No matter where employees are based—in the office, at home or a little of both—post-pandemic, all employers should now be “remote-friendly,” says David Chester, chief technology officer at Frameable, a productivity software company based in New York City.
Chester spoke with StrategicCIO360 about how to use tech to do that, from creating “productive serendipity” to counterintuitive approaches like letting some employees multitask during Zoom meetings.
How do we adapt to the workplace of the future, whether it be hybrid, in-person or WFH?
I firmly believe the workplace of the future is remote-forward, or remote-friendly. Working together with everyone remotely—as we do here at Frameable—really levels the playing field.
Everyone has their own camera, microphone and speaker—everyone can hear, and everyone can be heard. No one has a “better” spot in the office, and no one is trying to get to a conference room early to get a prominent seat. Everyone has the “best seat in the house” because it’s the one they’ve chosen for themselves at that moment.
With a hybrid setup, it’s very hard to get it right. You have the in-person people who can see and hear each other, no problem. But typically, the remote people just see a grainy, zoomed-out feed of the whole conference room. In addition to remote workers not always being able to see the person who is talking, the audio quality is spotty, especially for in-person participants who are far from the live microphone.
What we’ve lost with everyone working remotely, though, is productive serendipity. As better remote work tools emerge, this is the biggest opportunity for improvement, and it is within reach. These technologies will allow remote work to become more fluid and more transparent, with team members being able to “run into each other” and participate in ad-hoc working sessions.
What are the ways you use technology to keep your team connected, beyond video meetings?
If the only one-to-one engagement your remote team members have with each other is during scheduled working meetings, you’re going to find yourself struggling to build a culture of teamwork. It’s important to have people throughout the organization—at all levels, not just the leadership team—host consistent, purely optional, dedicated socializing sessions.
For example, the 15 minutes prior to our daily standup meeting has become a time for catching up with each other about work or non-work topics, just like you’d do if you were standing around the office in person with your cup of coffee waiting for the meeting to start. Similarly, we host recurring sessions for sharing learnings amongst the team where we simply encourage everyone to share whatever they have learned recently.
We host team conversations in breakout rooms in our virtual office platform or our virtual events platform for both one-off and ongoing small-group conversations. These breakout rooms allow participants to choose which conversations they want to join, and with whom. This does a much better job of replicating our in-person socializing and conversations than being randomly placed into a room by a disembodied Zoom host and told to spend five minutes getting to know each other.
Of course, not all conversations or team-building moments need to be happening live and in-person. We also have our “Sundries” Slack channel, which we use as a persistent asynchronous place for anyone on the team to share random things of interest with each other.
We’ve also hosted quarterly hack-a-thons that allowed folks to try on something new and different from their daily work and with team members they don’t typically work with directly, including non-engineers working on tech projects. The important thread through all of these opportunities, however, is that the employees are in charge of their participation.
Do you have any tips for managing video meeting fatigue?
The consensus of recent research seems to be that a big component of Zoom fatigue is being confronted with a video image of themselves as the dominant element on their screen. But who says everyone needs to be on video all the time? Or that your face should be your meeting participation default? Instead, normalize having interactive elements—like a whiteboard or a visual of what’s being discussed as what’s front-and-center. And make sure your video platform makes it easy to hide your view of your own video feed; you should be able to broadcast your feed to others without having to look at it yourself if you don’t want to.
Also, it’s important to trust people to manage their camera feeds. It’s a bad idea to have a mandatory “camera always on” policy. If you have a particular meeting in which you as a leader want cameras on, you can always say so, but it’s not a sustainable mandatory policy.
Instead, it can be more beneficial to encourage “passive listening” by attendees who appreciate being informed or who are there just in case their expertise is needed. Yes, if they are running the meeting or are actively engaging, it’s probably a good idea to turn on their camera. But, when you are there as a listener, there are other ways, such as using emotes, to show you are present, but which don’t require you to stare into your video camera.
I’ve noticed that with the shift to video meetings and remote work, there seems to be a skepticism about people multitasking during meetings. While this makes sense in an in-person setting, where someone working on something else while sitting in a meeting would be incredibly distracting or rude to others, that’s not the case with remote meeting technology.
If folks have indicated they will be in a “reduced engagement” mode, and it’s clear to everyone, they can keep informed of the conversation while also working on other things, guilt-free. This cuts down on the Zoom fatigue and allows them to be more productive with their time. It’s smarter to work with this very human desire rather than to fight against it and leave everyone unhappy about it.
How does technology change the way we manage the modern employee?
Today’s leaders and people managers are largely held accountable for meeting company goals and the outputs of their team’s work—not for time each employee spends at their workstation. Being a good manager is no longer about enforcing an overly rigid process or glancing over to see if people are at their desks working. Instead, it’s being clear about the vision (why are we doing this work, and what problems are we trying to solve?), making sure the team has the tools and time to succeed, and letting them do their jobs while being available to help when necessary.
Employees don’t want to take orders—they want to take ownership of the problem and find great solutions. And that’s best for everyone anyway. As a leader, you can’t possibly know the one best way to tackle every element of every string of problems better than everyone else on your team.
As people managers, we are resources for the teams that report to us. We clear obstacles and assess effort and value, so we can prioritize the many great ideas that can’t all be worked on at the same time. We also provide mentorship, frameworks for success, and inputs as the teams need them.
For example, I believe we do our best work in cross-functional teams, i.e., a designer working with an engineer and business stakeholder, with lots of input from end-users. Asking any one of these disciplines to work without the others limits the quality of the results. So, as a manager, I make it possible for our work to be structured in this way and to pair people together whose perspectives will complement each other.