Remote vs. in-person: interview with Joe Lalley

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
July 2, 2019

Joe Lalley, currently at PwC, helps people and teams solve problems through the process of design. He believes the key to successful design is having empathy for the people who will experience your product or service.

JIM: Tell us a little about your role at PwC and how you collaborate with others there.

JOE: I lead a team focused on helping PwC teams and their clients apply user centered design and design thinking methodologies to understand and solve problems. We do this in a variety of ways.

Sometimes, we work in a consultative capacity. Sometimes we become part of the team temporarily to help them get from one point to another. In many cases, we will design and facilitate workshops. We help teams launch or redesign a digital products like a mobile app or a website, physical spaces like an office, or even team structures, processes or programs.

My team and most of the teams we work with are scattered across the U.S., so we use a blend of in-person and remote collaboration techniques, always tailored to the situation and needs.

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JIM: Can you say a little more about how you blend in-person and remote collaboration? Many people approach it with an all-or-nothing attitude. How do you keep the momentum going?

JOE: It really comes down to the outcome we want to optimize for in a meeting or collaboration session. Teams tend to have assumptions about whether everyone will need to be in person or remote. As we dig deeper and learn more about their goals and the context, we see that a blend of tactics is necessary to get the best results.

For example, if a team is looking to generate ideas and make decisions about which ones to move forward with, we will often recommend a remote model where we can allow team members to maintain anonymity. In-person group brainstorms have all sorts of inherent risks - group think, discussions dominated by a strong personality, fear of contributing ideas or teams deferring to the highest ranking person in the room. All of these are challenging to manage in person, but they can be neutralized in a remote setting where team members are anonymous.

"A big one is the power of anonymity. We’ve all experienced meetings where a leader or strong personality has dominated the sharing of ideas. That can be - but isn’t always - the fault of the leader. Disagreeing in public with the person who decides on your bonus or promotion is scary."

On the flip side, if we are helping a team build a physical prototype such as a trade show floor booth to be tested with users, it makes sense to be in person. So it depends. We also do a lot of "time-shifting" of parts of a project. For example, if we are doing user interviews at the beginning of a project we will often conduct and record those in advance of a meeting or workshop, and then play them as part of a workshop. Trying to book multiple users on the same day adds a lot of complexity (whether in person or remote), so time-shifting that part makes things much more manageable.

JIM: A lot of people see remote sessions as an inferior option to meeting in-person. But it seems that you're actually leveraging the advantages of different modes depending on the desired outcomes. Can you talk more about the benefits of meeting remote that people might overlook?  

JOE: Sure. A big one is the power of anonymity. We’ve all experienced meetings where a leader or strong personality has dominated the sharing of ideas. That can be but isn’t always the fault of the leader. In many cases, it’s unavoidable. Disagreeing in public with the person who decides on your bonus or promotion is scary. Even leaders who stress upfront that all ideas are welcome may struggle with getting team members to contribute.

But when you introduce anonymity, which is easily achieved in a remote setting, these walls come crumbling down. The key is to maintain that anonymity before, during and after. This has the added bonus of creating a true feeling of teaming and shared purpose. When no one knows who the ideas are coming from, no one cares. The priority shifts from individual accountability to team accountability. It can be really powerful.

JIM: What else might people not think about as benefits of remote meetings?

JOE: One of the biggest and easiest to understand is cost. It’s expensive to cover flight, hotels and the associated expenses that come with business travel.

Another benefit is the addition of many more meeting date options. Finding a day or days when a group of people are all available is always a challenge. People may not be able to travel on certain days due to morning or evening family commitments - a graduation, a child’s baseball game or the need to care for a family member.

The remote meeting option allows people to still meet all of those commitments and opens up more meeting date options, which usually leads to the meeting taking place sooner than later - another benefit. We’ve also had cases where a multi-day workshop or meeting was able to wrap around a weekend because we didn’t need to worry about people flying in and out or having to be away from family for a weekend.

JIM: Wrapping around a weekend also gives people time to reflect and recharge, I've found. I'm assuming you've done that with the numerous remote design sprints you've run. Do you have any other tips on keeping up engagement with remote teams working across multiple days?

JOE: Yes, and you're spot on about the weekend helping people recharge. We thought we would lose momentum, but that hasn't been the case. It's actually nice to have a break in the middle and come back with fresh energy.

Some other ways we've been able to keep the energy up - play music! We either set up a shared playlist in advance that everyone contributes to or we spin a wheel. Greg Smith from my team actually set up a virtual wheel of music genres that we spin if we are looking to mix it up.

There are a lot of moments of working silently "alone, together" and we try to fill those with upbeat tunes.

We also pay really close attention to our own energy levels and those of the group. There is a schedule and it's thought out down to the minute, but it's more important to keep the energy levels up than strictly follow the schedule. We say up front that it's OK to call out if you are feeling drained or hungry and not to try to power through.

Additionally, a lot can be accomplished by ensuring the team members prioritize their set up. A good work space with natural light, an extra monitor, good mic and speakers all help to limit the energy drain that can come with working in front of a computer for extended periods. And, cameras on!  📸

"Do what you can to place everyone on the same level. By that I mean, if one colleague has to dial in over the phone to a meeting, have everyone do that."

JIM: Sometimes it feels that people are waiting for new tools to appear before they can try more advanced remote interactions. What 2-3 key pieces of advice would you give folks looking to improve their collaboration with colleagues right away?

JOE: I do hear that a lot from people - that remote “just isn’t as good” as in person, but I’d challenge that and say that it’s just different. From a tools perspective, our approach has been to experiment with as many as we can and not to get too concerned with documenting requirements up front.

My 3 pieces of advice would be:

  1. Test, iterate and learn your tool. We’ve experimented with many video conferencing tools, virtual collaboration tools, communication tools and work management tools to get to a mix that works for us. And the switching “costs” really weren’t that high. In some cases, we did have to port over some information, but it was worth the effort to really try the tools out. The best way to learn if they work for you is to use them.
  2. Shift your thinking away from 'in person vs. remote' to optimizing the meeting tactics for the desired outcomes.
  3. Do what you can to place everyone on the same level. If one colleague has to dial in over the phone to a meeting, have everyone do that, or reschedule. Or, if a few people are in an office location, but most colleagues will be connecting through video conference, have everyone connect individually through video conference. It may seem like a small thing, but the inevitable side chatter that can happen between colleagues crammed together in an office with one camera creates a disconnect between that group and the rest. Commit to being on the same level when collaborating.

JIM: Thanks, Joe. We look forward to learning more from you in the future!

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.

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