Wide Teams: A sustainable vision for creative work

A lot of us work in teams, but these teams are not necessarily people from our own organisation or people who are based at the same geographic location.

Avdi Grimm taken by REP3 ©2010

Virtual or Wide Teams require a different type of handling from a team that see each other most days.

One expert in this area is Avdi Grimm, creator of Wide Teams. Avdi published a post on my work on his blog last week and I’m lucky enough to be able to publish a post here on his experiences.

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For decades, workers in the US have been satellites of their jobs. If we are tech workers, we move to one of the big tech hubs like San Francisco or Seattle in order to find work in the first place. Then, if the company decides to open a new plant, or consolidate operations, we move where they tell us to go. Community, if we can find it, is a temporary byproduct; a transient perk. We get used to seeing extended family only once a year. The notion of a “sense of place” is all but forgotten.

This isn’t the life I wanted for myself and my family. I wanted to choose where we lived based on something other than what software companies were nearby. I wanted to be part of a long-lived community, while still having the freedom to take long trips from time to time.

I realized years ago that in order to make this dream a reality, I would have to become a remote worker. As a first step, I found an employer that was willing to let me telecommute for part of the week. That was a big step, and enabled me to start learning the skills necessary to work productively with a remote team. After that company, I joined a startup that was completely distributed. And after a year with them, I moved on to be a freelance software developer working exclusively with geographically distributed teams.

As I made this journey from traditional commuting to remote work, I realized that there were a lot of other knowledge workers in the same boat as me. There was a nascent movement towards remote work and dispersed teams, but everyone was for the most part feeling their own way: there was no central forum for discussing the practices and adjustments necessary to make distributed teams work. I started dreaming of a central place where remote workers could share lessons learned and compare notes.

In June 2010, I launched Wide Teams – a blog and podcast for dispersed teams and remote workers. I hoped that with this site I could begin to form a community around remote work, where we could discuss the tools, techniques, and practices that make for effective distributed teams.

In order to kick the site off with more than just my own observations, I started off by interviewing people in software development community, particularly the Ruby on Rails web development community, who were working in distributed teams. I was immediately blown away by the feedback I got. Everyone I talked to was so eager to talk about their experience with remote work! It was as if they had been saving up for months or years to share their thoughts on this topic. Everyone I spoke to was very excited to give their perspective and tell of their experiences, and eager to hear about how other distributed teams were operating. Clearly, I had hit a nerve!

Since then, I’ve interviewed everyone from developers to CEOs to nonprofit community managers about their work with remote teams. I’ve learned that there are many reasons to form a distributed team, including:

  • Being able to find the perfect job candidate by widening the net to include people outside one metropolitan area.
  • Holding down costs by hiring team members who live in areas where the cost of living is lower.
  • Maintaining a presence in multiple time zones.
  • Making jobs available to people who would otherwise be unable to work, such as stay-at-home parents or people with disabilities.
  • Forming low-overhead startups by holding off on buying a brick-and-mortar office and instead working entirely from home.
  • Eliminating the environmental impact associated with a daily commute.
  • …and many other reasons.

The people I’ve talked to have shared a wealth of insights into how to make dispersed teams work well. I could never share all the tips I’ve learned in one article (for that you’ll just have to subscribe to the blog!) but a few lessons that stand out include:

  • Making sure your team members meet up in person at least a couple of times a year.
  • Maintaining a level playing field for both remote and in-office workers – for instance, by making sure everyone uses the same communications tools, even if they are in the same room with each other.
  • Setting aside time for culture-building activities, even if they don’t contribute directly to the bottom line.

Those are just a few examples of the lessons I’ve learned both firsthand and from the remote team members I’ve interviewed.

Almost six months into this adventure of writing and podcasting about dispersed teams, one thing is clear: remote work is here to stay. More and more companies are embracing this model, and reaping the benefits. There are unique challenges associated with distributed teams, but none of them are insurmountable. The more we can share our experiences, on sites such as this one, the more we enable a future wherein the work can come to the worker instead of vice-versa.

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Blowing my Own Trumpet!

I’ve had a guest blog post published on the Wide teams blog. The post is really just an introductory piece about me and my work in this area, though I do spend a little time speculating about the future.

