This is a transcript of episode 115 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Switching to remote working means big shifts in the communication patterns of our teams, and the tools we use to do that make some things harder and others easier—they have different “affordances”. We explore these differences and suggest strategies for better effective collaboration.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So, you know, we’re we’re kind- I’ve been thinking a lot this week about dimensionality. And the reason I’m thinking about that is because you and I always are zero dimensional to each other. We’re kind of on the, well, one dimensional, I guess, because we’re always on the podcast here talking to each other from our houses. Right. So we’re. And we just have audio. And one thing I’ve really noticed is how many of my clients I’m now working with, of course, completely remotely. And it really has this strange two dimensional feel to it. And it occurred to me that I’ve noticed this in our podcast for a long time, that our listeners are kind of out there and we don’t know what they’re doing and what’s important to them. And we occasionally hear from our listeners, but we don’t get that kind of at least two dimensional, if not three dimensional interaction with them. So I have this wacky idea and I asked you about it. I want you to share your response. The wacky idea was maybe we could actually talk to our listeners interactively and two dimensionally at least, so we can have something we might call office hours. And I’m in an office. Our podcast listeners could drop and others that we know could drop in and ask us questions and talk to each other even. And that might be an interesting idea. I’ve seen a couple people do stuff like this. So what do you what do you think about that, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: I think it’s a really interesting idea. I like the idea of talking to more of our listeners, hearing more of listeners. The whole podcast, in a sense, was inspired by the idea that various people see are experiencing suffering from different symptoms of things going wrong in their environment and I really enjoy discussing and sharing those ideas and hearing about them. But the question I had was are is I mean is this something our listeners would be interested in.

Jeffrey: So my thought was we should ask them which-.

Squirrel: What a crazy idea!

Jeffrey: Is this.

Jeffrey: So we’d like to hear from our listeners. Is this of interest to you? If we were to have office hours and you could join via voice or some sort of video conferencing and share in the kind of challenges you’re having here. Hear what other people’s challenges are here and the dialogue in the back and forth. Would that be of interest for you? Would you would you sign up for that? And if so, what? What times are good for you? What days are good for you? What what would make it work for you? What’s things you would like to hear about? And if there’s something you’d be sure you’d want us to avoid. What would that be? Please let us know. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If they do want to share their thoughts with this Squirrel, how can people get in touch with us?

Squirrel: Yeah, we’re always saying that you can go to and get in touch with us, which is true. But we don’t think give enough of a lead for for exactly what you can do, especially for people who are driving or jogging or otherwise not near a computer. So the easy thing to remember is if you look up troubleshooting agile on Twitter, it’s actually TShootingAgile. But if you just search Twitter for Troubleshooting Agile, you’ll find us. That’s the Twitter way to find us. You can also look for Douglas Squirrel or Jeffrey, you got really lucky with us with Twitter. You got an early so you’re jtf at Twitter or if you just search Jeffrey Fredrick. So that’s how you’d find us on Twitter and on email. It’s kind of long, but I imagine you can remember it’s and that all that is also on, which is also redirected to by So one way or another you should be able to find us,on Twitter or email. And by the way, whatever we would do at least start to get started with would be free just like the podcast is, because we’re just interested in getting a little more a little higher dimension with our with our listeners. So get in touch. Tell us if this is interesting. Tell us if it’s not interesting. We sure appreciate it. If any of you who we think this is some greater interaction with us would be worth doing. But please get in touch. And that was kind of inspired by this this phenomenon that I’ve just been noticing more and more of low dimensionality in my interactions with everyone I work with. And it’s really been a barrier to me. So the notion that it is kind of summarizing this for us is this idea of affordances that there’s there’s different affordances from your in-person interaction to your remote interaction. Jeffrey, do you want to remind us what what’s an interaction? What’s an affordances? Lots of us will know it from design. Lots of us won’t know it. What is an affordance?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Mediums of Interaction

