Harrison Harnisch
Blog Speaking About
2 June 2019
Categories Remote Work Productivity

Effective Syncs With Distributed Teams

Over the past few years I’ve participated or lead syncs in fully distributed, partially distributed and centrally located teams. I’ve learned that doing effective syncs in a distributed team is similar to doing them in a centrally located team. However, there are a few differences that make distributed team syncs a little more difficult than a centrally located team sync. I’ll share a process that has been borrowed from many different sources and tweaked over time with new teammates and companies.

Why Do This?

Effective syncs lay the foundation for strong communication channels and opportunities to build trust between team members. When everyone understands the shared goals and knows what they need to do, the team can move in the same direction. Getting everyone aligned is arguably one of the most important goals of any team or organization since it reduces wasted effort and increases velocity. A great deep dive on this subject is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins, which provides several case studies on companies that have exhibited these behaviors sustainably.

Define The Process

The first step to laying the foundation for communication and trust is to define a process to run team syncs. The driver for the meeting should be a real time collaborative document like Google Docs, Notion or Dropbox Paper. This is important because it allows the entire team to follow along and participate before, during and after the meeting. Participants should join the call individually and preferably on a headset to keep the noise down.

Before

If you don’t already have a shared document, create one with the template below. If you do have a shared document create a new entry at the top of the document with the same template. Update the YYYY-MM-DD with the date the sync will take place. Share this with all the participants as early as possible and ask team members to add agenda items. It’s also best practice to create a recurring weekly meeting with a link to the agenda. Syncs should last between 30 minutes (for teams around 4) and no longer than an hour (for teams around 8). The longer agenda items are on the list will mean that agenda items get more exposure. Participants will have more time to think about each item. About an hour before the meeting prompt participants (a calendar or slack reminder is great for this) to add missing agenda items to the list. Five minutes before the meeting starts send out the link for the video call in a shared channel.

During

The meeting leader should start the meeting on time, this is a signal that peoples time is respected – also late participants can catch up with the meeting notes. Starting at the top of the agenda, clearly state the contents of the agenda item and ask the person who wrote it if they would like to provide more context. Some agenda items can be announcements while others may require more discussion or possibly be an action item for next week. The leader should help guide the conversation if it gets off topic or unproductive. The timekeeper should be providing signals for spending too much time on a given topic. The recorder should be writing down what was talked about and adding action items.

There are few recurring agenda items that serve as a reminder to ensure that the current and future meetings go smoothly. Before talking about this weeks agenda items the team should choose meeting roles (other than the leader) and go through the status of last weeks action items. If any of the action items from last week remain they should be moved to the next weeks action items or chosen not to be done by the team. After this weeks agenda has been talked through the team should go through next weeks action items. The goal is to make sure each action has someone assignee and the list is prioritized. This helps each team member understand their next tasks. The very last item should be to choose a leader for the next week.

After

If there are action items that are related to longer term goals, the leader should link the action item to the longer term goals. (This depends on how longer term goals are communicated and prioritized) The leader should also create the next weeks agenda with the date of the next sync and share it with the team. As each team member completes their respective action items, they mark the item complete with the checkbox. This allows everyone to track progress and quickly communicate status. During the week as team members think of things to talk about they can add items to the shared agenda for the next week.

Template

Here’s a template written in Markdown that can be used to drive distributed team syncs:

# YYYY-MM-DD

## Agenda

Meeting leader: @harrison

- [ ] choose meeting roles (other than leader)
- [ ] go over last weeks action items
- [ ] **add action items here**
- [ ] make sure this weeks action items have an assignee and are prioritized
- [ ] choose meeting leader for next week

## Notes

- What did the team talk about?
  - some more context

## Action Items

- [ ] Action items from the meeting @harrison

Meeting Roles

Shoutout to @vaurorapub for teaching us about meeting roles while at Buffer.

There are a few variations of this but there are essentially four roles:

The Leader

Develops the agenda, guides the group through the meeting and ensures that the team has equal speaking opportunities.

The Recorder

Ensures everyone has access to the agenda (before, during and after), takes notes during the meeting and records action items during the meeting.

The Timekeeper

Ensures that the team is spending the appropriate amount of time on each agenda item. When agenda items go long, this person can interject and request an action item for a followup meeting or move on if the conversation is unproductive. The timekeeper can also contribute to the conversation.

The Participant

Understands the agenda before the meeting and clarifies agenda items that they added during the meeting. Contributes to the conversation around agenda items.

For a more in depth description here an article that goes in detail on each meeting role.

Gotchas

Here are some gotchas that I’ve experienced with some ideas on how to address each one. You might find some of your own along the way depending on your team and company.

Large Teams

With team syncs larger than 8, the number of agenda items and amount of discussion around each item tend to grow. This makes it difficult to have meetings under an hour. Through personal experience, 1 hour is the maximum amount of time you can keep the attention of a small group. If possible, the best thing to do is to split the group into smaller teams. It’s likely that there is already a natural point of division in work.

Partially Distributed Teams

In a partially distributed team, some members work in a central location while others are working “remote”. The “remote” team members end up getting treated second class (likely not on purpose) and it is more difficult to contribute to the sync. Some of the difficulties can be fixed by enabling team members from the central location to work from home so they can get the “remote” experience. People will quickly point out things like the audio quality is not good enough with a single laptop in the center of the room and every time I try to talk I get cut off. Some things can be solved with better tech while others are solved with empathy from being “remote”.

Timezones

When a team is split in very difficult timezone splits (8 hours apart or more) it can be difficult to find a time that works for everyone. There are tools that can help you find the best time for example: https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html When the best time ends up being a bad compromise for everyone it can be helpful to ask teammates if they are ok with an early or a late meeting. Someone being a morning person or a night owl can make all the difference! The best solution might be to alternate between ideal timezones for different teammates.


While this process has been tested in a few different companies and team setups, it should be viewed as a starting point for your own team syncs. Every team is going to be different and what works for one might not work for another. It’s important to listen to the team and use their feedback to improve the process. If you do make changes, it is best to change one thing at a time and observe. Using the scientific method you can keep doing things that are working and revert things that are not until you’re happy with the process.


Have some thoughts on this? Reach out to me on Twitter: @hjharnis

Want More?

Subscribe below and get the latest posts about Kubernetes, Docker, React and More!