Nenad Maljkovic is a cultural creative, network entrepreneur and permaculture designer who work works with transitionnetwork.org, a global organization of remote volunteers. He also wrote the Virtual Team Quick Guide which outlines a series of principles for virtual working. We talk about what they struggle with and how they make remote working more comfortable for themselves.
Nenad’s tips for working remotely:
- When deciding how to work together, start with the tools people already know how to use. Focus on how to make working together enjoyable.
- Video calls are precious: “far from the eyes, far from the heart.”
- Any form of synchronous communication is better than asynchronous communication.
- Manage your distractions.
- Blog: Virtual Teams for Systemic Change: How to make both work?
- Read the Virtual Team Quick Guide
Lisette: Great. And we’re live. Welcome, everybody, to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today, I have on the line, all the way from Zagreb, Croatia, Nenad Maljkovic. Nenad, you are a cultural creative, a network entrepreneur, and a permaculture designer. So we are going to get into that, very interesting.
But I want to start with the first question, which is what does your virtual office look like? And what do you need to get your work done?
Nenad: My virtual office is actually not an office. It’s my living room most of the time. And sometimes I use nearby, co-working space, which is [inaudible – 00:55].
Lisette: Oh, okay.
Nenad: It’s actually just a 10-minute walk from here, and it’s very convenient. Sometimes I work at home alone. Sometimes I’m there with people.
Lisette: And do you just need a laptop and an Internet connection? Or do you have any special tools that you use?
Nenad: Oh, I have a laptop which is actually quite old because I like to keep my things longer in function. And I do need a webcam because I have external webcams that I need to connect [inaudible – 01:29].
Lisette: It’s that old.
Nenad: It’s actually a very good webcam. And yes, basically, that’s it with Internet connection. I can work from anywhere. This is also useful.
Lisette: The headphones.
Lisette: Indeed. Indeed, I think they’re very useful. I like having the sound close to my ears. So that’s why I use it.
Nenad: Oh, I can hear definitely better on this.
Lisette: Yeah. And there’s less background noise for the people listening. So another great remote-working tip. You heard it here [laughs]. So I want to ask what kind of work do you do at home versus at the co-working space? Is there a specific kind of work that you do? Or is it just you feel like being around people so you are around people?
Nenad: Well, this also. But at co-working space, sometimes I have meetings, which are often face-to-face meetings, with people, and sometimes blended meetings. That means part of us are meeting in the room, face-to-face, and part of us are joining online. So we actually do quite a lot of these blended meetings, as we call it. And the type of work I do is, I guess, mostly about communicating and discussing things with people like reading, writing, [inaudible – 02:50] somehow and then following up on that.
Lisette: Yeah, that’s kind of the standard. That’s what we do. Everybody does it in general. But let’s talk about your work which is cultural creative, network entrepreneur, and permaculture designer. Let’s start with permaculture designer because I don’t know what that is.
Nenad: Well, permaculture, I like to explain it in three levels. First level is somewhat technical and similar to, for example, architecture. It’s a system of holistic design. So with permaculture, you actually design sustainable systems. And system can be your household or your neighborhood or some agriculture production or some industrial production. Anything that people do at any kind of level of organization can be designed in a way that it is more in line with nature and sustainable. So that’s permaculture.
The second level of permaculture, if I may explain…
Nenad: [at all three – 03:55] levels. The second level is probably social movement. It was started in the end of ‘70s, ‘80s by a couple of permaculture pioneers in Australia. Bill Mollison was one of the fathers of permaculture. He died last year, unfortunately. And this was designed in a way that permaculture spreads all over the world through more or less 10-day or two-week intense education about principles and ethics of permaculture, how it applied in design, in designing into sustainable systems. And ethics of permaculture are actually very, very simple and easy to grasp. It’s earth care, people care, [inaudible – 04:52], basic principles of permaculture.
And the third level of permaculture is what I call the lifestyle. There are more and more people worldwide quite aware of the planetary boundaries. And people choose to live differently. So that’s permanent culture or permaculture lifestyle.
Lisette: Super interesting, I haven’t actually heard of it. But I’m assuming that your team works together remotely.