Listen to this section at 04:51

Jeffrey: Affordance is something that came into I came across it in the world of interface design and you would say an affordance is something that would that the environment that the UI gives to someone to ,both to what they allow what they’re allowed to. Do what they’re capable of doing. And then sometimes what it sort of directs or hints to people that they can do. And a good example you might think about it in the real world is if you’re approaching a door at an office building and there is a bar on it. That’s vertical. That’s a subtle sign that what you’re supposed to do on on this door is pull. And if you have a horizontal bar that’s often an accordance and a hint that you’re supposed to push. And it’s it’s something subtle, but it’s sort of offered by the environment, too. But to tell you what’s available and this idea of an affordances I just recently learned came originally from psychology and someone had described it as sort of environmental terms. What environment’s offer an animal and both positive and negative. And it was something that was then adapted into the world of UI design. I think it’s a really good explanation of what you’re describing, the sort of dimensionality, because we’re we’re missing so much. When we move from the physical world to the virtual world, even when we’re doing things that seem very similar, this thought occurred to me when I was thinking about why, for example, at TIM, we have some people who are spending so much time looking for various interactive virtual whiteboards because whiteboarding is such a rich way of communicating in the real world. And in fact, I always think of Alistair Cockburn has this great graph that he has drawn about showing different mediums for interaction. There’s sort of two different curves that he draws, and one of them is about what’s a cool versus warm medium. And then they another curve that’s kind of offset about whether it’s interactive or recorded. And his pinnacle of communication are two people at a whiteboard.

Squirrel: Yeah, in person. Standing next to each other. In person. Yeah.

Squirrel: So there’s ideas out and shout about it and point.

Jeffrey: Exactly.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And it’s sort of explicitly it doesn’t use the term. I don’t recall using the term affordances in describing it. But what that’s effectively what’s there is that what’s what’s so great about two people, a whiteboard is that you have this full three dimensional element, both of the board, which is kind of three dimensional. If you have a say or stacking post-it notes on top of it, you can be ordering things as well as arranging them two dimensionally. But then the other person is three dimensional and you can you can read their expressions and their tone of voice and their gestures, how they move about the room like might go as far as you can say how they’re smelling. That’s maybe that’s too far. But there’s a lot of information that you’re picking up in the room that’s available to your sense of what’s going on, even beyond what’s being said. You can say, well, you know, I just noticed you kind of frowned when you looked at that. What what were you thinking?

Jeffrey: These sort of micro expressions become available and we get a sense of what’s happening. All of these things make it such a rich experience and we inevitably lose some of that as we move away from that sort of ideal in any given way. So when we move to the point of even even a whiteboard, but there’s one person up there and someone else sitting down at the side of the table, we’ve lost something because we don’t no longer have the avoidance of those of the two people drawing simultaneously. If we move to virtual instead of physical, then we lose a lot of this information about the other people that three dimensionality of the other person, their expressions. And what’s interesting to me is a lot of people now experiencing for the first time. Video conferencing. And they’re very excited about it. And it is a huge stride forward from where we used to have conference calls when all you had was someone’s voice or lack of voice.

Squirrel: Yeah, exactly.

Jeffrey: And very little information. It’s a huge step forward, but I still. But we definitely are missing a lot of affordances that come from being in person.

Difficulties of Video Calls

Listen to this section at 09:38

Squirrel: Sure. Well, we were just doing a training course, you and I, Jeffrey. And when we were doing it, I was noticing that we gave some time for people to do an exercise. They’re doing one of our conversational analyses and scoring it and updating things on a piece of paper. And I was remarking that what I’d normally do in a interactive course is I walk around and I’d look over people’s shoulders a little bit and I’d try to make sure they were all writing and seeing who was staring out the window. Well, I couldn’t even see all of them because the video conference software we were using doesn’t necessarily show you every person’s face. You have to kind of scroll through. And I could be looking at the top of someone’s head because they were busy writing. And it’s awfully hard to read the emotions on the top of someone’s head. I found it. I can’t tell whether they’re frustrated or chewing their pencil or ecstatic or something else. There is nothing I could read. I was just staring at their their their head. So that that’s an example in affordance that I just had never even considered before. And I was suddenly confronted by it then thinking to myself, boy, this is extra difficult. So it was definitely not on the warm end. It was definitely on the cool low interaction end. And we had to do some extra steps. For example, we normally would go around a circle, but there was no circle. So we had to just make a list and say, OK, you’re first in the circle and then you’re going first and you’re next and so on. That was awkward. And introduced some friction into the training.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that was the one that really stood out to me. Being, of course, that you and I have done together quite a few times and even you and I both independently I think made the same sort of adaptation, which is we wrote down everyone’s names in order that we had them introduce themselves. And then from that, you and I defined an order that and you and I had it shared by chance that we’d both recorded the same way. But then when we would ask people to go round, we had to coach them through because they didn’t know who they were sitting, quote unquote next to each other like that. The order wasn’t obviously shared the way it would have been if we were all around a table in which we’d have this sort of shared element of, it would be very clear who is next and where you were in order. It was in this virtual training because we didn’t have that shared understanding. We didn’t have it. But I’m curious to see if this is this idea of affordance. I think it’s something that can be helpful for people in this time right now where I think a lot of people are suffering, as you’re describing, from these missing affordances, from this lack of dimensionality, and they may not be aware of it. And so I thought it’d be useful to talk about affordances as something that people can have in mind as a model. And you can use this, I think, to say, well, what are the challenges we’re facing right now? What are we suffering from in our meetings and our conversations and our collaboration? And can we think of it in terms affordances in part because we can then say if we identify yep, we were missing these things we used to rely on, we can then try to substitute them and and see if there’s a way to replace them with an affordance that would work in our environment.

