Going Remote with Damien Burke

In Episode 22, Damien Burke (https://www.talariasoftware.com/) shares his experience taking a team from fully in-office to fully remote.


JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

Hi, I’m Jennifer Tu and I’m here with Damien Burke to talk about going from in-office to distributed. Damien, can you tell us a little about yourself?

DAMIEN: Gladly. Like you said, my name is Damien Burke. I am a coach and consultant for people starting software startups and people trying to improve their software teams. I have been working remote for most of the past 10 years.

JENNIFER: Awesome. You recently transitioned a software team from being in-office to fully remote. I’m wondering, how long did it take to start from the very beginning of the idea to the first day of everyone fully remote or the first day of everyone comfortable fully remote?

DAMIEN: That’s a little difficult to answer because I wasn’t the person who made the decision, although I had been pitching for that for a long time. But from the moment when the team had bought in, when management had brought this to the team, the team had bought in with the idea, really the limiting factor was getting out of our lease. And so, it was within 30 days that we went from having a co-location facility to not having one.

JENNIFER: Well, that feels both very fast and also like a ton of time for some other people. How did people feel about it? Did everyone want to go fully your remote or did some people want to go and some people wanted to stay in office?

DAMIEN: There were people who appeared to me to have some apprehension. In general, everyone was very excited about it. They love the advantage of not having to commute. The people who really thought it was a bad idea were no longer at the company, which is what made it possible.

JENNIFER: And the people who did want to go fully remote, did they have any kind of hesitations or fears or maybe straight up ideas to contribute as you figured out a transition plan?

DAMIEN: I think the people who were most gung-ho about it were all people who had done it before. They’ve been working remotely in the past. They had experience it and they had experienced doing it well. And they knew that this was a team that could do it. I’d just probably add the caveat at this point that for this team, most of the senior engineers, I’ll say like two or three of the most senior engineers, were already working remotely. In a sense, everyone had experience as a remote worker because everybody needs to have that skill set. And everybody had already been working with these senior engineers. I was one of them who were already usually not in the office with them.

JENNIFER: What kind of skill sets that people need to develop to make that final jump from working with remote colleagues to themselves and everyone around them being fully remote.

DAMIEN: When you have remote colleagues who are an integral part of the team, you develop the skill of being able to communicate without being face to face. You know what tools you need to use to reach people and to share ideas and communicate. You know when to do it and you’re comfortable doing that. I’ve seen teams where only a couple with only one or two remote workers, and they tend to be shunted off than the less of an integral part of the team simply because not everybody is incredibly comfortable with the tooling, knows when to call them and how it is used to that sort of process. But when you have remote employees who are already an integral part of the team, everybody has those skill sets. So at that point, all that’s really left is your workspace. In as much as you come to an office, you sit at a desk with a computer, but your colleague might be sitting next to you or they might be hundreds of miles away. The only thing that needed to change was when you don’t come to an office, that’s easy enough. You sit at the desk, what’s your desk, where’s your computer, what’s that look like, how’s that set up, how you connect to the interne and things like that.

JENNIFER: When you talk about transition, was that entirely about the physical parts of getting the desks or the monitors, keyboards into people’s homes?

DAMIEN: Not really, no. We use laptop computers. It doesn’t take more than an hour or so to move a monitor and a keyboard. Again, the limiting factor was really getting out of our lease. People kept coming to the office just because they liked it. It was a real subtle transition.

JENNIFER: What was the biggest surprise that people found after the transition in terms of things they either missed about the office or things that they were excited about being fully distributed.

DAMIEN: The biggest surprise for me, hands down, was the new need to have these sort of social interactions. It was a surprise to me. I think the people on our team who are apprehensive about going remote saw it coming. But what I discovered was that without the accidental bumping into people or just saying, “Hi,” when you walk in the room, you have the opportunity to lose a lot of the social connections, social cohesion that a team of coworkers will need to have.

JENNIFER: So, how do you replace that driving by someone’s desk or bumping into them in the kitchen?

DAMIEN: For every team, that’s going to be different. We should try things and see what works out, see what doesn’t and try new things. What the most important thing is to recognize it, to know how you’re feeling and to know how your team members are feeling about each other, and to know that you need to do something. Now, the second most important thing is just making space for it. I’ll give you an example of something we did that was incredibly effective. We literally set aside three minutes in our stand up, the first three minutes of our standup to chit chat. What did you do last night, how you’re doing, what’s going on. Just anything unimportant, trivial, that’s not work-related that you might want to talk about. And having that space, even if no one said a word, having that space for a social check-in really helped us work together better.