Nenad: Yes. Well, permaculture practitioners and one of the spinoffs from permaculture transition activists, we are all over the world. And we usually do some projects that are very local on street, neighborhood, village, town level. But we also need to collaborate beyond that scale so we connect as virtual teams worldwide.
Lisette: So then you have to have local teams actually affecting the change locally. But then you’re also collaborating globally with other people doing the same thing in their local areas.
Nenad: Yes, this is actually how change happens. You do it locally where you live. And thousands and hundreds of thousands of local projects can produce a global, systemic change. And for that, we need to collaborate beyond our local projects. And because more and more people either choose not to travel because they are needed in their local communities, their [inaudible – 06:32] projects, or they simply don’t want to travel because travel is actually quite toxic for the environment. So these remote collaboration tools, which are enabled by Internet, are actually next-best thing to face-to-face meetings and travel.
Lisette: I love it. So the actual being remote is sort of part of the permaculture values in some ways because it’s more green. Instead of traveling, we’re just pushing buttons in some ways.
Lisette: Is that a stretch?
Nenad: Yeah, you are right. But we have also challenges around that because not very many permaculture people like to spend time online.
Lisette: Ah, okay.
Nenad: They tend to spend time outdoors doing real-life work. Many of us are involved in agriculture, in forest gardening gardening etc. So actually, this is quite new. Remote collaboration is still emerging as a set of skills for permaculture transition people, I would say.
Lisette: I can imagine that this is very similar to many other groups out there, which is that a lot of people don’t like to spend so much time online. So yes, online collaboration is great. But what happens if you don’t know the tools or you’d rather be outside [laughs]? Yeah, I can imagine. So yeah, that’s a challenge that I think other people share as well. How do you get around that so far?
Nenad: Well, my first thinking around this topic was in 2014 when we joined from Croatia International Transition Network Project that was called REconomy [inaudible – 08:38]. And we joined first five international… We joined as a national group, first group of five national hubs in that project. And we did some things locally, learning about local and community-led economic development projects. We all organized local events. But during that project, we stayed in touch [inaudible – 09:12] regular [inaudible]. And actually, this group, through that way of collaboration, learned how to do it quite well.
And later on, what became apparent is that a lot of us are actually struggling with this type of collaboration. There is a lot of stress involved somehow. There is also this information overload or what I call elsewhere overload involved. And it seemed to me at the time that somehow, we need to make it comfortable for ourselves so that we can use it more. So I start talking with people and discovering how exactly we could make it comfortable for ourselves. And what we kind of chose was that let’s support each other [inaudible – 10:13]. So that’s how we started.
Lisette: Okay. So yeah, I’m curious because you’re really struggling to find a way to make it comfortable for yourselves. So you supported each other in what way? How did you do it? What were some of the ways in which you were more comfortable?
Nenad: One approach was what I called people-centered approach. They actually became quite aware that when people started talking which rule is better, it actually destroys team spirit and collaboration. [inaudible – 10:47] is this still right for us? Or is that tool right for us? So we said, “Let’s stop talking about tools, and let’s talk about our needs.” And what we did is we actually figured out who’s using what within the group and found out which are the tools that most of the people use. And that’s what we took as the starting point. So if it was a Google Docs, it was Google Docs. If it was Skype, it was Skype or it was email. It was email. But we started with what everybody knows how to use. And when we became comfortable with that, we then introduced some new tools. This was one approach.
Lisette: That is a great tip, which is start with what everyone knows how to use and then grow up from there. Great tip.
Nenad: Because there is no learning curve in that. And the other thing, what we did was when we wanted to look at some other tools, we did something which is called plus, minus, interesting analysis, which is analysis methodology or template or pattern we learned from permaculture. So we don’t just jump on a new tool. We do this plus, minus, interesting analysis, take the whole picture, take a step back, think about it, and then we decide what to use.
And then we support each other in learning how to use it.
Lisette: So you help each other. If somebody is really struggling, there’s always somebody there to say, “Okay, let me give you a quick demo on how.”
Nenad: It’s not only about that. First of all, we need to know that most of our teams are volunteers, not professionals. They are collaborating as volunteers. And we all know that others are busy doing their things, not only in the context of what we do together but their life and their work etc. And sometimes the communication was slow because people didn’t want to bother others. And just making it acceptable, please do ask what do you need, share what you don’t understand, that enabled other people to help others. This is one way to do it within a [inaudible – 13:33] thing.
