Our Remote Team Meetup: The Good, the Bad, and the Lovely

On the mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and more …

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another team that formed and worked entirely on Zoom and Slack, without anyone meeting in person for the first six months,” Dennis Ellis of Microsoft said to me two weeks ago.

Images from numerous WTCC projects.

Ellis was referring to the leadership team of the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition (WTCC). Created last March, the all-volunteer group of several hundred tech-savvy people (including me) has been able to engage online in the most sparsely populated state in the nation, remaining productive in coordinated activities to address the pandemic, rather than just fretting about it.

We’ve made masks. We’ve made maps. We’ve built apps. We’ve prepared white papers on wastewater testing. We’ve kept very busy.

Meanwhile, during a time of tremendous divisiveness, somehow we have remained cohesive and cordial, whatever our differences in age, gender, profession, and politics. I can’t recall a single meeting when we did not resolve disagreements easily and reach consensus without conflict.

I met Ellis during coffee break at the Wyoming Global Technology Summit in Jackson Hole. All but one of the original leadership team had signed up to attend. (Nicholas was engaged elsewhere, managing a hackathon.) As a result, we had been invited to make a presentation. So in a sense the occasion was serendipity.

Most of the team drove to Jackson from Cheyenne and Laramie, in the tech-heavy southeast corner of the state. Jeremiah flew down from Cody in his own small plane, and I drove over Togwotee Pass from Dubois. Until we joined up in Jackson, we had never laid eyes on each other in the same physical space.

Governor Mark Gordon acknowledging WTCC’s creation of an online map of COVID testing sites in Wyoming.

We had met virtually however, twice every week since mid-March, on Zoom. During those meetings, the team worked together to plan many efforts that helped Wyoming to meet the COVID-19 crisis head-on at its start.

Long before the presentation at the Summit, we had already won public recognition from the Governor, during one of his many COVID press briefings.

Thus, despite all the debate about the practicality and effectiveness of all-remote teams, I believe we’ve shown that it’s possible to make great achievements in the purely digital space, if members are sufficiently committed, collaborative, and comfortable with the technology.

On the evening before the Summit, I was first to arrive at the restaurant where we would meet for dinner. Eager to meet my colleagues at last, I felt as if I was awaiting a family reunion, or even better than that.

I was delighted to see Lars and Tyler approaching me, in the company of a stranger. It took a few moments to register that the third man was Jeremiah, whom I knew just as well. Later, we spoke about the slight mismatch between Zoom and “real life,” and decided that it could relate to camera angle. Unless the camera is directly face-on with your face, we decided, you may seem less involved in Zoom meetings and a less-familiar member of the team..

As we all agreed afterwards, we didn’t spend enough time networking during the Summit. At the networking event after the sessions closed, we spent most of the time hanging out with each other on the terrace, rather than joining the (largely un-masked) crowd inside to make contacts.

WTCC’s core leadership team, minus Nicholas. I’m the one holding wine glass and mask.

We also chose to skip the networking breakfast at the end of the Summit, quickly agreeing that we would rather go on a hike together before driving home.

“I just said, heck, I would rather hang out with these people I’ve spent six and a half months with,” acknowledged our leader Eric Trowbridge, who is the founder of the Cheyenne-based Array School of Design and Technology. Clearly the rest of us felt the same.

On a glorious, golden Indian-summer Wyoming morning, we chatted, stopped to take pictures, and tried to avoid tripping over Tyler’s dogs as we hiked a trail at the base of the Grand Tetons. It was easy to keep a sociable distance.

During online seminars this year, I’ve heard many remote-work experts say that holding a team retreat is important to a team’s success. Of course, ours wasn’t a typical “corporate” retreat, because we spent nearly all our time together socializing. As far as I know, there was almost no talk about our business agenda.

That said, the major purpose of remote-team retreats is similar, giving coworkers who are rarely together a chance to soak in body language, subtle facial expressions, and the other kind of interpersonal impressions that happen only in person.

“We focus on the social and the casual,” said Natalie Nagele, founder of Wildbit, when she spoke during an online 2020 Running Remote conference about her own team retreats. That means replacing conference tables with couches and sofas in a communal living space somewhere, she added, and preferably not in a city where there are “so many distractions.”

Scene from a regular WTCC Zoom meeting.

My small, rural Wyoming town of Dubois would be ideal: remote, beautiful, with plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy together (and an easy drive from Jackson). In fact, I wish the WTCC team had met in Dubois before the Summit, rather than during the conference, which was a distraction too.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to my new old friends after the hike. But at least unlike an ordinary family reunion, I knew we’d see each other again in a few days, back on Zoom. Now the regular joke about disagreements between me and Lars feels much easier, because I know we are friends.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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A New Kind of Pioneering

How many remote workers have the true vision of remoteness?