JENNIFER: And so you just made it explicit of first three minutes are not going to be whatever is on the agenda?

DAMIEN: Absolutely. Or to take it a step further, we actually put social interaction on the agenda. That was for stand up. But when I saw how well that worked, I took that into every meeting. I made sure that, whereas in-person in a meeting, I would jump into business as soon as all the attendees were there and ready. When I found out that we’re missing that sort of social interaction, I would make sure to give that space at the beginning of the meeting.

JENNIFER: How do you get people to get started doing that? Because I know sometimes it can feel kind of awkward when you walk into a remote meeting room and everyone’s on mute. Maybe everyone’s even got their video off. How do you get that casual chit chat starting?

DAMIEN: Video is a huge, huge part of it. I don’t think it would have worked if we didn’t have a custom, I’ll say, of using video. Obviously, you can’t mandate that people show up on video, but we made it customary by example. And when people are there looking at each other, that sort of social interaction comes a little bit easier.

JENNIFER: Did you find that it seemed like the social interactions from the office sort of carried over because people could see each other?

DAMIEN: Absolutely. Our relationships carried over because we continue to see each other. We are auditory and visual creatures, humans, and that’s how we interact socially. And if we remove the visual from it, it’s a huge, huge detriment.

JENNIFER: It sounds like setting up this time explicitly as [inaudible] meetings was really effective for replacing the casual chit chat that helps people make the social connections that help them work together. One thing I’m wondering about is sometimes you’re just making some tea and you know you’ve got three minutes before your tea has finished brewing and you can throw out the tea bag. So someone walks in and you tell each other about the problem that you happen to be working on and you end up finding lots of solutions that you might not otherwise. Have you been able to find a replacement for something like that?

DAMIEN: Yes and no. No, in the sense that there’s nothing like that. You don’t run into people in the kitchen or in the hallway they way you do in an office.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Or has that three minute timer, because, you know your tea is going to be overbrewed or underbrewed if you don’t get it at three.

DAMIEN: I’m glad to hear you brew your tea for three minutes. Somebody said I brew mine a week. [Chuckles]

JENNIFER: You know, I aspire to three minutes, but in reality it’s more like two minutes or eight minutes. It’s not good. [Laughs]

DAMIEN: You probably get pulled into wonderful conversations with your coworkers.

JENNIFER: I do. So what do we do when we don’t have that tea timer and we want to have these deep but short discussions?

DAMIEN: We don’t get them accidentally. We don’t run into each other in the hallway or in the kitchen. We do still get them because – they still get them because it was such a close knit team, because we were so good at collaborating. We paired by default. We had a culture of being able to ask anyone for help with anything, and knowing when to ask help and be eager to do so. And so, there wasn’t anybody on the team that you hadn’t had a conversation with in five days. And so just like you would have ran into them in the hallway, you would have had a conversation about something, whether it was some technical issue that they were a domain expert on or a business issue that they were a domain expert on or just coordinating like you’re taking over the story and things like that. So because of the way we work together, because of the way we’re so extremely collaborative, we had those regular conversations. We did bump into each other in a sense. And while they weren’t driven by the need to make tea or stretch our legs, they still allow a space where we could have conversations that were directly related to the task at hand.

JENNIFER: So what’s the secret? How do you make these kind of interactions happen?

DAMIEN: Well, two parts to it. A lot of course is just being collaborative. Those tech developers also help because everybody is working together. You don’t have to put people off on one part of the code, or group people off on the other part of the code. The other part, though, really, and this might be a little bit of those secrets that people don’t know about. The other part is having Slack built in. We’re never on a death march. We would never try to squeeze every bit of productivity from every person. We deliberately created a process, and a team, and a culture designed for sustainability, designed for humaneness. And that allowed us to have that little breathing space where if you wanted to mention the anime you saw this weekend, that was perfectly okay. And if it happened to have an insight into whatever problem you’re having, that’s a great thing, too.

JENNIFER: For this to happen, how do you make that connection happen? Because when you are distributed, you have to agree with the other person. We’re going to have this conversation right now, if you’re not doing it by text. And you can’t just walk up to a desk and look over and see, does this person look busy, and start talking.

DAMIEN: That’s true. And a lot of these conversations did happen via a text medium. But we’re also very quick to jump in over video or over screen sharing. And when you’re pairing, that sort of – I hate to even use the word interruption – but that sort of interruption isn’t devastating. And it could be actually very beneficial.

