#07: Building collaborative culture

A Q&A with Laïla von Alvensleben

Pass It On is a bi-weekly newsletter bringing the tech and non-profit sectors closer together through knowledge sharing, written and edited by Lauren Crichton.

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Hello everyone,

It’s great to be back in your inboxes with another Q&A issue. As a quick reminder, the purpose of the Q&A format is to lift voices from the tech and/or non-profit community and bring you perspectives from those who can provide more in-depth knowledge than I can.

For this week’s topic on culture and collaboration, I can think of no better person than Laïla von Alvensleben. Laïla and I first met online in 2015 when I was working at a creative agency called AKQA and researching the future of work. I wanted to talk to people seeking out professional experiences different from the traditional 9-5, and Laila happened to be experimenting with and writing about remote working. Suffice to say that we had a long and fascinating conversation and have remained connected ever since!

Fast forward to 2021: Laïla is a remote working coach and Head of Culture & Collaboration at visual collaboration platform MURAL, where she’s responsible for internal communications, events, and facilitation.

In the Q&A below, Laïla and I discuss everything from the perks to leading an office-free life to how COVID has changed our perceptions of remote work. And as with all Pass It On guests, Laïla’s answers are brimming with tangible tips and actionable advice for tech and non-profit leaders alike.

Over to you, Laïla!

👐 Building a collaborative culture with Laïla von Alvensleben

You’ve been working remotely since 2014. Tell us how it started and why an office-free lifestyle is important to you.

I grew up in many different countries and moved around a lot with my family, so living and working in one place forever was never really an option for me. Shortly after discovering the "digital nomad" community in 2014, I wrote my Hyper Island Masters thesis on how to do design thinking remotely. That led to an internship at Hanno, a digital product design company with a fully distributed team, i.e., no office. I was working from London, my boss from Malaysia, with other colleagues living across Europe and SE Asia. I've never worked in an office since!

Not being tied to an office made it easier to combine travel with working. For two years, I didn't even have a home base: I would continually rent Airbnbs in different cities and countries for 1-3 months at a time. That approach afforded me a real sense of freedom while allowing me to discover many different cultures. When I move somewhere, for however long, I want to try to live like a local.

From a professional point of view, combining working with travel really expanded my network. When I lived in Singapore, for example, I frequently attended startup events and met many potential clients for Hanno.

Even more importantly, though, not being tied to one place helped me meet and understand such a diverse range of people. My background is in user experience design (UX), and empathy is fundamental to creating a product or service that will improve other people's lives. What works for one group may not work for others, and on a subconscious level, I think that travelling and living in this way helps you realise that and become more open-minded.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about remote working?

Before the pandemic, most organisations assumed remote working didn't work. That assumption has been thrown out of the window now! The main blocker is distrust: organisations assume their employees will be distracted and lazy. Yet, research has repeatedly shown that people are more productive when they work remotely. Especially when compared with working from an open office, which can be an incredibly distracting environment––people can interrupt you anytime. Remote working, on the other hand, enables you to control how and when you respond to people.

While COVID has proven that remote working is productive—or even more productive—than office working, organisations remain sceptical about sustaining a thriving company culture online. Of course, nothing can replace face-to-face contact, but you can create meaningful bonds and friendships with people online. Just look at online dating or any online community or forum! There are many ways of connecting with colleagues online aside from just grabbing a drink, but doing it well requires thought and planning, especially if you want the event to be engaging and inclusive.

How has your training as a designer shaped your thoughts and practices about remote work?

As I mentioned earlier, UX design is all about empathy. Before jumping to a solution, understand the problem by talking to people and identifying patterns in the needs and behaviour. I do this all the time as Head of Culture and Collaboration at MURAL and with other clients too. The only difference is that now I design workshops and events instead of products and services.

In my current role, the core challenge is to find creative solutions to the problem of virtual socialising. Take meetings. As you mentioned in an earlier issue, most meetings are unengaging because we don't take the time to prepare, facilitate, and figure out how to collaborate. And we also don't take the time to get to know each other and have the small talk we're used to when meeting in real life. To recreate that, I host a lot of quick online warm-ups and check-ins. It helps remind people that at the end of the day, we're human beings, not machines.

What's the difference between a workshop and a meeting, and why does the distinction matter?

Meetings and workshops are both online sessions that require facilitation, but their purpose and structure are very different.

A meeting should be short, anything from 20 mins to max 1 hr. It needs a structured agenda and desired outcome; you want to end it with clear next steps. Usually, only the people who need to act on those next steps should attend as you can inform others through email, etc.

A workshop is a much longer session, perhaps 4 or 5 hours. It's more collaborative, and the purpose should be to either learn something new or solve a problem together. Workshops involve specific exercises, each of which needs to be carefully time-boxed. At the end of a workshop, you should have some results to build towards another session or next steps later on.

For more tips and tricks on remote collaboration and facilitation, check out MURAL's free Guide To Facilitating Remote Workshops or Backstage Pass videos. Members of our team run and record these videos completely unrehearsed!

Why is facilitation important?

