Gracefully joining a conference call

Are you still there?

It’s a question carries a hint of annoyance or laughter (or both) and when tossed out on a conference call, it can be a sad and frustrating one.

Because people tend to place more trust in those we can physically interact with, and because of technical issues that never seem to fully disappear, the stacks are piled against you as a conference caller. Especially if all or some of the other participants are in the same room.

Here are a couple of small tricks I’ve picked out over the years:

Before the call:

  • If there’s a chance that the organizer doesn’t know you’re joining remotely, tell them before the meeting.

Starting the call:

  • Say something in the first 60 seconds. It helps to prop you up as an active participant of the meeting, as well as acting as a sound check in an uncritical moment.
  • Turn on the video, if bandwidth permits. People like to see faces. 
  • Find the right camera angle. You’d be surprised at how un-reliable you look when only the top half of your head is visible…
  • If you’re late and the meeting has already begun, smile and wave while on mute. No need to interrupt with an apology. Whomever is speaking at the moment will probably give a quick “hey, Bob” and offer a sentence or two to bring you up to speed, if required.

During the call:

  • Know how and when to mute your mike.

Ending the call:

  • Say thank you and good bye.
  • If you need to go but it looks like the meeting needs a few minutes to wrap up, send a message to the group, wave, and promptly leave the call.

I’ll cover tips that are specific to an organizer in a separate post.

Bonus: You may have seen this spot-on skit on video conferences

… there’s also a sequel, so we can make even more fun of our everyday annoyances 😉

What we forget to talk about when we talk about remote teams

There are many articles out there that advise on how distributed teams or remote workers can collaborate more smoothly, and you can pick up a lot of practical tips from them — how to deal with time zones, ideal meeting structures, recommended tools etc. So many tools. 

However, there’s little talk of the base assumption that must exist and carry through the collaboration, and that’s that all parties must believe it’s fully possible to achieve great results together. 

I was recently asked by a harried project manager having communication issues with a UX designer on the other side of the world, “I find it so hard to work with someone whose desk I can’t drop by… do you think this collaboration is really possible?”

I answered, “Of course. (duh)”

Okay, not the most helpful answer. The question had taken me by surprise though, and I had to think a moment before adding, “…but not if you’re not both invested in making work. Didn’t you choose this designer because her skills and experience were the best fit for this project? What actions are the two of you taking to make sure you’re both happy working from different locations?”

Not much, it turns out.

A few days later, said designer reached out to ask me the same question. Do you believe it’s possible for a remote team to design a product? You can see where the point I want to make in this post came from 😎

I gave a similar answer, and we agreed that, in this specific case, the designer had more agency to make changes.

Here are some topics we discussed:

  • Chose the right tool for the people involved. In this case, it was less Trello, and more Basecamp messages. The PM had a dozen other work streams to take care of, and the mental load of dealing with lots of Trello card updates was overwhelming. The designer could capture bigger batches of progress into a fleshed out Basecamp thread.
  • Experiment with different media. A project member showing work for someone else to take action on — which is most of our work, isn’t it? — should make the effort to tailor their delivery so this specific colleague has the best chance to can run with it. Some people want to read a description of the process, some are reassured by frequent screenshots in Slack throughout the day, some need to hear you talk through it. Use text, images, video, whatever is at your disposal! And don’t forget to get feedback — this is a two way process.
  • Be flexible about availability for calls. The peace of mind that teams can have when you know that teammates will make the best effort to be available if you need it is not to be sneezed at. And a prompt offer to set up a call goes a long way to diffuse tensions. An occasional early morning, late afternoon, or late lunch needs to be acceptable as long as the load is distributed.

Honestly, none of these ideas are groundbreaking and it only took a few minutes of throwing around ideas to get here. But it was enough to spur real change that would start to unclog the communication problems and make the project more enjoyable for everyone involved.

I’m not saying that a distributed team is going to be as “easy” as being in the same office. Of course it’s easier when your buddy is sitting next to you and you’re taking lunch and coffee breaks together. But as long as you believe this is the best team for the job, you’re selling yourself and the team short by questioning if a wonderful collaboration is possible. Because the rest will flow from that, and the teamwork is what will carry you through the difficulties that will inadvertently pop up over the course of the project.

Happy remote working!

Using up the stickies

I go through a ton of stickies in my line of work, and the more expensive 3M ones at that. These are more colorful, made of thicker paper, and have better adhesive tape. 

And it’s important to not treat them as precious items. 

