Why virtual teams should behave like a jazz band

I love listening to jazz. And I know that jazz is probably the most divisive form of music, so you might not agree with me. But for the sake of this article stay with me for a few minutes. In my eyes, jazz is not just a style of music. Jazz is a genre that can shape our character by giving us courage, prepare us to improvise, innovate, give others an equal voice, and listen. Jazz is creative. Jazz generates a sense of structure, freedom, and collaborative possibility via a shared purpose, trust and innovation.

And all those things are important not just in a jazz band but also in our modern day teams and work settings. That’s why I really love this metaphor and would love to explore this here with you. I want to especially focus on how the structure of jazz ensembles can teach us some valuable lesson around leadership and team collaboration.

All too often, leaders separate themselves from the people they lead. The leader of a jazz band is on the other hand a musician – they are part of the band. And I can guarantee you, no matter what a leader’s accomplishments are, they must still be human. Love and forgiveness are every bit as crucial to leadership as are competence and integrity.

What is so special about Jazz bands?

Peter Drucker wrote in one of his books about leadership and management, that the job of a manager could be compared to a conductor of a symphony orchestra. While it might have been right at his time, I don’t think it is a great analogy for today’s work world, especially in the global setting that a lot of us work in.

A better analogy that has been explored, but seems to still be quite unknown, is the comparison of a team to a jazz band. Unlike classical orchestras, bands, or other musical configurations, jazz ensembles rely on shared leadership, collaboration, improvisation and humility.

You could say that the classical approach is equivalent to discipline and the jazz approach is equivalent to agility. And agility is definitely something your team and you should have in today’s ever-changing world.

Classical Approach

If we start to look deeper into those two different approaches we’ll learn that in classical music, the hierarchy is well defined and made up of solo instrumentalists, section leaders, and the conductor. Decision-making is most often only centered around the conductor. This structure is, when it works, highly efficient, built to avoid error, and produces order through a pre-defined methodology. Individuals have a responsibility to be the best they can in their chosen profession (which is the instrument), to respond to the constraints by the plan (music sheet) and to trust that their part fits into the bigger picture. The repetitive nature, pre-specified roles, and detailed plans that make up this group result in a comfortable more predictable environment.

The whole classical approach in itself isn’t bad, but it clearly resembles a more hierarchical and disciplined team structure. In a very extreme situation, if for example, the conductor isn’t available, the whole group might not be able to continue or make a decision. 

Jazz Approach

In jazz music, on the other hand, there is less of a hierarchy and the group tends to be much smaller. A jazz ensemble has a shared decision-making approach – it is pushed down from the “leader” to the “individual.” This approach works well when flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, and faster processing of information are needed. Unlike in classical music, the jazz environment is not as structured. Although, like classical musicians, the individual in a jazz band still needs to excel within that environment and be the best musician they can be. The jazz mindset cultivates personal freedom to innovate and act guided by sufficient constraints while the band trusts that individuals will ensure their part fits into the bigger picture. 

What does “personal freedom with constraints” mean for a band? It is about providing just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity while inviting embellishment and encouraging exploration and experimentation. Freedom is not unlimited, but the environment supports coloring outside the lines to look for new, more efficient ways to play music.

All of this already highlights and shows you that a jazz band must operate in a more structured way. You could say that they follow the principle of loosely coupled and tightly aligned, to balance order and chaos. Which is also how a lot of modern teams and companies operate nowadays.

What can we learn from Jazz?

So, what can we actually take away from how jazz bands function? What are some of the lessons that we could learn from Miles Davis & Co.?

“All for one, and one for all”

The idea of collaboration in a jazz team is described well by the famous phrase from The Three Musketeer’s: all for one, and one for all. Each person not only strives to be his or her best but also works and plays with heightened intention for the sake of the purpose of the whole, whether a team or organization.

The entire group is looking out for the individuals in the group, cares for their individual growth and welfare. This happens in action on stage by great jazz groups, as they support individual excellence and an embrace of challenge-for-growth, with respect for the roles each, plays to make the sum greater than its parts. Indeed, an ensemble mindset works more like a multiplier effect where the collective culture field extends beyond individuals into an exponential dynamic of co-creative mastery.

“Everyone gets to solo”

Shared leadership allows for individual differences in style, approach and background to simply be facts rather than immovable obstacles. Shared leadership also includes shared responsibility and shared accountability for common goals and objectives of a team, of an ensemble.

We put so much emphasis on leadership today that we have forgotten the importance of followership, or what jazz musicians call “comping.” In organizations, followership -supporting others to think out loud and be their best – should be an art more fully articulated, acknowledged and rewarded. When self-directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns heading up various projects as their expertise is needed. The same happens in jazz bands, where everyone gets a turn to solo.

“Listen – then listen more”

It sounds simple – because it actually is. As we’ve already learned above how great performances require collaboration and great leaders know that collaboration requires an extremely well-developed capacity to really listen and hear what others are saying. In a jazz quintet, that means listening to four other people who are communicating with you all at the same time. It’s for this reason alone that I would consider jazz musicians to be more evolved than the rest of us. Our work at meetings is a lot easier. Normally, we need to listen to only one person at a time. Listening, particularly active listening, is simultaneously a skill, an art form and, most importantly, a discipline. Something that you can learn, and should learn as a leader and/or manager of people. 

“Improvise all the time”

Jazz musicians are in a partnership based on a common language. That language is called improvisation. It is a dialogue with each band member receiving, accepting, and giving verbal and non-verbal cues, signals and gestures that provide understanding. Each band member plays something and the other decides how to answer, building on an idea.

“Improvisation is not so much a creation of something out of nothing as much as it is the creation of something out of everything—everything one has been taught, everything one has experienced, everything one knows.”

Bob Kulhan

Improvisation is about discovery – a process of spontaneously creating, with absolute focused attention, in the present moment. As the quote by Bob Kulhan shows, improvisation is not winging it – rather, it’s taking an idea, extending and developing it to tell your own story, in real-time. 

In today’s business world, working with an improvisational mindset can teach us how to generate ideas more confidently and courageously, leading to more possible solutions. Effective also for problem-solving, improvisation creates the space for open dialogue and engagement. Using improvisation as a tool in this way can help us gain a sense of collaborative flexibility and learn to be more trustworthy.

Why is the jazz mindset so important in a virtual setting?

In today’s world of work, especially after the global pandemic, collaborating with people across the globe in a virtual setting is becoming hugely important. And all of the things that we can learn from Jazz are key to creating the best team and setup for yourself.

If you work in a distributed team, no matter how many timezones of difference, you will likely have found it hard to really embrace it. Working with different times and schedules is a big struggle for remote workers. Synchronous meetings become asynchronous, potentially you don’t even see your team a lot. 

That’s where great communication skills and a shared way of leading helps you to align and make it easier on yourself and the team to work across multiple timezones. Even improvisation can be a really strong skill to learn. Imagine if someone from your team is currently asleep, but you really need to finish a project – what do you do? You can’t wake them up, but you can have a bias towards action and improvise a solution. As you also share accountability and responsibility with the others, it becomes your choice and helps you to move things forward for the whole team.

Communication and collaboration skills become a crucial asset for you and your virtual team. Without those two, remote work or even teamwork wouldn’t be possible. Jazz ensembles really show this in the best way. Every musician on their own is an expert and really good at what they do, but alone they would always just be solo artists. When they come together to collaborate, something really special can come out of it. The same goes for your team. If you don’t talk, listen and help each other you are just a bunch of freelancer spread across the world. But if you get together to communicate, listen and give feedback, you can level each other up and achieve your goals. 

Easy steps for you to get started

Practice Listening … is one of the most beneficial tasks that you can do. I don’t even want to write much more on this because it is that plain simple. If you want to get started, I wrote a guide on Active Listening and how you can get started to become a better listener.

Build a vision … and rally behind a shared purpose for your team or company. This one will help you in many ways. When I took over the Mobile Team at Buffer, I made it my personal goal to find us a vision or purpose statement. It helped us a lot in finding our way inside the product organization, but also in making a lot of individual decisions.

Have a bias towards action … to move forward even in the midst of uncertainty. As managers, we frequently find ourselves in the middle of messes, not of our own making, forced to take action even though there is no guarantee of a good outcome while relying on imperfect information. Jazz players face the same issues, but what makes it possible to improvise, to adjust, and fall upon a working strategy is an affirmative move, an implicit “yes” or bias towards action.

Embrace Failures … as they are part of the whole process. Trial and error mean presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mindset of discovery, creating hypotheses, and finding out what might work and what might not. Leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and unmanageable forces. It’s only by looking back at what they have created that jazz soloists realize how the notes, phrases, and chords relate in good ways as well as bad.

I was excited about jazz and how it is just such a good analogy for how I lead my team, already before writing this. But publishing this article just showed me again, 

Before I’ll leave you, I wanted to share some of my favorite current jazz artists. Who knows maybe it inspires you, or even gets you to like jazz if you were in the opposite camp before 😅

Virtual Communication in a Crisis

This blog post was co-authored by Raquel Ark. She is a communicator, coach, facilitator dedicated to shining the light on listening.

This article is an experiment, which started before Coronavirus. We are both interested in and passionate about leadership and communication. After connecting on Linkedin and having an inspiring conversation, we decided to write an article exploring remote work and communication, partnering with our “expertise”. A few weeks later, remote work is everywhere on social media and it would look like we are jumping on the wave. We aren’t. Yes, we have adapted but our focus is more long-term supporting leadership and communication that goes beyond just getting things done. We also want to support leaders who care about people. And we think it makes good business sense. Send us your questions and ideas for articles you would be interested in. We are listening.

Because of our circumstances, we (the authors) have been working either partly or fully remote for many years. Video conferencing, working and communicating on shared platforms with shared documents are normal day to day for us, even more for Marcus, working for an innovative company with a fully distributed team around the world and across multiple time zones. So, this past week, when the Coronavirus crisis hit hard and people were forced to work from home, doing work did not change that much for us. Yet life did.

Our crisis experiences 

Raquel’s experience

Work: On Friday, a decision was made to facilitate a newly merged team remotely on Tuesday instead of in person. Focus was on working agreements and decision prioritization using communication and collaboration techniques with 30 participants. We used Hangout and Google doc links. On Saturday, university classes, normally held on campus were adapted to an online format for Monday. 20 and 12 participants respectively using Zoom. All groups were mainly diverse in culture, all speaking in English as their second language. 

For most participants, it was the first time they had had a workshop or class on-line with video-conferencing and break-out rooms.They went in skeptical and came out inspired. They all loved the small group break-out rooms. They felt connected, listened to and had fun. They also got work done…surprisingly well. Yet the content of the work was secondary. Connecting to each other was primary. And this led to good work as an outcome. A relief and excitement about opportunities.