All working sessions need to be engaging, especially when hosted online, as people are usually less comfortable behind a screen. So the facilitator needs to put the group at ease, along with:

  1. Assigning roles to others

  2. Distributing speaking time to keep the session inclusive

  3. Watching the clock to manage time/keep people on track

Ideally, the facilitator should not be the main host of the session; instead, they should act as the guide, helping people along through the experience. And they should also be responsible for introducing the team to any new tools/software to ensure everyone's comfortable using the technology to participate. 

Facilitating remote sessions when you’re unfamiliar with online tools is tough. What are your top tips for getting started?

Start simple and break things down into smaller chunks of time or tasks you want everyone to complete. With meetings, for example, consider the steps before, during, and after the session. Always share the agenda, tools, and relevant links in advance, but don't be afraid to ask the other meeting attendees to take on facilitation roles like note-taking or time-keeping. And don't forget to start with a check-in question to put people at ease––this free nifty tool generates them for you. All of these tips equally apply to in-person meetings, too, of course! 

There are so many tools out there to support remote work. How should organisations choose what's right for them?

Crowdsourcing recommendations is a great place to start. Ask other teams what tools they use; set up a virtual coffee to discuss the pros and cons. It's usually more efficient than trying to do all the research online.

When you think you've found an interesting tool, ask a small group of the more tech-savvy employees in your organisation (those who like to experiment with new stuff) to test it first. If the tool works for them, they can become the internal advocates and help you introduce it successfully to the rest of the team via live demos and Q&As.

Whatever internal tools you choose, it pays to be specific about what you're using them for and communicate that to the entire organisation. At Hanno, for example, we had the following rules:

  • General chat and urgent communications - Slack

  • All project-related conversations - Asana

  • Client communications - Email, followed by Basecamp

Add these rules to a remote working guide that's easy to access and update (e.g., Google Docs). A little bit of documentation goes a long way to enabling your employees to self serve and work more autonomously.

What kinds of remote team-building activities do you organise at MURAL?

We run plenty of light-hearted activities, like announcing people's birthdays and work anniversaries on Slack. To stimulate non-work discussion, we've set up Slack channels on everything from cats to cocktails. My personal favourite is our yelling channel, where you are only allowed to write in all caps. It's a safe space for employees to vent!

Every Friday, I post a fun fact or debate question on Slack to get the social conversation going––something as simple as "What did you want to be when you grew up?" or as silly as "Is a hot dog a sandwich: yes or no?" We also run internal competitions around festive holidays and send out gifts that can double as props in online group activities. 

When stress levels ran high last year due to COVID, we launched bi-weekly Power Hours to give employees the chance to learn a new skill or do something fun. We hosted games, mindfulness sessions, even a talking circle on Black Lives Matter to help people reflect on the US protests. We also held a virtual company retreat since we couldn't run one in person. And we created a virtual after school program for the parents struggling to entertain their children while working at home. 

What personal practices help you work effectively?

At MURAL, there's a big time difference between myself and most of the team: they're mostly in the US and Argentina, and I'm in Europe. That gives me at least four hours of uninterrupted time in the mornings when I can focus on what I want, be it personal or professional. 

Blocking out time in the calendar works well for me, and it's becoming an increasingly popular productivity hack. There are now tools like Clockwise to help people optimise their schedules and create focus time. When I need to schedule external meetings, I use Calendly to specify when I'm available. But I try to keep my Fridays meeting-free.

Learning to prioritise is also key to effective work. At the start of each week, I ask myself, "What are the top three or four things I'm trying to achieve?" At MURAL, we use a platform called Koan to write weekly reflections and share individual objectives, but you can easily do that for yourself with pen and paper. Whenever I see that I have too much on or too many requests, I simply say "no." That can be hard for personality types like mine that are keen to please, but you have to learn to practise self-discipline and be selective about how you spend your time. Especially now that COVID has thrown all our activities online, including hobbies––it's tiring. 

Turning off pretty much all phone notifications also helps me work more effectively. And I've removed all the red app badges as they induce anxiety.

Which three books have had the most significant impact on you as a leader?

I’m going to break the rules a bit here as personal experiences generally impact me a lot more than reading.

📖- Reading Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux

This inspiring book challenges the traditional notions of how to run organisations, e.g., hierarchically. We experimented with some of the book’s principles at Hanno––including self-management, self-chosen and transparent salary figures, and a fully remote team. My friends thought these practices were absurd, but they suited the Hanno team well because we were open-minded and understood the mutual benefits.

👩‍🏫 Studying at Hyper Island (HI)

HI’s educational approach was novel and life-changing. Instead of classes or teachers, industry leaders would give short presentations, followed by a workshop where we immediately put what we learned into practice. HI also focuses heavily on team dynamics and culture-building, and many of my best collaboration techniques come from there. It's how I discovered I wanted to become a facilitator.

💆‍♀️ Exploring psychotherapy

By far the best investment I've ever made for myself. I've tried many approaches, from cognitive behavioural therapy to equine therapy to EMDR. They've helped me become more self-aware and slowly change how I live and relate to others for the better. If everyone had access to therapy at some point in their lives, I’m sure we'd all get along much better!

Thank you, Laïla 🙏

To continue the culture conversation with Laïla, send her a tweet or an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts too, so feel free to reply to this email or:

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Wishing everyone a collaborative couple of weeks,

Lauren 👋