FrOSCon 2020 was an online event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave me the opportunity to present an extended and heavily updated version of my DevOpsDays 2019 talk.
I normally make my talks available as a video, and a slide deck with full speaker notes. In this case though, I consider it fitting to write the whole thing out, so that you don’t need to watch a full length video in 45 minutes, but can read the whole thing in 15.
You’ll still find links to the recording and deck downpage, as usual.
No, we won’t have a video call for that!
Communications for distributed teams
Hello and welcome, dear FrOScon people — this is my talk on communications in distributed teams. My name is Florian, this is the second time I‘m speaking at FrOScon, and you probably want to know what the hell qualifies me to talk about this specific issue. So:
Why am I talking here?
So, why am I talking about that?
Or rather more precisely, why am I talking about that?
I turned 40 last year, have been in IT for about 20 years now (19 full-time), and out of that I have worked
in 4 successive companies, all of which worked out of offices, for 11 years,
in a completely distributed company, that I founded, for 6 years,
and now, for about three years, I have been running a distributed team that is a business unit of a company that has existed for 15 years and throughout that time, has only ever worked from a single office.
So I think I might have seen and become aware of some of the rather interesting challenges that come with this.
What changed since last time?
I originally wrote and presented this talk for the first time in December 2019. At the time, you probably had forgotten about SARS, had no idea what SARS-CoV2 or COVID-19 were, and many of you were probably working from offices.
And then something like three months later, everything changed and suddenly, this talk became much more relevant to a much greater audience.
And something else happened: a lot of people suddenly started talking about working from home and distributed teams, and a lot of those people who were talking very loudly, had themselves only been working with or managing distributed teams since March. And a fair amount of what you could about the subject then, and can still read now, is complete and utter bullshit.
So there’s one point I actually didn’t make in the initial version of this talk, because I thought it was self-evident. But I have come to the conclusion that to a lot of people it is not, so to rectify this omission from last December — and with apologies for that omission to the wonderful DevOpsDays Tel Aviv crowd, who were my first audience for this talk, let me make this one thing very clear from the outset:
Effective distributed collaboration is not pretending to be in an office while staring into a webcam all day.
You will never be able to capitalize on work as a distributed team unless you kick some office habits. The key to distributed teams being effective is not that they happen to not be in the same place, as you’ll see from the remainder of this talk. So to expect success from the approach that you take the habits of an office, simply remove the element of locality, replace every face to face meeting with a video call and carry on, is ludicrous.
The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll end up with a far better team than a local one would ever be, and everyone has a chance at far better work-life balance, and you don’t waste awful amounts of time and energy and fossil fuels on your commute.
What’s in this talk?
So you’ll find a few general themes throughout this talk:
What modes we have available for communications in teams;
Why distributed teams always collaborate asynchronously, and what communication modes lend themselves to that particularly well;
Why written communication is so important in distributed teams;
And why meetings (like video calls) are a mode of communication that effective distributed teams hardly ever need to use — except for very specific reasons.
But I do want to state one thing upfront:
This is not science.
Nothing of what I am talking about is steeped in any scientific rigour. I present anecdotes, not evidence. I might be mistaking correlation for causation, or the other way round. It’s solely based on my personal experience, and the experience of others I have talked to, watched, or read. Everything I say here is subject to debate and rebuttal, or you can simply have a different opinion.
But it’s definitely not science.
Now with all of that said, let me attempt to give a definition of a distributed team, according to my understanding:
A distributed team is a professional group whose members do not rely on proximity in order to routinely collaborate productively.
Now this is clearly not an ideal definition, not least because it defines something by a negative, and an outside factor to boot: it defines a distributed team by what it does not need to exist to function. But it’s the best definition I’ve been able to come up with.
Now there’s a couple of key words in here:
Professional. I’m talking about teams that work towards a professional goal. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they all work in the same company. They could, for example, all work in different companies collaborating on a joint project, which is what frequently happens in open source software projects. But they’re not pursuing their hobby, they’re doing their jobs.
Routinely. I’m talking about teams that habitually work in a distributed fashion, not the work that goes on in an office-based team when one person is having a work-from-home day.