Adapting quickly to the new situation was made possible by my past experiences. Yet, behind the scenes balancing family time and everyone getting work and school done at the same time is very new. Also care for those in our family that are at risk, without getting close to them. Worry for those who are located far away. Changing travel plans. Worry about financial impact on everything and everyone around us. Noticing the creativity showing up. Noticing blue skies and new sounds.

We all have our stories and our circumstances. And they matter. It’s part of the crisis beyond “just” work from home.

Marcus’ experience

Working in a fully distributed company, prepares you well for a global emergency where everyone is encouraged to stay and work from home. Or at least you would think so. In the past week, I’ve almost had everyone in my network, family or friends saying “this must be business as usual for you, right?” – Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Having a pandemic happening across the world is not business as usual. Even my team, which is spread out from Taiwan to the US, is struggling.

The biggest change in my approach to lead and communicate has been around empathy. One team member, for example, had to stay home since last week along with his 3 small kids. Not having a home office, since he normally works from a co-working space, made things even trickier.

I have been leaning into embracing the situation as it is playing out and encouraging everyone to care for their family first. That also means that I immediately reduced all expectations for the next few weeks and communicated more than usual.

Highlighting it in almost every message that I sent since last week:

“I hope everyone is doing ok and staying safe for now. Just wanted to reiterate what we heard in the Town Hall. The current situation is not normal, and our productivity is likely to be affected. Don’t feel bad if you are less productive!! If you want to continue to work and go heads down into something to distract yourself that is fine too! Do take care of your family and pets 😅first!!”

How do you keep the team together?

What is happening now is not about how to work or facilitate remotely, it is about managing a crisis. This means helping people in our work environment first and foremost to communicate and connect with each other in calming ways which can then lead to their ability to be agile, creative and engaged in their work as much as they can. It’s bringing in the calm while navigating the storm until we land on dry land. And we need to work well with each other to sail the boat in unpredictable weather.

Helping your team feel safe (notice we did not say “think” about safety) so that they can think more clearly and work better with each other is incredibly important. How can you facilitate a space of “psychological safety” online while everyone is working in different locations and in deep fear for their current health and future impact? How can work be more energizing instead of more exhausting by more meetings done the same way as before, yet now via video-conferencing? Will video calls work if you have kids running around you, or if you need to care for a person?

Communication is the key to building connections. Listening unlocks and opens the door.

Listening is key to making your team feel safe

Research confirms that “managers who listen well are perceived as people leaders, generate more trust, instill higher job satisfaction, and increase their team’s creativity.” according to Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N (Avi) Kluger in a Harvard Business Review article – The Power of Listening in Helping People Change .

This may seem obvious. Or you may be surprised. One way or another, look around you. How are people listening to each other? To whom? When? And how often? When does it work well, and when does that boat almost tip over or lose something/someone of value overboard?

Let’s dig deeper. If you want to replicate the results of the research, it may be simple, but it’s not easy. 3 components that help make listening effective (and efficient) are paying full attention (removing distractions both physically and mentally), making efforts to understand the person/the stakeholder from their perspective while accepting and supporting with no judgement, even if you do not agree. This is called unconditional positive regard, a term from the father of listening, Karl Rogers. And when there is something “critical”, focus on the problem, not the person. 

If you can manage this and facilitate this in your team, watch the magic happen.  Your team members will become more relaxed. When they relax, instead of persuading everyone, they will start to express themselves and speak more clearly. They can actually listen to themselves and become more self-aware which helps explore multiple perspectives around a topic. And even if this may be more vulnerable since they may change their mind, they become less defensive. Your team  is more likely to cooperate instead of compete and share what is needed to make smart decisions while feeling more connected. And it helps their wellbeing.

When you listen to each other, you collectively help each other get smarter and feel better. Team engagement and performance increases. This is good business. Win-win-win. 

And maybe this health crisis is a good reason to make efforts to change unhealthy communication patterns which will only bring people down and can have serious business repercussions. Use this time to reflect on your usual patterns and see if there is space to experiment. Communication is the most important trait that keeps virtual teams working well together, so give it the focus it deserves.

Virtual Listening

Yet how is this even possible when working remotely? Synchronous communication, such as video-conferencing is a good way to get started when facilitating effective communication. Especially during a crisis, if time zones allow it.

Advice we normally wouldn’t give every remote team, but in the past week, we’ve been leaning much more into video calls and daily check ins. Using every chance we get to connect to humans. Checking in with other managers to see how they are doing. Or setting up casual chats at various times of the day, so all the time zones are covered and people have a place to just talk about life.

But be aware that spending your whole day on video calls can also be exhausting. Build in enough breaks for everyone to catch a breath. You can also decide to only do video calls for the most important meetings or those intended to build connections. You can use asynchronous communication and written communication for the rest along, with your daily standups.

For the more serious and focused video meetings, using a specific and simple structure to guide the conversation can make a big difference. One tool is a listening circle, which according to research findings from Kluger and Itzchakov, is an effective intervention that can benefit organizations. And this can be adapted very well on calls where everyone’s voice matters. One version will be explained below. 

Team Meeting

So you have a big team meeting coming up, now what?

Down below you’ll find a structure used in different group meetings this past week with successful results, both in terms of connection and getting things done.

Consider using technology where you are able to break bigger groups into small groups for certain activities, if that is desired. This allows more flexibility, encourages deeper connections, and helps everyone’s voice be heard.

Have a shared space to collect brainstorming, decisions and next steps. This helps give everyone the big picture, make transparent where the team is aligned and where to spend energy on what is needed.

Before getting started, consider the technology you will use and the experience level of the participants. The first run may be more about people feeling comfortable than getting work done.

Consider time management. What can be done async, e.g. a pre-recorded video, a presentation, a shared document answering questions. Then focus your time together for 2-way interaction e.g. group work, Q&A, building relationships, calming your team. Your decisions can be based on considering what is needed for 1) Interaction 2) Input 3) Output. 

You don’t have to do it alone. Team up with someone, especially if you are new at this or it’s a bigger group. When one person is facilitating, the other can help with technology (chats, mute, etc.), for example. Also, if there are break-out rooms, one person can stay in the main room while the other can “visit”  other groups and check-in on progress.

One-to-One Meetings

Continuing to build your relationships with your team is important, and you shouldn’t hold back on doing your One-to-One in a crisis moment. Especially in a moment like this, you want to connect with everyone and see how they are holding up.

You can use most of the Team Meeting advice from above to prepare for those meetings. Have the technology you will use ready and available for both participants. 

To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing, especially in virtual meetings. Yet enjoying the silence for a couple of seconds can help and won‘t disturb the other person’s thoughts. In fact, it is a gift that allows people to think without being interrupted. Realizing this can help your team appreciate the moments of silence. Video calls might be new to a lot of people, and communicating over video instead of in-person is definitely a shift.

If the silence is getting uncomfortable, you can say, „I don’t want to interrupt your thought process. Let me know when you are ready.” OR  “Just checking to see if you are still there and if there is anything else?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person is still thinking or if they are finished. It also signals to the other person that you are still listening, especially when there are weak network connections or frequent drops.

Check out my guide on Virtual 1:1s for more information.

Casual Watercooler Chats

Outside of planned and focused meetings, it is also key to give the team time to bond over non-work related topics. Re-creating the “watercooler” moments has to happen more intentionally in a remote team. Make space for that and create various time slots or various “rooms” that people in your team can simply join and talk. 

Don’t be too strict about the start and end time. Embrace the conversations that will happen in the moment, and let team members listen and talk freely. If someone is quiet, check in with them.

Tools and Templates

Example Agenda for a Virtual Workshop with 30 people

Below is an example of a last minute adapted workshop to remote to give you a feeling of what is possible. We stayed flexible with time, giving the team more time in the breakout rooms during the first round (they asked for this time). On the second round, they needed less time because they were used to the communication structure we proposed. 

13:45 You are ready and waiting. You have invited people to come early to test their technology: microphone, camera, etc. You already sent links to the shared document with a clear structure and agenda so that participants can already think about, comment or question. The ice-breaker question might already be on the shared document, if it takes a few moments to consider.

14:00 Short welcome, agenda.

14:05 Check-in ice-breaker: everyone is heard and seen as a human being. Facilitator calls names and the person unmutes themselves. e.g. Energy level 1-10, If you could choose your superpower, what would it be and why? What is on your mind in one sentence?

14:20 Introduce context and explain the process for group “discussion” and information collection e.g. listening circle and shared document

14:30 Break out groups in 3-5 per group. Small group/partner break-out sessions on agenda questions (less is more) based on a structure where all voices are heard with no-judgment. Give a time limit. Collect information in one space in an organized structure. If they are finished early, need more time or have questions, they can come back to the main room.

15:00 Summarize and document alignments vs. open topics = focus energy

15:10 Clear next steps and who is responsible, timelines, documented

15:15 Check-out: What is my one takeaway (focus on team process)? The facilitator calls names and person unmutes.

15:30 End meeting or take a 30 minute break before repeating the process for next topics. Consider changing groups to build relationships.

Example Listening Circle

This is an adaptation of the listening circle, which helps groups faciliate communication where all voices are heard. Even if team members do not trust each other to listen, if the structure is followed, they will start to trust the structure.

Listening Circle for a remote workshop where participants facilitate themselves
Talking points, possibly in a shared doc as explanation:

Talk through the agenda questions in your group-chat using the “Listening Circle” method. One person is the facilitator and calls on the next speaker. One person is the note-taker and writes down what people say. The facilitator and note-taker will also speak in turn. When you’ve reached a decent consensus write down your answers in (shared document) for each group and then join the main room again. 

When the facilitator calls your name, take a moment to notice if there is something that wants to be said which helps the group. Unmute yourself and then speak or say pass. Only those who want to speak can. If you have nothing to say or do not want to speak, or need more time to think, say ‘I pass’. The facilitator will continue around the circle until there is nothing more that wants to be said, or time is up. You will have a chance to speak again within the time we have, even if you passed in one round. If you do not speak and only listen, know that your high-quality listening is actively supporting the rest of the group. 

 – Speak from the heart: Speak about what is true for you based on your own experiences. Less and more intentional words help people listen to you better.
 – Listen from the heart: Take a break from judging and be willing to change. Be open to discover new ideas, surprising connections, effective solutions together.
– No need to rehearse: When it’s your turn, take a few moments of silence to consider if there is something to say or ask. When we catch ourselves rehearsing (everyone does), we are not listening and miss out. Start listening again.
– Lean expression: Say just enough with the time limits in mind so everyone can speak. One possible question, “Does this help our team move forward?”

