Aaron Douglas: Being Mindful During Video Calls

Tips from my coworker and prodigious mobile app maker Aaron Douglas on being mindful during video calls. Great tips, not just for remote workers, either. “I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.”

The Dangling Pointer

Working remote means I’m on a lot of video calls. I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.

Look at the camera often

When you’re in person you look at people’s eyes to show them you’re listening. Doing that on a video call requires a bit of counter-intuitive body language by looking at the camera. You won’t be looking at the person but they’ll see you looking directly at them. It’s a subtle difference but I’ve found it highly effective.

Also try to place the video call window up the screen towards the camera. Also decrease the size of the window so the person’s eyes are naturally closer to the top of the window (closer to the camera). When you’re not looking at the camera while the person is speaking it’ll still look…

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Leadership Gap: Scaling Presence With Distributed Teams

In my practice as a team lead at Automattic I keep coming back to the challenge of scale. Scaling up both in scope and in size, taking on larger projects and bigger teams with more overhead and management. Going from a small team paying attention to one product all the way to a group of teams across a many channels.

One reason it’s a been a difficult challenge for me is that with the increase in scope and size, my time to give individual attention to people and projects decreases. I find myself asking, “How can I best scale up my presence to keep in touch with everyone on everything they’re doing?”

The second part of the challenge is our particular work style: Automattic is fully distributed, biased toward text communication, and most interactions are asynchronous because of time zones. Our culture is optimized for personal flexibility as we set our own work hours and schedules — and office locations change daily.

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I’ve started writing down the principles that lead to my mindset for being present — plus the techniques that have worked well so far. I’m sharing them here publicly to keep myself accountable for the practice.

To scale my presence on distributed teams, I will:

  1. Build connections to build trust.
  2. Conduct pulse checks on a regular basis, including skip-level chats¹.
  3. Share regular updates to the group to expose my thinking, highlight important messages, and provide insight into what I’m tracking both internally and externally.
  4. Ask everyone to share their observations with me.
  5. Make coaching a priority, so others can learn to help themselves.
  6. Delegate more. Can someone else do it?
  7. Be true to my word.
  8. Be visible.

Your ability to have influence at a larger scale within your organization starts with knowing how to connect and influence people in your immediate team. Alyssa Burkus in How to Be More Present With your Team (Actionable.co)

But wait… these are all practices for any leader, even when located in the same building, same city. The last one — being visible — is the key to solving the difficulty of a distributed, async workforce.

Ideas that I’ve tried for improving visibility include connecting more over video, to “share a tea” virtually as we chat. Posting short personal updates on what I’m up to outside work. Jumping into short, high-fidelity check-ins over voice and video to unblock a communication gap, which is a boost to the human bond. The view into someone’s office can lead to questions like, “What’s that book on your shelf?”

Teams and individuals at Automattic socialize together via chat or photoblogs or videos or GIFs. Whether that’s around hobbies and shared interests, building cultural awareness, and following each others’ lives via social media. As my coworker Cate says, “Make it feel like a team.” Ultimately it’s about humanizing the distance.

Making it feel more human means involving myself in the connection over the distance. It’s not just a transaction — we’ve bridged the gap to interaction.

I’d love to hear from you, too. What’s worked best for you to be more present for your team?


  1. Footnote: the vocabulary of scaling teams is fun. Learning to scale my leadership also means picking up industry lingo around scaling teams and companies. Everything from skip-levels, business units (BU), direct reports (DR), individual contributors (IC), org chart, directly responsible individual (DRI), “manage up,” and more. Not all the buzz words are new to me, but I typically avoid using corporate-sounding vocabulary. As I seek to understand everything at scale, I find myself using these phrases and acronyms more often now with certain audiences. I’m picking it up as I go! Something new each day.

 

Automattic Holiday Video à la Remote Work (2017)

Automattic is an all-remote company comprised of over 500 people across 50 countries. We work from homes, shared offices, cars, and planes to make the Web a better place. At Automattic our motto is, ”I will never stop learning.” In that spirit, we made this video.

Automatticians shared home-shot videos from all over. And we stitched them together… Don’t worry. Based upon this video, we don’t expect to try to go into the entertainment business anytime soon. But you’ll certainly get a sense of the many environments we work from. Come join us!

I had a ton of fun singing this cheerful holiday song and dancing along with coworkers all over the world. 🎄 🎅🏼

Curious about how it came together? See our Party Wrangler John’s How To Make A Fully Distributed Company’s Holiday Video.

Home is Where the Work Is

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In Home is where the work is my colleague Cate talks about remote working, tools for communicating in distributed teams, and fascinating bits of detail about her daily routine and habits for getting work done. (Via “Increment” Magazine).