Wide Teams is a blog and podcast series about geographically dispersed teams, with an emphasis on software development teams. It covers all aspects of remote collaboration, including how to get started, interviews with active practitioners, tool reviews etc. It is primarily authored by Avdi Grimm, and I will be printing a reciprocal guest blog post by Avdi very soon!

How Green is my Videoconference?


Eh? Surely all videoconferencing is green? Well it seems one video conference can be greener than another. Geoff Constable, Welsh Video Network Support Officer working on the How Green Was My Videoconference? JISC Project, tells us more.

Geoff can be followed on Twitter at gardeninggeoff.

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I have been working in supporting and researching videoconferencing for about fifteen years now. Since 2001 I have been working for the Welsh Video Network. With its main base in Swansea, South Wales, and additional workers at Aberystwyth (Mid-Wales) and Bangor (North Wales) the WVN installs and supports much of the public sector videoconferencing in Wales. As well as installing equipment, replacing and fixing any broken parts, and looking after the networking side of things; the WVN also has a ‘Learning and Teaching’ section of four part-time workers who give users training, put on events and generally raise awareness of videoconferencing.

Over the last couple of years my role has evolved so that I have done a lot of work for the Video Technologies Advisory Service. This is a loose group of experts who offer support to videoconferencers everywhere ( – my spellchecker is telling me there is no such thing, but I know otherwise!) by publishing independent evaluations of equipment and offering tailored advice to individuals and organisations having equipment and/or network problems. Both organisations offer independent and unbiased advice which is more difficult to come by where there is a financial interest.

I have noticed in recent years that videoconferencing equipment makers have been keen to extol the green credentials of videoconferencing, and in general, the technology has been promoted as being planet-friendly. But many of the ‘measurements’ of just how planet-friendly out there are examples from manufacturers and resellers themselves. There seemed to be an absence of empirical, academic evidence for the trumpeting of videoconferencing as a green solution.

This is how the project that I am currently working on: How Green Was My Videoconference? came to be. Sponsored by the JISC’s Greening ICT Programme, the project is looking at the carbon footprint of videoconferencing, including the lifecycle impact of the equipment itself, as well as the power consumed by the equipment, to try to arrive at a carbon cost of a videoconference. It is looking closely at particular videoconferences, and analysing the savings that have been made in time, money and emissions by not travelling.

The project has a close relationship with a JANET-UK/Suste-IT project: Good Campus, which is trying to raise the usage of videoconferencing and looking at the barriers to videoconferencing, and what makes people persist in travelling. The two projects are jointly staging events for travel managers at colleges and universities – and the next one will be in Wales on the 2nd February 2011.

I am also working with professional groups and projects in Wales to try to hand-hold them through a process of moving away from travel and using videoconferencing more frequently. Some of this is documented on the project web site and also on the YouTube channel.

Conference Suite

One group that I have been working with recently is the Women’s Universities Mentoring Scheme. This group “aims to promote and facilitate professional development for women working in Welsh universities by setting up inter-university mentoring partnerships. The WUMS has been funded by HEFCW to help support women working in HEIs in Wales into more senior academic and managerial positions. Under this all-Wales scheme, mentees receive encouragement, support and advice from a more experienced colleague to help realise potential and fulfil career aspirations.”

Until quite recently the Steering Group met up physically at a location somewhere in Wales, everybody drove to that location, taking the best part of a day out of their working lives. People who had family commitments might have held back from committing to involvement in the Steering Group because of childcare issues. If you have a two hour drive at the start and end of the day as well as a lengthy meeting in the middle of the two drives, you might not want to commit to this if there is the added stress of arranging child-care or being back in time to pick the kids up from school. Traditionally (whether rightly or wrongly), even in two parent families, a lot of childcare arrangements fall to the woman, and I hadn’t previously thought of videoconferencing being an enabler of equality in the workplace. But when you replace that two hour drive at the top and bottom of the day with a five minute, fifty yard stroll to the videoconferencing room, suddenly the stresses of family commitments are no longer there, which frees people up to commit to more meetings and activities that would previously eaten into family time..