Create space

Dedicated Crisis Slack channel

Allow your team to have space to share any feelings and thoughts around the current situation. As an example that I mentioned above, create a COVID-19 channel and make it available to the team. Don’t force everyone to join but rather make it optional. Making space also means to respect everyone’s coping mechanisms. Some want all the news/information, others prefer to stay away from them.

Share Struggles and Lighten the Mood

Demonstrating empathy, listening to your team members’ stories and sharing your own vulnerability can be key in moments like this. Listening to the individual team members’ needs is important and helps to build connections and foster even deeper relationships. If you yourself are struggling to focus on work all the time, share that with the team. Be open about it and work on it together. Share tips and tricks with each other about how you are coping and some ideas might help others too. You might learn from them.

Lightening the mood and sending a few positive vibes to your team can also be a big help. At Buffer, we created a channel to share funny pictures or videos for this very reason. “How does a funny picture channel help?”. It is also a way of communicating and caring for each other. Sharing funny things that people are experiencing in quarantine. It lifts the spirit and makes virtual work a bit more human, even if the slightest bit.


We hope that we were able to share a few tips to better communicate and listen in uncertain times. Remember that everyone you are working with, even though they are virtual, are still humans. Video calls and check-ins are important to connect with each other. Yet know that in a long-term remote work situation, our advice would be different. It’s important to notice that a lot of your work can and should be done in an asynchronous way. We are already working on an article that will cover this type of communication. 

Ultimately, it’s about finding the best and most energizing ways to get work done effectively while building a collaborative and motivating team environment among diverse individuals. 

  • Communication is the key to building connection. Listening unlocks and opens the door. 
  • This health crisis might be a good opportunity to change unhealthy communication patterns.
  • Three components help make listening effective: pay full attention, make an effort to understand (minimal interruption) with empathy and listen without judgment.
  • For those new to virtual listening, use a specific and simple structure to guide the conversation.
  • Create space for people to communicate during crises, have casual group meetings, listening circles, or slack channels.
  • Build in enough breaks for everyone to catch a breath since video calls can be exhausting.

Now over to you – do you have any questions or thoughts? Feel free to reach out to us!

Virtual 1:1s

Managing a distributed team is hard and so different than what has happened in the history of work, although Management isn’t easy in whatever setup. The most significant learning I had in my career as a Manager was that building relationships was and is the biggest success factor of my job. I achieved that mostly through my 1:1s.

Building relationships in an office seems more natural. You are around the people you manage; you see them every day; you may even get to eat lunch with them; overall, you don’t have to think about it too much. Sometimes it just happens. In a distributed team, that is the opposite. Relationship building doesn’t just happen. You have to be intentional to form and shape the connection to the people you work with, especially as a manager and leader.

How do you know how your direct report is feeling? How can you help your team to work better together? What challenges is each team member going through? All those are questions, you, as a manager, have already asked yourself. If you read some of the best management books or blogs, almost everywhere you’ll find a quote saying how important it is to do this meeting called 1:1. 

I wanted to put together some thoughts on how I approach this in a virtual setting. There are a few resources out there talking about 1:1s, but they mostly focus on in-person meetings. With this guide, I wanted to highlight the differences that you should look out for in a distributed team. But of course, you can use this too in a hybrid team or any team at all.

The guide has three parts. First of all, you prepare for the meeting with your direct report. Then in the actual video call, the primary job is to learn and to listen. And after the call ended, be sure to follow up and keep the ball rolling. 

We’ll dive into those three parts now and how I am approaching 1:1s in a fully distributed team.

0. What is a Virtual 1:1, and what are the benefits?

0.1 What’s the difference to in-person 1:1s?

The main difference for distributed teams is the fact that meeting in person won’t be possible. If you are a manager of a co-located team, or at least partially distributed, you have a choice. You can decide whether to meet up for a coffee and talk or to do in virtually. Many other managers and myself, we don’t have the option. All our 1:1s have to be virtual.

The purpose and process of virtual and non-virtual 1:1s is mainly the same. I see a few nuances when it comes to the actual meeting and behavior in those.

Virtual calls are very focused on the upper half of our bodies, and we naturally look the person directly into the face and their eyes. The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word, which is super helpful in building trust and relationships. But we are also missing out on seeing the rest of the body, how the other person sits, stands, walks, or what their posture is. The same goes for gestures. — I’ll be talking more about Body Language down below.

While we don’t get to see the whole person in virtual calls, it might still be beneficial for some. Maybe someone is anxious to talk about specific topics in the office or even walking around. Doing virtual 1:1s might help to lessen this problem and create a safer space for people to share thoughts, concerns, and uncertainties while feeling comfortable in their environment.

0.2 Why should I consider doing them?

Working remotely means we do see our team members and direct reports mostly on our computer screen. Managing or Leading them with just this virtual relationship isn’t easy. But as most books, articles, or people will tell you, leading and managing people is based upon the relationship you have with those people. So just by nature, do 1:1s become a crucial part of your life as a manager of a distributed team. 

For me, 1:1s are the one hour to get a look into the personal lives, work lives, and a general look at the people I manage. In certain weeks it might even be the only time I will get to see and talk to them on a video call. That’s why I try to get the most of them, especially continue to build my relationship with that person. I can’t do this with just avatars on Slack, so the video call is the next best option. 

Don’t forget the 1:1s – Leaders’ one-to-one performance management and coaching interactions with their team members are a fundamental part of making any teamwork. Make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm, using them not only to check the status and provide feedback but to keep members connected to the vision and to highlight their part of “the story” of what you are doing together.

Michael D. Watkins

0.3 What does a virtual 1:1 help me with?

  • Builds trust and relationship with your direct report. Something that in a virtual team, you can’t have enough of. This will also lead to a more engaged and energized team member.
  • Understand and learn about the other person, their context, their environment, and their culture.
  • Plan, discuss, and support career growth for the individual and their wishes and goals.
  • Share feedback, whether that is positive recognition or corrective feedback. 1:1s allow for a great space to discuss and dig through various topics. Be sure to consider the person’s preference; some people prefer written communication for feedback instead of on a video call.

1.0 Prepare

The Preparation phase includes the initial setup of deciding when and how long it should, but also the dos and don’ts before every call.

1.1 How often and How long?

What is the best duration for your 1:1, and how often should you do it? Face-time in virtual teams is quite rare, primarily if you work in a globally distributed company. We focus a lot on asynchronous work, and how crucial it is to have everything documented and written down in remote teams. When it comes to building relationships with your direct reports, this won’t work well. Building relationships with just writing or asynchronous communication won’t be easy and engaging. That’s why 1:1s are quintessential for me. They are the most important event for me as a manager to build a relationship, connect, share vulnerabilities and wishes, and overall serve that person as a leader. 

And because of that, I do my 1:1s every week. Outside of various team calls, this is the only moment in the week where I get to talk to that person alone and get a chance to build a safe space. Decreasing the occurrence of the meeting to happen only every three or even four weeks, would leave the direct report hanging for a long time. – If weekly is not possible, the only alternative I can see is bi-weekly.

The duration is a bit more flexible, and in my opinion, it depends on the person. Some want and need a full 60-minute meeting, and others are happy with just a weekly 30-minute call. If you do 1:1s weekly like I do, a duration of 30 – 60 minutes should work out fine – you can always adjust it.

For example, one of my direct reports didn’t like 1:1s at first, so we said that we’d only do a 30-minute call every week. But after a few weeks/months, that person got used to it and noticed they wanted more time themselves.

1.2 Process and Tools

It’s nice not to have to spend time finding a room or meeting up in person, but at the same time, a video call can be limiting too if not used in the right way. 

There are two main things that I need for my 1:1s, the video call software to do the call, and then some kind of document to collect notes in or have the agenda visible for the participants. To have an engaging 1:1, though, you should also consider having the call someplace quiet, with a good connection and no immediate disturbances. This might not always be possible, but be sure to check the place you work in before your call. It also depends on how comfortable you feel to stay in open spaces and what your preferred way of working/video-calling is:

  • I generally try to be in my home office, a quiet corner, or a call nook if available. 
  • I’ll put my phone and MacBook on Do not Disturb to prevent any outside interruptions
  • I use headphones to avoid any feedback or audio issues when using my MacBook Speakers/Microphone

For Video Calls, I use Zoom.us, and for note-taking, I’ve mostly used Dropbox Paper (we use this as our primary note-taking tool at Buffer), although recently, I’ve been playing around with Navigator. Navigator is nice as it helps to automate a few steps to make things even smoother.

Can you or the other person walk around while holding the meeting? A topic that I’ve been thinking about recently, and was also mentioned on Twitter when I asked about virtual 1:1s. I believe that it defeats the purpose of having a video call. It might work for other meetings where the video isn’t essential. But for 1:1s, I would say that walking/driving around isn’t ideal.

1.3 Agenda

The agenda is probably one of the more essential things that you will have to set up for your 1:1 meetings. By setting up, I don’t mean to come up with all the topics to talk about but rather what tool or process you will use to get things onto the agenda. 

The 1:1 is the direct report’s meeting, they own it, and they can design the time as they want. A general measure that I use is the 90% – 10% ratio. The direct report’s themes should occupy 90% of the topics and the time. The other 10% can come from me, the manager. I use this as a rule of thumb and not necessarily always in every meeting.

This split helps because once you move away from owning the meeting as a manager, the 1:1s become more of a two-way dialogue instead of a one-sided conversation. 

  • Having an agenda is useful because of various reasons:
  • Less time is wasted during the meeting
  • Everyone can prepare and see what is going to be talked about

You are already documenting topics, decisions, and information that will help you build off those conversations later on.

As I mentioned above, at Buffer, we are using Dropbox Paper as a shared Document – but any tool that allows sharing documents works. The important note is that you should be able to limit access to just you and the direct report. It can be that you might chat about sensitive topics, and giving the direct report privacy around those agenda points is critical. 

Tools like Navigator help you by allowing you to put more information into an agenda, classifying agenda topics, adding context, and enabling you to revisit items at a future date, without doing too much work. I like the support a tool like that can give me – but I’ve been only using it for a few weeks now. We’ll see how it evolves.

1.4 What to prepare?

The 1:1 is a place that I offer the direct report to chat about whatever is on their mind. Therefore, they own the agenda, and they should bring most of the topics to the table. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare. There are multiple things I do before every 1:1 session, and this might even change from week to week. Here are the various things I’ve been preparing in my history of 1:1s:

  • If items show up early on the agenda, think about talking points and what resources you might need for that specific item.
  • If the agenda seems to be empty, or not a lot topics show up, find things to dig in, or ask questions (see Question section)
  • Preparing for career progression chats is essential. Looking at the current level, past reviews, and, if available, the current career framework helps to have an effective call.
  • If there is a topic you wanted to revisit from past 1:1s, or if there is a topic in your team/company that you need to talk about – get your talking points ready and put the item on the agenda.

