11 mins

We're going through difficult times. The goal is to keep learning about what makes the team work well together and to find new, interesting ways to make things better.

ON DEMAND Talks & Panels
graphic element

Set your engineering leadership compass for 2021

All LeadDev Live sessions are now available on demand, and completely free.

Remember the sense of dread you felt when you realized you wouldn’t be returning to the office anytime soon? Even though I’ve worked remotely for the last two and a half years, I panicked as I read article after article listing the major tech companies that were postponing their returns to the office. I observed a new wave of concerns with my team: parents figuring out childcare and school for the next year, signs of burnout because people were working longer hours and taking less vacation, and exhaustion around Zoom meetings since coworkers were now spending more time online and using video chat outside of work too. The tools and processes we had set up to support the team weren’t enough any more.

The signs have become clear that we need to try new solutions; we need to address the problems that we thought would have been solved by returning to the office. Grabbing coffee with a coworker or moving the conversation to a meeting room for a brainstorming session with your team cannot be magically replaced with a few virtual team building exercises – it doesn’t matter how many Google searches you do! 

Since we know a magic solution doesn’t exist, let’s explore what we can try to solve the issues that working remotely exacerbates. Whether you’re a manager, tech lead, or a strong influencer on the team, this is for you.

Start with small changes

Your team’s daily and weekly activities have the most potential to change and improve culture. Here are some common issues I’ve experienced, and how you can address them in your own team.

Meeting exhaustion

The biggest problem I’ve experienced is having too many meetings, and knowing that it’s only getting worse. Due to an endless amount of meetings, I haven't had the time or headspace to adjust my calendar, which reinforces the problem. So instead of trying to change that, I’ve channeled my secret talent: scheduling meetings to tell other people how to cut down their endless amounts of meetings.

Recently, my manager group played a game called Cancel that Meeting where we paired up with a partner to review each other’s calendars and negotiate reducing the number of meetings on their calendar. (Yes, this is how managers have fun these days.) At the end of the game we calculated the number of hours we eliminated for each person, and gave each other points for (a) the number of hours we personally cancelled and (b) the number of hours we convinced the other to cancel. In just 15 minutes, we averaged removing 4 hours of meetings per week – that’s a half-day now free! If you want to know who the winners were, it was all of the people who would have been in those meetings. This was fun, masochistic, and eye-opening. I highly recommend trying it out. All you need is a teammate to pair with (or a strong internal voice). 

Need questions to get started? Here are some to challenge your colleague or yourself:

  • How much time is spent on status updates or going over a prompt with each member of the team during the meeting? If it’s ineffective for people to share status updates ahead of time, try to incorporate that time into the meeting. Allow meeting attendees to type their statuses in five minutes and allow others to read them. It’s much faster than sharing out loud! This reduced one of my team meetings by about 15 minutes, and while that sounds small, it adds up over time.
  • What needs to happen to cut the meeting time in half? I managed to cut another meeting in half by having the organizer include the updates they wanted to share in the agenda before the meeting began. In the first five minutes of the meeting, they had the attendees read the updates in silence and encouraged them to leave questions or comments in the shared document.
  • What would happen if you attended every other meeting? Teams might benefit from managers decreasing the frequency of their attendance from every meeting to every other meeting, and let the team meet without them. For example, with team retrospectives, the reduced attendance by a manager could give the team more opportunities to problem solve without depending on or worrying about what the manager is thinking the right solution is.
  • Can any meetings be combined? Recently, my company held information-gathering meetings on issues that were important to the company; they were called “listening tours”. When I attended one, I noticed that I was learning more from my peers in the meeting than I would have learned from a 1:1. I also noticed I had the chance to listen to multiple people and confirm some concerns I thought I was experiencing alone. The concept of grouping meetings around a topic might be a great option for meetings with leadership or skip-level meetings between people and their manager’s manager etc.
  • Could this meeting be an email, Slack message, doc, or something else? Some meetings don’t need to be shortened or combined, they need to be cut entirely. An easy rule to follow is this: if the last two meetings didn’t have a full agenda or need to involve everyone in the meeting, it’s probably worth cutting. I no longer keep meetings that don’t have a clear agenda and if there’s reluctance in cutting the meeting altogether, I try to phase it out over time by reducing the frequency until I can ask ‘do we need this meeting anymore?’ It’s almost like refactoring out a section of code.

Things are getting stale

The tricks and tools you used before aren’t working anymore: people aren’t as into Zoom backgrounds, and no one’s coming to the Jackbox Party hours. It’s time to make some changes. Here are some that we’ve made in the last few months to help counter the “how long is it going to be like this” blues. 
 