See also: Where is Automattic? Our HQ is right near you.

SSH Config for Slow Connections

Via Andy Skelton in 2010, proving once again that great advice is timeless.

With these lines in your SSH config file—usually in .ssh directory in your user home directory—you’ll enjoy a more reliable remote shell session.

# Do not kill connection if route is down temporarily.
TCPKeepAlive no

# Allow ten minutes down time before giving up the connection.
ServerAliveCountMax 30
ServerAliveInterval 20

# Conserve bandwith. (Compression is off by default.)
Compression yes

Looking Great on Video Calls

Tips for video calls and looking good on a webcam, via Lemony. A coworker shared this internally at Automattic a few months back, and I love it as a reference to look my best when on a video call such as a Google Hangout.

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I also love this “googly eyes” trick from adulting for remembering to look at the camera on your laptop or monitor.

Slow Slack

Slack is an amazing chat tool for teams, we use it daily at Automattic. Unfortunately it is unusable on slow connections, something I run into sometimes when traveling; recently in Nicaragua, rural Ohio, and Silver City, New Mexico. I wish it worked better in those situations.

To their credit, the loading messages are humorous and keep me from punching the wall because I’m smiling at the clever copywriting and positive attitude.

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If you haven’t yet, try out Slack.

Spicy

This piquant thread on Twitter made my week: http://storify.com/Jtsternberg/conversation-with-nacin-simpledream-zamoose-johnpb

I love the global nature of the WordPress, and how the community can come together for something silly and fun on Twitter.

ÉPICÉ!

This PIE is Totes Delish

Coworking at PIE (short for the Portland Incubator Experiment) was a highlight for me during a month spent in the lovely green Pacific Northwest. I shared a desk area with Automattic colleagues Daniel and Andrew, going in twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. PIE is a glorious twistup of coworking, startups, tech heads, and advertising executives.

The vibe is energetic and the people are interesting, the inside feels airy and spacious due to high ceilings, natural light, and white desks and tables.

If you’re in Portland I recommend you swing by and check it out.

As I happen to love coworking spots, I’m adding here a brief review as if it were a full-on coworking spot. It’s not, but what the heck—I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

Pluses

  • Centrally located in the trendy Pearl District.
  • Great vibe and energy.
  • Top-notch amenities as a workspace: phone booths for private conversations, fast internet, whiteboard walls, full kitchen, high ceilings and lots of natural light.
  • Lunch at Food Carts or Whole Foods, both a short walk away.
  • Great coffee nearby, Caffé Umbria or Barista
  • Kegerator with local brew on tap. ‘Nuff said.

Minuses

  • Can get a bit crazy when the startup classes are in session; which would be a plus if you’re involved in PIE on a regular basis.
  • Bathroom is a bit of a hike. Great for a stretch and break from the desk, though.
  • If you need ultimate concentration and quiet, it’s not a great fit. You’ll need headphones as there’s a buzz of conversation depending on who is around.
  • More an office than coworking spot; I’ve expanded on that below.

The day-to-day folks at PIE are busy cranking on their apps and services, meeting with partners and clients, and more. I didn’t expect to make instant friends going in, but thought I’d meet more people. I ended up with my headphones on a lot and head down in code and work.

A quick welcome tour and more conversation with the regulars would have been nice bonus—and would give this space 5 out of 5 stars in my book. In this sense it’s less like other coworking spots I’ve experienced. I was disappointed that over 8-10 visits only one person approached and asked me who I was and what I was doing there. Spoke6, my home spot in Tucson, does a much better job in this respect, though in all fairness Spoke6 is set up differently and is fully dedicated to coworking.

All in all, PIE a sweet place to work, and next time in Portland I’ll be back for another slice.

WordPress for Collaboration

I gave a ten-minute talk on this topic for the Tucson Digital Arts Community WordPress Workshop on January 14th, 2009. The talk could have been titled “How to Build a Private Twitter for Your Group With a Custom WordPress Theme” since that is the main idea. This is the text of my talk.

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I want to share with you an example of a non-traditional use for WordPress. As I’m sure you may know, WordPress is the most popular blogging software on the market. It is easy to use and customize, makes web publishing simple—it gets the job done. What you might not know, however, is that it does more than just blogs and simple CMSs.

I’d like to share one specific example of how I use WordPress to collaborate with a remote team. I figure I can kill two birds with one stone: I am going to show you how to use a WordPress custom theme for collaboration in a work environment, and at the same time I hope to encourage you to explore alternative uses of WordPress.

