Including Remotes in Team Offsites

by
Annika Backstrom
in Work, on 14 April 2019 (history)

This post was originally written in October 2014, but I lost it in my drafts. It's still relevant in 2019, so I'm sending it out into the world.

I'm starting this blog post on a northbound train, fresh off my team's annual planning offsite. As a remote worker I'm fortunate to have a manager who would bring me to Brooklyn for a single day, especially so soon after a week-long office visit.

A trip like this is recognition that we're not great at including remote folks in this type of brainstorming session. (I know this first-hand from last year's planning.) So, yay for me, I was there in person this year. Unfortunately, our other remote team member was not able to make the trip. His experience was far inferior to the experience of people in the room. After 7 hours he probably had trouble staying awake, much less engaged.

Our only piece of equipment during this session was a MacBook with a fisheye lens. I noticed a few problems, much which I'm extrapolating from my own experiences as a remote participant:

  • Video quality. The wider angle of a fisheye gets more people into the frame, but makes it harder to read what those people may be writing. Even without fisheye, large enough writing would limit the amount of stuff you can fit on the board.

  • Static view. You're totally dependent on people moving the camera when the speaker changes or people move around.

  • Can't easily reference artifacts from earlier exercises. We had lots of notes taped to walls or written on whiteboards. A remote person can't wander around and reflect on these things.

  • More generally: dropped audio is going to happen, and it's jarring. Also, some people just talk quietly, or get drowned out by background chatter if several groups are working nearby.

Right away, there's a short list of things I'd like to try.

First, use real microphones. Should the person leading a session have a lapel mic and repeat questions and comments? Can you easily feed two or more mics into one laptop? Are there omnidirectional mics that don't suck? Sometimes you want audio from all over the room, sometimes you want a smaller range. Do you need a bunch of microphones for different situations?

Remote people need reassurance that they can speak up when they can't see/hear. I am sometimes reluctant to speak up as the only remote person, but the people on the other end probably have no idea you can't hear them. It's a difficult but necessary disruption. What can we do to make this easier on everyone involved?

Make a conscious effort to engage remote participants. Have they said anything lately? Do they have that glassy look in their eyes? If you're writing things down, take a moment to read them out loud, especially if people in the room can see those notes. Ask if they can see/hear.

Other solutions are not as easy to come by. How do you share whiteboards in real-time? How do you make artifacts available remotely? What's the digital analog of moving sticky notes around a wall? I would love to know, or help create these tools.

I love to work with my team face-to-face, but for those times when I can't, I hope we can find and create the tools and processes that foster collaboration and engagement.