It is important to understand that that lack of proximity is not only spatial, it is temporal as well, because:
Working in a distributed team means working asynchronously.
If your team is distributed, this is equivalent to saying that it works in an asynchronous fashion, that is to say, that people will work on things in parallel, and a capable distributed team will have just as few synchronization points as absolutely necessary.
The reason for this is not just working in different timezones, but also the fact that everyone will have their own daily routine, and/or have their individual times when they are most productive. Which you will not attempt to synchronize. (Doing so would mean setting the entire team up for failure.)
Now, this doesn’t come for free, nor does it fall in our lap:
Being productive in a distributed team is a skill that most people must learn; it is not innate to us.
People are not born with the ability to work in a distributed team. Humans function best in groups that collaborate in close proximity to one another; it is only very recently that technology has started to enable us to override that to an extent — giving us other benefits like the ability to work from home, or the ability to hire people residing anywhere, provided they have internet connectivity.
So we now can work in teams despite being continental distances away from each other but we do have to acquire the skills to do that. And if we fail to do so, that has a rather grave disadvantage, which is that…
Nothing has as dire an impact on productivity as poor communications.
This is a truism that applies to both distributed and non-distributed teams. Having bad communications will wreck any project, blow any budget, fail any objective. Now note that the reverse is not true: having good communications does not guarantee success. But having bad communications does guarantee failure.
And here is one thing to start with:
A capable distributed team habitually externalises information.
Information is generally far less useful when it is only stored in one person’s head, as opposed to being accessible in a shared system that everyone trusts and can use. If you take important information out of your own head and store it in a medium that allows others to easily find and contextualise it, that’s a win for everyone.
And since we’re all technology people, we typically have multiple facilities to externalise, share, and then access information at our disposal. So let’s see how those compare.
Modes of communication in distributed teams
A distributed team will habitually use multiple modes of communication, relying mostly on those that make sharing, finding, and contextualising information easy, and avoiding those that make it difficult.
In many teams, distributed or not, using chat as a default mode of communication is becoming the norm. Now with an important exception, which I’ll get to near the end of the talk, this is not a symptom of having a particularly dynamic or efficient team; it’s the opposite.
Excessively using chat isn’t being efficient. It’s being lazy.
It’s a symptom of the worst kind of laziness (not malice!): in an attempt to communicate quickly and easily, for yourself, you are really making things harder for everyone, including yourself.
This is because, while sharing information in a chat is extremely easy, it is also a “fire and forget” mode of communications. Chat makes it difficult to find information after the fact. If you’ve ever attempted to scour a busy Slack or IRC archive for a discussion on a specific topic that you only remember to have happened a “few months ago”, you’ll agree with me here.
It’s even more difficult to read a Slack discussion in context, that is to say in relation to other discussions on the same topic, days or weeks earlier or later.
Let’s compare that to other communication modes:
- Email makes it easy to share information with a person or a group from the get-go, but quite difficult to loop people into an ongoing discussion after the fact. Finding information later is just as hard as with chat, and it’s marginally better at contextualizing information than chat (because you get proper threading).
- A wiki and an issue tracker (provided you don’t lock them down with
silly view permissions), in contrast, both make it very easy to
share, find, and contextualise information.
Note that “wiki”, in this context, is shorthand for any facility that allows you to collaboratively edit long-form documents online. That can be an actual wiki like a MediaWiki, but also something like Confluence, or even shared Google Docs.
Likewise, “issue tracker” can mean RT, OTRS, Jira, Taiga, Bugzilla, whatever works for you.
- Video calls are even worse than chat or email, because sharing information works but doesn’t scale — you can’t reasonably have more than 5-or-so people in a video call, and sharing the recording of a full video call is just pointless.
So really, make your wiki and your issue tracker your default mode of communications, and use the others sparingly. (This isn’t meant to be a euphemism for “don’t use them”, as we’ll get to in a moment.)
Is text chat universally useful? No. Is it universally bad? Not that, either. There is a very specific type of situation in which text chat is a good thing:
Use chat for collaboration that requires immediate, interactive mutual feedback.
