness, doesn’t strike anyone as the significant thing that she thought she was being judged for.
It has also helped her to understand that about herself, that she’s much bigger than her height. It has helped her grow in her understanding, in her acceptance of self-acceptance as well. It’s just an amazing thing with remote working.
That is very cool. On Zoom, nobody knows how tall you are.
Another inclusion story, I heard this from a friend working at a very large company, and he’s been working remotely for many, many years for this company. Until recently, they were mostly working face-to-face and offices with each other and he was this person working remotely, a company based in California. He’s here in Boston. He’s just working at home. They realized that remote workers were a group of people that weren’t experiencing inclusion the same way as in the office workers were, and the company started changing their behaviors to make sure that everybody felt included, whether they worked in the office or not.
Yup. That’s the beauty of a remote first culture. It is a culture of inclusion indeed. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to it helping all organizations to try it for being remote first, even if they do have offices and have remote workers. I really do everything in my power to make sure that every single person in a group that needs to collaborate and that needs to make decisions together is feeling included. That comes in so many different shapes and forms. It’s from access to tools. Some companies think remote working is outsourcing and oftentimes companies do not give all sorts of accesses to the offshore consultants or offshore people that are working with them and that alone creates this barrier. It creates this us versus them feeling that repels us from feeling included.
That’s just something that they do out of concerns for security and privacy and things like that, but that’s just there. But if you have the option to give access to the necessary tools to people, I always recommend to do that. If not, to use alternative ways to make sure that people are involved. There is something I learned from James Priest, the discoverer, I shouldn’t say creator, the discover of Sociocracy, when he talks about one of the patterns in Sociocracy about work that comes with decision making and he talks about how people who are impacted by a decision need to be involved in making that decision. I think even outside of Sociocracy way of thinking, it’s a really valuable thing to make sure that you have in your teamwork, in your organizations.
What other advice do you have for listeners to be able to reproduce this kind of success?
That’s a very good one. I’m going to give you an example before giving my advice if that’s okay.
Someone once asked me, “How can I make people to turn on their camera when we’re having remote meetings?” I said, “You can’t make people do anything. They need to want to do that.” They said, “So, how can I make them want to do that?” That question sent me off for a few minutes and then I thought empathy. They need to empathize with you. They need to understand how their lack of being on camera makes you feel. This is just an example. Please, those of you listening to this, don’t get fixated on the idea of camera. This applies to anything. How can I make them do X? What you need to do is to help them understand what that X, that behavior or how that behavior is impacting you.
The really silly way that I explain to this camera person is that I had my camera on and they had their camera off and I said, “Okay, so I’m going to show you on camera how your behavior is impacting me.” They were intrigued. I turned my head so they could see the back of my head and I kept talking to them so they could hear me fine, but they couldn’t see my face. I said, “That is how it is impacting me.” It feels innocent. It was not really like intrusive and harsh, I know it sounds and feels a little like taking revenge, but in the context, I made sure that we’ve are feeling psychologically safe together before making that experiment. Well, what it did to that person is that it shows them the impact of them not being on camera has on me, which is I really, really want to see your face and I can’t.
It applies to everything. If you’re a company is co-located it and you have satellite people sitting remotely and you’re the remote person and you’re thinking, “How can I make them understand that I don’t feel included? They invite me and I’m always there on that TV in that room. They see me, but I don’t feel included. How can I make them understand it?” You can experiment very lightly. You can say, “You know, guys, let’s do this half an hour meeting fully distributed. Let’s all sit at our own computers and dial into the meeting so that we can all experience the idea of participating in the meeting through the square that is our screens and through the camera and microphone that that is there.” Once they experience that, it opens up for having constructive conversations around it.
Small safe experiments to open up for the idea of emphasizing the distiller and being able to communicate more effectively about whatever is happening in your organization. Inclusion requires high degrees of empathy.
Really cool. I love it. Is there anything else you want to add? Anything else you want to share with listeners? Anything at all?
I want to touch on the idea of responsibility that comes with empathy. In these hard times that we’re living in, in the middle of a pandemic, there is a lot of tension. There is a lot of stress. There is a lot of mixed emotions. Some people might be like I was when I was younger and post process our emotions. In the moment, you might see them smiling and happy and productive and not really understanding how come they don’t feel as bad as you do or how come they don’t feel as good as you do. I think one of the most important things that we need to do right now is to make it okay for people to feel however they are feeling because people go through this crisis differently, and it’s not a crisis that any of us have experienced before. It’s new to all of us.
It’s some levels of grief, some levels of basically overcoming your fears. I want to just encourage people to apply a little extra empathy and to not assume that people are not doing different things because they are irresponsible. They are doing what is best for them first. In the second degree, they’re going to contribute as well as they can to the work, to the relationship, to whatever it is that you expect of them. Don’t go around and blame people and shame people into believing that whatever they’re feeling or whatever they’re doing is wrong and try to just understand that just as much as you feel responsible, they do too.
If listeners would like to get in touch with you, how can they do that?
You can follow me on social media. I go with @RemoteForever on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. On LinkedIn, I usually post as myself. Molood Ceccarelli is my profile. You can easily find me. I’m one of the very few Molood’s in the world who is a woman and majority of my Molood’s in the world are actually dudes. You can also subscribe to my newsletter on my website. It’s RemoteForever.com. If you do fancy and if you’re interested in learning about how to bring remote working into the agile world, you can also participate in my summit where Richard has spoken twice already. These sessions are loved by people and that summit is free for everybody to attend. You can find more information at RemoteForeverSummit.com.
Molood Ceccarelli, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s really been a great pleasure. Thanks.
Thank you so much, Richard Kasperowski.
Hi, friends. Thanks again for listening and remember, to support this podcast, visit my website Kasperowski.com.