MOLOOD NOORI ALAVIJEH is the founder & host of RemoteForeverSummit.com, an Agile Coach and CEO of Everemote (Remote Forever), a blogger & keynote speaker. In this interview, we dive into what distributed agile teams are struggling with, characteristics of a good remote leader, and how to manage your time to be effective and prevent burn out.
Her tips for working remotely:
- Map your tasks to your calendar so you can see how much time things will actually take.
- Do retrospectives for yourself.
- Work with your strengths and skills.
- Always ask “What problem are you trying to solve?”
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers Podcast my name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people in companies doing great things remotely. Hello everybody and welcome to today’s episode, I’m very excited to be interviewing a friend and colleague from the virtual team talk community Molood Noori Alavijeh. Molood is an Agile Coach for distributed agile teams and the CEO and founder of a company called Remote Forever but before we get into her interview I want to give you guys this week’s one minute tip. Now I’ve known Molood for a couple of years now and I can tell you she is a powerhouse of productivity. So today’s tip comes straight from her interview about how she manages her time, you know we all set goals we all write down our list of things to do but we don’t map it to our calendars so her tip is map your tasks to your calendar so you can actually see how much time things are going to take and in fact she’s absolutely right because I have a To Do list a mile long and I always feel very optimistic about how much I’m going to get done in a day but when I actually map my To Do list my calendar well it’s clear that I’m on crack and I have some reorganizing to do. So great tip Molood for managing your time make sure you map your calendar to your tasks. Okay but let’s get on with the interview, like I said before Molood is an Agile Coach and she specializes with distributed agile teams and she’s also the organizer of an online conference called the Remote Forever Summit and this conference is coming up very shortly 5 November 2018 and of course it happens every year so if you’re catching this podcast a little bit later make sure you sign up for the next year and in this interview we dive deeply into what distributed agile teams are struggling with, some of the characteristics of a good manager for remote teams and of course how to manage your own time and prevent burnout. So without further ado I give you Molood Noori Alavijeh. What does your virtual office look like what do you need to get your work done?
Molood: First of all hello to you and to all the people listening to this my virtual office is pretty diverse so I usually work from different cafes and if I find the environments very noisy I almost always switch to a hotel lobby which sounds weird to a lot of people but that’s what I do hotel lobbies are perfect for a workplace because people treat you like the, the people who work there treat you as if you’re a guest even if you’re not and the environment is quiet that’s-
Lisette: So go to the fanciest hotel lobbies that you can find right?
Molood: Yeah they are they have the best service.
Molood: Cafes and lobbies are right now my virtual office.
Lisette: And why cafes and lobbies, why do you choose there?
Molood: That’s a very good question when I first went remote I had to experiment with a lot of different environments to figure out where I was the most productive. Just like a lot of people I thought home would be it but home wasn’t because I live in Stockholm and I live in a small one bedroom apartment and it was not really allowing me to separate where I sleep and where I cook and where I watch TV from where I work and I think that’s a really important ah important thing that you need to distinguish your work place from where you do everything else pretty much so I needed to look outside to write co-working spaces they were good for a while but I like the diversity that I get from cafes.
Lisette: And do you have any issues working in cafes like noise or I don’t know uncomfortableness people what it what are some of the things you struggle with there because it sounds luxurious.
Molood: Well of course they have problems there the first thing and the most obvious thing is if you have a meeting and you’re in a cafe and it’s noisy and there is a sound of coffee grinding and coffee pouring and people talking the other person on the other side of the line is going to be very, very bothered so obviously that’s not a good environment if you’re going to have a lot of meetings during your day which is why I always have a backup plan and so I have like this excel sheet maybe someday that would turn into an app but I mark where cafes are what there are good for and whether or not there is a good hotel lobby nearby so if I have a meeting I schedule the meeting and I just move there and also another tip that I could give about hotels is that a lot of times you can book a conference room in a hotel for free if you go there on the day and it’s available and if you don’t need catering or you don’t need them to give you any service but you just want to use the environment.
