Corona Virus - Home Office

The whole team suddenly works from home. Should we change how we talk to each other?

These days, from one moment to the other, the entire workforce of a company stays at home, which seems to be a mandatory step in regards to the Sars-Cov-2-Virus spread (the cause of the COVID-19 disease). Or, since everyone has raised awareness for any symptoms of sickness, team-members erratically dropping-out.

by Amy Q.

The whole team suddenly works from home. Should we change how we talk to each other?

This situation may have significant effects on many Scrum-Teams that were in the middle of a sprint, or in a critical deadline phase delivering a product or shipping an artifact. The skills of every team member on flexibility and resilience now carry more weight than usual.

In this article, we would like to share some of our experience on how teams can continue delivering excellent quality and ensure efficient collaboration even they do not share rooms and have the chance to speak face to face.

Be careful and more precise on remote conversations

Most of us loves talking - we do it in numerous ways - verbally, through mimics, emotions, tonality, or even just through acting in a certain way. Sharing information this way works perfectly fine from face to face. You can respond quickly, and your counterpart sees it by your reaction if something needs more clarification and can react swiftly.

As soon as you do communication remotely, this game drastically changes its rules. If you talk by phone, you lose the ability to show mimics, gestures, as well as sound and connection quality, may change tonality.

Or on video calls, participants lacking direct-eye-contact, which leads us to continuously balancing between grabbing attention and staying passive. This effect even increases by the fact that in many software for video calls, you cannot hear the voice of your peer while you are talking. Furthermore, not everyone is feeling comfortable knowing a camera is permanently watching them. All of this may introduce stress, leading to unwanted emotional reactions that destroy the goal of the conversation.

The ways of communication mentioned above are synchronous. There is a third and ubiquitous way - texting. Conversations in text form are asynchronous. Asynchronous, in this case, means the sender and receiver of the message do not necessarily share time, context, emotions, or focus. Expressing yourself in written form conceals some pitfalls. The writer can be unprecise by leaving out repeating backgrounds, acting too wordy, or just too emotional. Readers, however, may tend to read between the lines putting their interpretations into it, flying over it to briefly and misread it, or they scan something not understanding the context.

Nevertheless, there are tons of other pros and cons of any channels described above. Let’s not blame the tools while handling them the wrong way. As you follow some simple rules, conversations start to turn into a very positive and productive experience.

Use asynchronous and passive communication as a starting point

While in home-office situations, you don’t know in which case the person you want to approach is. They might be focused on another story, or is eating, or on the phone with a friend of them. Whatever the situation is, you most probably don’t know it. And also the opposite way - they don’t know that you want to approach them.

That’s why we encourage you to use a channel, where the other person can react when their situation is right.

Just drop a line in your general chatting-tool (e.g., Slack) that you would like to start a conversation with them. There it is crucial to follow a particular structure - and don’t just write;

“hey! Call me! I have a question.”

It tells for itself - it’s rude and demanding. But besides of that, receiving a message like this, you would most probably lead to more seesaws and emotions than actually necessary.

As a sender of a “ping”-message, you can follow a simple pattern that is more promising.

Hey! I hope you're doing fine.
I'm currently working on fixing the bug in the login form. I think I found the root cause.
However, I'm unsure about the consequence of my fix. I have put it aside and switched to another story.
Since you implemented this function recently, I'd be happy to challenge my thoughts with you.
Are you up for a call? I'm available until 5 pm.

If we split this into a pattern, it’s as follows:

  1. Start with a greeting. Always start by saying “hi!” if you haven’t started a conversation yet. It is the same thing as approaching someone face to face.
  2. Explain what you’re doing and what is your current status, so the receiver has an understanding of the context.
  3. Briefly tell where you stuck without already going into details. If you are too detailed in this step, the receiver might need to switch its focus.
  4. Describe why you have chosen this receiver got your message. And what you expect from a conversation.
  5. Ask for the readiness for a discussion and which channel you think is most appropriate.
  6. Let the receiver know about your situation and schedule. Doing so can help to align on the pressure of your issue.

Be prepared, repeat the context and describe your goals on the phone

Assuming the receiver above responded and you met for a call. In such a case, it’s the most probable outcome. Having a successful result of a phone call, you can follow a simple structure.

First and foremost, both parties should take some time to prepare before the call has started. Preparation helps to become focused on the topic and maybe already leads to a solution in your head.

If you are on the phone, start with some short, but empathic Smalltalk. The current situation around COVID-19 and working alone with a lack of in-person contact for a while is not easy for everyone. Never forget, that independent from the chosen channel - it’s a human to human interaction.

Nevertheless, at a certain moment, you should start leading the conversation to the topic - usually with words like - Why I called you….

Then repeat the short context and describe your desired outcome/goal of the conversation. Doing so ensures that you have a common ground and subconsciously find the way to this aim during the call. Still, before discussing the topic, ask the other person for an agreement on the objective or any additions.

After discussing the case, the initiator should summarize the conclusions of the call and the agreements on the next steps.

The most crucial action after you hung up the phone is to document the outcome of the call in a ticket, ensuring the gained know-how receives the rest of the team.

Keep conference-calls moderated - be patient, silent, and respectful

If a topic needs collaboration of multiple persons or even the entire team, a conference-call can make sense. It’s like a group discussion - just that everyone’s location is different.

As every group discussion, there should be a topic-owner. While it can be more fluid on in on-site meetings, this becomes quite important on remote conference-calls.

A successful conference-call starts with a topic introduction presented by the moderator. While everyone is hearing everyone in such a call, it is vital that all participants not talking have muted their microphones to reduce unnecessary distraction.

Conference calls can be challenging, and if team members are not very used to attend in such, the reaction time in case of question might be a bit laggy. Therefore, being a bit more patient as a moderator can be helpful.

In case of a question like - “Is this fine for everyone?” - please do not stay passive as a participant while this causes uncertainty by the moderator.

Let’s assume the positive case that you want to say something, prepare your words in your head twice, and leave out unnecessary friction and side blows and avoid off-topic noise. Don’t forget - there is a common goal, and everyone should focus on that.

Before you end a conference call, the moderator should briefly repeat the conclusions and the next steps. Then document the outcome of this call if necessary.

General Thoughts about Conversations

Independent from the concrete hints above, there are some thoughts we all should bear in mind.

Assume Positive Intent

Suddenly not being on-site working together and talking through multiple channels can easily lead to misunderstandings, false interpretations, and frustration. Nevertheless, you should always assume positive intent and get rid of any negative and error-prone viewing by your side. Remind yourself - every single one of the team is giving the best they could.

Reduce Emotions to a Minimum

In remote work, misinterpretations are not resolving as quickly as you would have face to face conversations. While clean and unjudging conversations are simple to understand and are harder to misunderstand. Emotions can cause the exact opposite. In the worst-case scenario, some persons may stop interacting with each other for some time. While this is detected fast on-site. It’s quite hard in remote conditions for other team members or a scrum-master to intervene and to pour oil on troubled water.

Providing Feedback will Improve the Team

If you faced a situation or a conversation that made you feel inadequate or confused. Share it with the team so they can react and improve. It is a new condition, and mistakes will going to happen. Your constructive feedback will help to improve on the situation iteratively.

For sure, the same counts for exceptionally positive experiences. Share your learnings and suggest new improvements. Every team is different, and there is nothing wrong with going your own way.

_Photo Credit @heather_lee_wilson via Twenty20_


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