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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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. 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.
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