Over the course of the pandemic and the elevated reliance on remote working, it became clear to me that I was struggling with a part of office work that I hadn't even considered. In the first few weeks as we were all restricted to our homes, I was all onboard with the new remote setup. I liked the 30 second commute from my bed to work, I liked the new informality of the work environment, and it almost felt as though work had shed some of the corporate office atmosphere that had never really sat well with me.
In time, I began to struggle. While the benefits of remote working were clear, there were some subtleties that I had never considered that made things complicated. Its not easy as a team lead to get a 'read of the room' in a remote environment and even worse, it seemed as though every interaction or call with my team necessarily felt like a meeting, and not an informal question, or quick word to the side so as not to distract someone. I'd never noticed but there was always a key moment after an office meeting where everyone is making their way back to their desks and important informal comments are made, if nothing else but to clear the air, or diffuse any subtle tension that has built up as part of a lengthy planning session.
It was also clear that I was feeling increasingly isolated from both the rest of my team, as well as my peer group. Interactions were confined to semi-formal meetings or individual calls and there was virtually no unstructured social time. We had all the usual early pandemic company-wide call stuff going on, virtual escape rooms etc., however nice these may have been the piece that was missing was the rest of the working day. The time spent in the same environment as people you are working with, and importantly there were no opportunities to have chats with people outside the normal pool of people you work with.
In order to address this, our team began running an open call within a Teams channel. It is typical every day for all of the development team to be on this call at some point. There is no need for people to speak, turn their cameras on or interact with others if they don't wish to. What this does enable though, is a version of an open office environment where people can ask each other for help with people in the room. It allows bystanders to cast an eye over whats being shared and understand any issues that are being worked through. People just start by sharing their screen of Visual Studio and ask the question, and the majority of the time they get the help they need.
Additionally, as this call is happening in a public channel, it also allows anyone else in the business to drop in and ask a question. This means we can quickly field queries from the Support team, ask for someone from Product to drop in to rubber-stamp some work, or provide context or feedback, and generally be available to the business and not locked away behind processes of inquiry and ticket creation.
There are occasions where two people are having a lengthy pair-programming session who elect to peel off into a separate call, or a proper meeting is created based off of an off-the-cuff discussion. This is all possible and doesn't need to consume the group's attention.
I will make a concession that this works incredibly well for a small team, within a relatively small business. I'm keen to understand how this will scale in the future. If these calls will become unwieldy or be dominated by a particularly outspoken individual. If the team are inundated by queries and requests from people keen to circumvent whatever light priority process is in place for addressing their concerns within the context of the business at large. These are all things to watch closely and not let get out of hand. These calls would be missed if they became unmanageable.
The biggest benefits of using group calls is we maintain a very lightweight and agile approach based on conversation over process, we are social and available to the business while also being able to duck out and focus on the task at hand where necessary. I'm hoping we can keep them alive as things grow and change.
- This approach enables conversation instead of process for distributed teams.
- The team are available and accessible to the business, within reason. This is not a method to bypass Product priorities.
- No obligation for team members to join the call if focus time is required, though the majority do.
- As the team scales, there will be a need to encourage short-lived breakout groups.
- Provides vital informal social time.