ProductivityTeam collaboration

Pro tips for briefing remote agency teams

Teams within an organization are “probably the single most important business function” according to Jack Skeels of AgencyAgile. During a recent Hightail webinar, he said, “They’re the core of all organizations that deliver the work. The velocity of how fast those teams are moving is how fast the organizations will.”

But these days, teams are “dislocated” and often unable to work together in person. This can be particularly challenging in agencies for several reasons, including:

  • Multi-allocation at agencies mean that people are often working on a lot of different things and have a lot of different people they need to be working with.
  • Agencies are prone to “high work uncertainties,” according to Skeels. “We’re not really sure what we’re going to do, but we have to get something done two Fridays from now. … And resolving uncertainty, and resolving variability is much better done in person.”
  • Such a “chaotic workflow” means it can be challenging to figure out what to work on next and that priority shifting is also better done in person, according to Skeels.
  • While non-agency projects might have “pretty good levels of understanding,” because they often are working on something repetitive (like building a house), Skeels said that agency projects start with “very, very deep non-understanding.” He said, “It’s not that agencies don’t understand what they’re doing, because they do understand what they’re doing. But they actually want to do something new and different every time, which means they’re not really sure exactly how to do it, and exactly what it means to do it.”

He added that teams that understand what they need to do can function well, but that the teams that have been dislocated also are relying on the “reserves of understanding” they have from back when they were together—and they now need resources to help improve that understanding and work better together.

What makes a team?

Teams need a sense of connection and culture, as well as the capacity to do the work—including skills, resources and tools like Hightail to share information. 

They also have a need for interdependence, which leads to three additional requirements:

Conveyance – “We need to be good at conveying the work that the team needs to do. Conveyance, Skeels added, is about “creating the understanding of the context and goal of the work.”

Convergence – Convergence is about “creating a common understanding within the team, of the work and how it needs to be accomplished.”

Coordination   “Once the team has has been conveyed to, they understand what the work is and they converge on how to do it and what it means to get it done—then they need to actually be able to coordinate.” He added that this involves a “mutual understanding of team members’ accomplishments, goals and interdependence.” As with the other needs, he added, “Coordination is something we’re amazingly good at in person, but it actually gets harder as we’re apart.”

Barriers to teamwork and how to fix it

Conveyance is often delivered in a brief, document or a short meeting. And Skeels said that it’s usually underspecified in many ways: underlying needs, risks, uncertainties, the why behind the why, etc. “And so what ends up happening is, in the real-world, an in-person world, conveyance is underdone, which means convergence gets underdone, which means coordination becomes way, way more costly and noisy,” Skeels said. “A lot of coordination that happens inside of teams is asking things like: What are we doing? What does it need to be? These are questions that really should have been answered in a conveyance process or convergence activity.”

When you add “dislocation” into the mix, conveyance becomes even more challenging due to a decrease in visual and kinesthetic cues and the increasedreliance on written forms of communication, “all of which are far worse than in-person and interactive forms.”

To improve conveyance, Skeels suggests first defining the topics that the team should learn. Some possibilities include:

  • What is the assignment?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the key messaging?
  • Who are the client stakeholders?
  • Timing?
  • Budget?

Next, Skeels suggests making the team learn these things from you—not by telling them, but by “making them pull it out of you.” He added, “This is how learning happens. Learning happens by someone having to struggle with understanding what it is.”

For virtual teams, he suggests using a virtual whiteboard tool or a scratch pad within your video conferencing session or even a PowerPoint that you share on-screen with the topics they need to learn. “And then basically from that point, what we want to do is help them understand and learn together.”

He added, “It’s going to be shared experience, not a document that you send to them. And remember, making it visual matters as well.”

There are some telltale signs when it still isn’t going right, and Skeels offered up some suggestions for tackling those challenges:

  • One person is doing all the talking – Ask everyone to think of all of their questions ahead of time and write them down on a piece of paper, and then have each take turns asking their questions.
  • Multiple topics are tied together – While it might be tempting to answer a question addressing multiple topics, you will steer them over to a completely different topic. Stay on the single topic that they were asking about, and you can address the other topics when they are brought up.
  • Multiple people talking at the same time – Focus the conversation and make sure each of the individuals get their questions answered to create deeper briefings.
  • Introverts only listen – Make it a requirement for introverts raise their hands and ask questions.

Want more insights from the presentation? Watch Struggling to brief remote agency teams? Here’s what you need to know.

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