Lisette: That is a great tip so you show up to the lobby and you say hey I’ve got a quick call-up I have got to make is there any sort of room available and they’re like oh yeah conference room A-
Molood: Yeah it’s not usually as quick but it’s possible and I have gotten conference rooms for free for quite a few times.
Lisette: Brilliant no I didn’t even think of doing that so yeah wow hotel lobbies, cafes so that’s lovely that’s a lovely way to do it. So let’s talk a little bit about Remote Forever and some of the work that you do so it’s you’re doing there’s a couple of things that you’re doing so you’re an Agile Coach and you’re also organizing the Remote Forever Summit, we’re definitely going to dive into the Remote Forever Summit but let’s talk a little bit about your Agile Coaching because you, in particular, have the focus on distributed teams and an interest in distributed teams so tell us a little bit about your background and your experience there.
Molood: So just like a lot of Agile Coaches I started as a developer and then I became a tester and then I became a leader in a very technical environment and in a very technical way then I discovered agile so that’s how my agile journey really started but agile coaching really, really got me I got hooked I went to courses I took vacation to go to courses to really learn what this agile thing and agile a coaching thing was about and the focus on distributed teams was formed very gradually it was used, it was actually an observation I had so I do retrospectives for myself every once in a while and the regular ones happen every Sunday. So there was one of those Sundays where I was sitting with myself you know in a cafe and writing myself to an Irish copy and I saw it. I thought wait a minute the agile manifesto says you shall you shall be co-located and every single team I have ever worked with has not been co-located what’s the deal with that? So that’s where I started researching and that’s around the time I also found you and also like a lot of other people who are active in this in this sphere of working with distributed teams but the collaboration between agile and distributed team was not very strong when I got interested in this area so I started creating my own content and talking to a lot of different people and that’s pretty much it so right now what I do as a national coach is that I help companies that are distributed and are transforming to Agile ways of working to do agile better and I also help companies that are doing agile well to take advantage of the benefits of working remotely, so bringing the two worlds together.
Lisette: Love it love it and there really is a divide in the agile community about yet because in the manifesto it says yeah it should be face to face but then again it was written in 2001 and the technology wasn’t as good as it is now so it’s so much easier to be together so I think yeah, in the Agile community I’m not so personally interested in whether remote is better than co-located or not but I think your point speaks to this really well which is what if you have to be remote which is the situation that most teams are in they probably prefer to be co-located but you can’t be and then what. So what are some of the biggest challenges that you’re seeing agile teams go through in order to be distributed or when they’re distributed?
Molood: Okay that’s, that’s a very good clarification you just made when they are distributed and they want to benefit from agile ways of working people have a lot of hidden scripts things that they tell themselves and they believe them that are not necessarily true. For example if I can tap my colleague on the shoulder and interrupt them in the middle of their workday then I can’t be productive or effective in my communication. We know that’s not true because we work remotely most of the time but a lot of people who have never used and who have never really worked remotely they don’t know this they’re used to the office environment where productivity is rather low compared to a lot of remote teams and that’s what they know as reality. So the challenge that I face is going deep into people’s minds and finding those hidden scripts and changing them so I’m learning things that people have learned over longer periods of time that’s where the coaching comes into play that’s the biggest challenge.
Lisette: Wow trying to get so trying to change the mindset really of how people have done things in the old way and where do you see your distributed teams where are they struggling the most is it communication is it the tooling is it, what’s going on that makes it so hard?
Molood: I’d say if you ask if you ask them they would say we don’t have the right tools or we don’t have the right set of tools the configurations that would that would help us. When you go a little deeper you figure out that it’s the communication and then you go even one layer deeper you figure out that it’s not the communication itself but it’s how people don’t know what effective communication really means. I’ll give you an example people assume that in order to have communication or effective communication we need to be communicating in real time, we need to have meetings and meetings when done over video in a distributed way they can really bother people. They may not be well facilitated, people might not have the right tools, the right technologies so they tend to get on people’s nerves but effectiveness does not necessarily come in real time you can also make sure that everybody is aware of the status of every single task in their project by using a tool and updating the status, you can for example use a chat messaging system like a lot of distributed teams do and use the status message you know set your status to a way or having lunch or visiting my daughter in a hospital or whatever that is use the tools effectively in order to create effectiveness in the communication. So changing the mindset of needing to always meet in real time and converse to those really everything need to be in real time or can we take some of the conversations a synchronously.
