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Nebulaworks Insight Content Card Background - Zuza galczynska poland building

The Challenges of Working from Anywhere are Cultural

July 31, 2020by Chris Ciborowski

A look at Nebulawork's re-imagined management and leadership approach that prepared us to go fully remote.

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We at Nebulaworks have many folks who have been working from anywhere from the get-go. Since their hiring (they were not the first folks in the Company), we were under the impression that they could be managed just like any other team member. Trust that they were comfortable with status-quo communications and responsibilities; management would mainly be laissez-faire. Unfortunately, this did not work out as planned. And frankly, as we had more Team working remotely, led to increasing challenges. So much so that I felt the need to re-imagine our management and leadership approach. I am glad that I did.

What we did not know was how critically important this would prove given the unforeseen circumstances thrust upon all of us in early 2020. Now that companies are going to fully remote work or working from anywhere, cultural issues are exacerbated, and performance degrades. What follows are the main changes that we implemented, how they proverbially “turned our ship around,” making us stronger as a Team and as individuals - paving the way for newfound collaboration and high performance.

Do you face any of these?

If so, I hope that these concepts, now part of the Nebulaworks DNA, I cover below can be helpful to you and your Team. If you find this interesting and would like to talk about how we can help you on this journey, I would be happy to connect. Feel free to reach out to me and we can set up a time to take in greater depth.

Communication is a Craft

A high-performing team understands that communications do not come easy. It isn’t about having email, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Jira, GitLab, or Zoom. Contact with each other requires everyone - from top to bottom - to be thinking about continuously and regularly improving. Written and verbal are only two components to this. The other and probably most importantly, is understanding how others like to receive information. Everyone communicates differently, and having an understanding of these differences isn’t something that everyone knows implicitly.

Back in December of 2018, to improve our communications abilities and develop an understanding of how to address our shortfalls, we held an internal seminar with our entire Team. This session, titled “Creating a high performing team through interpersonal effectiveness,” was to understand ourselves and our teammates' communication styles. In doing so, we primed the Team with ways to evaluate our communication patterns to be better facilitators of ideas and thoughts. As necessary, if not more so was the concept of being a high-performing communicator through our awareness/ability to flex to other communication styles. It is critical in remote working scenarios and engineering teams that are attempting to work quickly with high degrees of collaboration.

There are a few ways to work on this with your Team. We suggest having a trained facilitator who understands the unique requirements of development, operations, security, and engineering teams to lay the foundation of interpersonal communication. Additionally, keep what was learned top-of-mind and refer to it frequently!

Team North Star Metric

The second thing that we worked on to improve our remote team collaboration and overall performance was determining the single metric that would allow us to measure our success and improvement. Taken from my fellow UC Davis alum Sean Ellis of Growth Hackers, the North Star Metric (NSM) concept is simple: What is the single metric that best captures the core value your product delivers to customers. Easy, right? Well, Not so fast.

Developing this takes time and critical thinking. Most folks choose a “vanity metric” something too general. Opting for something like “number of commits to xyz platform” or “downtime of n-minutes per month/quarter/year” does not apply. One, they do not get deep enough to ferret out long-term growth focus. Secondly, they don’t align the Team under a common goal. Devs want to ship code, and ops wish to make sure code is tested and ready for prod. Security wants to lock everything down to, well, everyone (with good intentions). Not as easy as you thought.

Next, one may think that this applies to the Company as a whole. While true, the NSM should be in place for the Company, but your DevOps, development, engineering, or operations team (or any team for that matter) has a product, the results of Human Capital.

When we identified the NSM and provided it to our Team, it was the first step to recognize the direction everyone should be working. It aligned our business goals under one umbrella, again something that we all could refer to, and was the beginning steps of establishing purpose.

A Just Cause

Building on our success in interpersonal effectiveness and aligning the Team under a single metric, the next phase we began working on was aligning our business and individual team members' purposes. To do so, we first needed to have the one item we all should be behind. Unfortunately, mission statements are usually poorly written, and team goals are not broad enough to gain the long-term support of every team member, let alone those who join your efforts (be it a consultant, contractor, or even open source contributor). If these are not good enough, what is?

We developed our “Just Cause” for this purpose. For those not familiar, this is a concept developed by Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why,” “Leaders Eat Last,” and most recently, “The Infinite Game.” In his last book, Simon dives into the concept of the Just Cause. I highly recommend looking into this and understanding the importance of what it is and how it applies to a team’s performance. At a high-level, the Just Cause is the statement of purpose that allows everyone to be inspired to be part of in the long run. As a Company that already had a noble purpose for being (our Why), this was a logical step in defining and promoting our rallying cry.

It was challenging to create this, a statement that met all of the requirements and spoke to our core:

To create high-performance engineering teams where members are inspired to collaborate openly, incentivized to gather new knowledge and skills, and are fulfilled by creatively solving complex problems.

That is the Nebulaworks Just Cause. And we are happy to share it with you. Why? Because it IS our purpose for being. It IS what we all strive for every day, and underpins the next item we tackled: Aligning individual purpose with our businesses Just Cause.

Purpose Driven

The last and most important step we took as a leadership team was to harness the power of purpose. That is, in my opinion, the essential aspect to happy and loyal team members seeking more than just a 9-5 job that pays the bills. That is not going to net high-performance, and certainly, in times like now, going to make fully remote/work from anywhere successful.

Like we did back in 2018, in late 2019, we facilitated another seminar. As we did previously, everyone (including leadership) was involved and participated. While we already had a background in interpersonal communication, this time, we focused on individual purposes. We are fortunate to have folks that are versed in delivering this, and we took advantage of having the Team together. During this time, everyone worked to develop a Purpose Statement, similar to the Just Cause. However, for the individual. It is something that, in one sentence, describes what motivates, fulfills, and inspires the individual. It was amazing to see how different Nebulaworks Team members see the world. We shared how individual experiences shaped our vision, and how this, in turn, shapes what we are looking for in the workplace.

It allows us to align the Company purpose (Just Cause) with the individual. As a leadership team and individual contributors, we focus on working towards creating a balance that fulfills everyone and keeps the Team inspired. It helps us all have a deeper understanding of each other, setting a foundation that we all individually work from to improve while contributing effectively to a shared set of goals. Welcome to high-performance.

Putting it All Together

With our understanding of communications, a metric we all can all get behind, our Company’s purpose, and a deeper understanding of our fulfillment, what happened? In a nutshell, cultural change. We, as a company, transitioned to a higher state of performance. Our challenges due to geographical distance and time disappeared. Performance on engagements and internal initiatives skyrocketed, and we became closer as a unit. Employee satisfaction increased (we measure this using 15Five). Finally, team members began supporting each other in new ways, lending the helping hand when necessary, working as a Team.

Let’s go back to the remote working challenges. They are cultural. This new paradigm is an accelerant poured on an already lit fire. Most organizations already have cultural problems, and we know that trying to drive transformation requires changing culture. We are here to help in this effort; engineering cultural change and Human Capital performance improvement in the context of high-performance engineering teams.

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