Using interactive chat is a good idea for the kind of communication that requires immediate, interactive mutual feedback from two or more participants. If that is not the case, chat is not a good idea.
This means that the only thing that chat is good for is communication that is required to be synchronous, and remember, in a distributed team asychronicity is the norm. So using interactive chat for communications needs to be an exceptional event for a distributed team; if it is instead a regular occurrence you’ll make everyone on the team miserable.
For any interaction that does not require feedback that is both immediate and interactive, email, a wiki, or an issue tracker are far superior modes of communication.
The only reason to use DMs for collaboration
is a need for immediate, interactive mutual feedback
Using chat direct messages (DMs) as the default means of communication is utterly braindead. In order for a chat DM to be useful, there is precisely one clearly delineated confluence of events that must occur:
- You need immediate feedback from the other person,
- you need mutual back-and-forth with the other person,
- you don’t want others to follow the conversation.
I can’t emphasize enough that this combination is perfectly valid — but it is exceedingly rare. If you want just a private exchange of ideas with someone, encrypted email will do. If you want to work on something together with one person before you share it with others, restricted view permissions on a wiki page or an issue tracker ticket will work just fine.
If you don’t need confidentiality but you do need interactive and immediate feedback, chances are that you’re working on something urgent, and it is far more likely you’ll eventually need to poll other opinions, than that you won’t. So just use a shared channel from the get-go, that way it’s easier for others to follow the conversation if needed — and they might be able to point out an incorrect assumption that one of you has, before you end up chasing a red herring.
A chat ping is a shoulder tap.
“Pinging” someone in a chat (that is, mentioning their username, which usually triggers a visual or auditory notification), is exactly like walking up to a person, interrupting what they are doing, tapping them on the shoulder, and asking them a question.
No matter whether it is your intention or not, they will feel compelled to answer, relatively promptly (the only exception is when you’ve done this so often that you have conditioned your colleagues to ignore you — congratulations).
This means that you’ve broken their train of thought, yanked them out of a potentially complex task, forced them to redo what they did pre-interruption, or actually have them commit a mistake.
So pinging someone in a chat is something you should only do if you are aware of exactly this risk, and you are convinced that whatever you’re pinging about is more important. Otherwise, to be very blunt, you’ll be seen as the asshole.
Want people to hate you? Send naked pings.
A “naked ping” is the action of sending someone a message consisting only of their username and a marker like “ping”, “hi”, “hey” or similar.
14:00:02Z johndoe: florian: ping [...] 15:56:17Z florian: johndoe: I hate you
Don’t. Just don’t.
Any person who is versed in the use of chat communications will, when subjected to this behavior, be inclined to flay you alive. Infinitely more so if it’s a DM. Do not do this.
Instead, always provide context. Always always always. Don’t say “can I ask you a question, instead, ask the question. If something isn’t urgent, say something like “no urgency.”
14:00:02Z johndoe: florian: can I get your eyes on PR #1422? [...] 15:56:17Z florian: johndoe: done! (was afk for a bit – sick kiddo) 15:56:58Z johndoe: florian: np, ty
It should be self-evident why this is better than naked pings, but if to you it is not, then please read Naked Pings, courtesy of Adam Jackson and Mark McLoughlin.
(Zoom, Hangouts, BlueJeans etc.)
Next, I’d like to talk about video calls. Doesn’t matter what technology you’re using. Could be Zoom, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, Jitsi, whatever.
And I’d like to address this specifically, given the fact that in the current pandemic the use of video calls appears to have skyrocketed.
There’s a very good reason to use video calls: they give you the ability to pick up on nontextual and nonverbal cues from the call participants. But that’s really the only good reason to use them.
Video calls have a significant drawback: until we get reliable automatic speech recognition and transcription, they are only half-on-the-record. Hardly anyone goes to the trouble of preparing a full transcript of a meeting, and if anything, we get perhaps a summary of points discussed and action items agreed to. So even if we keep recordings of every video call we attend, it’s practically impossible to discern, after the fact, what was discussed in a meeting before decisions were made.
It is also practically impossible to find a discussion point that you only have a vague recollection of when it was discussed in a video call, whereas doing so has a much greater probability of success if a discussion took place on any archived text-based medium.