Apart from the Steering Group, the mentors and mentees either travelled to or from mentoring sessions around Wales (and by the way, a return trip from Aberystwyth to Cardiff takes two hours and releases 76kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, given a 1.4 litre car!). They also used the telephone which obviously saves time and travel and – again, obviously, but most importantly – does not allow you to see your colleague, or in this case, mentor/mentee. Visual communication is a very important part of how we communicate and my personal opinion after years of using the medium is that it allows for more informality and playfulness than a telephone does. Because you can’t see the other person a telephone (like text communication) is more open to misinterpretation and hence formality and occasionally awkwardness as it takes longer to get to know people and relax with them.

I asked one of the mentees in the scheme to put down some thoughts on being mentored over videoconference and her reply makes for interesting reading:

I really have found video conferencing as part of WUMS beneficial to me. I am a busy Careers Adviser and working mum and I really value time and don’t like to travel if I can help it, so knowing that I can just book it and pop downstairs to our VC suite 10 minutes before the arranged start is a real time-saving element to the programme. It’s also saving our department money in travel fees at a time when budgets are being squeezed.

When my mentor suggested it I was initially apprehensive, but only from the point of view of the question ‘what happens if something goes wrong/ it breaks down mid-conference?’, as I have experienced this before but not while I have been on my own. However, then I thought about it logically and pre-programmed our technician’s number into my phone, and my mentor has my mobile number too! I’ve done video conferencing before in a previous job and it’s a great way of sharing information and discussing issues without having the hassle of travel. The one thing I’d say is that you quickly have to get over feeling ‘self-conscious’ if seeing yourself on a screen bothers you.

The conferencing I’ve done with my mentor has been really positive. We’ve been able to get to know each other, discuss things and share experiences of working and management almost as if we’re having a face-to-face conversation. I’d certainly recommend it for others to give it a go.

…So the How green was my videoconference? project continues and seems to encompass these subjective and revealing moments, right though to objective measurement in a lab with electrical measuring equipment (I have learnt a lot about watts and amps during the last year!). Which reminds me, I must get back to seeing how much CO2 the monitor I am testing has used while I’ve been typing this…

I hope you have found this interesting, if so, check out project progress at the addresses above – and remember videoconferencing saves greenhouse gas emissions, time and money – and it makes you more efficient and your kids happier!

Superfast Broadband for your Town?

BT have launched an online campaign allowing people to vote for superfast broadband to be brought to their area.

Over the next five years BT is rolling out superfast fibre optic broadband across the UK – BT Infinity. The new campaign entitled The Race to Infinity will allow certain areas to that have not been announced on the roll out plan to get fast tracked. This is done by adding your postcode as a ‘vote’. The five areas with the largest percentage of votes by December 31st 2010 will win the chance to bring superfast broadband to their area. BT will also donate £5,000 of computer equipment to a local community project.

The current front runners have been named as Caxton in Cambridgeshire and Malvern in Worcestershire. Each have registered more than 1000 votes – the campaign has so far received more than 200,000 votes.

Hats off to BT, it’s a pretty clever marketing ploy. Most people would do anything for faster broadband!
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Dress to Impress?

Business Beast by Betsy Streeter

My working life began at a very early age helping out in my parent’s restaurant. I can still remember the pinny the staff used to wear!

Since then I’ve had various jobs that involved a mixture of uniforms (retail, catering) and smart wear (teaching, library staff).

My first decent graduate job saw me working in a large multi-discipline Architectural firm. We were all expected to turn in up in smart business suits, a bit of a shock after my years in scruffy student attire. I didn’t really mind. At the time it was a good excuse to spend lots of money and it divided the line between work and play just nicely. (At the time play involved dressing up in spangly, shiny outfits in which I danced the night away in some random derelict warehouse or club.)

I started working at UKOLN in 2000. I can still remember the interview and the blue trouser suit I bought specially for the occasion. For 7 years I worked on-site at the university. Although academia doesn’t necessitate the wearing of business outfits (ulike much of the corporate sector) most people do still avoid very informal clothes. I think the look is officially called ‘smart casual’. I’m talking shirts and trousers for the men and skirts/trousers and tops for the ladies. No t-shirts with slogans, no jeans. Some people do dress down and go for jeans but they are definitely in a minority – or in the systems team ;-).

