Cogent Conversations: Episode 24
How Teams Are Staying Connected Remotely
Welcome to Season 3 of Cogent Conversations, where we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the 2021 Australia & New Zealand Product Teams Report.
This is the second year we’ve published the report, featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked most at Cogent: “how do other people do it?” when it comes to the way product teams best work together.
In this episode Adam Murray, a Product Principal here at Cogent, digs a little deeper into how high performing teams work together. Hear him interview two highly experienced experts on the topic from Cogent about their experience, opinions and recommendations.
“Daily stand-ups continue to be ranked less effective than prioritisation meetings and retros. Prioritisation meetings are the most effective of the four meeting types surveyed, and progress review meetings and retros are viewed as highly valuable activities, but participation is lower than in any other meeting type.”
Full Episode Transcript
Adam: Welcome to Season 3 of the Cogent Conversations podcast, in which we take a deeper dive into our 2021 Australia and New Zealand Product Teams Report. This is the second year we’ve published the report, featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked the most: “how do other of people do it?” when it comes to the way product teams work best together.
I’m Adam Murray, a principal here at Cogent with a focus on strategy, and in each episode I’ll be digging a little deeper into a key theme of the report, gaining further insights and recommendations from some of our experts here at Cogent. You can download the free 50-page report by visiting cogent.co/podcastreport. Let’s get into it.
Welcome to this fifth episode in the season, where we’re understanding more detail behind the product teams report. We are coming to the end—we’ve got two more episodes to go. It’s been fantastic to talk to people we haven’t had on the podcast before.
In this episode, I’ve got with me Kath Barnette, a lead designer at Cogent, and Courtney Goes, Cogent’s Head of Marketing, and we’re going to talk about how teams can stay connected while working remotely or, as we often like to say here at Cogent, working in a distributed fashion. Welcome to you both. Hello. It’s good to have you here.
Adam: Kath, maybe you can talk a little bit about some of your experiences of working in an environment where the team was super well-connected?
Kath: Well, hi and thanks for having me on the podcast—first-time podcaster! So I guess as a designer—I’ve been in the design industry for way too long—but many, many moons ago before COVID BC, probably the most interesting project I had where connection was really quite great was when I was working in Canberra. I worked there for nearly two years, but I was actually living in Melbourne, and . . . no video conferencing back then. Meetings, you had to have face-to-face.
And so we flew in and flew out every single week, Monday to Friday. Most of the team were based in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, so we lived and worked and ate and did everything together. It was a really exciting time, actually. And I got to know them really closely; we were in this work bubble and I haven’t really experienced that since, not until now.
Now when we are living in each other’s lives again, we see each other’s houses through the video. We get to know them, their families, their pets, and enjoy listening to all their joys and struggles on a personal basis. It’s been very different, again.
Adam: I might follow up about that and some of your observations around now, and connection now. As we were talking about before we started recording, we have a similar work history in working for similar organisations. And I was part of that fly-in fly-out crew, and to Canberra, but not with you. What did you feel in that team, and what do you think enabled that super close connection? How was it and what did it enable?
Kath: I think the close connection came because we were in each other’s pockets, not just during work hours, but outside of work hours as well. We would go to dinner together. We would enjoy meals together. It was that kind of family/ social environment as well. So I got to know people on a different level rather than just in meeting rooms.
Adam: Yeah. Cool. Thank you, Kath. And Court, welcome to you as well.
Courtney: Thanks, Adam.
Adam: Yes. Good to have you. You’ve got a different angle on this to a lot of our other guests because you have a different role, which isn’t client-facing at Cogent, but you have a communications focus as well. And you’ve worked in a number of different organisations in that role, but can you talk about a context where the connection within the broader organisation is not strong, and how you’ve experienced teams creating a sense of connection despite that?
Courtney: Yeah, you’re right, I’ve been client-facing mostly outside of Cogent, but I’ve had quite mixed experiences. I would say Cogent’s definitely been the place I’ve felt the most connected both to the organisation and to the people I’m working with. I’ve had quite a few roles in the past that fell somewhere in between, that were kind of mediocre; you’ve kind of got a connection with a few people that are kind of work friends, and the rest not so much. And then I’ve definitely had experiences where connection has not existed really at all.
