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How to Baseline Remote Team Culture with Piotr Zagorowski

Luke Szyrmer September 22, 2020 35

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Team agreements are a practical way to create a positive remote team culture. Piotr Zagorowski, a remote team manager with 4 years experience, explains the ins and outs of this approach.

About Piotr Zagorowski

Piotr is a remote-first manager with OpenDNS, a subsidiary of Cisco’s. He has around 20 years of experience in IT and most recently has been running a remote team for the last 4 years.



[00:00:00.060] – Piotr
That’s also something that I recently needed to do, a completely new team, and then it’s hard to pass culture like how you teach culture, how you pass culture, in my opinion, is is trying to create an environment, start with team agreement, how we operate and what we do, how we do. And then that helps with things like that.

Again, like we start with a blank paper with Mission Accomplished combination. You are listening to the online remotely podcast, the show dedicated to helping lead distributed teams under difficult circumstances. I am the host, Luke Shurmur, and I’ve participated in or run distributed teams for almost a decade. As a practitioner, I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and remote work to help you navigate the issues you start facing after you get your working from home gear.

[00:01:01.300] – Luke
Today on the podcast, we have Piotr Zagorowski, who’s a manager at Open DNS, which is a subsidiary of Cisco’s, used to be its own startup and he was at Cisco before that. He’s managed a remote team for roughly four years and it is really useful to get his take on what he calls team agreements as a way to kick off remote work. I think these can be done at any point, but it just makes certain things explicit to establish a culture or at least start a conversation about it in a way that is productive and helpful for everyone involved on the team.

So while he’s doing this within I.T., I think the essence of it could potentially apply to any industry and doesn’t even necessarily need to be for remote. In fact, I think his original team agreements were largely done in person originally. However, I think it’s a really useful tactic in terms of establishing the right context for remote work to happen for everyone. And without further ado, here’s Pyott.

Welcome to the Aligner Remotely podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about your interest in in the topic of working remotely? Yes, sure. Welcome, everyone. So I’ll start with introducing myself. So I’m Peter Gruevski. I am happy husband and daughter of two small troupers, although they’re not so small anymore. Professionally, I refer to myself as a people engineer, rather, because I used to be network engineer for a long time, primarily working from Office Fossler in Poland.

And I migrated to U.K. in 2005 and then I stepped into this new position. And then I still implement some something that I happen to be an engineer with people.

Because you’ve been with Cisco for a while, right? Correct.

It’s been probably 13 years now. So kind of dinosaur 2016 17. OK, so we decided that we’ll create a new team and to basically attract the pool of good candidates. We decided to go full remote. It was interesting experience in the beginning because I used to work in office primarily for a long time. But then part of my leadership was actually in Canada, in Vancouver. And as I mentioned, this new team started to work completely remotely. And then this journey began also because I needed to shift time, because a lot of my people and my manager and headquarters was in Vancouver summation.

So if we want to stick to just office hours nine to five, I would have probably 30 minutes with all of these people. So it made sense to implement a different approach. I would say sure. Sure. So what do you mean by a different approach?

First of all, I think it’s totally different when you have a team and you sit in one room, some stuff is obvious. Whatever you do, you just do everything. You go for lunch, you go for coffee, you have water cooler conversations and everything. And pretty much everyone is up to date and knows what’s going on, etc.. If you are working from home, even on the same time zone and you have conversation, you and me and the rest of the team doesn’t know what to do or what we’re talking about, what decisions are made, communication is the key.

And to change your communication habits and establish it probably in the very beginning with like team formation and big fan of something that’s called team agreements, which is basically you agree on how we work. And what’s important for your team is part of the team agreements should be how we communicate asynchronously, are working from home. And then another bit, if you work from home in different with different time zones, it’s you have to be flexible and you have to basically implement asynchronous work, meaning that you just do some tasks in your own time and then agree on how you update and how you make sure that team knows what you been doing, what’s the progress, what’s next steps are, etc.

and that that allows to shift time as well. Like, I is shifting my time pretty much every day except Fridays.