You are probably wondering why I’m reminiscing about the clothing I’ve worn over the years and what exactly this has to do with remote working.

Working at home means I no longer need to ‘dress up’. In fact I’m sat here now in my scruffy clothes, a scarf and my special fleece work jacket – it keeps me warm when all else fails! I actually don’t think I’ve brushed my hair, I definitely haven’t got any make-up on, hopefully people waiting outside school and nursery didn’t notice what I looked like. I’m a real scruff and yet I’m at work.

Me looking scruffy at my desk (on a warmer day)

I’ve never been very bothered about what people look like, in fact for me it was always the stranger the better. Conforming was never my thing and cosmetic surgery and over the top make-up make my blood boil! That said I do like dressing up. I’m always the first one in the queue for face painting or looking for a reason to put on some butterfly wings. I also realised last week that I actually like dressing up and making an effort for work too.

I had my appraisal on Wednesday and so had to head over to our base at the University of Bath. Attending conferences or meetings means digging out my ‘grown up clothes’ and catching my reflection in the bathroom mirror I was pleased to see myself looking quite smart.

I suddenly realised that this made me feel quite good, and quite it possibly it gave me a spring in my step that made me work just that little bit harder.

Some food for thought:

  • So does what you wear make a difference to your self-esteem? Many people believe so. The University of Illinois have an entire Web site dedicated to Dress Skills for Career Success.
  • Should organisations have dress codes (as is discussed here in this about.com article)? And if the answer is yes where does this leave remote workers?
  • Does looking ‘smart’ make any difference to your work outputs when working from home?
  • Do you dress up for conference calls?
  • Is it just about context (right clothes for a certain place)? Or is there more to it than that?

OK, so I’m not going to be putting on a suit to sit at this desk (I’d only have to spoil the look with a woolly hat!) but I will be looking forward to those occasions when I can make an effort. And tomorrow I might even brush my hair!:-)

Go Forth and Amplify!

Alan Cann is a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester. In recent years he has worked on developing new approaches to learning materials involving Web 2.0 technologies and is particularly interested in the educational affordances of social objects and socially-constructed knowledge. He blogs at Science of the Invisible.

Last year he organised an amplified staff development session (Learning and Teaching in the Sciences Conference) at the Student Learning Centre at the University of Leicester. The event was a great success and Alan has agreed to share his top tips with us.

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An enormous amount of time, effort and money is poured into training sessions within institutions. In some cases, there may be good reasons why these events need to be closed and secretive, for example commercial sensitivity or patient confidentiality. In the vast majority of cases however, the hosting institution has more to gain by sharing the collected knowledge around such events rather than keeping them quiet. In the past, there would have been a considerable cost element involved in such an undertaking, but this is no longer true. What remains is a closed culture where many institutions lack transparency, which is self-harming rather than conferring any institutional advantage.

Amplified events utilize freely available online social networks to record and relay discussions from a physical event to a much larger online audience. Through the generation of an online thread, amplification also permits two-way discussions between local and remote participants. With the prevalence of wifi and 3G networks, and increasing ownership of internet-enabled mobile devices, amplifying training events is a fairly simple task which involves more cultural than technical challenges.

I was involved with organizing my first amplified event in 2009, although since then I have been involved with much bigger events such as the Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C). Almost irrespective of scale, a simple checklist will help to ensure the success of such a venture:

Start early
Effective amplification of an event requires momentum, so it is important to start early. This means talking publicly (and encouraging others to do the same) about the build up to the event; booking, directions, expectations, etc.

Agree a tag and/or hashtag
As explained in the background section above, tags are crucial to amplifying events as they enable the aggregation of what would otherwise be disparate information. For most web services, blogs (such as WordPress or Blogger) or photo sharing sites (such as Flickr) a simple alpha-numeric tag is sufficient. For Twitter, it is useful to prefix the tag with the hash character (#). The important thing is that the tag is both unique to the event (so that only items related to the event concerned are aggregated) and short (so it is easy to input).

Promote a unique tag and/or hashtag
Just having a tag or hashtag is not sufficient, participants (and potential participants) need to know about it, so advertise it as widely as possible as soon as possible.

