I'm seeing different kinds of “hybrid remote” teams these days. I already wrote about satellite teams (see Five Tips for Your Successful (Hybrid Remote) Satellite Team). Now, I'm also seeing cluster teams.
Cluster teams have people in several locations, with collocated people in some locations. (See How To Understand Your Team Type: Collocated, Satellite, Cluster, Nebula, with the Allen Curve.)
Here's an example: A “Boston-based” company has several locations.
- Two people sit together in the Cambridge office (location 1).
- In Waltham, two people sit together (location 2)—except when one of them is in the lab (location 2a).
- In Boston, the headquarters building, two people work on the same floor (location 3) Except, the people are 100 feet away from each other. I say these are two separate locations, 3 and 4.
- One person works in Andover (location 5)
- The remaining person works in Burlington (location 6).
Eight people. At least 6 locations. Maybe 7, depending on how you count. (I count 7. The only two collocated people are in Cambridge.)
Why isn't this a satellite team? Because there is no central location, even though the Boston team thinks it is.
This team is definitely a “hybrid remote” team.
Problems This “Team” Saw
Back when everyone worked from home as a nebula team, they used their backchannel to discuss and solve problems. However, when some people moved back to their separate offices, those people thought they could work the same way they had before.
That thinking led to these problems:
- People used the backchannel much less often, which gave them much less communication resilience.
- The collocated Cambridge people often couldn't get a conference room. That meant they need to join meetings from their laptops. That led to these problems:
- The people wanted to leave their good audio/video setups at home because they knew they would need to work from home.
- Since the company had “good technology” in the conferences rooms, the managers didn't want to pay for people to get a (duplicate) good audio/video setup in the office.
- However, the people couldn't access the conference rooms. They were stuck in a Catch-22.
- The Waltham lab has a noisy background, which made remote meetings more challenging.
- The Boston people couldn't get the technology in their conference rooms to reliably work. That meant they joined from their desks, without good audio/video setups.
This team and their managers didn't realize that the team's workspace context was different.
The differences in the workspace meant they didn't act like a team at all. Their real-time collaboration was a mess. Since people had trouble collaborating, they encountered Conway's Law, where the architecture of the product reflected the splintering of the team.
How This Team Solved Their Cluster Problems
This team solved their problems partially with new working agreements:
- The team decided to treat everyone as if they were dispersed, a nebula team. That meant:
- Everyone used their desk machine to meet, not a conference room.
- They refocused on using the backchannel to communicate decisions and questions.
- Returned to a short check-in at the start of each meeting.
These actions helped them re-affiliate as a team, not a loosely connected set of individuals.
In addition, the team nudged their managers to justify and buy better audio and video for each person's machine in the office.
They ignored their locations and assumed they were a nebula team. Going “into” the office did not enhance their work experience.
Consider These Questions for Your Hybrid-Remote Cluster Team Success
When we ask people to come to the office, we change the context. I'm not opposed to “hybrid-remote” either as satellite or cluster teams. Let's recognize that the team workspace changes when we change location. Ask yourself these questions and consider renegotiating your working agreements:
- How and when do we choose to meet?
- Do our team artifacts, such as a board, help us or hurt us now, when we're not all remote?
- How can we use our backchannel now?
- Would more or different technology help us connect more as humans?
- What prevents us from affiliating as a team?
Assuming we have sufficient hours of overlap, cluster teams, these kinds of hybrid-remote teams can work. But we can't do it without rethinking how we work together.
(For more on this topic of workspaces, please see From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams.)