I live in an RV and travel around the country, so most of the time when I’m working with my colleagues, I am working remotely. That means that how I collaborate with a dispersed group of people is extremely important since we don’t have lots of face to face time. Even if you aren’t a stay-at-home or remote worker, you still have to collaborate, right? Even if it means sending an instant message to the guy in the cubicle five feet away from you.

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Who’s done that before? I think we all have. My point is that even if you are in a traditional office environment, it doesn’t mean that all your interactions happen face to face.

We all know that good communication is the key to getting things done. And I think my example tonight applies to in-house web design and development teams just as much as it does to freelancers or remote workers like myself that typically use email, instant messaging, and project management software to collaborate; those technologies take the place of the face-to-face interaction.

What I am doing right now?

Collaboration might not be the right word… I’m not going to cover what it means to manage projects with clients and how to collaborate on tasks and timelines. Instead, I want to talk about the simple communication that happens all day long. Answering this question, “What I am doing right now?”

How do you normally share that type of information with your group? And how do you keep tabs on your coworkers’ updates as well? Typically that would be done via email, phone calls, short meetings in the hallway, putting colored cups on top of your cubicle (hey—don’t laugh at that one, it works really well in some situations).

My sister once worked in an office where one way of saying “what am I doing right now” was exactly that: they had a red cup that meant “I’m busy”, and a blue cup that meant “I’m free.”

When these traditional methods don’t work, or if they aren’t practical, we often look to other tools for sending out quick and simple updates. Updates that are sent without much preparation or the need to open software. Updates that are asynchronous—meaning other people don’t have to respond right away—the message will be there for them when they are ready to read it.

Twitter

Lately it seems like there are more and more products being created to handle this type of communication. One great example is Twitter. It’s awesome, right? You get 140 characters to describe what you’re doing or how you’re feeling, or to post a link. Twitter is extremely popular because it gives you that “chatroom” feel of constant conversation. It’s quick and easy to post but can be engaging and effective.

It can be a really great way to simulate being in the same room with someone.

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Twitter users share their personal updates with each other by answering the question, “What are you doing right now?” That question is typically a label on the text entry field on the Twitter website, for example. It’s the same action as updating your Facebook status to say you are having a bad day, or what you movie you are going to see that night. You just want to share a quick update without writing an epic saga or opening up your blog software to write a new post.

Twitter has changed how people interact. It’s effective precisely because it’s so simple. No tags or categories, no spellcheck, no formatting, just post it and it’s out there for all the world to see.

But what if you just need to communicate with one small group of people?

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About a year ago, right here in Arizona, the makers of WordPress (Automattic) were having their yearly company gathering just north of here, in Oracle. They were thinking this same thing, and there they came up with a theme called Prologue that replicates Twitter-like interactions within a WordPress website.

Just like Twitter, Facebook, and other social web apps promote lifestreaming, Prologue promotes workstreaming for your team. Workstreaming is the publishing of work-related activities and events to your remote colleagues. Some might say that it’s also a way to convince your boss that you’re actually working!

What are you working on right now?

Prologue helps you answer the question, “What are you working on right now?”

My work as a consultant sometimes means being part of a small team—for one team I work with often Prologue has become one of our most-used communication tools. Besides constant updates on what we’re doing, we use Prologue as a scrum tool: every morning we all post our daily goals and roadblocks.

We also use it for sharing links and tips. But the main purpose for using Prologue is to update each other on our status.

Prologue helps you collaborate

How does Prologue help you collaborate better? Prologue is successful because it requires almost no work to post an update. The easier you make it for your team to post, the more they will use it.

  • It encourages short updates.
  • It allows a quick post on the home page—there is no need to view the admin site.
  • It allows comments so you can create a conversation around what you posted.
  • You can add tags and categories just like normal blog posts in WordPress, but you don’t have to. Like Twitter, you can just type and post.
  • You then use RSS feeds to track your coworkers’ updates. Or if your the boss, you sit there all day and hit Refresh! (Just kidding!)

Prologue is free, and easy to set up and use. All you have to do is download and install the theme, then enable it. It’s that easy. Even easier, you can sign up for a free WordPress.com account—it’s a default theme there, so you don’t even have to download it.

Here’s how easy it is to start using Prologue with a free WordPress.com account.

  1. After you’ve signed up for a free WordPress.com blog, log in and enable the theme.
  2. Then go to the blog home page, and post an update.
  3. Invite other users to join by adding them to the account.

That’s it!

Based on the default WordPress privacy settings, your Prologue setup can be public, or password-protected (meaning available only to your group). The password-protection is available with WordPress.com by default—if you are running your own WordPress site, then you’ll need to implement password protection on your own.

Try it for yourself

View the Automattic team’s live Prologue demo, and I’d encourage giving it a test run on your own WordPress site.