I think the worst for me was a role with a B2B SES company in London seven or eight years ago, where they had about 250 people. The head office was in Manchester, and there was only about five of us in London. And so I trained up and back every other week, but I always felt like a complete outsider every time I went. The organisation itself was just not set up to really connect with anybody outside that kind of main HQ building.
So yeah, probably a bit of a full spectrum, but luckily now it’s quite different.
Adam: Yeah. Hopefully in a lot of situations, at least for you, it is quite different. But maybe for some people it isn’t different, and maybe it’s actually been a little harder for people to feel that sense of connection. I guess we need to be a lot more intentional about it. And I guess talking about working in a distributed setting . . . Kath, you touched on this a little bit, but what are the things that are actually easier now about connecting with our teammates?
Kath: I think you’ve got easier avenues to get in touch with as many people as you can, be they clients, stakeholders, users and your team members, by a simple phone call or a video call. Whereas previously people were like, “You have to be in the room to be on the same page,” now you can actually contact anyone at a fingertip. I work with a lot of people outside of Australia, and it definitely is second nature now to just pick up a Zoom call and see somebody face-to-face and ask them questions that previously would’ve been much harder to coordinate.
I just remember from a personal perspective, I had a wedding in Hawaii and organising a video Zoom showing of my wedding in Hawaii was a nightmare, trying to coordinate that. Everyone was like, “What are you doing? This is so hard.” Nowadays, it would just be like, “Oh, okay. Where do I join?”
Courtney: Yeah. Send me the link!
Kath: Yeah. Send me the link. I’ll be there! That’s amazing. Cool.
Adam: What about in terms of building empathy for each other? Are there things that this context is enabling of that?
Kath: Oh gosh. When you see your colleagues’ family, delivery people, pets, the fact that their kettle’s boiling in the background, you really get to see a person in the home environment. It gives you a lot more context as to who they are and what they’re about that you wouldn’t normally have. Everyone puts their suit on or even just their work persona when they go into an office. And now you get to see them at home.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. It brings a whole new meaning to bring your whole self to work, doesn’t it?
Courtney: I think it’s also given a glimpse into whatever . . . not so much life stage, but whatever life situation people are in at the time, especially during all these lockdowns that many people have experienced. Just throughout COVID as a whole, where people have been juggling homeschooling and closures of things and having to isolate when maybe their colleagues don’t have to. And all these different scenarios that we’ve all had to adapt to in the last 18 months. I think it naturally grows that level of empathy, because you understand what people are having to juggle outside of just nine to five, because you can see it.
Adam: Yes. But maybe from the other point of view, what’s harder about it now? There’s the obvious, of course, that generally I think people like interacting in person at least some of the time, but yeah. What is harder about connecting now?
Courtney: You mentioned it a bit earlier, Adam—being quite intentional about connection and communication. It can be easy to forget that people need specific information or that it might benefit them to have specific information—particularly between, say, teams and those in leadership positions.
I think Stu might have mentioned this in a previous episode, but it’s almost like you need to overcommunicate. It’s much better to do that and rein it back than go the other way where people aren’t getting the whole picture. Human behaviour would then be such that people will just make their own assumptions and come up with their own narrative, and off they go and everyone’s on a different page.
So I think that ability to communicate concisely through the right channels in the right way, in the way that people like to digest information, at the cadence that they need it—getting all those bits right is hard, and probably no one’s nailed it yet. I think that’s definitely harder than if you could just get everyone together in a room quite quickly for something.
Kath: Yeah. I felt that over the last, oh gosh, has it nearly been two years now? Maybe over a year and a half? At the beginning when we were all at home and not face-to-face, I felt like we would all lose so much context about what’s going on. You don’t get that natural I’m-tapping-you-on-the-shoulder-and-asking-you-atwo-second-question, as opposed to having coordinated meetings at specific times. And I definitely felt that at the beginning of us all being at home.