Lisette: Love it indeed and it is handy when some things can be in real time but I think when we step back we do realize a lot of things don’t need to be in real time.
Lisette: Indeed so what are some of the major benefits that you’re seeing when people do it right?
Molood: Oh man a lot of things people become happier naturally because they are collaborating in ways that they didn’t know was possible before. They are creating the signs they are creating code they are making sure that their code is well tested and integrated and I’m talking particularly about development teams in agile environments. People just become proud of what they’re creating how they working with their colleagues so happiness and productivity are the first two benefits that you face when you actually manage to create effectiveness in the communication.
Lisette: Oh I see because people are enjoying the work that they’re working on and do you see anything about you know working where you’re most productive to people like it I mean is that something that’s of value to the people on the team?
Molood: It depends it’s very individual for different people I just recently chatted with someone commenting on your post on LinkedIn actually who said yeah and you know it’s nice for other people but I can’t do that because I have a daughter at home or I have a kid at home and in a noisy environment like that I can’t work so it comes back to the habits and the learnings that we need to unlearn. No one said you need to work from home you need to figure out where you’re most productive maybe it’s an office sure go to an office but research shows that most of the open offices are not the best or the most productive environments for people and that’s mostly due to interruption so work with those interruptions figure out how to communicate more effectively and an office can be a good place too.
Lisette: Right indeed it really is not yeah there was an assumption there on that LinkedIn post that working remote meant working from home and indeed that was one of the assumptions in the mindsets that needs to be challenged, it could be a will go to a co-working space well go to yeah a hotel lobby or a cafe or yeah find what works for you and then do that indeed.
Molood: Library that’s another one.
Lisette: Libraries are great I’ve also recently been doing that very quiet, great internet yeah lots of books and inspiring views usually at cafes also nice yeah I love the library. So you’re organizing an online conference called the Remote Forever Summit what is it and why, why did you start this?
Molood: Oh man that’s a big question. So what is it is easy to answer it’s an online conference that aligns with what we have already talked about its bringing remote work and agile together so we in the agile world can learn from remote work and bring all the best practices of remote work into the agile world and [versa versa] but I’m mostly focused on the first scenario that is you know what agile is and we just don’t know how to work remotely. So that’s the goal of the summit and the summit is completely online and it is happening on November 5th to 11th 2018 that’s the second edition of the summit we had the first edition and you Lisette you were a speaker there, opened up the summit and everyone really appreciated that session and to this date it’s actually one of the most watched sessions of the summit.
Lisette: Hurray way to increase my ego I love that.
Molood: But for anyone listening to this the summit is free to attend when it’s live and there is also an option to purchase a pass that you can it gives you access to all the sessions after they have been aired and there is a lot of bonuses and goodies for people who purchase the tickets too and they’re mostly from the speakers. So go check it out if you want and I can actually tell the URL if you’re interested that’s remoteforeversummit.com.
Lisette: Okay so I interrupted there it was remoteforeversummit.com.
Lisette: Great, okay so why, why did you do it?
Molood: Why I did it because there was a gap between the agile world and the remote work world. I looked up people working remotely and I saw oh man they are working great they are actually what I want agile teams to be to look like to be productive to be communicated to be effective and I looked at agile people struggling with how to work remotely and all I wanted to do was guys look at the other guys who don’t have a clue what agile is but they’re doing a great job and I thought there was a gap and to bring the two worlds together it was a very big thought that I had and I thought you know what’s I will give it a try and I’ll just talk to people who can talk about both worlds people like you who have served both worlds and a few other people that I invited to speak at the summit and suddenly the summit got a life of its own and it became much bigger than I had anticipated and it seemed it actually validated the need that existed in the market and that’s also why we’re doing it again and yeah it will continue we already have confirmed speakers for 2019.