I would say that those are the essential areas of preparation. And they do happen on a somewhat irregular basis. Career Progression chats come in phases; team/company topics are also unpredictable. The only thing that will stay consistent is looking at the agenda and preparing for what your direct report brings to the table.


  • Schedule a recurring meeting, ideally once a week, for at least 30 minutes.
  • Use the tools that you are already using to have less friction and get started quickly.
  • Be sure to highlight the fact that this is a meeting for the direct report and that the agenda should mostly come from them.
  • That doesn’t mean you should be prepared for the topics that are on there or the items you want to bring up.

2.0 Learn and Listen

Once you are ready with all the preparations, you know when the 1:1s are happening and how long they will be, can we jump to number two. This part is the heart of the 1:1.

How do you kick off a new 1:1? What will you talk about? What should you look out for? All those are questions that I will try to answer.

2.1 Structure

Your agenda will define the most significant part of your structure. As we said, 90% of that should come from the direct report. 

I don’t treat my 1:1s as strict agenda checkers, though. I also want to put effort into the meeting to build the relationship and foster trust. That’s why the first 10-15 minutes are always reserved for personal storytime. Talking about what happened in your direct report’s life, what book they are reading, what fun activity they have planned with their family over the weekend, anything at all.

You might ask, why should I do this? Well, you will notice how essential those 10 minutes are for building a healthy relationship. Understanding more about the other person’s life, knowing what context they are in will help you to up your game when it comes to listening to thoughts or challenges of the direct report actively. 

This shows the rough structure that most of my virtual 1:1s have. But overall, I am not very strict about it. Repeating what I’ve probably said now multiple times, this meeting is the direct report’s meeting. They should steer it and talk about the things they have on their mind.

2.2 How to start

“How are you” is probably the most typical greeting in English speaking countries. We often tend to ask the same question in video calls. “Hey, how is it going?”. The problem with that is a lot of the times, the person asking “How are you” isn’t much interested in the answer and continues on with the conversation. Don’t start that way; it won’t set the conversation up for success.

What I’ve been doing for the past months is to ask the following “What’s on your mind this week?” or “What’s keeping you at night?” The answer could be related to anything, and it is an excellent start for me to talk about anything happening in the direct report’s life. I am always interested in the response and wait after asking it to give space for the answer. 

2.3 How to listen

One of your most significant tasks in the meeting is listening. Not just hearing what words are being said, but actively listening. I’ve recently published a similar guide to this about Active Listening, and I highly encourage you to check it out to learn more about this topic.

To summarise, it is critical to learn this skill, because it will help you to learn more about the people you talk to and understand what situation they might be in. It also helps you to ask better follow up questions. You’ll frequently be repeating and rephrasing what has been said, to get on the same page and dig deeper into a topic.

The three stages you might go through when learning and adapting Active Listening might look like this:

  • Signaling that you are listening: It is vital to concentrate on the conversation, and not fiddle around with other things, turn off the phone and other distractions. Keeping eye contact and signal that you are following with „Yes,” „Ah,” „Hmm,” – of course, all of that should happen naturally. Especially in remote work and video calls, it is essential to show that you are there, otherwise the conversation partner might ask, „Are you still there?” – “Can you still hear me?”
  • Active Listening and Paraphrasing: You will then start to listen and check if you understood it correctly. Following up with questions or just paraphrasing what has been said. This helps to bring everyone onto the same page.
  • Put the other person’s feelings into words: This is the hardest stage, something that needs constant work. What it means is that you can express the feelings of the other person in your own words – „… and you are pretty angry about that, right?”. Even if that is not 100% correct, it signals to the other person to clarify even more – „No, the anger passed already, now I am just disappointed.” That all results in an even better understanding. You are acting as a mirror, helping the other person to gain more clarity about their situation.

2.4 What if there is silence?

To be silent in a conversation is often seen as an embarrassing thing. I felt that a lot, and sometimes even still feel it now. After a lot of reflection and learning, I realized that it could also mean that the other person or I am just busy with their thoughts and figuring out how and what to say. This is very likely to happen with active listening, as you put more focus on what you will respond with. It is hard to push through, but enduring that silence for a couple of seconds can help and won‘t disturb the other person’s thoughts.

If the silence is getting uncomfortable, you can also ask, „Hey, what‘s on your mind?” The answer will give you a hint if you are too impatient or if the other person doesn‘t have to say anything anymore. With those questions, you are also showing them that you are interested in the inner workings and thoughts and want to have a part in it. Of course, the decision to let you know is still with the other person and not you.

2.5 Questions

There are a lot of posts and websites out there telling you about the 101 questions for your next 1:1. They are great and useful. There is a but though. Management in itself is a profession that a lot of people just fall into, no formal education, more learning by doing. Therefore those question lists seem handy and helpful to get started. I agree they are helpful, but to build a relationship, you shouldn’t just go down that list and ask questions out of context. 

I made the mistake of going through those lists and written me down a couple that I then asked in 1:1s without thinking much about it. I thought well if they are on those kinds of lists, they must work, right? I learned it wasn’t that easy 😅 There is more to it than just asking questions. As I mentioned in my Active Listening Guide, and multiple times above. It is essential to see this meeting as the direct report’s meeting – your questions should always reflect and dig deeper into topics that are coming up. 

Of course, there is still a need for those questions. I’ve used some of them, but they have to be at the right moment. I’ll share a few examples where those questions have been helpful:

  • Maybe the agenda from both sides have been a bit empty, and you are eager to dive deeper into a specific topic: Career Development, Goals, Life, Role, Company
  • Maybe the agenda was full, but you are done ahead of time. If there are still 15-30 minutes left, I generally take a question to continue the chat.
  • If there is a topic that the direct report and I have been talking about and I want to dive deeper into it, I’ll see if some questions do align with that topic and help me out.

While we are here, there is another fun thing I’ve been doing. My manager at Buffer (Katie) gifted all of us EMs a card set called Plucky. The Plucky Cards have been quite a nice touch to some parts of my 1:1s. Not because I have a list of questions as cards now but because I started to involve the direct report actively in choosing the subject or topic to talk about.

Plucky Cards

In the times that I’ve used it, it has always been fun and insightful. A couple of times, I even asked the direct report to pick a number between 1 – 42, and that would result in the card I choose. I know this seems contrary to what I said above about choosing random questions. But for this game to work, it is important to do it once you’ve established a relationship, and almost every area of interest can be a great conversation topic. It also doesn’t work all the time, just be prepared to choose another question that might fit better.

Another question that can lead to quite a few great conversations: “What is the best and worst job at our company for you” – Not judging the job or the person that is doing the job, but what would be the job you would love to have and not have. This can result in revealing or even confirming answers. I highly encourage you to first ask the question to yourself and then try it out with your direct reports.

2.6 Body Language

Body language is the unspoken part of your 1:1s that sometimes can help you to understand the emotions and feelings that the other person is going through or trying to avoid. To help us understand the whole message of what someone is trying to communicate, we can try and “read” those signs whenever they come up. 

“Reading” those signs can be beneficial in a virtual setting, as you don’t have the person in front of you, and any additional information is worth a lot. Also, knowing that, according to Psychology Today, 55% of our communication is body language!

Here are some examples of what that could look like:

  • Arms folded in front of the body
  • Avoiding Eye/Video Camera contact
  • Turning to the side – looking away
  • Fidgeting or Gazing at something else
  • Slouching

Those are just some examples. If you want to learn more about reading body language, check out this page or this video.

2.7 Note Taking

After Active Listening, taking notes is probably the second most important thing. I am not talking about transcribing the whole meeting, but taking note of actions items, items to revisit, or that you need to remember.

There are two distinctions I have for my 1:1 notes. There is a shared agenda that often functions as a notepad for both of us. But there is also my notebook, where I do take notes on what I want to remember from the video call. 

I find it tough to write while I talk or am in a conversation. What I tend to do is to engage in the conversation entirely, and after the call has ended, take 5-10 minutes and summarise or take note of what was important to me. I will write those notes down in my notebook, just for the sake of remembering what has happened. 

In the call, it can happen that both the direct report and I also take intentional notes about action items or any particular important fact. We do this on the shared agenda so that it is visible for everyone. Tools like Navigator, help with that as you have a separate notes section for each agenda item. 


  • Active Listening
  • Be prepared
  • Let the silence happen
  • Paraphrase and ask questions
  • Actively build a relationship and be curious about the other person

3.0 Follow Up

However, the 1:1 went, whether it was a super success or not, be glad that you just got the chance to work and build up your relationship with that person. Every minute you get to do this in a distributed team is worth a lot. 

There are still a few things that I usually do after a 1:1 meeting to help me reflect on it. 

3.1 And now?

Be sure to spend a couple of minutes after the 1:1 to take note of anything that you didn’t get a chance to write down. Maybe also take notice of certain feelings or emotions, something that can help you understand the situation better when you perhaps reflect on the call later on. 

I also try to leave at least 5-10 minutes of breath-catching time before booking another call 😅

3.2 Action Items

After the call has ended, and I had time to check my notes, I will take care of any action items. There are two things to it. First, my action items that I will save in my todo app (Things in my case) and add a date to it. And second, be sure that the other person also takes note of the action items or that they are at least noted down transparently on your shared agenda. 

Dropbox Paper, the shared tool doc we use, supports todo items, and also lets us assign them to people. This is helpful but not ideal, as everyone uses their todo app or system. Ultimately it is in everyone’s interests that action items are being followed up on, and if someone might have forgotten about one, no worries, you’ll add it to the next week’s agenda.

3.3 Send a summary

For specific topics like Career Progression Chats or Feedback, I sometimes summarise my notes and send a quick note to me and the direct report. Now, this is helpful because a lot happens in a 1-hour video call, and everyone has different ways of understanding and learning. Some people might be totally fine by just listening to it; others might prefer to have it written, giving them time to digest it on their own time.

You should know ahead of time what communication preferences your direct report has, especially when it comes to feedback discussions. If you don’t know that just yet and it is one of your earlier 1:1s, be sure to ask what preferred way of communication they have directly.

The summary is a bit more work, but worth it, especially after a more intense call or discussion. Take your own time to dig through the notes and then write it up. I often also either read it multiple times or let it sit for a few minutes to see if I got everything and that it is all clear enough.