But now towards the end of this period that we’ve had, I think we’ve adapted quite well in the fact that we’ve got things. Our team, for example, has a 24/7 Google Meet channel that we always drop into. So it’s almost like that whole walking past people in a corridor; we’ve got the Google Meet open always, so we will drop in there randomly. I’ll actually have it open in one of my screens all the time. And even if I’m not in it, I’m in the waiting room and I can see when people are in there. So I’ll be like, “Ooh, they’re in there.” So I’ll join and go, “Boo, hello, how’s things? What’re you working on? What would you like to talk about?” And so natural interactions now, remotely, are getting better than they were at the beginning. So yes, I think it was very hard, but I think it’s starting to get easier.
Adam: One of the points where people might have found it difficult to experience that connection is starting at an organisation. I know that’s something we’ve had to refine quite a bit here at Cogent, but onboarding processes and buddying with people and innovating on how people get a sense of “what’s the feel of this place” have become super important as well. Do either of you have reflections on that part of it?
Courtney: I have a reflection more broadly on the need to document things; like coaching always had a philosophy more about action than documentation. We’ve been forced internally to really document a lot of processes, and onboarding has been one where it was previously managed by a couple of people. If someone new started, they would be welcomed by those people and you’d meet them in real life. And all these things would happen through a few key people; it wasn’t a documented process that could be repeated, that someone could kind of—not self-guide, because we don’t want people to do that—but get a lot more context without being reliant on that kind of in-person interaction.
Adam: Yeah. I remember people talking about when they first joined in their first or second week, spending a whole day not having any interaction with people, and it just not being obvious that was happening and not even being a thought that that might be the case. And I think, probably, hopefully, organisations have improved that a lot.
Kath: One of the things I’ve loved seeing when we’ve onboarded people at Cogent is that instead of the getting-to-know-you face-to-face, they’ll have random chats lined up with all kinds of people, just 15–20-minute chats to say g’day. And I’ve really enjoyed randomly meeting new people via Zoom chats, and getting to know them on a personal note. I thought that was just a simple but really good onboarding.
Courtney: I can agree with that. The onboarding chat’s always nice.
Adam: We’ve talked a bit about early stages—I’m wondering about when teams are up and running and they’ve got their mission, they know what they’re working on. How can they start to make sure that everyone is aligned around that mission and that that communication is coming regularly? Court, you talked a little bit about the need to be more conscious in our communication and overcommunicating, but I’m interested in some of the meeting types that you’ve both been part of, experiments that you might have been part of. There was a bit of talk in the report about different types of meetings that people are now playing with as well. But maybe we can even start with startups. Kath, what’s your experience with startups in helping with connection within a team, and also to what its mission is?
Kath: Well, when COVID first started—oh gosh, I’m going to stop mentioning COVID! When I first started working remotely, the team that I was with was a startup, and it was all about the personal connection as well as trying to figure out how we could pivot as quickly as we could to being remote. And I gotta tell you, there was a lot of drinking involved. Other than that, the meetings were ad hoc. We didn’t know really what we were doing by the end of it. We definitely had like a weekly quiz. We had stand-ups still going every morning, and that was still trying to iron itself out. I joined another team though, halfway through this period, and we have been trying to experiment with stand-ups ever since it started. And I think we’ve got to a point now where we’ve said that a stand-up still is useful at the beginning of every day, but it is really hard to keep it focused.
So often we are saying, no, we need to just talk about whether you’re blocked, whether there’s any assistance you require, rather than giving everyone a full rundown of everything you did yesterday and everything you plan to do today, because it just goes on and on. So the stand-up is usually a “Hey, how you feeling?” so a little bit of a social connection, and then a bit of a “Hey, this is, this is what I’m blocked on today. is somebody available to help me?”
And then we often do the whole stand-back—“It’s time for a stand-back.” So like, what meetings do we have to worry about? Or what kind of connected conversations do we need to have post this, and who needs to be involved in those to move forward? Anyone being blocked today? So it’s really just trying to cut down that stand-up from being a waffle-on.
Courtney: Yeah. I tend to agree, Kath. I think a lot of organisations are probably still experimenting with this. Pulling together the report, because I was obviously heavily involved in that reading all the open-answer responses, stand-ups were rated as the least effective meeting that we asked people about.