A Virtual Meetup

Listen to this section at 12:56

Jeffrey: One good example, by the way, for this going around the circle element is I went to a facilitation meetup on Wednesday morning and.

Squirrel: By went to, You mean you got on a video call and listened. Yeah.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Jeffrey: Not not I didn’t meet in the cafe and drink coffee with people the way it would usually happen. I went and, made my own tea in the kitchen and brought it with me and and then joined the Zoom call and the for the class where I say class went for the meetup. The organizers were in part demonstrating a tool called Concept Board. There’s many sort of similar tools out there. But one thing they had done, which I thought was very nice, is they had created on there a virtual table where they then organized everyone’s names on sort of Post-it notes, virtual post-it notes around the circle and and then brought back that affordances of, there’s a shared understanding of order. And we can say, yep, we’re going to start with this person and go around clockwise. And everyone could understand what that meant. And I thought that was a very nice example of not being able to recreate exactly the same experience, but to realize that that one of the affordances of being in person and around a table was a defined order. And that we if we understand that that’s valuable, then there’s things we can do to bring that back in. So in the future, you and I might do this training class with a shared document or on the slides, we might go write an order or we might do something else to give people that similar sort of shared affordance. And I think that’s a useful idea. I’m curious if if there’s some other examples here where you can talk about affordances that you have been missing out on or affordances that you’ve seen introduced or you’re curious about.

Squirrel: Sure. Well, I’ve got an example of each. So one of my clients has gone further. They have a team that’s already remote from them. So there’s there’s a kind of head office and a development team in a faraway place. And this has gotten much worse. Now, the communication is much more challenging because all the people in both locations are at home. And everyone’s two dimensional. So what they’ve done is they’ve used a thing called, Sococo. We’ll put a link in the show notes and that it’s not again, not the only one of these, but it’s a fairly long in the tooth. It’s been around for a long time. And it gives you literally a virtual office. So you can say- you can see people moving from room to room and they might be sitting around a table in one room and somebody might have headphones on in the meditation room. And so, you know, not to bother them and so on. So they’ve gone that far. Now, that is not going to work for all cultures and all people by any means that you can really go to some significant lengths to create the affordances.

The Missing Shoulder-Peek

Listen to this section at 15:50

Squirrel: That an example where I didn’t have it is I’m typically coaching individuals and helping them to have more time. That’s one of the things, a perennial complaint that I get is ‘I just don’t have time to do the things you’re asking me to do, Squirrel.’ And so I’ll sit with them and have them bring up their schedule. I introduced them to this amazing feature that almost all calendar systems have that people just don’t seem to use. It’s this feature you might want to write this down. It’s complicated. It’s this feature called the No. Button. And the no button is right next to-

Jeffrey: the no button.

Squirrel: N.O. Yeah. Spelt NO It’s this interesting word that is the opposite of yes,.

Jeffrey: OK.

Squirrel: And so and so you use this ‘no’ button to say no to a meeting. Yeah.

Squirrel: And so I go through it with them and we click the button together and I show them. I get them used to the idea that they might click. No. And I’m being silly about it. But of course the difficulty is that by doing so, you’re disappointing someone or they’re if they’re concerned, they will be disappointing someone. So I talk with them about who they might disappoint, how they might do that, why it might be valuable to disappoint them, how they could disappoint them in a helpful way and so on.