Actually, I just need to think we’ve we’ve we’ve too many people too many times zones. So in a nutshell, it’s communication shifting time to be able to meet with other people and learn and implement asynchronous work for the people who are listening to the podcast who aren’t really coming from an IT background. What exactly do you mean by synchronous and asynchronous?

So I can compare it to basically being in cinema, let’s say, and Netflix. So if you go to cinema, your movies at six p.m., whatever time and it’s synchronous, like you just go there and everyone is there watching together, you discuss together and go home for asynchronous work. You’re just watching Netflix and you discuss it in your own time. And then you discuss with everyone who wants to be part of the discussion, etc. and converting this to to work situation.

There are a few types of tasks or work that you can do. You obviously need to sync with your team, especially if you’re in a leadership position. There’s sort of want to answer and there is still time that you want to meet and and basically talk synchronously. So you just on one meeting are something that in EITE industries called Peyer programming or just pairing doesn’t be programming. Basically sharing your screen. One person is typing and then we work on task at the time box that I type.

I do some stuff for 10 minutes or 15 minutes, then we swap and you are doing it. I’m a big fan of it, especially when there is no aspect of knowledge transfer. And in general, if you are if you are preparing both people now and there is a very short feedback loop and we can make decisions, we can learn even stuff like a very trivial stuff, shortcuts on keyboard or whatever, you just do some stuff and we’re sharing together that’s synchronous work.

Like we work together in one time, one time zone possibly, or somewhere in the time that it’s a grid, because one person shifts, shifts the time and the other person joins and we work. And then other type of tasks is that it can be done any time by just one person, especially now with covid and all of this stuff that is happening, kids at home, etc.. Some people work separately, some people work super late. And there is a set of tasks that you can totally do it in your own time.

Just you need to agree with your team again properly during team agreement or some form of agreement, like what are those tasks that you can do on your own, how to update on progress with your team manager and stuff like this, how to facilitate feedback for your work, because that’s important.

And then you know how we think actually after I think to think Sendup or any other written communication. And I would say, yes, written communication is the key because you can do your work asynchronously, then you can comment or write up what you have done and what needs to be done, what next steps are and what needs to happen. And I would just say this is similar to like goal setting. This has to be very specific. So there are a few acronyms like Smart and Keith, keep it simple, keep it actionable, etc.

So the less going forward, it’s better basically. So in a remote work environment, you have to basically be a good writer, a better writer to make sure your team is up to date.

So it’s almost like you set small goals that you agree together and then the person goes off and does it and then comes back.

Totally, totally. Yes. That’s why I think the good task definition is already 50 percent of success and then execution and then task handover or basically discussing and and facilitating feedback that makes work flow because otherwise we can spend two days on agreeing like what we are trying to achieve here and who is doing world, etc. If you do it in a very precise manner from the very beginning is just things that needs to be done and then feedback and then next week.

So this is for an individual. But then I guess the interesting question is, when you have a group of people, how do these things come together?

Yeah, of course, all of these little goals that are let’s go out into the world and then come back started from from the bottom.

But to discuss team engagement and teamwork, we need to like very high up in hierarchy to do this.

I believe you need to define your mission first as a company, as a group, as a team. And then you need to define something I called commander intent. And so we know what needs to be done. Then we know why this needs to be done. That’s super important. And then we need to know how to do these things and who is doing what. Next step is probably a decentralized command. If I am tasking some of my teammates to do something I don’t want to trust, I don’t do right to task for them.

I just want to give them the mission. This data center needs to be built by end of this quarter and just go and execute. So figured out that the mission that I believe my people can do it and then they know how to do it because we spent already some time they are trained and then they narrowed down the tasks. OK, if that is to be done to set the standard, we need to have the standards properly written down. We know what tasks are and then we know who can do what because we are the predefined set of tasks that needs to be completed.

So then you just go and check certain milestones. But to sum up, for team to be efficient in remote environment is. To define your mission and your why you’re doing certain stuff and believe and trust people that they do work better than you and they know what to do. Obviously, if they don’t, we can sink and clarify stuff.