  • Hold your next team sync or discussion in a different environment. There are plenty of apps for meeting in virtual environments that keep things fun and silly. Recently, our team tried having breakout discussions with YORB (warning: it made me a bit dizzy but it was strangely fun to turn my head to listen to someone again) and metaversehq.com (tip: make sure it’s only open in a single tab). My team’s considering trying TandemGather, and OnlineTown too!
  • Step up your facilitator game. Meeting rooms can get stale and boring. Usually with in-person meetings, the way to keep things fresh is to incorporate hands-on activities like sticky notes, breakouts, and writing on a whiteboard. Luckily, online tools can provide a similar experience and are a great way to switch it up. I love using MiroFigma, and FunRetro because I get to move things around in a virtual space and I don’t have to clean up afterwards. 
  • Get silly. We have a special “water cooler” channel at work to share and talk about silly, fun things like creating new emojis to use in Slack, memes and gifs, or sharing pictures from our weekend. Because Slack also allows you to upload emojis, uploading and discovering them have been excellent outlets for adventure and humor. I always get a jolt of delight every time I find a surprising but strange, new emoji that I haven’t seen my coworkers use. It may seem odd to take delight in finding new emojis, but the oddness is the point! Offices often have displayed silly photos or signs as a way to surprise and delight, and since we’re virtual, we have emojis and video chat filters to keep things fun.

Bonding, but make it async

Whether your team just went through a reorganization, your company or department’s put off their next in-person summit, or you just miss the team lunches and coffees, we’re just not bonding the way we used to. Now that we’re spread across different time zones, we need more asynchronous-friendly ways to bond. Here are a few that have worked for me.

  • Post a question of the day. My department started a “question of the day” daily topic of discussion where optional questions prompt people to hold conversations and share something about themselves e.g. what are your frequently used emojis? What song is stuck in your head? What’s your most random recent online purchase? I used to bring up topics like this at lunch for fun, so it’s nice to find a new way to do the same thing. 
  • Share your weekend or fun events. I genuinely miss small talk and asking people how their weekend was, but I’m also trying to use my meeting time wisely. Luckily, the water cooler channel (mentioned in the previous section) is a great way to foster these conversations. A coworker set up a “how was your weekend” bot for Monday mornings that worked like a charm. I noticed the trick was to get 2-3 people to try something out with us, and that was enough to convince tons of others to participate.
  • Create channels for common interests. One of the wonderful things about the remote world is that you get to interact with people in your company that you might not have had the opportunity to otherwise. I experienced this when I recently searched through our available Slack channels and joined a few new ones, including #cooking, #liquor, #plants, and #beauty. In particular, #cooking gave me tons of inspiration to retry some of my Mom’s recipes and led me to share a few recipes with my Mom also! The Batra households have recently gotten really into the Dahi Toast recipe by Priya Krishna.

Understanding the right constraints

Now that you have a few ideas to try, it’s a good time to check your solutions across constraints your team might have in order to make sure your ideas are inclusive of the team. For example, if you host a meeting or hangout after work hours, consider that some coworkers have limitations on their hours due to things like parenting and caretaking responsibilities. If you try a new tool for collaboration, consider including alternatives that account for coworkers’ disabilities, WiFi limitations, and invisible illnesses. 

Evaluating and tracking your changes

There are plenty of ways to augment and improve our daily interactions on a team but only a few that might actually work. So if you’ve got a pen and paper, let’s think about the following three questions and draw out the table below:

  • How did your team interact before?
  • How does your team interact now?
  • What do you feel is missing or problematic?


Because a team interacts in different ways depending on the situation, it makes more sense to think about these questions for each of the ways your team interacts. That’s why it’s helpful for me to evaluate by drawing up a table, where the columns represent the situations that matter for your team. I’ve provided a few situations as examples for your columns to help you get started.

 

Bond about non-working topics

Collaborate on complicated topics

Unblock an urgent topic

How did your team interact before?

 

 

 

How does your team interact now?

 

 

 

What do you feel is missing or problematic?

 

 

 


If this seems difficult to fill out, I don’t blame you. I’ve noticed that often I don’t even have the right answers for what’s missing or problematic. Sending out a message on the team chat, opening up a discussion, or asking for a few submissions on a survey allows me to hear directly from my team on what their pain points are instead of me guessing. I’d rather go to the source and get a better picture that way. 

Try one thing and have fun

Now that I’ve given you some ideas to try and a table to help you organize your thoughts, you’ve got to decide what to do. After getting into a lot of trouble with my past teams (bless them for being patient with my overeagerness), my advice is to pick one thing to try and give the team time before introducing the next change. If anyone’s played the game Jenga, changing the team culture effectively feels like that game to me. Winning Jenga requires you to look at the tower of blocks, predict which block is the easiest to remove, remove it carefully, place it on the top of the tower, hold your breath, and wait for the tower to stabilize before even placing your elbows back on the table. In the same way, there are plenty of opportunities to change how the team works but to really improve the team culture, it’s best to see which change is the easiest to make, carefully make the change with lots of careful planning and clear communication of your intentions, and let the team stabilize before trying a new one.

The goal is to keep learning about what makes the team work well together and to find new, interesting ways to make things better. We’re going through difficult times. Nurturing team culture has simultaneously become more needed and more difficult because we can only control a limited set of factors. It’s during trying times that I remind myself why I’m doing this and that my favorite part of my job is finding creative solutions to tough problems. And finding creative solutions is fun! My team loves when I get the mischievous sparkle in my eye and want to try something new, and it’s incredibly rewarding when things go well. And if they don’t go well, that’s ok. You don’t have to get it right the first time. A resilient team will handle a few failed experiments just fine. Decide what you’re optimizing for, pick one thing to try, be kind and patient with yourself, and have fun.