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How we stay connected in a distributed environment

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In the second year of this pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about connection, especially as TXI made the decision to let go of our Chicago headquarters and permanently move to a fully distributed model.

When people ask how TXI stays connected as a company, I think back to the four guiding questions that the leadership team has asked itself repeatedly since spring of 2020 and asked repeatedly over the past year:

  1. How can we address our team’s anxieties directly?
  2. How can we improve communication and transparency within our distributed team?
  3. How can we listen and better understand what's going on within the company?
  4. And then, how can we provide time for spontaneity and connections?

While it may be tempting to jump to the fourth question on this list and schedule a new series of Zoom happy hours, the order in which you address these questions is important. Unless you address your team’s underlying anxieties about the state of the business––and therefore their jobs––your odds of achieving trusting and honest communications as an organization is low.

Address anxiety around the state of the business

Since long before this public health crisis, TXI has had open books within our organization. We have an internal dashboard that highlights our financials and our CFO also sends a monthly update on how things are going.

But in March 2020, what we found was that our staff needed to understand how leadership would make decisions if the state of the business were to dramatically change.

So, we did scenario planning to answer questions like, “If revenue drops, how would that impact staffing and salaries? And if revenue really drops, how would leadership respond?” As part of this exercise, we modeled our actions and reactions to several scenarios when the news of the pandemic first broke in March 2020.

In those early days when so much was uncertain, people feared for their jobs and security. So, we mapped it out and made the commitment that in those scenarios, we would all sacrifice a little bit by reducing salaries (starting with the leadership team) rather than initiating furloughs or layoffs.

We transparently outlined how we would respond with cost-saving measures in each scenario that might come our way. And while we never got anywhere near any of the real disaster scenarios we outlined, this showed our team how we’d react to massive changes in our business, and knowing how we would react helped to calm everyone's fears and anxieties a bit.

In times of great uncertainty, this kind of communication is particularly important for distributed organizations.

On top of this, we introduced a monthly State of the Business meeting where we do a deep dive into one particular aspect of the company, so everyone could understand how we were reacting to the external forces with COVID.

It’s not enough to provide data about the health of your organization in financial terms––although I strongly recommend taking this approach. Our leadership team has learned that it’s more important to deliver insights into how we think about what that data means and how we would respond to changes in those books. Demonstrating intention and the “why” behind actions is as important as the actions themselves.

Improve communication and transparency

2021 was our first full year as a fully distributed organization, but I think we’ve all found that maintaining strong communication and transparency has become more difficult since March 2020. At TXI, this was partially due to what I call “the library problem.”

The “library problem” was that we had information all over the place - on GitHub, in a handbook, in Google Drive and on a shared drive. Some people even got information from paper that was physically attached to the walls of an office and notes written out on whiteboards. Other times it was just in our heads and you had to know just the right person to ask.

When we became a distributed organization, it quickly became clear that we needed a single knowledge repository where all of our documents could be organized and equitably accessed by everyone at TXI.

We talked to other companies, did our research, and selected a software solution called Notion where we could centralize our communications in the cloud. As we migrated all of our documents, we kept a target audience in mind: the new hire we’ll bring onboard six months from now.

To support this next new hire––and our current teams––we operationalized the practice of writing down and sharing what happens in every meeting, as well as recording and publishing audio to improve the accessibility of that information.

We also added a role on our leadership team for an Internal Communications Manager. Today, that’s Annie Swank, who is also a Senior Product Designer and a manager in our design group. She acts as resident librarian and historian so that we can better manage internal communications over time.

“Clear documentation is very important as we grow, so it’s a priority to make sure that things that had previously been implicit are now explicit,” she explains. “As a distributed company, we can't rely on the conversations that happen when people are sitting next to each other in an office.”

We also have an internal Knowledge Management Group, which is a more grassroots effort that encourages people to update their own pages and add new sections to Notion.

Since taking on her role as Internal Communications Manager, Annie has focused on three things:

  1. A redesign of our internal newsletter within Notion to help raise awareness of what our staff is up to, both at work and in their personal lives, as well as what new opportunities to get involved exist at TXI.
  2. Setting agendas for quarterly all company meetings and brunch-and-learns that address the state of the business.
  3. Promoting a culture of clear and complete documentation.

If this last item sounds broad, that’s because it is a huge task. Annie frames it as “keeping the guardrails on.” What this looks like in practice is asking and sharing the answers to common questions.

“For example when leadership is getting ready to announce a specific policy or goals for the new year, it’s my job to make sure that we're contextualizing that announcement so people can understand how they fit into it, how it will make things better, what (if anything) will change about their day-to-day, and how they can get involved.”

She simultaneously thinks about where changes fit into the narrative of the company and what’s been done in the past, and then considers the experience of an employee who might be looking for more information about that history and its current state. The questions she aims to answer are often as simple as, “Is this information locatable?” and “Is this up to date?”

