Hans de Zwart recently finished an experiment in which he encouraged his distributed team to “narrate their work”—to issue frequent updates to the team about what they were doing. In this article, he discusses the results of the experiment. This article was originally posted on Hans’ blog, and he has kindly granted permission to reprint it here.
A few months back I posted a design for an experiment on my blog. The goal of the experiment was to find out whether it would be possible to use a microblogging tool to narrate our work with the intention of making better performing virtual teams.
Over the last two months, the direct team that I work in (consisting of 18 people) basically participated in the experiment in the way that it was designed: They posted constant, daily or weekly updates on our Yammer network. Each update would describe things like what they had done, who they had spoken to or what issues they had encountered. Occasionally the updates were peppered with personal notes about things had happened or were going to happen after work.
Methodology of the experiment
There was no formal (or academic) research methodology for this working experiment. I decided to use a well-considered survey to get people’s thoughts at the end of it. Out of the 18 team members 17 decided to fill it in (in the rest of the post you can assume that n=17). The one person that didn’t, has taken up another role. This means there is zero bias in who answered and didn’t answer the survey.
I find it more interesting to zoom out and look at the methodology of this experiment as a whole. To me doing things like this is a very good approach to change in the workplace: a grassroots shared experiment with commitment from everybody working towards solutions for complex situations. This is something that I will definitely replicate in the future.
Didn’t this take a lot of time?
One concern that people had about the experiment was whether it would take a lot of time to write these updates and read what others have written. I’ve asked everybody how much time on average they spent writing status updates and reading the updates of others. This turned out to be a little bit less than 5 minutes a day for writing the posts and slightly over 5 minutes a day for reading them. The standard deviations where around 4.5 for both of these things, so there was quite a big spread. All in all it seems that narrating their work is something that most people can comfortably do in the margins of their day.
Barriers to narrating your work
Designing the experiment I imagined three barriers to narrating your work that people might stumble over and I tried to mitigate these barriers:
- Lack of time and/or priority. I made sure people could choose their own frequency of updates. Even though it didn’t take people long to write the updates, just over 50% of the participants said that lack of time/priority was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
- Not feeling comfortable about sharing in a (semi-)public space. I made sure that people could either post to the whole company, or just to a private group which only included the 18 participants. Out of the 18, there were two people who said that this was a limiting factor in narrating your work (and three people were neutral). This is less than I had expected, but it is still something to take into account going forward as 12 of the participants decided to mostly post in the private group.
- Lack of understanding of the tool (in this case Yammer). I made sure to have an open session with the team in which they could ask any question they had about how to use the tool. In the end only three people said that this was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
The qualitative answers did not identify any other limiting factors.
Connectedness and ambient team awareness as the key values
Looking at all the answers in the questionnaire you can clearly see that the experiment has helped in giving people an understanding of what other people in their team are doing and has widened people’s perspectives:
I enjoyed it! I learned so much more about what my colleagues are doing than I would have during a webcast or team meeting. It helped me understand the day-to-day challenges and accomplishments within our team.
The experiment was very valuable as it has proven that [narrating your work] contributes to a better understanding of how we work and what we are doing as a team.
People definitely feel more connected to the rest of their team:
There was practical and social value in the posts:
A lot of people would recommend “Narrating your work” as a methodology to other virtual teams:
What kind of status updates work best?
I asked what “Narrating your work” type of update was their favourite to read (thinking about content, length and timeliness). There was a clear preference for short messages (i.e. one paragraph). People also prefered messages to be as close as possible to when it happened (i.e. no message on Friday afternoon about what you did on the Monday). One final thing that was much appreciated was wittiness and a bit fun. We shouldn’t be afraid to put things in our messages that reveal a bit of our personality. Sharing excitement or disappointment humanizes us and that can be important in virtual teams (especially in large corporations).
Personally I liked this well-thought out response to the question:
The best posts were more than simply summing up what one did or accomplished; good narrations also showed some of the lines of thinking of the narrator, or issues that he/she encountered. This often drew helpful responses from others on Yammer, and this is where some some additional value (besides connectedness) lies.
It made me realize that another value of the narrations is that they can lead to good discussions or to unexpected connections to other people in the company. This brings us to the next question:
Public or private posts?
The posts in the private group were only visible to the 18 participants in the experiment. Sometimes these posts could be very valuable to people outside of the team. One of the key things that makes microblogging interesting is the asymmetry (I can follow you, but you don’t have to follow me). This means that posts can be read by people you don’t know, who get value out of it beyond what you could have imagined when posting. What to you might sound like a boring depiction of your morning, might give some stakeholders good insight in what you are doing.
So on the one hand it would be very beneficial to widen the audience of the posts, however it might inhibit people from writing slightly more sociable posts. We need to find a way to resolve this seeming paradox.
A way forward
Based on the experiments results I would like to recommend the following way forward (for my team, but likely for any team):
- Don’t formalize narrating your work and don’t make it mandatory. Many people commented that this is one aspect that they didn’t like about the experiment.
- Focus on helping each other to turn narrating your work into a habit. I think it is important to set behavioural expectations about the amount of narrating that somebody does. I imagine a future in which it is considered out of the norm if you don’t share what you are up to. The formal documentation and stream of private emails that is the current output of most knowledge workers in virtual teams is not going to cut it going forward. We need to think about how we can move towards that culture.
- We should have both a private group for the intimate team (in which we can be ourselves as much as possible) as well as have a set of open topic based groups that we can share our work in. So if I want to post about an interesting meeting I had with some learning technology provider with a new product I should post that in a group about “Learning Innovation”. If have worked on a further rationalization of our learning portfolio I should post this in a group about the “Learning Application Portfolio” and so on.
I liked what one of the participants wrote:
I would like our team to continue as we have, but the important steps to take now are 1) ensuring that we stay in the habit of narrating regularly, 2) showing the value of what we achieved to other teams and team leads, and 3) ensure that there is enough support (best practises etc) for teams that decide to implement [narrating your work].
I have now taken this as far as I have the energy and the interest to take it to. I would really love for somebody to come along and make this into a replicable method for improving virtual teams. Any interns or students interested?
(This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands License. It originally appeared here: http://blog.hansdezwart.info/2011/07/19/reflecting-on-the-narrating-your-work-experiment/)