Lisette: Yeah, I totally agree. In my workshop, I teach people how… We call it a team agreement, and it’s just outlining your ways of working. So how are you going to communicate? How do you collaborate? And where is all the information going to be stored?
Nenad: Yeah, we actually figured that out eventually. But in the beginning, we were collaborating without any agreements. So that was part of the focus. But eventually, we started to put down this as some kind of a one-pager, one-page table with essential agreements, which were not only about how to do meetings but also sometimes [inaudible – 14:21] how to do [inaudible] meetings.
Lisette: Oh, I see, I see. Yeah, brilliant, absolutely brilliant because then for new people that are coming in, it’s very easy for them to just jump right in and kind of know what the ways are of working instead of just hanging out and figuring it out over the course of time. So you can read the one-pager, and then you’ve got a good snapshot. And do you review this one-pager every once in a while?
Nenad: Yeah, yeah. We basically… Well, this one example, I remember we just shared it as a Google Doc. And then when somebody wants an improvement, it was written down and highlighted. So we open it. If anything is highlighted, that means we need to discuss it. And if it’s okay, then we remove the highlight. And again, we have agreement which is updated.
Lisette: Awesome. Awesome that it can happen in that way. So you use Google Docs. It sounds like you use Skype. What are some of the other things that you’ve agreed to use?
Nenad: We now mostly use Zoom for video calls. We use Skype currently. Quite a lot of teams are using Skype as an ongoing chat. Some teams moved to Slack. But chat is a chat, so [inaudible – 15:48] platform you use.
Lisette: Right. It can be tool-agnostic. And I can imagine that if you have a group of volunteers that are all over the world, these are people that are just doing work in their spare time. Whereas if somebody has a team and you’re hired full-time to be on that team, it’s much easier because you’re just sort of expected to be around. But as a volunteer, it could be anything. So how do you guys collaborate together? How do you know what each other are doing? And what’s your process?
Nenad: Well, we are actually still struggling quite a lot with that because in volunteer teams, communication tends to be slow. And it’s by design. I mean we just allow people more time to respond. And I think in most teams, we are right now trying to work it out. I personally am looking into some of the Agile practices, rituals, or ceremonies, how these guys are calling that. And it seems to me that introducing [those – 16:53] could improve collaboration even within volunteer teams. And because [inaudible – 17:00] tends to be slow, in volunteer teams, what happens very often is that we have more need to catch up when we start [inaudible – 17:11]. So communication gets interrupted. People forget what they were talking about. And then we need some time to catch up. So we are looking for patterns to find our way around that particular manifestation right now.
Lisette: It’s a tough one. It’s a tough one. Happy Melly has the exact, same challenges. And we haven’t quite worked out.
Nenad: Yes. I personally believe it’s part of this [inaudible – 17:41] because as humans, our natural way of communicating is just in our immediate environment and [inaudible – 17:50]. And [synchronous] communication plays games with us. So it’s difficult.
Lisette: Right. And there are lots of distractions that are in the way.
Nenad: Oh, yeah, distractions are completely different story.
Lisette: Well, let’s talk about it. What do you mean?
Nenad: Well, there are distractions that are on-screen, and there are distractions that are in environment.
Nenad: And there is even among application designers recently, more and more [venomous – 18:27], that applications need to be designed in a way that is not distracting for people because it’s actually damaging their productivity. And maybe, we can even say it’s damaging for their life.
Lisette: How do you keep yourself focused?
Nenad: Well, I don’t have applications on my phone.
Nenad: I just stick to laptop with this. Sometimes I use… There is this Stay Focused application which I turn on for Facebook, so I limit my time. And there is also this [inaudible – 19:19] newsfeed. So when I open Facebook, it’s empty. I [inaudible – 19:23] to have a [inaudible] Facebook.
Lisette: So this app actually, when you open your Facebook, it just shows an empty newsfeed.
Lisette: But then why open Facebook if you know it’s going to be empty?
Nenad: We use Facebook mostly for groups. And actually, Facebook groups are very, very nicely designed for team collaboration. So [inaudible – 19:48] I just go where I want to go. I just check what I want to check.