Lisette: Awesome, awesome yeah there is a need I mean a couple of years ago I organized the distributed agile teams conference in Berlin it was actually an in person conference to talk about distributed agile teams wasn’t my idea but I was you know they, they asked me to join I thought heck yeah I’ll join and yeah indeed it validate the idea that there is indeed a lot of interest in the Agile community a special especially for this because as you said in the very beginning people have to work with distributed teams and then what do we do. So that’s, that’s super exciting that, that it took off and has a life of its own. What’s in it for you personally what do you love about-
Molood: About the summit?
Lisette: About remote working.
Molood: About remote working well I enjoy the freedom that it gives me I enjoy the fact that I’m not judged based on how many hours I put into delivering a certain set of results but I’m only you know measured based on the results that I deliver and it also is growing me a lot as a person and particularly as a leader oh man putting the summit together and having a team to help me organize it that’s already helping me grow a lot as a remote leader. Things get misinterpreted, you know I accidentally offend someone so I need to learn how to take responsibility, how to apologize and learn all those self-development techniques that I might have heard of before and I might even have used them before in a face to face kind of set up but doing that remotely is a whole set of new skills that I’m learning but bottom line is fulfillment I really enjoy working in a way that I feel the most productive and that I feel that I can deliver and add and contribute to the world to the best of my ability.
Lisette: Love it so now when you talk to other leaders and managers about this I’m sure they have lots of questions on the whole remote style of leadership, what do you think the major differences are what have you noticed for yourself?
Molood: The very obvious one is you don’t see people so you don’t know what they’re thinking you don’t know whether or not they’re present, you don’t know whether or not they’re working right so when you talk to leaders when I talk that leaders one of the main concerns that they have is when I don’t see my employee I don’t know X and X can vary it can be a lot of different things for different leaders but yeah that seems to be the main challenge to figure out how to help this person this leader to basically let go and trust and trusting is already a very, very hard thing to do and to give people the skills that is required to trust other people.
Lisette: Oh that’s a big one but you know what, what strikes me is your previous answer in compared to this where leaders are so afraid that people aren’t going to work when they’re given the freedom to work where they’re most productive but in reality people such as yourself are wanting to work remotely because you want to be productive not like you want to lay on the couch and if you are laying on the couch you’re being productive while doing it so people are working remotely not to slack off but it’s just the opposite it’s in order to, to work at their fullest potential.
Molood: Yeah one of the things that I do usually when I’m hired by companies like that who are struggling with allowing remote work to exist in their organization is I go around and I ask people sometimes I walk around with a leader next to me and I just talk to the employees so their leader again listen in and hear what the answers are I ask people this very question where do you go to get work done, where are you the most productive and answers usually basically convince the leader on their own I don’t even sometimes need to have a conversation to follow up. The answers are often well you know I come to the office before everyone shows up or I stay a little late in the office so you know I can have some alone time when everybody’s at home. So yeah that’s self-explanatory.
Lisette: Well I like that you actually go around and ask people and I think that um as part of leaders in an organization whether they’re co-located or remote that that’s one of the things that people forget to do over time is to actually just go and talk to the people and just check in and ask a lot of questions, so really good point.
Molood: It can’t be the only way but it certainly is a very helpful way.
Lisette: Right a great way to connect with people. So on the same topic a lot of people suffer from burnout and are bad at managing their time and you in particular I know from working with you you’re a rock star at managing your time I am in serious admiration with that. So what are some of the things you put in place for yourself to manage your time and to keep from burning out because you obviously love your work so it must be hard to stop?