And there were a lot of comments about it either being too technically detailed and going down real black holes, or it just lacking structure and not really getting what the point of it is. Like, what’s the outcome that that team is trying to achieve through doing a stand-up? And I think it, stand-ups aside, just meetings overall can be a little bit of an indicator around the maturity of an organisation. I think some startups in particular, some that I’ve worked with, anyway, do stand-ups because that’s kind of what you do in tech and not really put a lot of thought into it. Is it working for everyone? How regularly should we touch base and still make sure that this format is working for everyone? What do we want out of it? How regularly do they need to happen? Do they have to be daily—maybe it’s on a Monday and a Friday or something like that? Just to work out how they can make it work for them, really, rather than chucking in a daily stand-up because that’s kind of just what teams do.
Kath: What’s expected of the team is to have a daily stand-up, because that’s how you work.
Courtney: Yeah. And I mean, that applies to every meeting, right? What’s the purpose of it? What does everyone want to get out of it? Do we even need it? Yeah.
Kath: We did ask those questions in our retros, which were also one of those ones that everyone goes, “Do we need that?” But in our retro, for many retros back-to-back, were questions about stand-up. What do we do about stand-up? How do we make it more relevant? How do we not waffle on for 20 or 30 minutes when it’s only meant to be 15 minutes?
So again, we’ve experimented with many different structures—walking the wall, one person at a time, project-based, updates first. And at the end of the day, it still comes down to each person, because we’re a relatively small team; there’s only five or six of us, so at least we’re not a really big team. I’ve heard the big teams of like 15 or so, you can’t have every person speak because it’ll go forever. But our team of four or five people, each one just gives a quick update about what they’re on and they’re blocked with and whether they need assistance. And that started to actually work for us, and we do tend to have the whole, “Okay, what do we need to have a stand-back on? And what do we need to work through?”
And the only other really important meeting that we’ve found recently is project-based meetings. So we have a project stand-up that happens once a week on a Friday morning, and it’s not just a stand-up—it’s a showcase as well. So it’s what have we worked on? Where are we at?
And we bring in stakeholders to that too, so it’s not just the working team; it’s also the people that it’s going to affect, because we’ve got internal users. So the stakeholders come along, the project sponsors, the people who are going to be affected by it, and we show them what we’ve been working on, and we have questions that we need answering.
So as long as we’re not blocked by it, we’ll store up a couple of really good juicy questions to ask people to make it a really engaging meeting. But that meeting at the end of each week has been really useful to get a project moving forward. And it gives us great momentum, because people go, “What am I going to show Friday? What kind of progress do I need to show? And what questions do I need to ask, and how can I move this forward the quickest way possible?” And it’s been really useful. That’s probably my most useful meeting at the moment.
Courtney: It’s so funny, this idea of a meeting about a meeting, to ask whether the meeting’s working, but it’s kind of necessary at least sometimes to touch base on whether this is fulfilling its purpose, really?
Adam: Yeah. I love that too. And I love that both of you are questioning some default thinking that can creep into tech organisations. Say what you’re talking about defaulting to say conversation over documentation, Court, and realising maybe we need to do a bit more documentation. And then a staple of a stand-up, Kath, and drawing back to think, “Okay, what’s the actual purpose of this? Or what principle are we trying to enable here through this? And is it still relevant?” I think that getting out of the purpose and thinking about our current context is super important.
Kath: I know one of our sister teams has actually ditched the daily stand-up for online Slack updates. And I get to see them, so that’s useful; I get to see what’s happening on the other team. We did try that at one point again, as experimentation, but I missed that daily seeing people’s faces too much. And that’s where I guess the social connection comes in too. “How you feeling today? Did you get a good night’s sleep? Are you feeling all right?” You know, so you know how to deal with people throughout the day.
Adam: Yeah. Experimenting with these kind of things is one of my favourite themes. We’ve touched on it a bit in previous episodes, I think in the first episode, about some of the meetings that we have experimented here with at Cogent, but creating a context where people feel it’s okay to give things a try and they don’t have to work every time.
Courtney: I think it’s also important within that sort of permission to experiment that people feel comfortable and confident that they can give honest feedback to improve it if it’s not working, because we saw a lot of comments in the report and I wonder if those had ever been voiced internally at some of those organisations—those feelings of “this is broken”.