  • Take your time to reflect on the meeting
  • Move all of your action items into your Todo App
  • If needed send a summary of the notes 

4.0 Tools

Having written about the whole process, I think some of you might be curious to ask the question, what tools do you use? We all love fancy new tools, and hopping on the next new remote work tool. I am the same. But it is crucial to have your process nailed down first. No tool will be able to do the call for you or help you build a real relationship. You still need to do that. Be aware of that before choosing or even switching from your current solution, maybe a video call and a shared doc are just fine for what you need.

Nonetheless, I wanted to share a few of the most common tools that I’ve seen being used.

4.1 Video Call Tools

Video calls are the essence of virtual 1:1s. Finding the best tool for yourself is crucial and should be done before you start with the meeting. Use what the whole team is using and don’t try too many. Stick with what works for you.

4.2 Document Sharing Tools

Your team or company probably already use some kind of documentation tool. I bet that this will work for you too. One thing to be aware of is the ability to have access just limited to you and the direct report!

4.3 Other Tools

Those tools I’ve been seeing pop up more and more now. Helping you to build up your agenda and facilitate all the pre and post work of the 1:1. As I mentioned above, I have been playing around with Navigator – not sure if it will stick. It’s been a nice addition so far.

5.0 Resources

Thank you MiriamAtaulTerezaJan and Tim for your questions on Twitter – they helped a lot to form some of the above sections 🙌

My top 5 books of 2019

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

As you might have noticed reading this article, I started writing this year. Mostly working on my book but also publishing a couple of articles here and there. Writing was never my strong suit, but I really liked the idea of it. I wanted to get better at it. Reading books has always been a huge learning resource for me. That’s how I found William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well.

It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write better, as we all do need writing in the age of the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself, On Writing Well offers you fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sold, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.

📝 Learned to write better.

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

I am a huge fan of Brené Browns work, and Dare to Lead is definitely by far my favourite book of hers. My approach to life is always to be true and honest to oneself and show vulnerability. This books helped me understand a lot about those topics, through it I started to think more about my own values and in general looked more inwards. I highly recommend this book to anyone!

It is a book for everyone who is ready to choose courage over comfort, make a difference and lead. And don’t avoid difficult conversations and situations; but rather lean into the vulnerability that’s necessary to do good work.

🤗 Made me a better person this year.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Matthew Walker’s book has had some controversial recently. And I struggled with myself whether I should put it on the list. Well here were are 😉 I am not a scientist who can judge how correct or true the book and the studies are, therefore I am linking one of the articles explaining more of what is being discussed about this book: https://guzey.com/books/why-we-sleep/

Why did I decide to put it on here? Because whether or not it is 100% correct or not, it helped me to understand how important sleep is for myself. For a long time in 2019 I’ve only slept 6 hours and I noticed that I wasn’t at my fullest. After changing and experimenting with my sleep habits, I noticed that I need around 8 hours to function well. Attention I am not saying everyone needs to do the same, this is a personal preference.

After changing my sleep habit, I felt more energised, was able to remember more short term learnings and be less nervous and anxious. I leave it to you the reader to decide whether you want to read this book and choose another one, but be sure to recognise how important sleep is to us humans.

💪 Changed my mental – health.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

This book came as a little surprise to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started to read it. Once I started though I went through it in two days. The Culture Code talks about how we as humans can work more successfully together with great culture and in a psychological safe way.

The author talks about where great culture comes from, how to build and sustain it in your group, or strengthen a culture that needs fixing. He focuses on some of the world’s most successful groups like the US Navy SEALS, IDEO, Zappos, or San Antonio Spurs. One of the learnings I took away from it was that culture is not something you are – it’s something you do.

The 3 step process, Daniel Coyle writes about is something I am using now whenever I will work with other people, manage my own team or push for more culture and safety in a company. First you build safety as a foundation, then you continue to be vulnerable with your group and finally establish a purpose.

I highly recommend it to leaders and managers, especially also for distributed teams, as all of this is even more important in remote work.

🤝 Helped me to understand culture and groups much better.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb’s book blew me away this year! As some of you might have noticed I am very interested in psychology, especially in our work environments. Going into the book I didn’t expect much, but the story and patients she talks about really touched me. I read it twice this year, that’s how good it is.

The book is full of wisdom and humor, as Lori Gottlieb invites us into her world as both clinician and patient, examining the truths and fictions we tell ourselves and others as we balance on the tightrope between love and desire, meaning and mortality, guilt and redemption, terror and courage, hope and change.

💖 A love story to psychology and therapists.

Over to you – what are your top 5 books of 2019 or maybe even the last decade? Let me know and write me an email or connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Isolation: One of the biggest Problem in Remote Work

In the sixth post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I wanted to talk about the effect remote work can have on you and your team.

For new readers: To get started in this series – go to the first post.

Not surprisingly, loneliness is one of the bigger problems with work, and remote work especially. In the last State of Remote Work we at Buffer did, loneliness came out as number two struggle (19 %). Very likely you or people in your team already had this feeling of being lonely or isolated. There are many reasons to try and prevent it, whether it is for your own mental health or for your general well-being at work. Feeling isolated and lonely can make you also feel less connected to your team and organization. As a leader it is important to be aware of potential risk and help others and of course yourself to not fall into isolation.

Be open about it and lead by example

The very first thing you can do is to talk about this topic. Acknowledging that it can happen. That either you or your team-members will eventually have this feeling of being lonely or isolated. Sometimes the easy things seem to be the hardest and talking about it won‘t come easy, especially if you are the one feeling lonely or isolated.

If you yourself struggle with loneliness or any other mental health related issue, don’t shy away from finding a therapist to talk to, even if you think it’s nothing serious. I know this might seem a bit over the top, but from personal experience I can tell you that it is not. Unfortunately there is still stigma out there where talking about mental health and seeing a therapist is considered “weird” – it is not. I’ve seen a therapist on occasion, a lot of people I know do. I really do consider that we should treat it as the same way as we treat health checkups at our family doctor. Self awareness, and working on yourself is a key skill as a leader and manager, especially in remote teams, where we don’t have our team around us physically.

If going to an actual therapist is not something you want to start with, there are even online solutions you can offer to your whole team – Buffer for example offers all of us free access to Joyable.

Use pair calls and encourage personal stories

Something we use at Buffer to help with those random connections and watercooler moments is called “Pair Calls”. We use a bot in Slack called Donut. And what it does is pretty straight forward – it connects you every week with someone else from the team, creates a private Slack DM channel for you both to chat. If time and availability allows the two of you can have a video call and are encouraged to chat about everything you want. It doesn’t have to be work, anything is possible, personal stories, video games, coffee, parenting, etc. This is a very low effort tool you can use to engage your team more and help everyone to not feel lonely at home.

I am also a big proponent of starting out meetings or 1:1s with a casual chat about personal stories or anything happening in your/their life. This really helps to create relationships with your peers and team members. I would almost go so far and say that this is a necessity in remote work. If you don’t do it proactively, you won’t get a chance to know what’s going on in the other persons life. Ask away and share your side too.

Be aware of timezone loneliness

In distributed teams it is highly likely to have team members spread across different timezones. If that is the case for your team, and you have a bigger portion of them in one region of the world, be sure to not exclude those in distand timezones.

For example if one half of your team is in the US, and the rest spread across the whole world, don’t hold all the important meetings on US time. Others might start to feel isolated and excluded if all your company meetings happen at 2am in their night. Coordinating and collaborating across time zones isn’t easy, but being inclusive is very important for your team culture. Shift meeting times around, record the videos and hold special “Timezone-Focused Get Togethers” to help fight against that isolation.

Connect with people in your city

Even us remote workers need to have some human contact once in a while. If you like hanging out with like minded people try to look out for opportunities to meet them. Meetup.com is always a great resource to find groups of people who share similar interest. This is a great way to get out of your office and meet new people. If there is nothing there that is of interest, why not create a meet-up and see if you can gather some people who might be in the same boat as you?

Vary your work days

If you notice that your days are always the same and you would love to mix it up a little bit, finding different spots to work from could be a good thing to try. Maybe you like to even be around people once in a while. Coffee shops are a very basic and cheap alternative to try out if that suits your style of working. I personally do this just once a week, normally on Fridays I work from a coffee shop. Be aware that not every coffee shop might be ideal for working. Some might not allow to work from there, others might not have wifi or electronic sockets. Research before you go, and be friendly with the staff when hanging out there.

If you are not a fan of coffee shops you can also check if your city has co-working spaces that offer day passes, if you don’t want to work from there every day of the week. Most of the co-working spaces are well equipped and you don’t have to worry about anything when going there.

Most remote companies do offer a co-working stipend supporting team members to work from there. We at Buffer even have a coffee shop stipend, allowing us to spend up to $200 a month. You can read more about that over on the Buffer Blog.

Here are a couple of more ideas:

  • If you have friends or colleagues in the same city as you propose to co-work once a week, or maybe just have lunch together.
  • Do you live near a library? Maybe try and work from there, see if that fits your work-style

It’s also good to check with yourself, whether you are more extro- or introverted. Maybe you don’t like working with a lot of different people around you. Or maybe you do and you definitely need this every other day. It is on you to understand what gives you energy and what takes energy away from your day. Experiment and find the best flow for you.

Remote work is great and a I consider it the future of how we will work, not just in tech-companies. But there are also things we have to look out for and not everything about it is shiny and fun. Please talk about the downsides to and brainstorm on how we can fix them.

Would love to hear how you or your team solve issues around isolation and loneliness. Reach out to me if you want.

Are you interested in becoming a manager or leader of a distributed team, or in general about leadership in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌

Over-Communication does not exist in Remote Work

In the fifth post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team” everything evolves around more communication.

For new readers: To get started in this series – go to the first post.

Once in a while you find an article about leadership and it warns you about the “risk in over-communicating”. While that might have been true in the past, in today’s world communication is the most important tool we have – especially in remote work! If we wouldn’t communicate with each other, we would just be a bunch of freelancers spread across the world.

No matter the situation: whether we are at work talking to our team, or the whole company, it is always more communication that helps us solve the problem.

What is the secret behind great communication then, and how can you do this in your day to day work?

Communication is hard

We know that communication is important, that is shown also in the State Of Remote Work 2019 we did at Buffer. Communication is in the Top 3 of things we remote workers struggle with. Why is it that we do struggle with it so much?

A lot of people (myself included) often believe that we are communicating well, and that we are delivering our message in the best way possible. We do think that we are clear and direct. And that everyone will know exactly what we are talking about. They will know what actions to take and what will follow. I mean I know what I want to communicate, I know it inside and out – why shouldn’t it work? Unfortunately I have to disappoint you. Just because we know it, that doesn’t mean everyone else will hear it or understand what we mean.