Let’s go there a little bit. What if you have someone who’s struggling but doesn’t feel comfortable raising the fact that they’re having issues? How does that work in your experience?

So that they can like my read me for this is parenting from the very beginning, even if you have no idea what are doing, but you are with me and you are sharing your screen just very slowly, tell you step by step what to do, where to click, where to find information in the very beginning is awkward and it’s super slow. But then there is muscle memory when you know where to click, what to do and you basically learn quicker, faster.

Obviously performance issues still are possible. So you just need to understand, like, why this person is struggling and what’s the underlying issue and how we can help this person to basically progress.

One thing that’s come up in the in the previous episodes is the fact that leaders are used to having everyone on site so they know when people are in and when they’re on vacation. And it’s very different, for example, during Christmastime when everybody’s away versus and the summer when people are in and out.

How does availability work in a remote environment for you to you do track it. Do you not track it? What’s your approach there?

So that’s a bigger topic there, like a deeper topic there, because there’s trust versus control. I think we still follow 19th century factory type of arrangements when it comes to work. Stuff needs to be controlled in a factory and people are probably the weakest link. So they need to be controlled even more. And I think we’ve had a lot of companies, a lot of leaders still follow this kind of mentality, I would say. And Poland is probably, uh, quite famous from it.

I don’t know, maybe staff change. But when I remember working in Poland, it was very much control kind of thing. You know, on the other, you know, side of the spectrum is thrust like I hire you to do work and for you to grow. And basically our path align and then you have your agent. I have my own agenda. But at some point, which is a line and there is a big overlap or should be big overlap, I can provide something that is good for you.

You can provide something that’s good for me. We aligned and we just work together and that’s trust that you will do this to the best of your ability and then you will inform me if anything changes and vice versa.

I provide you with everything that you need and it should be the same for an office or no office arrangement, but sometimes not.

If you used to controlling people, you will basically be lost. If you’re just sitting in front of your computer in your home office and you don’t see anyone and then you don’t know either working or they’re not working like what they’re doing and are they available, are stepping down, etc.. So I think the important thing is to have this team agreement and this shift in mindset that people are working to are productive. They want to do their job. And then it’s up to you as a leader to just make sure that we have certain controls in place to make sure that we update each other in the job is done, feedback is facilitated and all projects are basically progressed.

Technically, how we try to do it, obviously there is Holliday’s and a lot of other things that that are normal. But there is also like small things I need to drop my key to a doctor or school or whatever it takes, or just need to go to dentist. And it’s not a whole day, but just maybe one or two hours. So we technically try to experiment with just extra calendar. We just shot calendar and people just put stuff there.

So if you are one week holiday you put there, it’s like Pyott on day not available. If this is just like ninety minutes here and there. You also put it as just even like Pyott a week from away from computer and that’s pretty much it.

If you do it, if you do it right, you can see who is off, who is not off and you can plan accordingly.

What’s that like a shared outlook calendar is the Microsoft plan or some other tool we use Outlook Office 365 and it’s just extra shirt calendar.

So everyone has the same calendar and everything but that extra shirt calendar that certain people have access. Because if you have seven countries, like in my case, that’s a lot to synchronize in terms of even trivial things like state holidays.

Yeah, I know I had the same experience.

I wanted to get it a little bit more into the team agreements, like in practice, how do you do it? How do you recommend people do it if they’re doing it for the first time? Where do you store it?

I can refer to one of my recent blog posts I wrote about it. As far as I know, there is no any official guidance or anything. The team agreement is just agreement that everyone should participate. So there is a few rules that I would say I would follow. First of all, it’s all of us participating in it.

Then if what do you mean by participating? Does it have to be in person?

Ideally, yes, especially during this off site, let’s let’s say. But this workshop format.

Yeah, workshop format. If it’s if it’s offline on offline virtual, let’s call it the one person is sharing dock, whether it’s Google or Dropbox paper or whatever sharable dock, the one person is driving and everyone is on the same call by everyone on this team because that’s that’s a team agreement. One caveat here, it’s like functional team agreement. You may have nine people in your team, but then you are you start a new project, which is like a long lasting project or something like this with just four people.