Build a network
It might be that the event concerned has a number of people involved who are already part of an existing network, that is to say they already know each other, perhaps in-person, or perhaps through interacting online. This means it will be more likely that they will be comfortable with interacting with each other at the event and reduces inertia and generates momentum. To build a network, look out for who is using the tags or hashtags (set up alerts via RSS or FriendFeed) and start conversations.

Be inclusive
If a network is already up and running it can be a bit intimidating for newcomers if they are not used to interacting in this way. Inclusivity should be encouraged by simply being welcoming and friendly to newcomers (just as would be done in person).

Get permissions
Getting permissions from people applies largely to photographs. If you are going to be posting photos of people online (which will be discoverable by search because the event is so well amplified) make sure you get people’s permissions. The easiest way to do this is via booking form or sign in sheet with a check box for people to opt out and an instruction for them to make themselves known to the organisers at the beginning of the event so that it is clear who does not want to be photographed.

Display the amplification on screen
It is unlikely that everyone who is physically present at an event will be participating online too. Therefore, in order to help everyone see what is going on you can project onto a screen a site which provides an up to date summary of everyone’s contribution (we used http://twitterfall.com/ but other free sites provide similar functionality). To enhance the experience for those who are participating online but are not physically present, also consider streaming video of what is going on in the room (e.g. http://www.ustream.tv/).

Use an aggregating site
An aggregating site, such as a Friendfeed group (e.g. http://friendfeed.com/solondon) or a Facebook page (e.g. http://www.facebook.com/ALTConf) can be used to collect all tagged information into one stream; tweets, blog posts, photos, etc.
Collect and archive the data for analysis before it disappears
Information on Twitter is only retained for a finite period so it should be recorded before, during and after the event (e.g. TwapperKeeper) so that analysis of the data can be performed.

For an amplified event to be anything other than ephemeral, it is important that as much of the online data as possible is captured and written up in some form after the event to achieve permanency and lasting impact. For this reason, all participants need to be informed and made aware of the public nature of the online discussions and data collection via any hashtag. However, a Twitter hashtag provides a convenient means of allowing any participant who wants to attend the physical event and to have conversations online but not to have their data collated to opt out without isolation.

Go forth and amplify!

Video Spinning

We’re all film makers these days. Most phones and cameras have some video recording device on them and snapping a snippet of film is, quite frankly, kids stuff.

I’ve discussed video in the past (Why video?) and have filmed using a Flip camera or other device at quite a lot of events. However I tend to just upload these videos to Vimeo or YouTube and be done with it. One thing I haven’t done is edited them in any way.

Last week I attended the MashSpa day in Bath. The event is the latest in the Mashed Library series and is very much about “bringing together interested people and doing interesting stuff with libraries and technology“. This particular event was organised by a colleague at UKOLN and wanting to appear helpful I offered to film people talking about their experiences of the day.

I finished the day with a 10 short videos that were a little rough around the edges and could do with some tidying up. Some smart captioning and a good looking title page would make all the difference.

Not knowing what tool to use I asked the Twitterverse who suggested Pinnacle VideoSpin VideoSpin is a free video editing software download based on Pinnacle Studio and I have to say it was pretty intuitive and did a great job. Adding title screens, subtitles and transitions is very straight forward and so is pruning footage, adding in sound effects and photos.

The VideoSpin Interface

The end result is available on Vimeo.

I have done anything too fancy and time constraints meant I only added the question subtitles to the first video, which is embedded below. I’m sure with a little more time and a few more requirements I could create a fairly professional looking video.

As a remote worker my broadband upload speeds are not great and I made the mistake of saving the first video as an AVI file (I wanted it to be good quality). This then took the most part of a whole day to upload to Vimeo, which really slowed me down! Although the other videos aren’t such great quality I saved them as MP4s and they were quicker to upload.

A few comments. One thing I’ve now realised is that you don’t want a transition at the start of a video as you end up with a blank screen on vimeo (see my DCC video examples). Also it can be a little tricky getting timings right, I think in the video I’ve embedded above the questions come in a little late. I guess practice makes prefect!

So thumbs up for VideoSpin and hopefully I’ll get to use it again in the future.