JENNIFER: How do you encourage people to make that jump of going from a text conversation into a live conversation? Or is that even helpful?

DAMIEN: Yes, it is. For any sort of substantive conversation, it’s always nice to do it via voice and via video when possible. People recognize that. When you go, “Oh, I called you and now I have a much better understanding of the questions I was asking. If I’d done this before by sending a bunch of Slack messages, I was confused. Maybe I should think about calling you again next time.” So, people recognize that. But there’s also this built-in cultural expectation that people shouldn’t be interrupted. At least, the way I was brought up, those very much like, “Stay out of people’s way. Don’t interrupt them. What you have to say is not that important.” Lisa thinks I should probably talk to my therapist about it. But when you create an example of that going like, “I’m going to talk to you when I need your help or when it might be helpful to talk to you,” and then they’re going to be great conversations. And when you talk to me, I’m going to say, “Thank you for calling. This was great. I’m glad we talked this out.” So both by example and by positive reinforcement, you can develop that culture. And it’s not that difficult because it is naturally human.

JENNIFER: I like that idea of really aiming for positive reinforcement and encouragement of starting up habits that might be a little bit tricky for somebody to start. And I’m wondering, what other things are you thinking about to create that culture, maybe even just inside your own head of how do I make this person feel appreciated for pulling this into a live conversation.

DAMIEN: The most important part of that is recognizing that it can be difficult. Recognizing what aspects of these sort of communications can be difficult. Can I come over? Can I call you? Can I ask you these questions? Can I ask for help when I need it? To have the empathy to know that people struggle with this. And then to have the awareness and skill to recognize it and give positive reinforcement for it and continue. This is another aspect where having a diverse team helps immensely. Different people from different backgrounds have different resistances. If all of your team is from one background or all of your management is from another background, then it’s going to be more difficult for them to support resistances of people from a different background.

JENNIFER: This is really good advice on how to frame your mindset around how difficult and challenging it might be for someone to be asking for help, asking for ‘let’s move from text to live’. And holding that in your head to be able to create that welcoming environment. Do you have any other final words of advice for our listeners?

DAMIEN: There’s a couple of principles that it does come down to. One is knowing that you need to be active in areas where you were passive before. A lot of managers manage by instinct. They were individual contributors who performed well. They got promoted to management and there’s usually not a lot of training when you transition to management. And so, you kind of do work on instinct. You do what you’ve seen other managers do. You do what you think managers do. You kind of guess at how this works. And a lot of managers do a really good job on this. They perform very well, even though they’re working only on instinct. It’s really quite impressive. And a lot do very poorly. When you’re transitioning from in-office to remote, the instincts that you learned in the office, that you learned from watching other people, they don’t always transfer. And so, it’s important to take a lot more deliberativeness, conversations, awareness, check-ins that are instinctive and accidental just by looking over people’s shoulders, looking at the room don’t happen when people aren’t in the same room. So it’s important to know what sort of communication you need and then actually find a way to get them even if you’re not getting them on accident or by instinct.

And that’s really a long way of saying it helps so much to transition from instinctive management styles, communication styles to structured ones. But in order to make that transition, it needs to be able to recognize what sort of communications you need, what’s missing, and try different things to get them better. I gave a few examples of something, you asked about some things that are missing. I gave a few examples of how we could get them better. And again, those are things that I’ve seen work in teams or things that worked on my team, but a different thing might work in another team. Or a different thing might work a month later or a week later or as the team changes. So being able to recognize what’s needed, being able to experiment and getting it and making space for it. The biggest one of these things, the one that surprised me the most was the personal social interaction. How incredibly important that is. Once it wasn’t happening accidentally and instinctively, and we had to make a space for it, that was absolutely new to me. But there’s probably other things like that. So that’s a summary.

JENNIFER: That’s great. Thank you so much, Damien. If anyone wants to continue the conversation with you, what’s the best way for them to reach out?

DAMIEN: I guess you could start with the website: damienburke.com. Or you can email me: [email protected]

JENNIFER: All right. So, website or email. Thanks so much.

DAMIEN: Thank you. I always love talking about this stuff and helping people with it. And I look forward to anybody who is working on this and is looking for help.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod, and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the Dev Rep’s crew. If you like this episode, please think about leaving us a review on your favorite podcast listening platform. This can make a really big difference in helping other people find and start listening to storytime with managers. Thanks so much.

Going Remote with Damien Burke
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