Kath: I think that’s a really an interesting concept to riff off, because we often have people disagree with the way that things should be run, whether it be a stand-up or a retro or anything like that. And I’ve found one of the easiest ways to listen to other people about that is to ask, “How else could we do it?” And let’s experiment. Let’s try that for a fortnight. Let’s try that for another month. And at the next checkpoint, which is usually a retro or something like that, let’s have it as an action item to go, “How did it go? How do we feel?”
And even if I don’t agree with what they’re proposing—one of them was, “Let’s not do daily, let’s do written ones,” and I didn’t like that idea, but I said, “Sure, let’s experiment with it.” And we ended up needing to do daily chats anyway; people just needed it, not just me. So experimentation on that is key. And getting that feedback loop—so saying, “When will we check in on this? When will we see whether it’s working for us or not?” And having that open conversation to say, “Did it work for us? Did it not?”
Courtney: Yeah. And if not, why not, so we can change it in a more meaningful way.
Adam: Don’t wait until next year’s product teams report—have the conversation now!
Courtney: It’s funny—you’re doing this report two years now, and each time I’ve gone through all the results, I go, “Oh, I wish we could have asked a follow-up question.” That’s the thing with surveys, right? You don’t get that opportunity, it’s just so dependent on what data flows out, and you think, “Ah, would love to explore that a bit more.” We’ve been making notes for the next one, but it starts to get quite long, the survey.
Adam: Well, we do need to start to wrap up. I have one final question for both of you, and it’s about one of the questions we asked in the report, which was about teams celebrating success. It was a relatively small percentage who say they celebrate success frequently, about 20%, and a good majority, 70-odd per cent, say they celebrate success sometimes, which is pretty similar to last year. But Court, for internal teams, what kinds of ways have you seen organisations create organisation-wide connection and maybe using celebration as part of this?
Courtney: Well, I think if I can wind it back a notch, I would stress obviously the importance of teams knowing what success looks like in the first place, because I’ve definitely seen that happen. Probably more in startups, kind of around seed or growth stage where what everyone is working towards, whether that’s vision, whether it’s company-wide objectives that turn into team objectives, are not clear to everybody. So they have no idea if they’re moving towards what they need to be moving towards from a CEO’s perspective. They don’t know if they’ve actually hit milestones or they have made progress on those. So I think that stems back to communication and providing that information from a leadership team on what that kind of north star is and having the authenticity and vulnerability to share all that, and not keep cards close to the chest if they don’t need to be.
So that’s step one: know what success actually is and looks like. Then celebrating success is everything from those really small interaction points of people getting recognition that they’re on the right path, or doing a great job, or settling in well or whatever it might be—that chat you’d have in a hallway or a kitchen or whatever in real life normally—all the way through to showcases or all-company meetings to recognise bigger success stories within the organisation, or even the organisation as a whole reaching particular milestones. I think we all appreciate a bit of a social outing, even virtually, to celebrate things. But the bit that is the hardest in a more distributed environment is the smaller day-to-day recognition, I guess.
Kath: For me, working in a project team that also works with a client that’s in financial services, you get all kinds of regulatory issues. There’s a possibility of bribery, all those sorts of things you can’t do, like send some doughnuts or just say, “Let’s go out for a drink,” or something like that. We can’t go do those little bits of celebratory things I’m used to doing—hmm, revolves around food and drink, not surprising.
But what I found has worked for me recently is the little things—like Court says, in a project team, it’s actually the little bits of recognition. It’s the little bits of kudos that you can give, whether it be an official form of kudos inside of the organisation, or just highlighting them to their boss or to the team, or somebody saying they’re doing an amazing job. It just gives everyone that little boost that they wouldn’t otherwise have, because again, social organisation is really difficult for the moment. We’re distributed across Australia, across America—how does one get together and have a lunch? You can’t. And we’ve even tried the ones where we do it remotely, but it’d be dinner for one person and lunch for another and all that sort of stuff. It gets really difficult. But yeah, I find the little things actually a bit easier to organise.
Adam: Well, thank you so much, Court and Kath, we’ll leave it there. And thanks to you all for listening as well. If you’d like to learn more about how product teams across Australia and New Zealand are doing things, you can download the free 50-page report by visiting cogent.co/podcastreport. Until next time.