I’ll peel off a new stickie to rewrite a jumbled idea, replace a stray one that lost its stickiness, ruthlessly crumble up those which captured a train of thought that didn’t go anywhere…. and I’ll only bring fresh packs to a workshop. It’s annoying when people use different colors for the same classification of ideas, and vice versa. “No, use a pink one,” I will dictate. Uh huh. 

The result is a mountain of half used stickie packs! Which get bent, dirty, stuck to other half used stickie packs, and generally look less welcoming of new ideas… 

Today, I kicked off a synthesis session of a user research project and used about a hundred stickies. But because I was working alone, and because there was an abnormally large mountain of half used stickies leftover from a big workshop, I relaxed my color rules and managed to finish off quite a few “thin” packs. 

Which resulted in an abnormally large sense of satisfaction. Lol. Gotta treat the tools of the trade with respect, right? ✌️

Conducting remote work sessions

Oftentimes, we have multi-hour work sessions to make progress on a big chunk of work. 

The tendency is to treat it as one long meeting but actually, it helps to include short, solo sessions — think 20-40 minutes — in the middle of it. 

The key is to recognize that some tasks are better served by solo thinking and sketching time, and not be afraid to hang up. 

Agree on the scope and the time to return. Teams experienced in distributed working should have no trouble sharing their screens and their work to continue the discussion. 

Don’t forget where a project started 

Sometimes, you start a project with a(n internal) bet that the client’s initial statement of what they need will change. That if you define the right questions and walk the journey together, the answer as to what the deliverable or output should be will present itself.

That’s usually the case but sometimes, we forget that this initial request came to be for a reason. And that reason can come back to bite you in the ass.

Consider my ass bitten, today.

I wouldn’t call that a meeting

People love to complain about having too many meetings.

How much impact a meeting can have depends on how the organizer sets it up — the invite, the opening words, the framing of the discussion etc. — and I think one overlooked aspect is what the meeting is called.

Being much more intentional with the name provides context as to why we’re gathering — it sets up clearer expectations for everyone. The name communicates the format, the respective roles, the type of content that the organizer will bring, and maybe even how caffeinated one needs to be.

People don’t get excited about meeeeeeeeetings. We get excited about debating ideas. Learning and sharing news about our project. Getting to decisions. Solving problems.

Here are some of the labels that I like to use instead:

  • Work session
  • Workshop
  • Catch up
  • Check-in
  • Chat / discussion
  • Brainstorm
  • Share
  • Walkthrough
  • Debrief
  • Briefing
  • {Internal|Client} Kick off
  • Pre-mortem / post-mortem
  • Review
  • Something weird to induce a certain emotion ex. Light a fire under {project name}

On writing systems

My previous post touched upon how systematizing the process of writing enabled more consistent blogging. In this post, I’d like to expand on this topic.

I didn’t have a writing problem. I had a habit problem.

It was an article on Riskology about the system of writing that provided a breakthrough, and the right vocabulary to understand the problem. I realized that I had a hard time getting into the groove of writing because I was writing, editing, uploading photos, and tweaking HTML at the same time. In actuality, publishing a post has several distinct steps, and doing them one by one streamlines the whole process. Most importantly, it distributes creative energy to where it’s most needed.

My process is a simplified version of what Riskology proposes but there are still three steps: 1. Plan 2. Draft and 3. Publish. The tip is that each should be done on a different day.

So on the days that I’ve made time to blog, I will work on two posts – one that’s in a Planning phase and another that can be Drafted or Published.

Planning is the burst of inspiration, and takes the shortest amount of time. I’ll map out the post and do some Googling so that the research is more or less done.

I keep a list of ideas and assign one day in which I’ll do the planning for the next post:

  • what is the topic?
  • why do i want to write it?
  • what is the outline?
  • research
  • links

For example, here’s the Plan for this post:

It helps to keep the planning out of the actual CMS. I’ve been using GatherContent, which I’ve hacked to use as a workflow tool.”.

Drafting is the actual act of writing. Because there’s already an outline, it’s really easy to start putting down words. And there’s no pressure to finish it – I just want to get to the end of the post.

This step takes the most time and involves the following:

  • create the page in WordPress
  • upload photos
  • upload cover image
  • write the first draft – get to the end!

The first draft happens in WordPress because I like stylin the body as it expands. In the future, I hope to graduate to a markdown editor so that I decrease the amount of time spent checking the preview.


Publishing includes making the final draft with a fresh pair of eyes, and hitting Publish. Initially I had four steps, but three days are long enough to spend on an article… better to just get it out.

  • finalize the draft in WordPress
  • publish it
  • schedule a tweet

So that’s what I’ve been experimenting with in the past few weeks. There will be refinements for sure but it’s a good enough foundation!