Every video call needs an agenda.
This is, of course, true for any meeting, not just those conducted by video call.
A conversation without an agenda is useless. You want people to know what to expect of the call. You also want to give people the option to prepare for the call, such as doing some research or pulling together some documentation. If you fail to circulate those ahead of time, I can guarantee that the call will be ineffective, and will likely result in a repeat performance.
Until machines get intelligent enough to automatically transcribe and summarise words spoken in a meeting, write notes and a summary of every meeting you attend, and circulate them.
Just as important as an agenda to set the purpose of the meeting, is a set of notes that describes its outcome.
Effective distributed teams understand that the record of a call is what counts, not the call itself. It is not the spoken word that matters, but the written one.
From that follows this consequence:
To be useful, the write-up of a call takes more time and effort than the call itself.
If you think that video calls are any less work than chat meetings or a shared document that’s being edited together or dicussed in comments, think again. The only way a video call is less work, is when everyone’s lazy and the call is, therefore, useless. Every meeting needs notes and a summary, and you need to circulate these notes not only with everyone who attended the meeting, but with everyone who has a need-to-know.
Here’s the standard outline I use for meeting notes:
- Meeting title
- Date, time, attendees
- Discussion points (tabular)
- Action items
Putting an executive summary at the very top is extraordinarily helpful so people can decide if they
- should familiarise themselves with what was discussed, immediately, and possibly respond if they have objections, or
- only want to be aware of what was decided, or
- just keep in the back of their head that a meeting happened, that notes exist, and where they can find them when they need to refer back to them.
Once you do meetings right, you no longer need most of them.
The funny thing is that once you adhere to this standard — and I repeat, having a full and detailed record is the only acceptable standard for video meetings – you’ll note that you can actually skip the meeting altogether, use just a collaboratively edited document instead of your meeting notes, and remove your unnecessary synchronization point.
Video calls for recurring team meetings
There is one thing that I do believe video calls are good for, and that is to use them for recurring meetings as as an opportunity to feel the pulse of your team.
Obviously, a distributed team has few recurring meetings, because they are synchronization points, and we’ve already discussed that we strive to minimize those. So the idea of having daily standups, sprint planning meetings, and sprint retrospectives is fundamentally incompatible with distributed teams. Aside: in my humble opinion, this is also why using Scrum is a terrible idea in distributed teams — not to mention that it’s a terrible idea, period.
However, having perhaps one meeting per week (or maybe even one every two weeks) in a video call is useful precisely for the aforementioned reasons of being able to pick up on nonverbal clues like body language, posture, facial expressions, and tone. If people are stressed out or unhappy, it’ll show. If they are relaxed and productive, that will show too.
Note that these meetings, which of course do follow the same rules about agenda and notes, are not strictly necessary to get the work done. The team I run has one one-hour meeting a week, but whenever that meeting conflicts with anything we skip it and divide up our work via just the circulated coordination notes, and that works too. The meeting really serves the purpose of syncing emotionally, and picking up on nonverbal communications.
Whenever you need to thoroughly brief a group of people on an important matter, consider using a 5-paragraph format.
- Command and Signal
This is a format as it is being used by many armed forces; in NATO parlance it’s called the 5-paragraph field order. Now I’m generally not a fan of applying military thinking to civilian life — after all we shouldn’t forget that the military is an institution that kills people and breaks things, and I say that as a commissioned officer in my own country’s army —, but in this case it’s actually something that can very much be applied to professional communications, with some rather minor modifications:
Let’s break these down in a little detail:
- Situation is about what position we’re in, and why we set out to do what we want to do. You can break this down into three sub-points, like the customer’s situation, the situation of your own company, any extra help that is available, and the current market.
- Objective is what we want to achieve.
- Plan is how we want to achieve it.
- Logistics is about what budget and resources are available, and how they are used.
- Communications is about how you’ll be coordinating among yourselves and with others in order to achieve your goal.
Note that people always have questions on what they’ve just been briefed about. They just might not think of them straight away. Give people time to think through what you’ve just briefed them on, and they will think of good questions. So always have a follow-up round at a later time (2 hours later, the following day, whatever), for which you encourage your group to come back with questions.