I would recommend having extra team agreement for this, for people for the length of of the project.

So would that be an addendum to the main one or is it a separate, completely separate we might with people who are involved in this political activity, but usually it’s just a team. You have different functions. They have teams taking care of products or whatever you do. And then it’s a team that basically meet and agree on certain things. And then what we agree upon is, again, up to team. It shouldn’t be too specific. Let’s agree that we use Trello for this and we use Jira for this.

That could be part of a team agreement. But what if we experiment and and change it in a week? We need to change our team agreements. I think better paragraph or part of bullet point in agreement would be that we try to experiment with our tools to find something that works for us to bust in certain contexts. So that’s probably more like it’s vague enough that it’s there and everyone agrees. Then, as I mentioned previously, I think it’s good to assume certain things like everyone is coming from a good place.

That’s always good to assume. That’s about trust. There could be something about time zones and respecting our time, being punctual that few things I say. So everyone participates. Everyone has equal say equal input. Even if his manager or senior architect, we try to maintain quite flat structure of the team. Everyone has equal size, everyone is equal. And then a few things that will organize our work and basically make sure that we work efficiently together.

How do you know that everyone’s put into it? The potential trap here is you you create a document that looks very nice, the manager and the architect agree on.

So that’s good. Good question.

Not necessarily with my team, but the team. I would say there’s one person who was not bought at all to the idea of team agreement, but it was more of the fact that he never did it. He didn’t want to have yet another document, yet another meeting when it was explained to him, why are we doing this, why? It’s important he agreed to participate and even had some saying and everything. I think the important thing is, again, going to I like I’m a big fan of this Simon Singh Agwai book and concept, if you understand why we’re trying to do it, even if you are not super enthusiastic about it because the team is doing it and you’re part of the team you want, good for your team.

You may agree and you just want to participate. But then one important aspect of team agreement is that you can easily hold people accountable when they are not aligned with team agreements. And then that’s a signal that either is time for some conversation about it or change team agreement, which again it is. We’ve written a team agreement that it could be changed. Israelis were a new person joins. That’s a good time to to change or to review, basically team agreement.

But sometimes it’s something that we agree today. It’s not valid in one quarter. Normally starts with people breaking this team agreement or talking about this is, hey, I think we not agree to this.

So that’s a good tool to have this conversations, not necessarily to just holding people. Accountable is another topic. But if you do it the right way, it’s a good tool to try to do it if your situation requires.

How would you differentiate what goes into the team agreement versus what you were calling commander intent?

So like the main high level way of on that?

Good question, because in my team agreements, we actually put our company mission and our team mission. So that’s a reminder of commander intent. It’s also important when you try to delegate or try to task people or something like I’m not available 24 hours a day around the clock. And if people have a challenge with decision to make decision, what I try to implement is this chain of command, their intent. So there is a company mission, obviously is vague enough.

Is the bigger company the the harder to relay with like very grand decision making. But then there is like a business unit mission and then they have your team mission or some statement that is somehow related to your daily work. And then if you have any problem with decision, what should I do? Because I need this decision now and my manager is in UK slipping. You try to take a look to your mission. Does it especially like you can even create mission or goal for your quarter and then go for your sprint like the smallest piece of chunk and then it should influence your decision today with this small task.

Does it contribute to my goals for Sprint? Does it contribute to my mission for this quarter? Does it contribute to my mission for my team and in some circumstances maybe into company, especially if it’s a question of ethics?

Answering a question, I put our company mission and our team mission to team agreement because it’s background team agreement should be like extension to this. That should not be like something against our mission because that doesn’t make sense. Right.

You know, in terms of remote team dynamics, you’ve got a handful of quote unquote, managers or coordinators in the middle and everybody around them and each one just doing their own little task versus an actual team where everybody’s dynamically stepping up and helping each other out when needed. Do you think the team agreement is something that causes that kind of positive engagement or it would be something that would just be a almost a side effect in your teams?

