what does “in-person” mean for teams that aren’t all in the same location

I’ve been on a hybrid/distributed team for a long time. Immediately before the pandemic our team worked in the following arrangement (everyone worked 5 days a week regardless of location). Since this team was originally all in NY, I was very conscious of the language I used so NY wasn’t “the center of the universe.”

  • 3 people full time in the NY office
  • 2 people in another office in a different city
  • 1 person in yet a third office in a different city
  • 1 person in the NY office three days a week
  • 1 person in the NY office two days every three weeks
  • 1 person full time in her home office

During the pandemic we all worked from somewhere in our home. Some people had nice home offices. Some people worked from a creative arrangement in the middle of their apartment. I used language about myself like “I’m leaving work now” even though I was moving two feet away.

Right now, the NY office is doing a “back to the office” pilot and my team consists of

  • me physically in the NY office
  • one of my teammates physically in the NY office three days a week on a different floor (we weren’t on the same team when the pandemic started so our seats aren’t currently near each other.) It’s a pain to move so waiting until the department shuffles everyone’s seats for that.
  • everyone else at their home offices (I think everyone except the two of us choosing to be in the pilot has an actual home office)

Last week, I was using a bunch of different conference rooms in the NY office to test the new webcams and such. When I wrote up the experience, I used the phrase “in person.” One of my teammates immediately called me out on that. Which I appreciate. I certainly wasn’t thinking of the NY office as being the center of the universe when it was only myself and one other person from our team there. (at one of the meetings; the others I was the only one in the NY office for.) I was thinking “in-person” with reference to myself.

This got us talking and me thinking about various terms that can be used and various sensitivities that can exist around them. I’m using WFH in the comments column for brevity. If you don’t like that term, substitute another in your head to get to the gist. It’s hard to fully qualify every time. Especially in a discussion about terms and subtleties.

TermComments
in-personEveryone works in person regardless of location.
homeThis doesn’t usually bother people. However, it isn’t always home. I worked for a week from a hotel. In some companies, a person could be working at Starbucks. It varies. I do like that this term is part of the WFH abbreviation. One of my remote teammates said she prefers home office or remote over home.
home officeI like this term when talking about people who actually have a home office. However, it is a term that has sensitivities to me because it includes an assumption that one has a space for a home office. (My WFH area is smaller than a cubical and not anywhere near as conducive to work.
onsiteThis is a location. If there is only one onsite location and everyone is WFH, it could work. However, in my case, there are three “onsite” locations involved so it doesn’t clarify much.
remoteDepending on the context, this could be a good term. In some ways, it has the same problem as “onsite.” However, it could also mean simply that people aren’t all together if not viewed from the lens of a common location.
distributedI like this term because it shows that there are varying locations. And it doesn’t make assumptions about a primary site.
teleworking or telecommutingI like that this is location agnostic. But it also implies that you aren’t at an office. Whereas distributed could mean any location.
virtualThis term assumes that it is replacing an in person thing. It also treats the activity as an alias.If I’m having a meeting, I’m having a meeting. It doesn’t matter if we are in the same room or on Zoom or whatever.

Finally, my teammate brought up this episode from The Big Bang Theory

Sheldon-bot : Can you tell me the specials this evening?

Penny: Sheldon, I’m not waiting on you.

Sheldon-bot: Obviously. I don’t even have water yet.

Penny: Because you’re not here.

Sheldon-bot: That’s discrimination against the otherwise located. I’m going to have to go over your head. Manager, manager. Oh, Lord, look who it is.

Responding to a co-located/fully remote/hybrid article

I read Should Your Organization Be Co-Located, Fully Remote, or Hybrid from Scrum Inc. It’s nice to see the agile community starting to accept that co-location isn’t necessary to be an agile team. (I’ve been on a team for many years with people in multiple locations and it never stopped us from doing Scrum. We even figured out how to make in person agile games remote. A few takeaways/responding

Feedback

I really like this quote

Uncollected feedback is perishable; the longer you wait the less reliable it is

Many years ago (even before doing Scrum or remote.), I noticed that people had trouble recollecting what they wanted to contribute to the retrospective. They were quiet at meetings and didn’t remember problems not fresh on the mind.

I solved this by putting a shoebox and post its in a common location. This let the team put in their thoughts right as they happened.We had someone organize the post its by topic and used the retrospective time to discuss them.

