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Live Co-Working: Six Keys to Success
Since 2020 many of us have started remote working and figuring out what works. Many companies that were remote before were primarily asynchronous. People get their tasks and go to them. Meetings were the interruption of productivity. Sometimes we would pair or mob at a desk setup. These sessions were often fun but didn't happen as much as I wished.
Remote changed all that. Connections have to survive long distances. But amazingly, cooperation at work is easier than ever before. Screenshare technology is far better than it was pre-pandemic. And people in remote environments can "mob" without creating a burden on others.
This model of remote pairing and mobbing has served me well in management, building a startup, high-end consulting, and winning hackathon prizes on a consistent, monthly basis.
My experiences over the past two years surfaced six principles for live co-working that maximize the value - and minimize the time investment.
Share screens, not cameras
For intensive work, we have found that screens focus us all on the matter at hand rather than how we look on camera. Camera-on rules are often about engagement - make sure everyone is paying attention. But in a live work session, attention is table stakes, and our eyes should be on the joint work, not the camera.
Turning off the camera lets us all shift our eyes to the screen. I find picking a screen to be an essential consideration. Usually, a roughly widescreen aspect ratio (16 wide to 9 tall) is best. 4k or even 5k monitors do fine on macOS environments because the height in characters is usually better. A fancy ultra-wide is harder to see because of the way it gets squished into everyone elses' frames.
For resolution, I find most are fine, and higher-contrast IDE setups (like GitHub black on VS Code) work very well.
Finally, having a second screen for holding either sensitive info (for the sharing person) or for looking up on Google (for the non-sharing person) helps greatly with velocity.
The focus is on the work when both parties have a common visual context. The best way to burn time in the meeting is to delay the start of the screen share. People are in catch-up or update mode before turning on the screen. And after, the gravitational pull of the intellectual challenge keeps us focused for the rest of the hour.
Talk it out
Voice is the most important way we communicate when sharing screens. Use it; conversation is how we improve each other in these environments.
I point out what I am doing when sharing my screen and why. If I do this well, my partner will be unsurprised by my steps. I will pause for questions or ask, "what do you think I should do next?" This query is not rhetorical - if I can gain my partner's trust, the beginner's mind they bring to the table will often light a path that I might not have seen before. I live for those moments.
When the screen shown is not my own, I prefer speaking out loud rather than taking over the keyboard. When directing action, I will often be didactic - even micro-managing - to help them generate the needed output. But this drives value because it lines up their mental processes with my own. They see the same inputs. I am directing them to the correct outputs. Even if I call out line numbers and text a character at a time (which only happens sometimes), I synchronize our brains. The missing part - the why - is then what I teach.
I didn't invent this pattern - it's part of high-end professional education. I like teaching hospitals as a model. The teacher asks the student how to think through this as one works. Questions help our minds grow ready to receive new inputs, while simply giving answers does not encourage them. There is also a "see one, do one, teach one" cadence that says that the talking and sharing does not stop, nor is it just a job for the senior. We all learn so we can all teach.
Second Screen for Superpowers
One of the significant roles of the non-sharing party is to be a conduit for information. While both parties are sharing a screen, that need not be the only source of information. For example, while one person is looking at knotty code, another might research related questions in Stack Overflow. Freed from the limit of the shared screen, they can even shop for a tool that would make the whole problem irrelevant.
For this reason, having a second physical screen can be very helpful. One screen has the job of seeing where your colleague is focusing. The other is to be your personal Cyrano De Bergerac, giving wisdom we can put into the mix. In this way, even a junior/senior pairing where the senior/coach is sharing the screen can add much value. The more junior has the job of researching this as they go. This helps the junior gain more context and confidence to ask more questions. These questions help focus the discussion in a way that moves the goals.
That second screen can be directly on one's workstation, but it need not be. The second screen can be a phone or a tablet too. The key is using it to enhance the understanding and progress of the work. When one is drifting off, one is not contributing. That's where the rule above about talking it out adds more value.
Focus on the Work, Not Updates
Meetings sometimes start with updates or check-ins. After all, most meetings are a round-robin of updates - that's why they can feel so pointless.
Catch-up can be helpful as an easing-in ritual, but updates need to stay brief - they are not the agenda of a co-working session. The goal is to progress on an agreed problem.
I try to keep the intro to five minutes total - at five minutes past the hour, we should have switched to whatever the goal for the session is.
A strong signal that we have successfully made this transition is one of us sharing a screen. At that point, we can focus on the issue of the day.
Time Limit: Keep it to an Hour
Co-work is hard work. The principles above form a crucible where the raw talents of individuals melt into common insight. All this superpower effort is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Both team members have given their maximum brain power to the issues at hand. One can only take this high level for so long at a go.
We experimented with different lengths on the theory that longer would be better. But that was most often not the case. The highest-productivity sessions preceded a hard stop because of some other time commitment at the end of the hour. The constraint meant we would focus more tightly and move faster as the hour wound down, getting more iterations on the problem. Constraints bred focus, and focus led to the breakthrough insight that let us make extraordinary progress.
We've had success cracking problems in meetings as short as thirty minutes and as long as two hours. But the most effective time was when we had a hard stop at the end of an hour. Orson Welles once said, "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."
Finally, the question comes, "how often should you hold these meetings?" We tried many combinations over the several hackathons we worked on as a team. Multiple times per day, once per week, etc. But the most consistently high-quality results came from meeting all seven days of the week. We took occasional days off for illness or social events, but in the main, that pattern has stuck, especially in the last few months. The frequency maintains momentum. More importantly, the daily scheduling in the same time slot breeds commitment and focus. My brain aligns for the concentrated session to come.
Everyone contributes daily. We work as a single mind. This is different from how one delegates work, but it has effectively built trust, made everyone more thoughtful, and shipped excellent products in short periods.
Live co-working will only be for some projects and some needs. But it has been remarkable for our endeavors.
And it might be for yours.
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