Jeffrey: Mm hmm.

Squirrel: But the challenge is I was trying to do that with somebody early this week and I just couldn’t see, the resolution wasn’t good enough for me to actually see the meetings and the way I’m used to. And I couldn’t certainly reach over your shoulder and say, well, look at this one, we didn’t have a shared point or a shared pointer to use, for example. So I could say, look at this one, this one on Thursday. So we got around it. It was OK. He got the idea and I believe he’s cleared his schedule himself.

Squirrel: But that was a place where a tool that I would normally use them.

Jeffrey: Now sitting behind someone and looking over their shoulder and actually literally looking at the same screen and pointing and clicking at a button with your finger.

Squirrel: Yes. Didn’t have any of that.

Jeffrey: I really like that story because it talks about sort of the something that is sort of I as a phrase I often use in talking about software and features.

Jeffrey: And I’ll talk about something as being technically enabled. And in a sense, this use case of being able to look at someone’s calendar with them and point things out and, you know, recommend they use the word- use the ‘no’ button. It’s technically enabled in this virtual world that you can get there, but it’s nowhere near as easy to do it, doesn’t it, doesn’t it? You have to do a lot more work and a lot more effort. And for a result, that’s not quite as good as you’d have an in person where these affordances are much, much more natural. And it sort of, you know, built into the to the fact that you’re there next to them and behind them and you’re both looking at the same thing. That’s a that’s a really good example.

Squirrel: Absolutely. And the worst thing I think that is this the greatest interferences is less visceral than this one. It’s less obvious that I am finding that it’s more difficult for me personally to have empathy for these two dimensional people who exist on my screen. And I’m observing. And this is a story, this is- I’m not certain that this is the case, but I am finding that the people I’m coaching in and trying to help have more empathy are not responding in the same way that they normally would. So I would normally say, hey, go down the pub with with so-and-so. And that is that is that work. And I say, didn’t we just clear a bunch of time in your schedule? That’s what we were clearing time for. So go down the pub with so-and-so and build your relationship with them and I’ll say the same kind of thing, although it doesn’t involve the pub to someone and they won’t respond in the same way. They won’t have the same experience of improving the relationship as frequently. So this is I think the greatest difficulty is we’re always banging on on this podcast about how important it is to build relationships and build trust. And that’s the first thing to do and you need to work toward it. You’re probably going to have to work harder to achieve that. There are some silver linings. There’s some things that are actually easier in the virtual world, but that’s one I’m definitely seeing that is more difficult.

Additional Affordances from Remote Working

Listen to this section at 19:45

Jeffrey: I agree. Let’s talk for a minute about those things that are enabled by remote collaboration, distributed work. However you want to call it the one that for me that’s most impactful in the long term is the fact that recording becomes very easy, that we often in these remote meetings end up with artifacts that we can have and refer to later that we might not have had if we were in person. And one good example of this is at TIM. When we started having remote teams, we started in remote meetings, we started introducing shared documents. So it’s very common that at a meeting we’re in, we’ll have a shared document up in Google Docs or something like that. And everyone is able to edit and everyone is able to take notes and it becomes a shared artifact that helps the conversation in the meeting. It gives us essentially a new dimension, a new affordance that people didn’t have before in the in-person meeting because they do things they can like, make notes, modify the agenda in a way that everyone can see without interrupting the current conversation. So sometimes we get different types of input that would be harder to get in if we’re all in the same room. And at the end of it, we end up with a shared document we can go back to and refer to with much better notes than we have had as a as a practice when we were all in the same office. Now I like the idea of affordances. It’s not that we could not have taken notes when we’re in person. You’re allowed to take notes in in-person meetings. But we it just wasn’t required. It wasn’t as easy. It wasn’t as natural as it was when we were distributed. So that that’s one affordance that I’ve seen that comes about with the with the remote collaboration.

