Unleashing the remote Collective Genius

remote_work_illo Illustration by Anas Kadhim

We were packing our bags for a conference in Romania and preparing handouts for our very first ustwo Academy workshop when the news of closing borders, cancelling events and isolation started popping up. A few days later, ustwobies all over the world found ourselves in the same situation as many - juggling the everyday with work, while being at home. We have rapidly stepped into a situation that puts all we’ve thought so far about teamwork, collaboration and prototyping mindsets into question. Our Nordic studio has had time to reflect on isolation, and we’re ready to share the lessons we’ve learnt from dealing with the unexpected.

At ustwo we often talk about “Unleashing the Collective Genius” - building teams that move fast, are creative, and have fun working together. This is something we take pride and invest a lot of energy in, and is a core component of the ustwo Acedemy curriculum. Right now, the real question is: can our knowledge about collaboration be applied to working remotely? Will we harness the full potential of the group? We believe so, because of vast experience in collaborating with remote clients and partners. We’re also ready to learn as we go and find our feet in this new world.

The Collective Genius is an organisation or group that harnesses it's full potential

So far, we have discovered that the fundamentals of good remote collaboration are not that different from fundamentals of great in-person teamwork. It all comes down to a positive team dynamic, a safe space for speaking up and prompt, considerate feedback. So how have we gone about this in the past few weeks?

Routines & rituals - more important than ever

Routines and rituals are as always super important for the wellbeing of teams, however, we shouldn’t be afraid to adapt them to fit our new reality. For instance, some of our teams start their day by saying hello in their team Slack channel, and saying goodbye when they are done for the day. This way all team members know who is still ‘in the office’. We maintain our daily standups but a new addition to the team's calendar is a short end-of-week reflection meeting where everyone can share their highs and lows from the week.

Sign off Screenshot

The fastest of internet connections and the coolest of home workspaces don’t fill the void of people being distant. So to keep the spirit up we have introduced other things as well. For example virtual lunch dates, studio arranged 10-minute chat meetings with random colleagues (a virtual water cooler chat if you’d like), online quiz challenges, tournaments, coffee breaks and yoga sessions on Hangouts. And let’s not forget - a fully online after work gathering on Fridays! Social distancing can be taxing but there’s beauty to be found in distant socialising. Prioritize it, set the time for it, get creative and make it something to look forward to.

Team dynamics efforts don’t sleep

We have realised that gaps in inclusion are more apparent when working online and can seriously harm team morale and wellbeing. People who often don’t get to talk during in-person meetings are seen even less online and the louder ones have no clear cues that signal them to give space to others.

When possible, assign a meeting facilitator with a responsibility to make sure everyone has been seen and heard. The facilitator should ensure it’s not the same person talking all the time, and actively ask if someone who hasn’t spoken has any input, concerns or questions. This should be one member of the team on a rotation basis.

In smaller teams, starting a meeting with a check-in question is a great way to create a safe space for everyone to talk. Sending out topics and questions beforehand, in order for everyone to be able to think things through is a great help. Checking in afterwards with people who were quiet, to get their ideas or opinions is also a good idea.

Let’s make virtual work, for real

Online meetings can be draining and annoying - technical difficulties, kids in the background, bad microphones, are all things we learn to fix in no time. There is a greater evil and subconscious enemy lurking over our shoulders - the importance of body language. A lot of body language cues can be lost in video calls. To avoid this, use more non-verbal feedback and show signs of active listening - for example, nodding and smiling. Don’t try to multitask and check your mail while you're on a video call. We all recognise when someone gets that absent gaze and appears to be doing something else. Be present, as you would be in a real meeting.

Conversations do take longer when you are not in the same room. And that’s fine. Caring enough to listen to other people’s points of view allows the many brains and voices to bring their best to the table. To us, this is very important and we put a lot of effort into creating the trust that helps us all feel comfortable enough to contribute. This trust needs to be maintained, so make time for some personal sharing and reflections as well. There are a lot of great tools, tips and workflows out there to aid virtual collaboration and while implementing what’s needed to get the work done, let’s not forget about the human aspect of teamwork - to unleash collective genius and make collaboration between individuals truly work.

To recap, a few of the things that have helped us to unleash the remote collective genius:

  • Keeping rituals intact while remote. Being clear when signing in and out and having regular standups helps to set a framework for the day.
  • Introducing new opportunities for spending time together, which gives a great space for creativity and well-needed micropauses. Online coffee and lunch breaks, stretching together, and online gaming tournaments are some examples. Challenge each other!
  • Not forgetting to celebrate the little things.
  • Making sure everyone is heard and nominate people to own this responsibility. Check in questions are great to get everyone talking and given time to prepare, makes us feel safe.
  • Being present. It’s tempting to multitask but we try our best to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Not forgetting the human aspect of online meetings. Turning the camera on, even if it’s just to say hello (if the connection is bad, we turn it off later.) Making space for thoughts and reflections.

We’re at the beginning of this new way of working and living, so let's try to learn what we can and stay connected even when we are far from each other. The worst thing would be not to learn from this, not to stop and reflect on what’s happening, not to think about how much we have grown. Remote - but together.

Automated caption of remote session

Some highlights from the auto-generated Closed Captions during our Friday afterwork

Ustwo academy is a new initiative we're piloting in our Nordics Studio, enabling us to share some of our most inspiring and interesting learnings over the years, packaged as one-day workshops. We hope that we’ll be able to do these in real life soon but meanwhile - we are preparing a selection of workshops to go online. Keep an eye on our website to see when they go live, and also our Twitter feed, where we will be posting more learnings from our time being fully remote.