The Art of Paying Attention: Communicating Smarter on Remote Teams
December 6, 2017 –
I start my workday by greeting unconscious people I’ve never met.
Then I get into a fight with a robot.
This is to say: at Convert, we communicate a bit differently.
Here, we’re a totally remote team, working nearly totally flexible hours. We’re based in 9 different countries, and work across 11 time zones.
And yet — we know each other. And we know how to communicate. “Walking in” 3 months ago for my first day, I was amazed to find how well, how seamlessly, and how empathetically, the team seems to get on.
This how it all works.
- How robots remind of us to communicate as humans.
- How we “humblebrag” and share our “fuckups.”
- The tools we use to work “in the open” — even if across time zones and behind laptops.
Everybody and their Tech Crunch-subscribing mother uses Slack — and for good reason.
It’s slick, it’s efficient, it’s easy to organize. The mobile app works well. Even the little dinging notifications are generally pleasant sounding.
If Convert had a traditional office, slack would be our conference room, and kitchen, and meeting room, and bulletin board. Here’s how we use it to make the “online” feel like the “in person.”
Our slackbot, strangely, plays the role of the cheerleader, the marshal, and the comic.
I can never keep track of what, exactly, triggers it — but I can break down the command prompts into a few categories: for the laughs, and for the mission.
In the latter category, we have the big rule: gender neutral language.
Convert has a dedicated Conscious Business policy — which is multi-faceted and always developing. But a big part of it is gender neutrality — which is core to our hiring process, to our social mission, and to our language.
So slackbot gives us “gentle” reminders if we screw this up.
(By “us,” I mostly mean “me.” Slackbot mostly gives me gentle reminders when I screw this up).
Typing “dude,” “bro,” or “guys” prompts a swift “did you mean gang?” or “did you mean pals?” — or a handful of other gender neutral suggestions. All of which, lately, I’ve become innately familiar with.
Other triggers are more fun (read: rely heavily on gifs). “Damn” prompts gif responses — generally ones in which people are injured. “Online” prompts gifs of people suiting up, or getting to work, and sometimes, inexplicably, an incredulous look from The Dude.
“Weather” and “hot” prompts more slackbot sass:
Now, I know these just look like jokes.
And you might be wondering: “What’s so innovative about a bot that over-relies on gif humor?”
But honestly, they’re not just jokes. And it took me a few months to understand how we really program slackbot.
We use slackbot as a way to show we listen to each other. As a way to show that we’re paying attention.
When slackbot suggested I address the team as “y’all” — I complained.
Slackbot didn’t forget (or, at least, Dennis, who programmed the command, didn’t).
And then when I lamented that “y’all” is not a proper plural form, slackbot adapted.
When Converters get sick, slackbot joins the empathetic human chorus:
And when Converters celebrate each other, slackbot celebrates with them. (Sometimes in ways which are, admittedly, a little strange).
In the end: we use slackbot in a manner that’s subtle, and undiscussed, but important. It’s a robot that reminds us to interact in ways that are human.
So I love the HeyTaco! bot for two reasons: 1) I like to win things. 2) I like tacos.
If you’re not familiar: “Hey Taco” is a slackbot that allows you to give a teammate “props” with a simple “@” command and emoji.
(Which I know, sounds a little ridiculous when you type it out).
But here’s why it’s cool: it encourages you to encourage each other. There becomes a set protocol for saying “Hey–you did an awesome job.” And that makes saying “hey you did an awesome job” easy and habitual.
Whenever someone throws a taco your way, the Hey Taco bot alerts you with a message. Plus, it links you out to your team leaderboard — which is just fun.
(Even if you’re me, and in 8th place).
Hey Taco also allows you to “cash in” tacos for team rewards — which you can customize. But it’s real rewards aren’t tangible ones. It’s breeding a culture of positivity and encouragement through small, congratulatory actions.
And through tacos.
The least practical channels in the Convert slack tend to be the most important.
They’re the human foundations to our primarily digital communication.
At Convert, we work on a Holacracy system — which means we work autonomously. We own our “spheres.” There’s no real approval process, or excessive back-and-forth.
In theory, this means, I can, if I want, sit at my desk and do my work and publish my articles and finish my tasks and interact, throughout the day, with absolutely no one.
But I don’t. Because that’s boring.
And Converters aren’t boring.
And because we’re not boring — we tend to like to talk to each other. The water cooler is where we do that.
I usually send pictures from my travels. Other people send photos of their kids. Or food. Or a course they’re taking. Or hikes or strange laptop set ups or swanky Airbnbs or more food.
And honestly — it’s a big win for company culture because it makes me look forward to logging onto slack. The big red notifications aren’t just scary — they’re updates from friends.
I’ve found that at Convert, the fuckups we share take a few different forms. Sometimes, they’re “general life” stuff (ie. I spent 4 hours at the DMV). Sometimes they’re actual “I wasn’t great at my job” stuff.
I am still bad at sharing my fuckups.
In a remote team: you have to get over that.
The fuckups channel makes it easier.
Mostly, because it’s a comfort to see people’s mistakes out in the open. And it’s a comfort to see that no one dwells on them.
No-one condemns you. You don’t get “reported” or “suspended” or “in trouble.”
You usually, just get emojis.
(And some more sass from slackbot)
And then we have a channel for the opposite!
