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The Room Where It Happens
I started a new job recently, which, under normal circumstances, would be an exciting, overwhelming, and moderately stressful experience: full of first impressions, rounds of intros, opaque project codenames, fruitless snack-finding expeditions, and an unrelenting firehose of documents to read. It feels to me like a Silicon-Valley-infused version of a first day at school—sadly without the crisp bite of September in the air or the turning of the leaves that I grew up with in Massachusetts. I’m also just now realizing that, fittingly, all of the past three times I’ve started a new job have been in September.
Of course, as our current circumstances seem to have strayed a fair bit afield of normal, I’ve been onboarding to my new role and team completely remotely. Changing jobs is already kind of a strange experience, and doing it remotely has been particularly eye-opening. I thought it’d be worth starting to share some thoughts and tips on remote work that I’ve gathered from both the past few weeks and from the past several months. Perhaps you’ll also see some future topics on this theme.
When I was working from an actual corporate office (in the Before Times™), I sometimes tried to imagine a typical day in our open office space recorded as a birds-eye time-lapse: the buzzing, vibrating fidgeting of engineers at their keyboards, the Brownian motion of procrastinating souls grazing for some coffee or company (or both), the sudden exodus to the cafeteria at lunch time. I was most intrigued by the idea of visualizing the “heartbeat” of the work day—every 30 minutes, the clockwork pulse of people coming and going from 1:1s, team meetings, tech talks, etc.
Imagine that you’ve just joined a new team and you’re all working in the same office. You’re sitting at your desk, and all of a sudden several of the people around you grab their laptops and start standing up. Hopefully one of your new teammates notices your inquisitive stare and explains that they’re about to go to an ad-hoc brainstorm with some members of a partnering team, and that you should probably come along too.
A physical office holds people, objects, and plenty of noise, but it also functions as a high-bandwidth hub for ambient situational awareness. I’ve seen managers and admins go to great lengths to make sure people working on closely related things are sitting close together, making it easier to both actively and passively transmit information: two colleagues debugging a problem a few desks away might draw in a third pair of eyes, or meeting attendees getting up to walk over to a conference room might cue someone else who probably should have been invited anyways. At an even more primitive level, the simple presence of colleagues clicking and typing away at their desks serves as a signal that “yes, people are working.”
When teams are working remotely, without a shared physical space, where then, is the digital equivalent of the Room Where It Happens? If you wanted to observe one single communication channel as a representation of the activity and happenings of a working group, which would it be? Slack? Email? Video? Is there such a place?
At my previous company, two (out of six) members of my team had been working fully remotely for several years before the whole company went remote. As a result, we all aimed to make sure team-level communication happened in our team channel in Slack by default, instead of in-person. I think a large part of this working well was due to the leadership by example from our remote teammates, who helped set the tone and culture of our team’s Slack usage; for example, they were never shy about starting threads for “small” technical questions and regularly took the time to compose clear messages that made context and assumptions explicit.
When I first joined the team, we had a team-specific Slack channel that was also public to the whole company, so anyone could join. This made it easy for people to discuss topics that spanned team boundaries, to “subscribe” to areas of interest by observing chat, and generally create a culture of transparency-by-default. This seemed like the norm for our Slack channels at the time, likely because the company was still fairly small. This decision also led to our team’s channel growing to have over 100 members, with a small active core group of users and a long tail of less frequent participants.
Eventually, I noticed that we weren’t using our Slack channel as often as I felt we should; we were resorting to DMs (direct messages), or worse, letting questions go unasked and unanswered instead. I started a discussion with my team and we realized that our team channel’s large public audience was changing our perception of the “bar” for chat. We didn’t want to spam that many people with engineering minutiae (“hey can you look at my diff?”), personal logistics (“will be OOO this afternoon”), and off-topic banter (<insert endless stream of animated memes>). Sending a message to our channel felt less like turning around in your chair to ask a question and more like stepping up to a podium to give a speech.
We eventually made the decision to create a separate private channel only for our team and keep the public-facing channel as our virtual “front-door” for interfacing with other teams and other broader communications. None of us were happy about losing some of the transparency that came with our previous single-channel setup, but we did find that the new private channel was far livelier and easier to use for day-to-day intra-team communication. For us, our internal team Slack channel became our virtual office, where most of “it” happened. Our channel was far livelier than email (also largely true of the rest of the company), and frequently livelier than our physical office space—we might all be quietly sitting at our desks while urgently debugging a customer issue over Slack. I firmly believe that a team’s primary working “space” should be easily and equally accessible by all of its members, which for us was our team Slack channel.
Overall, I’m glad we took a thoughtful look at how we were communicating and made the changes we did. On your team, where is your “room where it happens”? If you had a small question for your team, where would you go? How would you describe it?
What kind of communication channel are you using?
What kind of features (audio, video, presence, etc) does it have?
How does one access it? Is it private or public-by-default?
What’s happening in your room?
How large is the audience? How many are active participants?
Who is participating and how do they engage?
What kinds of topics tend to come up most frequently?
What is the overall tone? Casual? Serious? Encouraging? Critical?
What is the pace or rhythm of the conversation? Steady chatter throughout the day? A ghost town?
Paying attention to your team’s primary communication channels can help surface problems and opportunities for improvements. For us, the audience size and public nature of our original team channel—which had served the team well early on—were making it difficult to discuss day-to-day, hour-to-hour team topics. Deliberately creating a new private channel gave us a lot more room for team-level things to happen. What might you improve for your team? Maybe you feel like you and your colleagues would benefit from faster ways of resolving open issues and questions, or maybe there’s so much chatter that it’s hard to tell what’s relevant? Maybe it’s difficult to ask questions because there’s a pattern of harsh criticism, or maybe it’s difficult to bring up real issues because of a focus on being cheerful and positive? If there’s something you’d like to improve about how your team is meeting, perhaps it might be worth changing how you arrange the venue, the menu, the seating?