Getting on the same page in an all-remote design team

Although the variety of tools available to fully distributed teams is staggering — everything from virtual stand-ups, sit-downs, async, sync, todo, not-todo, audio plus screen, all video, post-it shares, partial video, full video, AR, VR, and so forth — it’s not an easy to thing to connect 1-to-many. 

However connecting 1:1 is easy because there’s no ambiguity with respect to who’s communicating. That goes for all-remote or all-premise the same way. Direct, unfiltered communication is super powerful.

But when you’re in a group larger than two, then all-remote degrades much quicker than all-premise. I believe it’s because of the following reasons:

  1. Spatial cues vanish and it gets hard to coordinate a shared view of everyone in the same space. The left, right, back, front of a room aren’t usable as orienting devices. You can’t use your eyes to look to someone and they know you’re looking at them — so gaze doesn’t matter. In theory VR- and AR-based systems will help to solve this.
  2. Everyone isn’t comfortable with their video on and/or their audio on. When working remotely there may be a background noise so you need to turn the mike on mute; you or the room your in may not look great, so you turn the camera off. It’s hard to gauge the attention level of the room so misunderstanding forms more easily.
  3. Async is the norm, so being in sync mode feels extra constraining and slow. Over time when you are working all-remote, you come to get used to communicating async and get the benefits of being able to manage multiple streams of communication. So being in sync mode can feel slow and cumbersome.

These detractions aside, sync space can be useful for getting on the same page because it’s a significant investment by everyone in being co-present. It’s the closest thing to a handshake in an all-distributed environment to just show up in the same sector of spacetime.

When working in sync-time, the importance of timezone inclusivity comes to the foreground. This was an early suggestion made by my Automattic colleague Paolo Belcastro — that I’m forever grateful he gave me. I tried running in three timezones a while for my all-hands as an experiment, but over time I realized that two worked fine. So whenever I run an all-hands in design, I run it twice with identical content: one in US/EMEA and another in APAC/US.

Looking back to my early days (a year ago 😉 ) I realize that I overdid my sync time asks in the beginning, and so I scaled them back because it didn’t fit the overall culture. But I’ve kept some regular sync time, and I keep experimenting with how to make async 1-to-many exchanges as impactful as sync exchanges can be. How? I try to keep listening to my constituents, and I am iterating as I blog! —JM