Lisette: I see. So it just allows you to see what’s in your groups, but it just takes out the newsfeed, so that you can go to your group, see what’s going on, brilliant app.
Nenad: The news feed is the main source of distraction on [inaudible – 20:04].
Lisette: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean if there’s a [inaudible – 20:06], I’m gone [laughs]. I’m just gone [laughs]. Other people have different things.
Nenad: I guess I do the same with electric cars.
Nenad: Or airplanes.
Lisette: Okay, electric cars and airplanes. Everybody has their vice, right? We all have our distractions. Yeah, interesting. So what about virtual team management? How does that work? Because you said you’re part of an association… Oh, before we… Okay, virtual team management. And then I really want to get to the virtual team quick guide. We’ve got to talk about the quick guide [inaudible – 20:38] is awesome. Let’s start with virtual team management because you said a couple of interesting things. One is you’re working for a global organization of volunteers. So how does the management work on that? And then also, you’re part of the Croatian Permaculture Association where you said you don’t have titles. And I want to ask about management and that as well.
Nenad: So we are what we call horizontal organizations or horizontal teams. That means that basically, we self-organize or self-manage. Most of the time, we don’t have hierarchical roles. We take temporary roles. Sometimes we really take time to develop those roles. Sometimes it’s just generic. And because we spend quite a lot of time in meetings, because we find meetings precious for relationship development, we have standard roles for meetings. And also, these roles we rotate. So this is also [inaudible – 21:48] quick guide, which have a facilitator role, keeper of the time, keeper of the history, and keeper of the [heart – 21:57]. So facilitators have three keepers to help them. And also, if there is a blended meeting, there is a fourth role, which we call [virtual – 22:08] host, that’s a person in the room that is taking care that people online are in communication.
Lisette: I love it. Mark Kilby calls that the buddy system. So if you have like a hybrid meeting, make sure that every remote person has somebody that they’re tethered to in the in-person meeting so that if something goes wrong with the tech, they don’t have to interrupt everybody. They have sort of a buddy in that meeting.
Nenad: Yeah. We have one person taking care about everything, everybody, online, which can be difficult. It can be done also on one-on-one basis. But then we need more laptops in the room.
Lisette: Right. Right [laughs]. Yeah, but even just one virtual host could be very useful. I mean how many problems come up at the same time usually. I mean usually, it’s manageable. So that’s a great… I like that virtual host, awesome tip.
Nenad: Yeah. And that’s also part of [inaudible – 23:02] explain [inaudible] a little bit about blended meetings.
Lisette: Yes. So let’s talk about the virtual team quick guide. I’ve got it up here. Tell us how did this come about? Why did you decide to write this?
Nenad: This was kind of an outcome of this struggle. When I noticed that most of us, me included, have lots of stress in this area of [human – 23:26] collaboration and also, during video calls. And that is not only because of tools we use but actually because of lack of skills. So I started to explore this area. And actually, what I found out is that corporate world already did quite a lot of research work and books. Of course, corporate world that they needed for globalization purposes. And they had resources to do it.
So I took some time to go through literature. And then there was this opportunity transition network. [inaudible – 24:13] that initiated transition movement worldwide. They were offering some funding for development of different resources, so I offered this as a possible project. And yeah, that’s how we did it. And what I did is actually, I took not only what I found in literature and through this research. I took some experiences I had in different teams. One was [inaudible – 24:45] team, which I already mentioned. The other was European permaculture network, strategy and vision group, which was active for a couple of years, also struggling with all these issues, and also learning by doing. So at the end, [inaudible – 25:09] network helped edit this [inaudible] to make it more useful. And now we are sharing it not only within transitioners. With transitioners, they are sharing it with other, similar groups that are interested.
Lisette: Yeah, it’s a great guide. I mean I really like. You have a series of principles for virtual working. And then it goes through and talks about the tools to use. And you give examples of tools and how to set up virtual teams and roles and facilitators. I mean it’s really a thorough guide. I will definitely link to it in the show notes.