Here, we brag for ourselves:
We brag for the company:
And we brag for each other.
Gifs and tacos and hearts are shared.
And honestly, it’s just a nice, congratulatory place to hangout. Whenever I see new notifications from this channel — I’m pretty thrilled. And I’m pretty proud of some of the things my coworkers have accomplished.
Every company should have a space like that.
And how about you?
- How can we automate humanly? Attentively? What can we “build in” that shows “I’m paying attention.”
- What does our company stand for? How can we reinforce that in the way we communicate?
- How do we remind ourselves to give positive feedback? And how do we encourage ourselves to admit our mistakes?
- Where is our space to talk as humans — not just as coworkers?
My first few weeks at Convert, pretty much every answer to every question was: Asana.
- Hey can I get WordPress access? Ask Diego, in Asana.
- Where do I find the blog posts in edit? Content channel, in Asana.
- Which page had the copy you wanted me to look over? I assigned it to you, in Asana.
- What do I need to do before the meeting? *exasperated sigh* Just check Asana, alright?
If you’re not familiar with Asana, it’s project management software. The building blocks are boards, and projects, and tasks. The point of all these things is: you can make notes with stuff to do — assign them to people, give due dates, leave comments, favorite tasks, organize them by topic, and get. your. act. together.
We use Asana for just about any task that takes more than a minute. If you tell me to do something in Slack — I’ll be honest, I’ll forget it. If you put it in Asana — I will see the big ugly red due date staring at me, and I’ll get moving.
So every Friday, Asana gives me this little reminder:
This does a couple things.
- It makes my brain go “Oh god. What DID I do this week?” I am then forced to reflect — sometimes with pride, sometimes with panic — and earnestly evaluate what progress I’ve made.
- It reminds of me of the fact that I am not working in isolation. That people depend on knowing how my projects are coming. And I should probably, you know, keep them posted.
Friday updates are nice because they’re public facing. You can subscribe to see updates from anyone. And just about anyone can see updates for you. It’s a nice, companywide, 10-second, answer to the question: “How did your week go?”
But beyond that, they create a culture of accountability — not just publicly, but personally. They force you to celebrate your own progress, and confront your own roadblocks.
And they allow you to look back at what you’ve accomplished, or what’s eaten up too much of your time.
If I want to see what we decided on, during any meeting, at any point stretching back to the dawn of time — I can find it in Asana.
And by “the dawn of time” I mean “9ish months ago when we started this whole system.”
Still — weekly meeting’s structure, agendas, and notes—all live pretty nicely, and track-ably in a set Asana project.
According to our Holacracy model — we have standardized “Tactical” and “Governance” meetings. If you know Holacracy — you know that it’s very structured. There’s a check-in round, there are checklists, there are metrics. There’s an agenda to set. And there’s a proper order in which to do all of this, so that the meeting runs smoothly.
It’s a lot to keep track of. Luckily, Asana more or less does it for us.
And how about you?
Where is your “no nonsense, get shit done” space? How do you use it to keep yourself on task?
What keeps your meetings on track? And who takes your meeting notes? Where do they live? Are they easy to access?
WITH VOICES & FACES
So we’re not in the same place — and not all the gifs sent over slack can make up for that.
But we feel like we come pretty close when we make the time to talk.
I’ve spent a lot of time working remotely. One thing I notice we do differently? People keep their webcams on, unless their internet quality is exceptionally bad. If you stumble into any of our meetings, you’ll see people in coworking spaces, or in cars, or cafes, or from their decks. I’ve taken a call from a tent. Visibility is more important than formality.
Other things we do differently are…
Full disclosure: I’ve never done a buddy call correctly.
Because I’ve always gone over of time.
Turns out, your coworkers are interesting. Buddy calls is our designated, mandated, once-a-month chance, to talk about anything but work. As a result, I know now something about trains through rural Canada, interior design for the mobility challenged, and tea. But, more important, I know who my colleagues are and what they care about.
Buddy calls are ramped up more frequently for new members. That way, you get to know the team better, faster — and you feel more comfortable reaching out with questions. They’re also good practice for the Convert-honored art of navigating timezones, and learning to make your calendar play well with others’.
Wins & Miseries:
Every week we have a 30 minute hangouts meeting called “Share Your Wins and Miseries” (which, I know, isn’t the most creative title). It acts, more or less, as the “humble_brag/fuckups” channel in real life. Or, like, a team wide buddy call. Basically, we sit around and say, one by one: what went well for us this week, and what went poorly.
Sometimes we just end up talking about stuff.
In the same vein as our channels: it’s a space where people share work stuff, or life stuff. But the important part is — you get to see people empathize, and react, to your wins and losses in, more or less, “real life.”
And how about you?
- What can we do to make my remote team feel less isolated?
- Do we see value in dedicating a few work hours to take a break from work?
So what’s the big idea?
So that was a lot.
A lot of tools and processes and rules.
But honestly — tools and processes are all sort of irrelevant.
At Convert, these things only work because we work with them.
Slackbot telling you “it hopes you feel better” would feel pretty lousy if your coworkers didn’t also chime in. #Watercooler works because we share. Asana works because we sent out “likes,” and are transparent enough to give updates.
Tools are only as good as the teams that use them. But when you have a great team, using great tools — that’s when you can really build something.