One case of not working could just be that the listener may have misheard the message. Especially in today’s notification culture it becomes increasingly common that people are just “quasi-listening”: surfing on another web site, tinkering with their smart phones when they should have a laser-like focus on the person sending the message.

On top of that communication really isn’t easy. It sounds easy in theory, it is something we do day in day out. But in practice it looks slightly different. Just dissecting what is involved in just sending a normal message (written or spoken).

The most simplest form of a successful communication could be split up into four parts:

  1. I have to send the message clearly and with enough details.
  2. The person receiving my message must be actively listening, and if needed ask me any questions in case something wasn’t clearly described
  3. The circumstances of everyone involved have to suit the message – if either side isn’t actively in the conversation something will be lost
  4. The content of my message has to also resonate with the receiver, and must contain all the information they are looking for.

Phew! That is quite a lot to take in. And in our fast-paced teams, we are bound to forget something or communicate poorly. That’s where over-communication comes in. I wouldn’t call it over-communication, but you get what I mean. Communicate well, Communicate often!

Mark Horstman of manager-tools.com is sharing one of his laws for Organizational Communication – and I resonate quite a lot with it: “Say something seven times and half your folks will have heard it once.” And I think he is talking about co-located offices. I would go so far and say that in remote work this could easily be 10-12 times of repetition.

A simple example: I was planning the Hackweek for our Engineering Team. All our engineers will spend 3 days (Mon – Wed) working on some of their own cool ideas. What that means for the rest of the company – all engineers will likely not be available for a lot of other work in those days. As I was the one organising everything – I was also the one communicating everything to the engineers and the rest of the company. Here is my plan in how I communicated:

Engineers and Engineering Managers:

  • detailed information on what is happening, time, day, structure, theme and topics of the Hackweek
  • regularly updating everyone weeks before that week to create excitement but to also inform everyone about the resources and documents

Product Manager:

  • trimmed the information down to only the necessary, the PM’s need to know what’s happening as their teams are working on their own for 3 days
  • communicated with them after every bigger decision: When, What, How – repeated this until the Hackweek started

Rest of the Company:

  • only the most basic information of What and When, it is important to keep everyone in the loop – Customer Support, Marketing and other teams
  • I started to inform them early around the same time I informed the PM’s to build awareness – repeated this until the Hackweek started

As you can see, if you are an Engineers you could not have missed it, as you at least heard decisions and related communication 3 times. But it is also important to start early and inform people early enough so they can plan around it. In addition to that we also have timezones to work around. Sending your communication at different times a day can be a good practice to not exclude specific timezones and make it visible for everyone. Communicate consistently, frequently, and through multiple channels, include if possible a recorded video, writing, and more about what is about to happen.

Communication Preparation Plan

To help me in those kind of situations, I wrote down this plan in how to communicate. It is an example and can be adjusted to your needs, but it helps me in seeing what all goes into successfull communication as a leader.

The following steps should be used in all bigger communications, but of course you won’t have the time to prepare for every single one. Use this if you are about to communicate a big change or and important topic to a direct report/your team/company. Start easy and adapt as needed.

Prepare for your communication

  • be clear with yourself in what you want to deliver
  • have the goal in clear words in front of you
  • be aware of the situation and circumstances the person, who will receive your message, is in
  • know where you are going to put your message – is it just one spot or multiple?

Deliver your message

  • express yourself and a clear and concise way
  • be direct and repeat the necessary information (highlight them if written)
  • give enough, but not too much background information
  • summarise and identify all the actions that need to be taken

Listen for feedback

  • give the people who receive your message time to read/hear it and space to follow up with you
  • value the feedback and questions you get
  • practice active listening

Evaluate and Correct

  • evaluate if everyone who needed to receive the message did receive it, if you are unsure – repeat at a later time
  • if you got feedback work it in and make corrections accordingly

I hope that this will be helpful and highlight that communication is the tool we have in our distributed work world. Lean into it, and don’t be anxious whether you’ve said something enough times or not. There is never an “enough” moment in remote work communication.

Are you interested in becoming a manager or leader of a distributed team, or in general about leadership in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌

Stay Curious and Keep Learning To Be The Best Remote Leader You Can

For new readers: To get started in this series – go to the first post.

In the fourth post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I wanted to talk about curiosity and why it is important.

Remote work is still an emerging way of working and setting up a company fully distributed is still not the most common setup. The tools and processes we have right now work ok, but as remote work will evolve as will everything else with it. Adapting to every little change can be hard, but learning and improving while the world around us changes will be crucial for ourselves and the distributed teams we work in.

How can you as a leader create a culture where change and learning is second nature?

“Stay hungry, stay foolish”

Most of you probably read or watched Steve Jobs speech at Stanford in 2005. The title with which this video became known are his last words in that video: “Stay hungry and stay foolish”.  Even though this is already 14 years ago, I think it is more true than ever – especially when we are talking about a new way of working.

Curiosity or “Staying hungry” means nothing less than a hunger for new experiences and knowledge, an openness to change. There are a lot of philosophers and smart people I could quote here, but the essence of what they all say/said is: If you start to get satisfied with the status quo, that is the moment where it’ll all comes to a standstill, with everything around you still moving ahead.

Why am I putting such a focus on curiosity? Studies and experiences show that curiosity encourages us to view difficult situations with more creativity. It forces us to think around the corner and also keep our teammates in close contact. You’ll start to communicate more by asking more relevant questions. This results in creating more interest and more motivation for yourself and your team. And we know how important communication is in distributed teams. So anything you can do to communicate more is a win, in my opinion.

As a leader you function as a role model, you have a certain responsibility. Modeling curiosity could be one. Keep asking questions. I know that sometimes we rather want to stay quiet and not ask those vulnerable questions, because we feel we could be judged incompetent or indecisive. Or we don’t want to bother other people. But it is important for you to keep leaning into your curiosity to plant the seed for others and make it seem normal. There is this old stigma that as a leader you have to know everything and come up with all the solutions. I disagree with that. A leader should rather ask the right questions and therefore allow others to figure it out on their own and create a culture of growth and curiosity.

By practicing humility, we can acknowledge that we don’t know the answer to everything. Accepting that our knowledge is finite – “Staying foolish” – allows us to see that the world around us, our work and our team members are always changing and that the future will diverge from the present. This is highly relevant for how we work in remote setups. Our work is different than what it used to be, and we know that a lot will change in the next years. Let’s challenge the status quo and find what works for us right now – but remember to do this continuously.

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

  • Continue to challenge the status quo in your team/company – Improve consistently
  • Act as a role model for curiosity and ask questions
  • Practice humility and know that you don’t know the answer everything

Bias towards action

Working in a fully distributed team across multiple timezones sometimes also has its downsides. Especially when it comes to collaboration. If you want to respect normal working hours, you can’t force people to come online for a meeting at 11pm on their Wednesday.

Let’s say I am working on a proposal for a change we need to make in one of our apps, but I need feedback from the Designer (Taiwan) and and Engineer (SF) right now, as I need to send it off. What do I do? I know that this is a rather extreme example, but it can happen, and it did already in my team.

Well there is one option of waiting, which is not great if you need to keep things moving forward. Then there is option number two: cultivating a bias towards action. What I mean by that is: Make the decision to the best of your knowledge in that moment and fix it later if it needs fixing. You won’t be able to wait on your distributed teammates all the time, and then being able to actually make the decision will be a crucial skill to learn.

At Buffer we call this Entrpreneurial Spirit. Quite a long and complicated sounding word, but it embodies exactly that feeling of tending towards action. Being an “Entrepreneur” shouldn’t be limited to only the founder or the CEO, but to everyone. We can all be one. The mindset of an entrepreneur focuses on “doing” above everything else. Entrepreneurs are on a quest to help their users and to continue to make their service or product better and better. They identify problems and solve them. They make mistakes and learn from them. Remote Work and being an Entrepreneur is results orientated, and cares about what the outcome is, what will be delivered to the customer.

In this process of integrating Entrepreneurial Spirit did I step on toes? – Oh Yes of course I did! And you will too. Did I make mistakes? Yes, and you will most definitely make mistakes too. But all of that is OK – and even wished for. The Entrepreneurial spirit is about approaching problems with curiosity and seeing mistakes as an opportunity for growth instead of something to be feared. And it’s about doing what needs to be done, even if that means taking risks outside of your defined role.

How can you inspire your team and yourself to live the Entrepreneurial Spirit?

  • If you notice something that needs to be done and a decision maker isn’t immediately clear, assuming that you are the person to do it.
  • Starting the video call instead of waiting for someone else to
  • you get stuck, asking “what is the simplest possible thing I can do right now to move my area forward/deliver value to our customer?”
  • Celebrating mistakes and forgiving any toe-stepping in favour of moving things forward quickly

Help your team and yourself to step into their ownership, to get comfortable stepping on toes and learn to be OK making some mistakes!

Cultivate a Growth Mindset

A culture where a growth mindset is being cultivated is a culture where all employees are seen as having the potential and are encouraged to develop, and are rewarded for improvement. With a growth mindset you belief that improvement is possible and that failures are opportunities to learn. Similar to curiosity this is something where you as a leader can help in modelling that behaviour. You can ask yourself if your current approaches actually help people see their potential and whether failures and feedback are seen as an improvement by you.

Within our distributed teams and companies, I think it is key providing an environment in which it is safe to learn. There are simple things you as a leader or your company can do to lay the groundwork for that. At Buffer we have a Growth Mindset Fund of $850/year. We can use this to attend conferences, courses, get a career or leadership coach, subscribe to relevant magazines, etc. It also states in our handbook: “Growing as individuals and within our roles makes for a stronger, better and more fulfilled company, so we provide resources toward growth, development and learning”. Check out this article by Workplaceless telling you why it is not a good idea to ignore such a Stipend.

If you as a leader or the company can at least encourage such a mindset, it will help the individual, the team and ultimately also the company in the long run. Of course be aware that it is not easy to attain a growth mindset fast. Especially in companies where failure and feedback is paired with criticism and defensiveness, our brain gets triggered with its fixed-mindset.

Another thing you can do to start a more growth mindset focused culture are Hackathons. We just recently finished our “Hackweek” at Buffer and it is always a huge fun to watch everyone be excited about different projects. Within Hackathons you and your team are collaborating across different disciplines and teams, you step outside your normal day job and exercise even your leadership skills. They are a great resource for new ideas too.

