Remote Collaboration Advice from Former Pivots
Pivotal is famous (or notorious?) for its pairing culture. It was one of the reasons I joined back in 2016, and the interpersonal skills I picked up through continuous collaboration will always stick with me. As companies all over the world prepare for new health risks created by COVID-19, I asked some former colleagues in the Pivotal Alumni Slack for their best tips around how to effectively and sustainably collaborate when you’re working remotely.
Of course the caveat here is that these are tools and processes that have generally worked for us, because they complement the way that Pivotal approaches product development. The exact tools and processes you adopt will look a little different, and that’s OK! The key thing is to make sure you have cultural feedback loops in place to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Retrospectives (if you don’t do them now, start with once a week, then iterate on the cadence) and health checks are important to track that things are trending in the right direction.
- If possible, invest in having at least two monitors, so you can have video on while working on other things. It takes a little bit of time to get used to, but being able to see your teammates on camera goes a long way towards improving communication and building rapport.
- I personally like having a gaming headset with hardware mute, such as this one by Sennheiser. The hardware mute gives you the ability to quickly shut your mic on and off without fumbling through desktop application windows, but more importantly, it’s a strong visual cue that you want to say something in a group chat, when latency makes “jumping in” already a socially challenging thing to do.
- Haven’t used it myself, but one person recommended the Ipevo Ziggi camera which is designed for documents, but has a good 360 degree swivel and stable base that makes it easy to adjust in any direction, and usable like a regular webcam.
- The AirPods Pro are a pricier option, but they’re comfortable enough to wear all day and the built-in microphones pick up sound surprisingly well.
- If you have upper back and shoulder issues like me, I’d recommend getting an external keyboard and not using the built-in Mac keyboard and screen. I haven’t tried a split ergonomic keyboard yet but that may be my next step.
- We primarily use Zoom for all team meetings and conferences, and Slack, Google Docs, and email for asynchronous written communication. A few teams that I’ve worked on keep a Zoom room open all day in the background, so anyone can just ambiently chatter into it. This has had mixed success - it depends a lot on the working style of the individuals.
- I’ve also seen teams use TeamSpeak which has the ability to dynamically organize people into different channels. This can help with impromptu 1-to-1 conversations, assuming everyone is in TeamSpeak by default all day.
- Miro (formerly Realtimeboard) is the best online tool we found for doing all the things we wanted to do with physical whiteboards and post-its. I’ve also used it for other things since then, including running a conference talk selection process with 7 people at the same time!
- Tuple was recommended by a few folks as a good pair-programming tool.
- I generally used Vim as my text editor, and asked my pair to SSH into my machine, then attach the same tmux session so she could edit the file in her terminal at the same time. This also enables each person to keep their own Vim config.
- For retrospectives, some folks just use a Google Doc. I liked using a tool called Postfacto. You’ll have to host it yourself though.
- “Over-communicate!” was a theme I heard when soliciting advice. There is value to setting strong norms around erring on the side of explaining more, and setting up more dedicated communication channels (Slack channels, etc), but there’s also a balance to be struck. Too many channels can lead to communication becoming siloed, and too much verbosity in whatever you use to track work (tickets, stories, etc.) can crowd out real-time chatting.
- Make your written communication mediums feel like your space. Encourage people to add custom emojis and set up spaces purely for fun, like channels for sharing pictures of pets.
- When discussing work to be done, try to get into the habit of communicating about outcomes, rather than specific implementation, unless a story is literally in the middle of a handover. Written communication shouldn’t replace critical thinking, or the trust that team members need to place in one another to make good decisions.
- Deliberately schedule time for “watercooler” conversation!
- Consider installing the Donut Slack app which will randomly pair up people each week to (virtually) grab a donut.
- Before and after morning standups, allow and encourage people to linger and chat about non-work-related things. Don’t be too concerned with ending the standup meeting.
- If you have a mix of people in office and remote still, this policy is really powerful: If one person is remote, everyone is remote. Otherwise, the remote folks can’t fully participate, even if everyone is on blazing fast fiberoptic lines. It’s more about inclusion than latency.
- If you pair-program, consider using a Pomodoro timer so that you’re trading roles every 25 minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re not strictly doing “driver-navigator”, but it’s good to switch up who’s fingers are on the keyboard at regular intervals.
Other random bits and bobs
Couldn’t fit these into a neat category, but I think they’re still worth mentioning!
- If you don’t have anyone to pair directly with, it’s still useful to find a remote buddy to ambiently work with, even if they’re at a different company than you. Fire up a Zoom room and a Pomodoro timer, and keep each other accountable to taking breaks.
- Invest in a nice espresso maker (or gear for making whatever beverage helps you get going)!
Hope this helps! I may periodically update this post as more advice trickles in. Thanks to Becki Hyde, Josh Aresty, Michael McGinley, Cody Palmer, Erik Hanson, and Lisa Crispin for contributing tips!