Tips for Distributed Teams
Takeaways from Kate Nafisi’s talk on working with distributed teams and timezones.
In June The Beer and UX community was joined by Kate Nafisi for a presentation packed with tips on thriving as part of a distributed team and working across timezones. Kate, who was previously a Senior Designer at Facebook lived in London and worked with 30 teams from New York to Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and beyond. Remote work, she asserts, can be a quality upgrade for organizations and their teams if everybody is respectful and mindful of how they can make life easier for their colleagues.
Before jumping into her presentation, Kate reminded us that it is important to note that remote work is entirely different from working remotely solely because of a global pandemic as the latter context introduces a great deal of stress, which must be considered. However, even before Covid, Kate spent two years working remotely and she continues to be passionate about the freedom and flexibility it offers her. Currently, Kate splits her time between working as a remote design coach and woodworking as co-owner of Nafisi Studio. If you missed Kate’s presentation, you can find a recording on our YouTube channel.
Many individuals regain time by eliminating their daily commutes. This has contributed to a hobby renaissance and has given many the opportunity to move to more affordable cities and even rural communities. Too often, living in the increasingly unaffordable cities where technology companies are based was part of being eligible for a role. Organizations are able to expand their talent pool when they consider candidates living in other cities. With remote work, companies are able to offer their employees more flexibility and more control over their work environments, which is an important part of workers’ rights. This kind of flexibility Kate noted, is especially important for companies that value inclusion. As an example, she pointed out that parents and neurodivergent employees benefit greatly from more flexible and control over their working schedules.
Build resilience and respect as a team.
For distributed teams, Kate notes that the antidote to friction is respect and resilience. Resilience, she explained, is less about “bouncing back” and more about building strength over time. It is something we practice and build as individuals to help us thrive in challenging situations.
As teammates we can offer respect and consideration. To illustrate this point Kate spoke of etiquette and how it was defined throughout history. In the 1940’s etiquette was very much about making people comfortable by being considerate and offering before they had to ask. For example, when somebody asked for the salt, it was considered good etiquette to also pass them the pepper. This she suggested, was about trying to anticipate needs and make things a little easier, much like including meeting times in their time zone in addition to yours. In a professional context this means being respectful and considerate of other people’s time and working preferences.
Burnout, Kate reminded us, is now on the International Classification of Diseases. It is far more than overwhelm and by being considerate and respectful others needs and preferences, we can help our colleagues thrive and avoid burnout.
Be mindful of time zones and people’s working hours.
For those who are frequently scheduling calls and calculating time differences, Kate recommends a Google Chrome extension called Figure It Out to quickly understand time differences relative to your location. Remote work makes it possible for people to move and travel. Rather than assume where people are, simply ask before setting up a meeting. Kate reminded us that people aren’t always in the country their accent originates from. When proposing meeting times, she notes it is considerate to include their time zone too to save the the conversion. For distributed teams, Kate adds that having a visual representation of overlapping work hours is especially helpful, for example:
Remember that technology fails sometimes. Plan for that.
Inevitably, the technologies we rely on every day fail us in a moment of need. This is why it is important to have back up mechanisms in place. Sometimes our calendar invites don’t sync, sometimes our computer updates moments before a video conference, and sometimes people simply forget.
Kate reminded us that most blunders are mitigated by including a dial in option with international calling codes for calls and sending a friendly reminder to attendees beforehand is an easy way to make sure people are able to join. She also added: if ever you’re the one who forgot about a meeting, it is better to be late than to not show up at all.
Avoid making every conversation a meeting.
Being a good colleague means respecting each other’s time. This includes thinking critically about what should be a meeting and what can be handled using other mediums. Holding too many ineffective meetings can contribute to burnout.
When things are high stakes, collaborative, or time sensitive, meetings tend to be more appropriate. When stakes are low and time is flexible, asynchronous communication works great. When delivering critiques and evaluating performance Kate suggests meetings as that information is best relayed one on one or in a small group. For things like updates, announcements, or knowledge sharing, she suggests exploring interactive mediums that aren’t meetings. For example, video demos and even voice notes could be great for these kinds of updates.
When a meeting is required, always set and share an agenda to help people prepare and understand the desired outcomes. Additionally, Kate suggests following the 20 and 50 minute rule. Rather than scheduling meetings for 30 minutes or an hour, aim to make them 20 or 50 minutes instead. This gives colleagues time to switch contexts before their next meeting and do things like use the washroom or get a snack.
Lastly, always reiterate outcomes or next steps in writing. Kate suggests following up with a quick note to summarize any meetings that occur and to remind people of any action items.
Watch Kate’s presentation for more insights