The human side of delivery in a remote world
There are three parts to what I call the Human side of Delivery — those things we can do to make things more human in a digital and often remote world. Note what is covered here is not an exhaustive list; it is, I hope, the start of a wider conversation about how soft skills (which should be called hard skills) are the most important thing we can master right now in delivery.
TL:DR: save yourself minutes of reading time by listening to this 30-minute podcast I recorded for the Delivery Manager Daily with Mario DeCristofano which covers most of the themes below.
Getting to know you
‘We connect with each other so we thrive together’
This is what we used to do around the water cooler (what even is one of these?), when we sat next to each other in buildings, over a spot of lunch, or while waiting for meetings in the old pre-Covid days. Weirdly, getting to know each other and how we work is even more important now we are physically separated most days. Often, we have to accelerate this process, do it en masse, so we have our relation-building blocks in place quickly for teams forming online. We have to do it mainly via video calls with people we may never meet in person. And we have to think of ways to do this through the medium of remote workshops and activities rather than naturally, and over time.
Here are some examples of things I’ve done over the last two years so the people I work with can share something of themselves so we can begin to get to know each other:
Manual of me — the classic way for everyone on the team to describe themselves and how they work.
Commonalities — a get-to-know-you exercise to seek common attributes between team members — think who has brown eyes, speaks more than one language, has emigrated to another country. Think ‘we are not so different you and I’ stuff.
The Thumb game — an alternative and very simple get-to-know-you exercise. Get all participants to cover their cameras with their thumbs. Then the participants answer a series of yes or no questions by removing their thumbs for yes and holding fast for no. Can be as serious or fun as you like.
Life highlights games — we pick and reveal which 30 seconds of our lives we’d relive if we could. A lovely way to get a feel for each other’s passions, loves, and personalities.
What One Question … — split team members into pairs (with someone they don’t work with often) and pose one question: what one question should we ask interview candidates to discover a person’s suitability to join our team. You’ll find out what your emerging values are.
What are we drinking today? — ask team members to bring their favourite hot drink to a meeting and we talk about our drinks and their stories.
What’s your favourite food? — the most hotly debated session I have EVER run. A fun way to get to know the cultures and tastes of your teams mates especially those based in other or from other countries.
As delivery folk, our job here is good old facilitation, which is a cornerstone of the human side of delivery IMHO. We coax, charm, encourage, enable, appeal, persuade, and include, so others have a platform to connect.
Creating the safe environment
‘We have fun, we are inclusive, we value one another and our contributions, and we enjoy being with each other’
As we get to know each other, we need a safe environment in place so can grow, learn, and succeed together. Here’s how I do this:
Trust everyone on day one — you acquire trust by giving trust (Tom DeMarco). It’s a leap of faith, the first step to creating a safe environment. Trust me :)
Do fun and be happy — start meetings with a positive round of chat to get everyone in the right place. Think about what will make you happy about the meeting you are currently in. Tell bad Dad jokes, finish meetings with a riddle, pick a song to end meetings with. And despite what people say, you can do ‘fun’ and put on a ‘happy face’ with practice. Keep trying and you’ll get better, I promise.
Mind your language — remember the power of words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘ours’. Repeat these over and over so everyone feels part of the team. Keep your questions open. Avoid asking ‘why’ as it makes folk defensive. Try using questions starting with ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘has’, ‘is there’ and coaching-type questions like ‘tell me about’ and ‘help me understand’. Remember slang and euphemisms may not be understood by everyone (especially with distributed teams abroad). In short, think before you speak and make your words count.
Thoughtful onboarding — show you care by welcoming new people to the team in advance with an email explaining key roles, what day one, week one, and month one look like. Share any videos, articles, and so on (we recorded key presentations for new starters so we could share these, the one benefit of Teams). Pair new folk with a buddy — try the last person who joined the team this as they know the questions and the worries well.
Celebrate each other — whether it’s having fun or a flash of brilliance, use Slack/Teams to thank someone for doing something good. Use Town Halls or wider meetings to celebrate the good work your good people do — we have a regular slot every two weeks where people get a shout out for a positive act or great piece of work
Embrace vulnerability — talk openly and freely about mental wellbeing and regularly remind people that no person owes the company their mental wellbeing. Show when you are finding things difficult or a struggle and normalise asking for help for everyone’s sake.
Show empathy, be kind — encourage team members to see the world through someone else’s eyes by asking these questions* regularly:
- What is going on for the other person/people?
- What emotions might they be feeling?
- How might this look from their point of view?
- How might they be experiencing this situation?
- What challenges may they have/might be facing?
*from the estimable Esther Derby
Remember what people share with you — if someone shares something about them or their work, treasure this information. Whenever I do an exercise to get to know people or if someone opens up in a meeting about work or life, I ALWAYS follow this up. A Slack message, a call, whatever works. People really appreciate this and you remembering the little things they have shared — kids or pet being ill, learning a new skill, moving house, an evening out…
Always assume positive intent — start from this position and work and life’s outcomes are infinitely better*. It alters how you think, promotes empathy, and enables kindness. It’s hard, and I’m still learning, but it makes such a difference.
*my wife has taught me this. She’s the best :)
Risk and failure go hand in hand — encourage people to take risks — the pathway to innovation and improvement — and demonstrably acknowledge this will mean people fail, which is 100% ok.
Your primary role here, delivery folk, is role modeling the above and recognising and acknowledging this in others. Think of yourself as a good virus, make yourself and what you do contagious by doing it every time you come into contact with your team(s).
How to keep it going
‘Turning what we do into a mindset and applying this beyond our team’
Keeping this going — connecting, and keeping things positive and safe — is tricky. It’s how we earn our money IMHO. So, what does it take?
It’s a mindset — instill the following into everyone, make it part of every interaction:
- we turn up with only good intentions
- hope is something you do, not ‘have’, so do hope every day
- ours is a participative workplace where we do things together (and not do things to others)
- practice kindness and empathy (using the questions above)
Nurture connections and connect people and teams — remember what people share with you, it is important! Keep your connections alive and connect people with others outside your team based on what you learn about them. This creates corridors between teams so information and learning move freely.
Share team data and spread team health mantra — share your Team Health with leaders and teams who interact with your team(s). Publishing this (anonymised) data acts as a nudge so we continue to strive to improve health and reinforce its importance.
Revisit what it means to be human — use your retros to consider how to improve your events, environment, team health, and interactions so they remain human at heart.
Cultivate the space between your team and other teams/depts/your suppliers — the psychological safety of the whole (org) is never the sum of its parts (teams), but it’s the safety (and quality) of the interactions between teams. By bringing the wider team(s) together we show we trust each other and we make our interactions a safe place, too.
Spreading the concept of Citizenship — this is the bond between a team member and the team. We make a commitment to the team to honour our ways of working in return for agreed rights and liberties. We give and take in equal measure.
Cut yourself some slack — you need time to do this stuff, it needs to be a dedicated part of your job. Set aside a percentage of your time/capacity to focus on the human side, too. Otherwise, it will have to be a hobby, something you do in your spare time, and you don’t really want that (and it’s poor role-modeling behaviour, too).
That’s my take on the Human side of delivery. Through it, we start to connect as individuals, as a team, as teams. We participate, take part. We learn to give and take. We see little separates us really, we have a lot in common. We start to think of each other and how we can meet each other’s needs. We create and maintain a safe space to do this. And we have the shared mindset to keep it going by focusing on the ‘doing’ every single day.
What do you think, dear reader?