Also, use that same follow-up for checking how your briefing came across, by gently quizzing people with questions like
- “by what date do we want to implement X?”, or
- “Joe, what things will you need to coordinate with Jane on?”
This gives you valuable feedback on the quality of your briefing: if your team can’t answer these questions, chances are that you weren’t as clear as you should have been.
Pinching the firehose
Finally, I want to say a few words about what I like to call pinching the figurative firehose you might otherwise be forced to drink from:
The amount of incoming information in a distributed team can be daunting.
When you work in a distributed team, since everyone is on their own schedule and everything is asynchronous, you may be dealing with a constant incoming stream of information — from your colleagues, your reports, your manager, your customers.
There is no way to change this, so what you need to do is apply your own structure to that stream. What follows is not the way to do that, but one way, and you may find another works better for you. But you will need to define and apply some structure, otherwise you’ll feel constantly overwhelmed and run the risk of burning out.
Consider using the “4-D” approach when dealing with incoming information.
(Hat tip to David Allen)
There’s a defined approach for doing this, which I learned about from reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I don’t know if Allen invented the 4-D approach or whether someone came up with it before him, but that’s how I know about it.
In his book, David Allen suggests to apply one of the following four actions to any incoming bit of information:
- Drop means read, understand, and then archive. It’s what you use for anything that doesn’t require any action on your part.
- Delegate is for things that do require action, but not from you. Make sure that it gets to the right person and is understood by them, and make a note for follow-up.
- Defer means it needs doing, and it’s you who needs to do it, but it doesn’t need doing immediately. Enter it into your task list (to use a very generic term, more on this in a bit), and clear it from your inbox.
- Do are the (typically very few) things that remain that need to be done by you, and immediately.
Following this approach does not mean that you’ll never be overwhelmed by the amount of information that you need to process. But it’ll greatly reduce that risk.
“Dropping” things doesn’t mean ignoring them. You still have to read and understand what’s in them, and be able to find them later. So:
Never delete things (except spam).
Only archive them in a way that that keeps them retrievable in the future.
If there something isn’t understandable to you, think it through and look for clarification.
Delegation obviously requires that there is a person you can delegate to. This is not necessarily someone who reports to you; indeed, it might be someone you report to. (You might be asked to deal with something that you have no control over, but your manager does.) So:
Find the right person that can get the task done.
Preemptively send them all the information that you think they might need (and that you have access to), rather than relying on them to ask.
Ask them to acknowledge that they have received what they need.
Make a note to follow up to see if they need anything else, and follow through by seeing the task to completion.
Within your own team, you only ever delegate tasks, not responsibility.
Tasks without follow-up and follow-through are a waste of people’s time.
Do not delegate, or even define, tasks that you are not prepared to follow through on. If you handwave “everyone use encrypted email from now on,” and you’re not even prepared to make that work for your own email account, you might as well just leave it.
And if you do proclaim an objective or rule and then you find yourself unable to see it through — this happens, and is no sign of ineptitude or failure — then loudly and clearly rescind it. It’s far better for you to visibly backtrack, than to be perceived as someone whose pronouncements are safe to ignore.
Deferring simply means that because something you need to do doesn’t need doing immediately, you can do it at a time that suits your schedule.
This means that you’ll need to
add the task immediately to some sort of queue (for email, this can be a folder named “Needs Reply”),
make sure to go through that queue at a later time to prioritize (ideally, right after you’re done with your “Do” tasks, which we’ll get to in a second),
absolutely ensure that you make time to go back and actually do your prioritized tasks, at a time you consider convenient.
And finally, there’ll be your “Do” tasks — stuff that you need to do, and do immediately.
Tell people that you’re doing them, because you’ll want to be uninterrupted. Update your chat status, put some blocked time in your calendar.
Make sure you’ll be uninterrupted. For email, turn off all your notifications.
Plow through all the undropped, undelegated, undeferred items in your inbox until it’s empty.
But what about the watercooler?
The entirety of this talk, up to this point, has focused on professional communications. And among people unfamiliar or unexperienced with work in a distributed team, it is often accepted that teams can communicate well “professionally.”