Squirrel: Fantastic. And you also have things like chat now that I see people using more frequently in meetings and think we’re all getting used to those of us who haven’t been doing it quite as much or getting used to the idea that you might actually type something in chat and that would be a second channel for communication that can both be good and bad. But it is a new affordances that there’s a chat button on your screen. There’s nothing in a meeting that I have seen people do this, stopping you, sending a Slack message to the person sitting across from you that it’s not as public, it’s not as obvious. It’s a different activity in person when you’re on a call and you’re you’re using the chat functionality that’s in front of you. That’s another way to create a record or to have a discussion. And the share document goes even further than that, it make sure there’s a record afterwards which can then be very useful for looking for improvements or iterating. So you can look back at the discussion, say, Al, we left out Bernie. You know, Bernie was sitting here with all kinds of cool ideas and they’re here in the document and we didn’t see them. Maybe what we should do is make sure the document is on everyone’s screens so that we can see Bernie’s contributions because Bernie is better at doing it and writing than in person or by speech. So that can be the sort of thing that you can reflect on and improve if you have the record.

The Difficulty of Multiple Conversations

Listen to this section at 22:54

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. Very interesting, one affordance I’ll say I’m currently missing from the real world is the ability to have multiple conversations at once. So what I have in mind here is we’ve tried to replace some of the social interaction that we would have in the real world. Say one common thing we would do at 11 o’clock coffee run and we’d walk to a coffee shop together and so we’d replace that maybe with a virtual coffee or virtual tea with people. In the end, that’s very helpful We’re getting some of that social interaction, but it’s it has a very different character because of this issue of multiple conversations in the virtual. We’re all in here on this meeting with our with our coffee. I’ve noticed there’s typically only like one conversation at a time. There is the conversation that’s being discussed. And it’s it’s not possible for 10 of us to be having three different conversations. Whereas when we would be walking to coffee, that was very natural. So these sort of transition periods at the beginning of meetings, the end of meetings going places where there was often a larger group, but was also broken into subgroups. That doesn’t seem to be happening as much. And I had people say, well, you do things like have multiple rooms that people break out to for conversations. But one of the elements was the ability for have cross-talk that might be in one conversation, but overhearing another and then conversations would.

Squirrel: Talk about that. Yes.

Jeffrey: Exactly. Yeah. So definitely missing. Missing that affordance from the real world. I’m curious if people have come up with replacements for that. If they do. Interesting. That’s the one. I’m personally feeling that the lack of the most. I’d love to hear if people have solutions for that.

Squirrel: Well, I can I can tell you one from the world of Minecraft, believe it or not, there’s a in these kind of virtual world, second life as the the old one, of course. And there there are newer ones that I’m not part of, that I do occasionally watch the Minecraft videos. And in that world, you have something called Mumble, which is a way of having voice chat that gets quieter when people are farther away in the virtual world. So you can actually apart from someone, you still hear them, but if you’re farther away, you hear them less loudly. There’s a interaction between the co-ordinates and the virtual world and the volume in the actual sound that you’re hearing in your real years. So there’s one. I have no idea if that’s useful. Maybe we’ll all be having our meetings in Minecraft soon. I somehow don’t think that’s on the cards, but who knows? These are the sorts of things that people may want, the affordances that people may want to start introducing in the future. As we experiment in a somewhat unpredictable way with these with these new mechanisms. So coming to the end here, Jeffrey, you do have more or should we say goodbye to our listeners?

Jeffrey: I think that’s it. I would love to hear if this has been useful for people. We’re saying we’d like to be more interactive. I’d love to hear from you of any of the channels that Squirrel described earlier. Are there affordances that you’re particularly missing or that you’ve picked up on in distributer world? We love to be able to talk about some of those. we’d love to hear your ideas of what you find to working particularly well or what you’re particularly missing and see if we can come up with some some better ways to be having our conversations and collaboration remotely.

Squirrel: That sounds great. And of course, as we were saying at the beginning, we’re interested in trying out some some more two dimensionality for ourselves with you. So if you’re thinking that that would be interesting or if you think that wouldn’t be interesting, either way, please get in touch. That would be TShootingAgile at Twitter or if you prefer e-mail and you’ll find both of those at where you can find out about our book still coming out on May the 12th as far as we know. So something to read about all these topics and much more besides if that’s interesting to you. And of course, we also like it if you’re listening to us every Wednesday that you click any kind of subscribe button that you might have in the application that you use, because that way we can keep talking to at least zero dimensionally and maybe in the future with a few more dimensions besides. Excellent. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks,Squirrel