January 27, this past Monday, was the 100th anniversary of the day that Wyoming ratified the 19th amendment allowing women to vote. That was more than 50 years after the newly formed territory of Wyoming enacted women’s suffrage in its own right, in 1869, making it the first state or territory to do so.

It was a pioneering act, but then this state has an august history of women pioneers: The first woman to be elected justice of the peace. The first woman in the United States to vote. And countless pioneering women who left comforts back east to homestead here, alone or with companions.

It was all tough — the life, the travel, and the women themselves.

I used to muse about these pioneer women as we drove the long commute between New York and Dubois, back before we sold our house out east. Our route crossed the Oregon Trail.

I sometimes wondered what they would have thought if someone had told them, as they bounced along on wooden wheels or walked the dusty track beside the mules, that someday one would be able to make the same journey in a mere four days, using a keyboard on the lap (and what’s a keyboard, exactly?) to type messages that coworkers thousands of miles away could read in an instant.

Of course I hold these pioneer women in awe. The first non-native woman to settle in this beautiful valley, Mahalia Burlingame, lived alone for long stretches with her children when her husband, who was the only fiddler around, traveled off to play for country dances many miles away. She made toys for the kids out of twigs.

Alice Welty looks delicate in her photographs, but after she moved to Dubois from Baltimore with her husband in the late 1880s, she learned to rope and shoe horses, and once drove a grizzly out of a campsite. I would have gone into child’s pose and played dead.

After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Mary Back moved to Dubois in the 1930s with her husband Joe, where they bought an abandoned ranch west of town. Their first sofa was the front seat of an old Chevrolet, their pillows were sugar sacks filled with elk hair collected off the property, and their kitchen cabinet was made of apple boxes.

That delightful person Esther Wells, whom I knew all too briefly before her death at age 105 or 106, once said that they were never warm during the long winters of her childhood at the homestead, unless they were right beside the fire. Back then there was no fleece–just stiff cotton canvas or itchy wool.

Her mother’s best friend was a neighbor who would often come by to borrow cooking pots, because she had only tin cans to cook in. They were poor because the husband didn’t work much on the homestead; he was always away prospecting for gold, to no avail. Esther herself once shooed a grizzly bear out of her ranch house kitchen with a broom.

Many of the homesteaders of a century or more ago left behind the crowding, high cost, and unclean realities of industrial cities with hopes of a better new life out West. On the day of that suffrage anniversary this week, I realized with a jolt that in a sense some of us out here are new kinds of pioneers, drawn here by the same kind of urge.

Of course, I have had it vastly easier than those women I so admire. But more than a decade ago, when my husband suggested moving to this place, at first I thought it was a crazy idea. After further thought and some research, we set off hopefully but perhaps too impulsively to start a new kind of life in this small village out West. Like the old homesteaders, we had no promise that the idea would work.

With considerable trepidation (because we had already bought our house in Dubois), I asked a boss in division headquarters in Connecticut whether I could work from Wyoming part of the year, as I had already proven I could work reliably from my home two hours away in Brooklyn. My good fortune was that he had the vision to accept my wacky proposal.

I wasn’t worried much about being attacked by dangerous animals or hostile natives, but I did have concerns. Would I be able to get good vegetables? (Yes.) Where would I find Thai food? (Next town over.) Would I be lonely? (Heavens, no.) Would it be frightening out there? (Not at all, and unlike New York City not in the least stressful.)

And very importantly, would the Internet be good enough? (Oh, yes it was, and increasingly so also during the long road trips when we traveled).

“The popularity of remote work has been climbing at a rate of nearly 140% for the past decade,” wrote Laurel Farrer, a consultant and champion of remote workers, last year in Forbes. But I’ve been looking into it, and for all that states like Utah and Vermont are actually paying remote workers to relocate there, I do not see in the online chats among remote workers and the wannabes the same vision of a radically new life that drove the original pioneers to places like Wyoming.

They want to work remotely, as in remote from company headquarters. But few as yet seem to want to live remotely. They simply seem to flock to smaller cities, which then become more crowded, chaotic, and costly.

Despite modern comforts like Amazon and Pandora, I’m sure it’s scary to become a true digital pioneer: to abandon the security of a regular job and the easy, familiar conveniences of urban life.

Perhaps it does not require the courage of Alice, Mary, and Mahalia. But for most city dwellers with a high-tech mindset, it must be a challenge to envision and appreciate the unique freedom, simplicity, and peace of a truly rural environment, especially one at the edge of wilderness, and then to seek it out.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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