However, they frequently ask, “what about watercooler chats? What about the many informal discussions that happen at work while people are getting some water or coffee, or sit together over lunch? There’s always so much communication happening at work that’s informal, but is extremely beneficial to everyone.”
Office workers often don’t habitually externalise information. A distributed team that tries that won’t last a week.
Firstly, many companies where information exchange hinges on coffee or cafeteria talk simply don’t give a damn about externalising information. Sure, if 90% of your company’s knowledge is only in people’s heads, you’re dead without the lunchroom.
But if the same thing happens in a distributed team, it never gets off the ground. So, if you have a team that’s functional and productive, because it habitually externalises information, the absence of chit-chat over coffee has zero negative impact on information flow.
However, you may also be interested in the completely non-work-related talk that happens over coffee, that simply contributes to people’s relaxation and well-being.
People working in distributed teams are often introverts. Or they simply choose to have their social relationships outside of work.
I know this might shock some people, but there are plenty of people who can make a terrific contribution to your company, but who dislike the “social” aspect of work. They might thrive when being left alone, with as little small-talk as possible, and ample opportunity to socialize with their friends and family, away from work.
But if you do have people on your team that enjoy having an entirely informal conversation every once in a while, there totally is room for that even in a distributed team. All you need to do is agree on a signal that means “I’m taking a break and I’d be happy to chat with anyone who’s inclined, preferably about non work related things” (or whatever meaning your group agrees on).
This could be
- a keyword on IRC,
- a message to a specific channel, or
- (if you want to get fancy) a bot that updates your group calendar when it receives a message with a particular format.
However, as a word of caution, I’ve actually done this with my team before, and it didn’t catch on — for the simple reason that we almost never took breaks that happened to overlap. But that doesn’t rule out that it works on your team, and also there’s always the remote possibility that two or more people on your team might like to schedule their breaks concurrently.
What you can also do, of course, is have a channel in which you can discuss completely random things that are not work related. And if the rule is that confidential or company-proprietary discussion topics are off-limits there, the channel might as well be public. It might even be Twitter.
The antithesis: ChatOps
I do want to mention one other thing for balance. There is a complete alternative framework for distributed teams working together, and it’s what people refer to as ChatOps.
If a distributed team operates on a ChatOps basis, the interactive text chat is where absolutely everything happens.
Everyone lives in chat all the time, and all issues, alerts and events are piped into the chat.
Everything is discussed in the chat, and everything is also resolved in the chat.
Such a system relies on heavy use of chat bots. For example, if an alert lands in the channel, and the discussion then yields that the proper fix to the problem is to run a specific Ansible playbook, you send an in-chat bot command that kicks off that playbook, and then reports its result.
And this is of course very laudable, because it resolves a major issue with using chat, which is the classic scenario of something being discussed in a chat, someone else then going away for a bit and then coming back saying “I fixed it!”, and nobody else actually understanding what the problem was.
If you make everything explicit and in-band, in becomes easy, in principle, to go back to a previously-solved problem that reappears, and replay the resolution.
When does ChatOps make sense? Here’s a hint: It’s called ChatOps.
So can this make sense? Yes, absolutely. Under what circumstances though? I maintain that this is best suited for when your work tends to be inherently linear with respect to some dimension. For example, if your primary job is to keep a system operational versus the linear passage of time, ChatOps is an excellent approach.
And keeping complex systems operational over time is the definition of, you guessed it, ops. So ChatOps may be a very suitable communication mode for operations, but it’s highly unlikely to be efficient as a generic mode of communication across distributed teams.
And even then I posit it’s difficult to get right, since you’ll have to curb channel sprawl and threading and other things, but’s that’s a whole ‘nother talk and indeed a talk for another speaker, because I don’t lead an ops team.
So to summarize, here are my key points from this talk, in a nutshell — please make these your key takeaways.
- Distributed teams are better than localized teams — not because they’re distributed, but because they’re asynchronous.
- Avoid anything that makes a distributed team run synchronously.
- Use less chat.
- Have fewer meetings.
- Write. Things. Down.