One thing that I wanted to ask about it… because I of course am in the process of writing my book about remote teams. And there have definitely been some things that I learned through writing the book. So I wanted to ask you what were some of the things that you learned that you really… After you write something, you really know a subject. So what did you take away from…? I know I’m putting you on the spot. This wasn’t one of the planned questions. When you write something like this, at the end, it kind of takes something away from it. So what did you take away from your experience?
Nenad: When I wrote first version, it was much longer. So as I said, a colleague from Transition Network helped edit it. And it is shorter now. I think that through writing this, I actually realized for what we do, video calls are precious. And what I realized is that video calls sync people on screen is really, really important. And I realized that synchronous communication is much, much better for mutual understanding and relationship development, particularly if it’s on video. But even synchronous communication that is typed like live chat works better than asynchronous, any form of asynchronous communication. So this is what is my personal takeaway from this process.
Lisette: So interesting. In the beginning, when I first entered the workforce, everything was phone calls. We called each other. Everybody was just talking on the phone. And then became email. And email really took over all the phone calls. In the beginning, you just called people. And then there was email. And email took over all the phone calls. And then started coming the video chat and even more asynchronous communications like instant messaging. I mean they were all sort of there. But for me, that was sort of the sequence. So I kind of had the same realization about video, but I didn’t connect it with synchronous chat. Even a live chat can be better than asynchronous when it takes a couple of hours to go back-and-forth with people. You’re right. It’s sort of unnatural for humans in a way.
Nenad: Yeah. And there is this aspect that is linked with how we function as human beings. So if you think about it… And there is literature, of course, on that topic. Both agriculture and writing were introduced to human culture more or less at the same time. And the consequence of that is our division from nature. And it seems that writing somehow makes it easier for us to disconnect from nature. And oral culture, when knowledge and information is shared by seeking [inaudible – 29:03] actually builds our connections with other people and also builds our ability to connect with nature. People are nature as well.
Lisette: Right. It’s true. People are nature as well. Oh, I have so many questions for you, but we’re starting to get to the end of the session. But I do want to ask before we get to the very last question, which is an easy one. I do want to ask, “What advice do you have for others who are starting out?” Now that you’ve done this, I mean you’re still struggling. We’re all still struggling with a few things. But if there’s somebody else who’s starting out with a global organization of volunteers, there are many, I’m sure, who are listening to this podcast. What advice do you have?
Nenad: Oh, that’s easy. Don’t talk about tools. Talk about how to make it enjoyable for yourself and see what tools can support that. That would be my advice.
Lisette: I love it. How to make it enjoyable for yourself?
Nenad: Yeah, because if it’s enjoyable, then it has much better chances to be both effective and efficient.
Lisette: Love it. That’s a great answer, absolutely great answer. And nobody has ever said that before, so that’s a first [laughs]. So the very last question is what is the best way to get in touch with you, to find out more? If after listening to this interview, people are like, “I need to talk to this Nenad guy,” how do they find you?
Nenad: Yeah, I guess through Facebook. I maintain a profile on that social network. And that’s the only profile I maintain. And also, if you Google Virtual Teams for Systemic Change, you will end up at my blog, which I’m not very active. But most likely, [inaudible – 30:54] more and more writing [inaudible – 30:56] that blog.
Lisette: Also, blog posts are timeless, right? So things that you’ve already written can… It doesn’t mean you have to write every week.
Nenad: On that blog right now, there are more things that other people wrote. And I just copy-paste it, but I also wrote some.
Lisette: Great. It’s a conglomeration of information. Okay, there is one more thing that I want to ask about. I know I said it was the last question, but now I was just curious, which is you’ve chosen only Facebook as a social media account to maintain. Why?
Nenad: Because I don’t want to maintain more than one. And most of my contacts are on Facebook.
Lisette: Well, that’s a good reason [laughs]. I should think about that. I’ve got all these social networks. And it takes a long time to actually engage with people.
Nenad: Yeah. I tried [inaudible – 31:44] like a weekend. And then I said, “No, no, I don’t want that.”
Lisette: It’s highly addicting. You made a good choice. [laughs] You made a good choice. Thank you so much for your time today. I found it really valuable to talk to you. And I really look forward to sharing the virtual team guide with everybody.
Nenad: Thank you for inviting me, and thank you for sharing the guides.
Lisette: Oh, yeah, my pleasure. Until next time, everybody, be powerful.