Creating an inclusive remote and office work environment

Some thoughts from working with a hybrid team of remote and in office humans.

I worked in a startup a few years back that had some remote staff and some onsite staff, this is what we learned from experimenting with inclusion and collaboration

June 16, 2021
Last modified June 16, 2021

Introduction

This post will discuss my experience with the hybrid approach to working and how it inadvertently caused exclusion in our office. The hybrid system is some people working from home and some from an office.

A couple of years back, I was in a startup. It was a small company, with less than 20 people. We had an opportunity to hire a fantastic developer. The problem was that they lived over two and half hours away by train. They were not in a position to move to be close to the office.

We agreed with the developer we would hire them and get them to come to the office once a week. That one day, we would do our planning, retrospectives etc. Every other day we would dial them in. Zoom was not a thing back then. We used google meetup. So began our experiment with a hybrid workforce, one working from home and several in the office.

In the beginning

We decided we would all gather around a large screen TV. We mounted a camera and microphone to the TV via a mini PC. The hypothesis being our remote worker would dial into a google meet. We would log in to Leankit. We used Leankit for visualising our work. We would share our screen on google meet. This meeting happened every morning at 10 AM.

The first thing we noticed that this setup worked well for the people in the office. Leankit was good software and very intuitive and easy to use with the big screen. The remote dev did not have the same experience.

When people did not speak towards the microphone, it became difficult to hear what people were saying. It multiple people spoke, it became even more challenging. Side conversations happened off-camera, which led to non-intentional exclusion.

The second thing we noticed is that the remote person could not always see everyone on the screen. People had to fit into the view of the camera. It led to people standing too close to each other.

We decided to invest money in improving the audio and visual. We bought a Jabra type speakerphone device and placed some sound dampening boards on the wall to improve audio and a better camera with a wide viewing angle. The new video setup solved our very intimate standups, but the audio quality problems persisted.

At this point, a few of us started doing a couple of days a week at home. Things got worse when doing standups. Multiple people now were trying to hear and be heard. We found that sometimes the remote workers were using the embedded microphone on their laptop. The laptop microphones usage was not great as it picked up on a lot of background noise. Some people chose to work out of coffee shops, and the microphones picked up on a lot. We had to agree that people would work from home in a quiet environment.

At this point, we had a scenario where some people were around a TV with good audio equipment, some people at home working in a quiet environment. But this still did not solve all the problems. We sometimes forgot to admit the remote workers to the google meet. We would be halfway through and remember to dial them in or sit down at our desk after Standup and have many messages asking to be admitted to the meeting.

Also, people in the office were doing Standup. I like this rule. It makes the meeting shorter as people get tired, so it moves the discussion along. The thing is, the remote people were sitting down as they were at a laptop at their desk. Having people sitting down at home meant discussions would be more lengthy. The more extended discussions meant our typical Standup was running from 15 mins to 45 mins. People would start sitting down or leaning on walls and, if I had to be honest, tuning out a bit.

What went unnoticed for a while was when Standup or any other similar meeting ended. The discussion would continue in some shape or form. People would be leaving the meeting room and coming up with new ideas. It was like having a mini-meeting after the meeting. New decisions happened on the fly, and the remote people would find out about them in a subsequent meeting.

Some people voiced concerns about being excluded from some of the decision making and that the poor video/audio setup compounded this exclusion. We had a rethink and finally came up with a working solution that treated everyone the same.

The solution

We decided everyone should follow the same process and have the same hardware setup. We would all sit at our desks. We would all dial into the google meet. We would all go on mute unless we needed to talk. This normalised everyone to be working the same whether at the office or home. It felt weird to do a meeting at my desk and have someone next to me be in the same meeting but dialled into a google meet. People felt more included and became more vocal and engaged in the problems we were solving.

In summary

We learned from having a hybrid workforce that it is best to have one process for everyone, and that process optimises for remote people. When doing meetings, office-based people should do them at your desk. Invest in good headsets for each employee, QC35 were good, Jabra headsets are also good. Improving video is not so important as most laptops have good built-in camera’s.

Stay away from using meeting rooms with a big tv and starfish phones. It can lead to excluding the remote people due to the dynamics mentioned above.

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