Over time, that shoebox became electronic. But the benefits still stand. Real time opportunities to record those thoughts. I really like the perishable quote and am sharing it with my current team at our next retrospective!

Purpose of an office

The article lists the following benefits of an office. It was interesting reflect on how much of this applies to me and my troubles over the last 15 months. The table shows my thoughts on them both for work and the high school robotics team I mentor

Item from articleWorkRobotics
Collaboration, communication, and the sense of belonging that comes with colocationI’m not sure. It’s definitely good seeing people, but my team has been distributed for years. So a lot of my connections were with people not on my team anyway.Definitely. The kids noticed how much they feel not being able to hang out, have team dinners, bond over dodgeball, etc
A place to work away from the distractions of homeYes! This is one of the problems I’m having. (I put not having a good physical work space in this area. A subpar work environment is certainly distracting.)Some of the students share rooms or have distractions on calls.
Creation of physical products and use of specialized tools n/a – our tools are computersDefinitely. Not having access to the lab, tools, robot greatly limits what can be done.
Space for gatherings and training While I don’t need to see my teammates every day/week, we do all meet in person on occasion. In person meetings allow for more flexibility and cross training
A need to directly interact with customersn/an/a
A place to focusAnother one for me. I only have so much energy to focus at home. It’s less than 8 hours worth which isn’t even enough for a day let alone fun things after work. I also notice, I can’t carry as many thoughts in my head at home.Not sure.
The status and stability a physical location conveysn/an/a

Sustainablility

Another quote I found interesting:

Working more hours to get less done is not a recipe for success. 

For most of the weeks of the pandemic, I refused to work more hours. (I made an exception for the a month and there was a high cost. I’m still recovering to get myself to the point I was at the week before I made that exception.) I got less done but it wasn’t from more hours.

Most of my colleagues get the same or more done at home. They should be able to to telecommute forever! I am not one of those people. At the office, I have a desk so I can see more stuff at once. I have two monitors so I can work faster. I can hold more thoughts in my head

And also

There will be times when after-hours work will be needed. These need to be the exception – not the rule.  

I agree with this. And I made that monthlong exception intentionally. Also my employer passed the “test” of it being important. I worked one weekend day in exchange for a comp day. So at least it was my employer’s time too, not just mine.

I hear a lot of people say “since I’m not commuting, I can work more.” I strongly disagree with this. I used my commute time productively. I read the news in the morning and a computer book on the way home. (My computer book reading is also down because my at home energy isn’t available when I have time to read now.) Commuting time belongs to me, not my employer. It being gone isn’t a reason to work more hours.

Hybrid workspace ideas

The article also lists some ideas for hybrid work. My thoughts on those

IdeaResponse
Have designated team days for in-person workWe did that when we were a colocated team with telecommuters. (Monday was the day nobody could telecommute.) I consider this a crutch that we long moved past. Luckily we became a multi-city/time zone team after I no longer needed that crutch!
Institute policies to fight ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and burnoutThe article suggests holding 10 minute breaks between meetings. I’ve had meetings 9:05-9:55 for as long as I can remember. So meetings i control do come with those breaks.
Always hold team events in virtual conference spaceThis one we didn’t quite do. We did have people at the same site connect from the same room rather than everyone being at their desk. But everyone did contribute equally. It wasn’t most people in one room and a handful alone at home.
Publish all meeting notes in a visible space which can be accessed remotelyEverything is electronic. While we do publish notes, we aren’t an async team though.
Only use virtual whiteboardsDefinitely! The only time we used physical whiteboards was for pairing when the two people involved happened to be in the same location.

speaking online – presentation vs panel

I’ve been declining most speaking opportunities from home. I find it a lot harder and more tiring to speak when I can’t see anyone in the audience. It’s stressful enough being at home so much without adding more voluntary stress! I’m also worried about outside noise distracting either me or the audience. For example, sometimes a fire engine “doesn’t go by” (cars don’t/can’t let it go by so it stays at my corner for 20-30 seconds and I can’t hear anything).

I’ve done two “public” things successfully on video from home:

  • Intro trivia and moderating Q&A for the NY Java Sig. (This isn’t the main part of the meeting so I know someone can take over for me.)
  • A panel on architecture. The panel mitigated both my concerns. I could see the moderator and other panelists. So I could see reactions and wasn’t speaking to nobody.
  • When there was excessive noise at my end, I could mute until it went away. Other panelists were still talking so I wasn’t messing up the whole presentation.