It depends on organizational culture. So if you’re creating a team and this team is made of people who have already been around and it’s just a function that you need to build a product or something like this, it’s team agreement is going to be a reflection on how people work together, what they do usually and so on. So it’s already embedded in the culture of wider arc. In my case, the acquisition and some new people coming. And you just mix with some technical people who have been around or people who just joined or you have a brand new team.

That’s also something that I recently needed to do, a completely new team.

And then it’s hard to pass culture like how you teach culture, how you pass culture, in my opinion, is trying to create environments, start with team agreement, how we operate and what we do, how we do. And then that helps with team dynamic. Again, like we start with a blank paper. We’ve covered the mission. I also copy something that we call code values, very specific to our business unit, our group. And that is part of our culture, like who we are.

It’s just five sentences. It’s a background. Well, we’ll be doing in terms of team agreement and then how you help to build team dynamics.

The statement, the five sentences. How did that come about? Was that something that came bottom up?

Was it top down or so it was before my time in this particular team. And I believe it came from our leader, like someone who was the founder, that then the whole company was bought by Cisco, etc..

So I believe it was originally from there.

Yes. Yes. Interesting, interesting. But then if you are a startup, you have five people and you create this, it’s kind of everyone’s effort and then everyone else join is it’s coming from up. But I guess at some points it wasn’t just like one person sit down and rotate and it’s now you all 170 people will follow it. It’s basically very organic. We meet we want to create something. Yeah, we create this.

Values and then more people join and then it’s also your compass for hiring or extending your team, if you don’t agree, you probably shouldn’t join.

This topic of culture is absolutely critical. And it’s just it’s so hard to get your hands on it.

Tangible, right? Yeah, yeah. Let’s start slowly wrapping up. What do you think have been the biggest learnings for you since the since the pandemic hit?

Learning something that I call perspective, I try to think about stuff like philosophy, have perspective. Work is important and you should love what you do. You should do what you love. But it’s just work like other things important in life, life itself and your family, things that are more important for you or should be more important for you to try to name your values in your life, where the work is, where your families and where everything else is, and then try to do this exercise of where you are in your life, what you want to do.

20-20 just made it possible it’s slowing down. We have a big forcing factor to start thinking about context that is outside of work and how work relates to life, how life should be basically your personal core values.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all been merged into one because it’s all now happening in the same place. It’s hard to not separate it. Is there anything in particular that you’d want our listeners to take a look at?

Where can people reach you? I beginning of this year, funnily enough, I started my blog in English. It’s https://coffeejourneys.blog/. I did it for selfish reasons. I wanted to be more efficient and more relate in the written English because my position changed them. I’m a bullet guy.

I’m a bullet guy. I can do everything almost in five bullet points, but sometimes it doesn’t work. I started sharing my journey from a technical person to being in a leadership position and also I do it in the context of family. I step up from in general to the Chabrol about the same time when I have had a first kid. And then I noticed that there’s a lot of overlap between being parent and leader if people are interested. There’s a lot of stuff about remote work, how to help people in current situation.

I had some mini series about how to write CV and how to perform well on interviews. Yeah, it’s all about work, but also life work balance. It’s it’s my blog.

In terms of social media, where can you be reached?

So I try to divorce from Facebook. I don’t like what Mark is doing that and everything, but I’m quite active on Twitter. (@PiotrZagorowski)So it’s at perhaps it’s like something quite like it’s short form. I can do it in shop place, so. Yeah it’s OK. Great. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thanks. 

I found this discussion to be immensely practical and helpful in terms of getting started and thinking about culture explicitly as something which everyone can and should have the ability to influence.

I think it’s really helpful to set the context for everyone. And this makes a lot of things explicit, which is why it’s so useful if you are genuinely coming from the mindset that everyone is at work to get something out of it and that they’re coming with their full selves to contribute. I think you end up getting a lot more done in a remote context as opposed to trying to muscle people into doing whatever it is that you’ve come up with if you do try out a team agreement.

Do let me know. I’d be curious to hear what your experiences are.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the online Align Remotely podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review on iTunes, Google podcast or wherever you get your podcast.

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