  • Create a culture where everyone is seen as having the potential to improve
  • See failures and feedback as opportunites to learn
  • Allow your team to step outside their boundaries and create different Perks like a Growth Stipend or Hackathons

Finishing today’s post with my favorite quote from Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

Whether it is life itself, my work, my career or how I approach remote work – everything is moving forward and I feel it is important to stay curious and be adaptable!

Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌

The Secret to Structuring Your Thoughts – Keep a Journal

For new readers: To get started in this series – go to the first post.

In the third post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I am writing about keeping a journal.

I would consider myself an introvert. I tend to be shy, quiet and prefer to spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting. Often I end up not being able to share exactly what I think, though. I have this perfect argument or thought played out in my head, but when it’s time to express it in words I end up stuttering and stalling until I just give up. Most of the bigger meetings I was in, I kept to myself, and only shared smaller bits and pieces.

Keeping a journal has helped me to understand this on a much deeper level and showed me how I can turn it around and leverage it, in becoming a better leader.

Want to learn how a journal became my translator between my thoughts and the world? Read on and I will give some of my tips and tricks.

Analog or digital that’s the questions!

We live in the great age of technology, almost everything can be done in a digital way. That is true for taking notes and journaling and for many other things. There are tons of apps, and websites out there helping you with these two things. Journal Apps, Note-taking Apps, etc.

Now only while they exist doesn’t mean they are good or will help you. There are a lot of studies that provide enough information to almost convince anyone reading this, that writing by hand is the better way to taking notes. Just looking at this one study. It talks about how Handwriting helps you to learn and remember faster, and also it exercises your skill to use your own words. Writing at a laptop or other devices encourages verbatim, mindless transcription of what is being said. You tend to write much more on a laptop, but the content and what you’ll remember is far less.

Writing things down in your own words can be really powerful, first it helps to cultivate your own language and it also helps you with active listening. I recently wrote about this, active listening is a crucial part in becoming a leader and/or manager especially in remote teams. While listening and noting down thoughts in your own words, and also marking questions you might have, will help you to rephrase what has been said.

Paper is also just fast, easier and more flexible. You won’t have any notifications pop in and distract you, plus it is also healthier for your eyes. Don’t get me wrong I am a very technical person, and would like to use my iPhone or iPad for everything. I tried, but a notebook and a fountain pen are just not replaceable. There is another tiny factor, but this might be a personal one. Writing with a fountain pen and checking things off on paper, feels really satisfying to me. And as I recently read in a book called Atomic Habits, making something satisfying helps tremendously in building your habits 🙌

To satisfy my longing for more tech and great apps, I am using both in conjunction. My notebook is always with me and open in front of me while I work. At the same time I use a ToDo List App to collect task which are further in the future or need more detailed planning and resources around it. I can’t write down “cancel my phone contract next year in May 2020” and keep this task around in my notebook for 10 months. I might not even have the same notebook anymore. This is where I just move it into my electronic brain, to remind me when it is time.

  • go analog for taking notes – writing with a fountain pen is the best
  • Handwriting helps you to learn faster and remember things easier
  • Combine your notebook with a digital companion to take care of longer running things

Find a system that works for you

Keeping a journal and writing in it everyday sounds easy. It doesn’t involve a lot to prepare and you can almost do it everywhere.

There are a lot of different systems out there: Gratitude Journal,  5 Year JournalMorning PagesBullet Journal, etc. It all starts to get confusing pretty early on. Once you start looking into them, you’ll spend more time on finding the right system than actually journalling or taking notes. I tried some of them and almost all failed for me because of various reasons.

The first thing you need to do is build the habit. I won’t spend time here and go into habit building, that would be too much for this post, but check out some of the best books about the topic (The Power of HabitAtomic Habits).

What worked for me was:

  • Keep it always around
  • Keep it simple and personal
  • Keep it satisfying

And that is what I did. I mixed different things I learned from all the various Journal types and created my own system. That system that worked for me. And I would highly encourage you to do the same. Get inspired but don’t spend time on learning a system to take notes. Get a notebook and a pen and start, do what feels right and natural to you.

Write down what has happened, what you have to do, whatever is currently on your mind. Initially that might feel a bit overwhelming. I had this feeling of, only wanting to write great things in my notebook, like DaVinci 😂. I noticed soon enough that this wasn’t the right way to approach it. The important part is to keep up the habit, and write everything down. Don’t care about how it looks and what the content is – get it out of your head.

If you find a way to do this in a structured way for yourself – awesome – you found your system. Once you’ve build that habit you can always improve on it or make it more complex. But for the beginning – start easy!

Here is how my system looks for taking daily notes, todo’s and other general thoughts. I use a dot-grid notebook (mine has about 250 pages). I dedicate half of it to daily-journaling (let’s call it Journal) and the other half for taking notes when I read, or longer thoughts (let’s call this my Bucket). The journal is pretty straightforward as you can see in the picture. I use some of the Bullet Journal annotation to mark different items, but also added some of my own to it. I have a date headline, followed by a part that is used for tasks, and underneath I put any short notes, thoughts or questions that popped up throughout the day. Pretty basic right?

I use the journal notes section also to take notes while I am in meetings, any follow-ups I have to do, or messages I have to send. This has really helped me to be productive and not forget things. It is also a great spot to prepare for meetings and laying out my thoughts.

The Bucket Section is my favourite part. I use it to write down longer thoughts I have and don’t want to loose, or all my note when reading a book. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Never read a book without a pen in your hand”. It is having a tremendous effect on my learnings. First I write my notes in my own words, that means the thought I am writing down becomes immediately “mind”. But it also helps with remembering it far easier, than just copy and pasting it in my digital notebook.

  • don’t get lost in all the thousand Journal types out there
  • leep it simple and easy, and just start writing down thoughts each day
  • get a notebook, and start to make notes each day – no matter what they look like or say
  • use your journal to reflect on your past notes and learn from them
  • when reading always have your notebook with you and take notes

What I learned after journaling for 8 weeks

After investing so much time into my system, did it actually help me? I think it did – yes! The two biggest improvements I’ve seen until now are related to reflection and productivity.

Having the possibility to just turn back a couple of pages and check what you wrote there is really helpful. It just feels more natural than filtering an application by date or something similar. Another benefit is that reflecting on the past days/weeks allows me to structure my thinking in a better way, improve my actions and learn from my mistakes. It teaches you to become more self-aware.

Writing with my fountain pen, outside of being fun, also helps me to remember things better. Notes I took on my devices are harder to remember (I have to be aware though that I’ve just started this practice recently).

It helps me tremendously to prepare for meetings and laying out my thoughts. Something I struggled with for a long time, as I mentioned in the intro. Having a journal and being able to write notes in there before the meeting, plus having it in front of me all the time, changed my work life. Becoming more active in listening in meetings was also a nice side-effect. Trying to follow and take personal notes, while noting down eventual questions was a great little hack to become a better active listener.

I also feel less stressed when I know that I’ve noted it down. I know that I will get back to it eventually either today or tomorrow. The sense of having it written down by hand is so much different for me. Similar to this is the feeling at the end of the day, looking back at your notes from the day and knowing that you did stuff. In our ToDo Apps we often don’t see the ToDo anymore after it is checked off. When I finish working every evening, looking back in my journal gives me a good sense of “I’ve done stuff today” and at the same time I know that all the things I didn’t get done, while be still there tomorrow.

  • a journal helps to be more self-aware
  • reflection is super helpful to learn more about yourself and how you work
  • I started to remember the important learnings from books and articles more easily
  • I felt less stressed as I had a way to dump all my thoughts and todos all in my notebook

Finishing with a little quote I found in the World Wide Web: “Documenting little details of your everyday life becomes a celebration of who you are” (Carolyn V. Hamilton)

I think keeping a journal will help everyone to become a better human and a better leader at work. Start small and don’t get lost in all the different systems. Do what works for you and keep doing it. You’ll start to notice the benefits soon enough.

Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌

Master Your Calendar as a Leader of a Remote Team

For new readers: To get started in this series – go to the first post.

In the second post of the series “Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I want to talk about your calendar. Yes – your calendar.

Before I worked in a remote team, I was a freelancer and never had to collaborate with a lot of different people, therefore the usage of my calendar was pretty basic. Maybe a birthday here and there, or other important events. But very rarely something work related. When I joined Buffer in 2015 that suddenly changed. The change wasn’t drastically as I started as an engineer, where you naturally don’t have too many meetings. The more I grew as an engineer and the more I leaned into leadership and ultimately transitioned over into management, the more I noticed how important, no essential my calendar was.

Let’s explore why that is, and how you can master your calendar too.

You calendar is sacred

In almost every distributed team, whether you still have a portion of your colleagues sit in an office, or you don’t have any office at all, there will be people you don’t see day in day out. At least physically. So how can you decide if someone in your team is “in the office” or whether that specific person is actually available?

Well something that has existed for a long time, will come in handy – our calendar.

The calendar will become an essential tool checking for availability. Whether you want to book a call with someone, or just check if they are „at work” that day. One requirement for that to work though is that your company follows a more transparent company culture, by making email and calendars visible to anyone in the company. For example if I want to book a call with a fellow EM at Buffer, I‘ll go to calendars.google.com and check if they are available around the time I want to book meeting.

Another example, let‘s say I have a doctor appointment next Friday at 9:30am. How would my team or the whole company know about it? Of course I could write an email or write it in our chat tool, but that will soon drown in other messages and people won‘t know about it when booking a meeting with me. If I would put it into my calendar, they will notice it, because the information is right where it needs to be. In my calendar.

While working in distributed teams you will very likely also work with different timezones, and therefor your daily schedules become a bit more flexible. My team for example is split between Europe, UK, Midwest US, Westcoast US. In order for me to chat to someone on the west coast, I have to stay on a bit longer in my afternoon. My work schedule generally looks like this:

  • 9:00am to 12:30pm Work
  • 12:30pm to 3:00pm Break
  • 3:00pm to 7:00pm Work

To make this visible to my team, and to not allow them to interrupt my break with meetings, I‘ve put a „Block” Event into my calendar on weekdays (See further down, for a screenshot of my weekly calendar). This shows to them that I am not available in this time, except for emergencies of course.

  • Before booking a meeting with someone, check if they are free
  • Add your daily routine to your calendar
  • Don’t want to show everything? Just add “Block” Events to keep that time free

Make it easy to collaborate

As I mentioned above a calendar isn’t worth a lot when you work alone. But when you start to collaborate with at least one person it starts to become immediately helpful. There are different tools and settings out there, which have helped me a lot when scheduling meetings, planning research calls, letting people know that I am out of office, etc.