Once we recognized the importance of organizing our digital operations, we knew it would take both commitment and investment on an ongoing basis, and having an experienced leader like Annie who is dedicated to this effort is key to sustaining these efforts.

Actively listen to better understand what's going on within a distributed company

If you’re working in an office, it’s easy to walk up to someone and see that they’re frustrated. I might bump into someone at lunch and just ask how they’re doing.

But in a distributed environment, I don’t get the visual cues that might clue me in to a coworker’s emotional state, and I rarely get the chance to casually find out what is on the team’s mind.

Before our quarterly all-hands meetings in the office, I used to field questions in person about what folks wanted to hear about, so a simple Google survey seemed like a good alternative.

I quickly found that the downside of this is that no one else gets to see each other’s responses. Because I assumed frequency correlated with priority, if 20 people asked what we were planning to do with the office and two people wanted to talk about combating burnout, I thought the staff must be feeling okay overall and shared information about our evolving office plans. But I couldn’t be sure that I really knew what was on the team’s mind.

To answer that question, I started to experiment with a tool called ThoughtExchange, which allows teams to respond to questions, see each other’s answers and upvote answers that resonate with them. This way, you can gauge your team’s priorities and concerns more thoroughly.

In this time-lapse video, watch the team (in only 6 minutes) come together as an organization to generate over 100 ideas and then interact by upvoting and commenting on each other's suggestions. By the end of the 6-minute ThoughtExchange, we had produced over 1000 touchpoints and engaged each other in the virtual discussion - far better than a single person reading through survey response data.

TXI's ThoughtExchange session

To use my all-hands survey as an example, this meant upvoting topics they’d also like to discuss, and when we switched to ThoughtExchange, concerns about our office dropped down to the bottom of the list and mental health jumped up to the second-most upvoted topic.

This told me that many people were feeling anxious and they weren’t comfortable asking to talk about it until they saw that other people wanted to have that conversation as well.

This tool totally changed how we approach active listening within the company because it brings people together and allows everyone to get a better view of the context in which these conversations are happening.

As we move forward, I’m still looking for more ways to hear what people actually want to say and build the kind of connective tissue that allows people to learn from each other, even if they’re never in the same room at the same time.

Make time and space for spontaneity and connection

In the past year, TXI has done three big things to make space and time for spontaneity and connection:

  • We added wellness challenges to get people virtually walking together.
  • We purchased a global WeWork subscription to give people who want to work in the office a place to go where they can collaborate.
  • We reshaped our individual onboarding process and adopted a cohort model.
Great Ocean Road Virtual Challenge

The Great Ocean Road Virtual Challenge

While a list of operational changes and planned activities may seem to run counter to the idea of creating “spontaneous” connections, these are all measures that help encourage people to talk and share ideas, and so far, they are successful.

So, in the year ahead, we’re trying two new things:

  1. We’re planning our first “coworking week” to bring more folks together in a way that’s safe and productive.
  2. We just launched an ohyay virtual office where people can virtually hang out when they want to connect.

Coworking weeks are an opportunity for team members to gather at WeWork locations to collaborate, reconnect, and recapture some of the spontaneity we’ve all been missing. There is no substitute for spending time together, and I’m looking forward to our first coworking week, which is planned for spring 2022.

CoWorking Week at TXI

Coworking week at WeWork

If the experiment around asynchronous communication was Notion, and the experiment in distributed active listening was ThoughtExchange, then ohyay is our experimental tool for spontaneous connection with distributed team members.

OhYay Platform

ohYay Virtual Platform

As we start together in 2021, I felt the need to bring it alive in a virtual place where anyone can join a room, bump into colleagues and hang out. We've built fun, unique spaces within this virtual office that don’t look like an office at all––you can hang out on a chairlift or on the couch from the Simpsons. It’s a place where employees can experience the new brand, check out nods to employees that embody our values and uncover all kinds of Easter eggs.

You don’t need a meeting link or password to participate, and the doors are always open. While this is relatively new, I appreciate this as a companion to our efforts to gather in person, when it’s safe to do so.

Everything doesn’t work for everyone

As I’ve done research, surveyed our team, and talked to peers whose companies have been fully distributed for years, I keep relearning one important lesson: no solution, project, or platform will work for everyone––and that shouldn’t be the goal.

As you work to connect people, respect that individuals have their own preferences and motivators. Whenever possible, provide a few different connection opportunities that are designed to suit different kinds of people who may have different challenges in their home lives.

Some experiments won’t resonate with anyone and others will feel kinetically charged from the moment they launch. The important thing is to keep trying to find ways to make sure that new hires and long-time staffers have the opportunities they need to connect and stay connected.

Staying connected is not easy to do––especially if you’re looking for ways to foster individual connections within a distributed organization when everyone has different preferences and challenges in their home lives. So, don’t get discouraged. Keep trying new things and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Published by Mark Rickmeier in Distributed Workforce

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