The first thing that comes to mind is Calendly. It has helped me a ton in the past, scheduling meetings with either people outside of Buffer or internally. The great thing about it is, that you can define exactly when people can book a meeting with you. Maybe you’ve experienced it already yourself when someone sent you a link to a webpage and you just choose a day, a time and done – call booked.

Why is that easier? It takes all the hassle of looking when someone might be free away. That’s why it is important that your calendar hygiene is up to date, and every necessary event is booked in there. Those kind of tools then automatically only shows the available slots to the person booking the call. Highly recommend using it with people outside your company or even clients.

If you use Google Calendar, there there are a couple of more neat things you can take advantage of. I assume that other calendar apps have something similar. There are a couple of things I wanted to share, that I use quite frequently with my calendar setup:

  • Whenever you add invitees to the meeting and they have their timezone correctly set, Google Calendar figures out all the conversion
  • You can set your working hours in Google Calendar, this will give people a note that they are scheduling something outside your working hours
  • Show when you are Out of Office – helps to let people know that you will not be available, and immediately declines the calendar invite
  • When you are booked for a meeting, but need to move it, you can propose a new timestraight from Google Calendar

When looking at timezones, there is another website I use to plan meetings. Time.is allows you to check the time in different timezones, but it also allows you to compare them. Check out this link and try it for yourself. A couple of months ago someone in my team moved to Taiwan for a while. That made my team be split across 5 timezones, and didn’t allow us to have synchronous meetings – having a way to compare and check on timezones was very crucial in that time.

All of that together, makes for quite a powerful calendar and collaboration setup.

  • Use Calendly (or similar tools) when you want people to easily schedule a call with you
  • Leverage all the preferences and settings your Calendar Software gives you
  • Compare timezones when necessary

Sort your calendar

Now that you have your calendar setup and know how to use it effectively, what else can you do? One thing I did a while ago, when I read this blog post from Lara Hogan, was sorting my calendar. Lara Hogan calls it defragging. The principle is similar. Sort your events in a way that you don’t have too many context switches happening. For example you probably want to try and avoid days where you have a call every hour, and most of them are unrelated or force you to switch context all the time. One call is a 1:1, the next one is a staff meeting, the one after that is a Sprint planning meeting, etc.

Preventing a lot of context switching can help you get into the right mood for the day, and prepare much more easily. And in general I would highly recommend it. Lara proposes to color code your events in Google Calendar. I did this too, and don’t be afraid to use some great colors, it will only change it for you not for others. This will immediately give you an idea of how your week looks like.

It worked well for me, until recently. I went too far with clustering all my 1:1s in one day – Thursday. It started with a call at 11am, followed by 2 other 1:1s in the afternoon, followed by our Team Sync, plus the last 1:1 after that finishing after 7pm. To add to all of that, Thursday is also the day where most of our All Hands or Town-halls happen. You can understand that at the end of Thursday I was just exhausted. You can ask my wife, but I immediately went into “I can’t talk anymore” mode as soon as I finished. I wasn’t really able to enjoy my Thursday evenings.

That made me realize that as a manager I wasn’t giving everyone the same attention, not my team, and also not myself. By the last 1:1 my attention already has sunken quite a bit. Something had to change and the clustering had to be loosened up. I moved one 1:1 to Wednesday and the other one to Tuesday. This is giving me much more breathing time in between and allows me to put a greater focus on each person in my team.

If you consider sorting or defragging your calendar don’t go too far as I did. Spread some of it but still be aware of switching your context in between calls. Be present and motivated as as important as it is finish work and not be totally worn out.

  • Sort your calendar to make context switching easier
  • Don’t overdo it, keep breathing room in between 1:1s or other important meetings

We are one step closer to preparing you to become the best effective leader you can be. If you want to learn more just follow along, bookmark my website, subscribe to my newsletter or follow me on social.

Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌

How To Setup Your Remote Working Routine for Leaders

In my first series I wanted to talk about what it means to be a leader in a distributed team. Leadership is not something only used by managers. At Buffer everyone should have a certain kind of Leadership skill. I really loved how Katie (VP of Engineering at Buffer) put it:

“I would say that, ideally, in an organization everybody is a leader. Leadership is something that you embody in the way you take ownership of your work, the way you go about your tasks, the way you engage with your peers, with people in the organization beyond your team.”

In addition to that I also think similar to Katie that leadership is a skill you can learn. I would also say that the more you grow in your role or job the more leadership skills will show up.

In this series I am going to highlight what areas I think are important to become an effective leader.

The biggest different between remote work and work in co-located offices is the place where work happens. According to the State of Remote Work we did at Buffer this year (2019), 84% of remote workers work from home! That means that most of us work and live in the same place! Which results then in the biggest struggle remote workers have: Unplugging after work. In this first post I wanted give some pointers on how to avoid overworking and disconnecting from work. It is important, as a leader in remote teams, that you act as a role model to others.

Create distance between work and free-time

If you want to become an effective remote leader, having a great workspace is key. The first reason is that you have to create a distance between your work and your home. Now that may seem a bit tricky as they are basically one and the same thing, but it is possible.

Throughout my remote work career I tried a lot of different setups. Working from the bedroom (very bad idea), working from the kitchen, working from a office niche, and working from an actual office room. The best for me, and I think most other people, is of course having a dedicated office. A spare room you can close and decorate to your liking. This is helpful for two things. Keeping distractions out while in work-mode but also to close it in the evening to shut off your work-mode.

Not everyone can of course have a separate room, due to smaller living-spaces. And that is ok. There are a lot of different ways nowadays how you can turn a corner of your room into a small office space. Ideally you would use a space that you don‘t use in your free time. That‘s also why having a desk in your bedroom is a very bad habit. The bedroom should be your place of regeneration and relax, it shouldn‘t be connected with work. Another option is also to switch work locations once in a while. There are many more reasons why you should do that at least once a week (we will talk about this in a future blog post in this series), but having a change of scenery is one of them. You are fed up with sitting at your kitchen table, and you don‘t have space for a dedicated office corner? Just go to the coffee shop around the corner, or book a daily spot in a co-working space.

There are a lot of different opportunities out there. If your city doesn’t have a co-working space, it‘ll definitely have a coffee shop. Working out of a coffee shop is probably my favorite and most of the times let’s me even feel more productive than at home.

  • Use a spare room as an office.
  • If not possible create a “office” corner, or work from a co-working space.
  • Prevent to work in areas where you normally do fun and free time stuff.
  • Change work location once a week (coffee shops, co-working spaces,…).
  • Buffer helps with co-working stipends and coffee shop vouchers

Invest in your office setup

Being a remote worker you adapt to a lot of different working situations. Having bad chairs in coffee shops, maybe working outside on a bench, etc. That doesn’t mean though that we have to not care about our workspace. Whether you work from a co-working space or from home, it is important to have a good setup. Don’t go for the cheapest options when buying or choosing a chair for example. You will sit in there for the most of your work life, so choose wisely (I am sitting on a Steelcase Gesture – highly recommend it). Choose a great desk, and make your desk look like you want it to. Being on your own, and not in an office means that you can make your space the way you want it to be – and especially the way you feel most productive.

Just a couple of months ago I decided to put some plants in my office and even one on my desk! A real game changer, having something green in your viewing field. If you are not a plant person, but prefer something else, do that. The important point is that you work from a setup that feels great to you. You might ask why this is necessary? And I will tell you that by working from home, almost 90% of the time I want to look and be in a space that feels nice and comfortable. It adds to my energy and how productive I feel. And this ultimately will have an effect on how good of a remote worker and leader you can be!

  • Choose the best chair you can afford!
  • Decorate and make your office feel like it is yours.
  • Make a Home Office stipend available to your employees!

Morning and Evening Routines

As a remote worker your commute is often only a couple of meters (or feet), from your bedroom to your office. And as I already wrote it is quite hard to either get out of the working mode or start to be in working mode. Not having a commute is mostly a very positive thing, be it for the environment and yourself. But it also is a routine, helping you to understand that shortly, you‘ll begin to work. How can we replicate that in a remote work setup?

I think the easiest option here is to set up morning and evening routines for oneself. It‘ll help you to learn when it is time to start working and when it is time to finish. Our bodies need those signal points in order to switch in the correct mode. Building habits is all about being consistent and disciplined. What helped me to build them is first I try to keep my routines simple and second I use an app called Streaks. Having simple routines won‘t allow for excuses, because it is just easier to do them and having an app helps me to have a tool which keeps me somewhat accountable.

Here is an example of how my morning an evening routines look like:

My morning routine

  • 6:30am Waking up after at least 8 hours of sleep
  • 6:40am Showering + Brushing my teeth
  • 7:00am Walking my dog for around 20 minutes, while listening to an audiobook
  • 7:30am Making coffee and having breakfast catching up on notifications
  • 8:00am – 9:00am Writing
  • 9:00am Start Work

My evening routine

  • 6:30pm I‘ll try to be done at that time, depending on my calendar (I do a long lunch pause, so my evenings get a bit longer)
  • 6:40pm Walk the dog with my wife and catching up about the day
  • 7:00pm Cooking Dinner
  • After Dinner its reading time

Kill Distractions outside of work

You‘ve finally closed the laptop, sat down on your sofa, and suddenly your phone vibrates and a Slack notification pops up. Immediately you are pulled back into work, because you feel that you just have to quickly answer this one message. Scenarios like this happen all the time, not just to remote workers. Even if you work in an office, your phone has at least your emails on it 😉

I would highly encourage everyone to setup their devices, so that distractions outside your working time won‘t happen. There are a couple of easy things you can do to help with that:

Enable Do not Disturb Mode (DnD) on your phone: I rarely see notifications on my phone after 7pm because of that. With DnD Mode you can choose a time period where no notifications will get through. Certain apps also have a separate DnD mode, like Slack for example. Make use of all of those. The less notifications you receive the better. (iOS – Android)

Delete Slack from your phone: This is a more drastic measure, and maybe not everyone wants to got that far. But I would still recommend it when you go on vacation or are on a longer off-time.

Move Work/Social Media apps : Another little hack is to move all work related apps (and sometimes even social media apps) onto a second or third screen on your phone. That will help you to not see any of it, even if you use your phone in your evenings. Of course it is not failsafe, but better than nothing!

Remember to not only set this up on your phone, but basically on all devices you use while working and on your personal time. Whether its your tablet or computer!

I hope that some of those tips will help you to set the foundation for your future as a leader in you next remote team. Of course all of this is relevant to anyone working remotely, but as I mentioned in the beginning even more so for leaders who will act as role models.

Are you interested in becoming a manager of a distributed team, or in general about management in distributed companies? Please let me know what questions you have and what you find challenging. Feel free to check out this little survey I set up. I appreciate anything you can share with me 🙌