Molood: It is it definitely is I am guilty of staying up late at night right now I’m doing this and I have a cold I have to really push myself to come to this interview but I’m doing it because I’m not that you know I don’t have a fever so what I do is a rule that I follow I think all the time if it’s not on your calendar it doesn’t exist. So before we record we talked a little bit, you and I Lisette we talked we talked a little bit about setting goals, making plans and scheduling activities that help you make those plans and those goals a reality, I see this as a little bit similar to how we in the agile world do use our story mapping, we have three different level, layers of a story map. On the top layer we have the user journey which is basically themes of things that the user needs to do to get value from the product the second layer is the headlines of the user stories and the third layer is the user activities. So bringing this back to life and time management it’s set goals for sure, do your yearly resolution absolutely, have your quarterly retrospectives, definitely and use a planner for sure plan you know when you want to achieve a certain goal break down your goals into smaller goals and make sure you do achieve them but what about the third layer what about the activities that you actually need to do in the only 24 hours that you have to make sure that you’re actually moving forward and another rule that I follow is taken from mean that is identify waste and remove it.
Lisette: So how do you identify waste in your life can you give us an example to make it more tangible?
Molood: Definitely so the first thing that I learned I can give you the example of the summit from last year. As I told you I started the summit thinking that it was just you know something I wanted to do something I dreamt about and then it became a goal then it became a plan, then it became a set of activities that I, that I followed and it was a reality. What I had not anticipated was the number of people who would sign up, so I thought it would be you know two hundred people and then I was hosting a summit for over two thousand people.
Molood: Yeah it is awesome but also the requirements changed a lot so I needed to be pragmatic and I needed to react quickly so what that looked like for me was that I was editing all the videos myself and I am not an expert video person at all I had to learn a whole new software it would take me how hours to just edit a single video. So that was a waste that for me for my time and my set of skills especially since I didn’t really enjoy this work that was a waste so I outsourced that this year to someone who enjoys doing that and that’s where collaboration is so beautiful outsourcing or collaborating with other people and trusting that they would enjoy working with their strengths and their skills and allowing yourself to work with your were strengths and your skills.
Lisette: I love that so work with your strengths and skills I’m writing it down because it’s going in the show notes and allow others to, to use their expertise to, to do things that yeah why should you spend hours editing videos when the guy down the street or the guy in another country whoever or girl whoever you’re going to do can do it in like ten minutes no problem they’ve got all the equipment yeah they just push buttons and it’s done.
Molood: But also they actually enjoy it, it makes them happy just like it makes me happy doing what I do, it makes them happy doing what they really enjoy doing.
Lisette: Yeah when in doubt reach out that’s one of the things that I’ve learned so it’s a really, really good tip. So we are nearing the end but I still have a couple questions one is advice for people who are just starting out with distributed agile teams, what advice would you give people?
Molood: Experiment, experiment with things that you are afraid of, reach out and ask questions, if you don’t know the best tool for having video conferencing and screen sharing at the same time don’t just assume that whatever tool your organization is giving you is the only tool or that it’s the best tool go around an experiment a lot of tools out there have trial periods, you can sign up you can give it a try don’t share sensitive information there so you’re in the safe side but experiment the tools and with different processes and circling back to where we started that is we need to unlearn a set of habits that we have learned. I recently got a question from a person that when I was working with he came to me and he asked me Molood what is the best tool for controlling someone else’s desktop when you’re working remotely, I could have given him a name of a tool that would allow you to do that but instead I ask why do you need that why do you need to control someone else’s screen and the answers that followed you know we’re a pair of programming and I just want to you know every once in a while I just want to hold the mouse and hold the keyboard and do this so the question is what would that give you what would that give the other person. So in a coaching conversation he figured that the assumption that he had made was wrong, the process that he wanted to follow was not giving him what he was actually after so the tool of wouldn’t have solved this problem changing the process, exchanging in the mindsets behind those processes was what he needed.
Lisette: Love it so taking a step back and in fact I went to an agile conference just this week and one of the things that struck me was the keynote from [Inaudible 27:26] and he said step back and always ask what problem are you trying to solve? That is and that was that’s a game changer I think for people is like step back and really think what problem are we trying to solve here what is the value we’re trying to deliver.
Molood: Yeah and it’s easy to stop at the first answer that we get so try to go deep and if you can’t do that on your own get help from a coach agile coaches are trained to be coaches and I’m sure you have one of them in your neighborhood or in your LinkedIn profile.
Lisette: Yeah indeed again reaching out for help there. So now one other question is a lot of organizations prescribe the tools that people are allowed to use and um I see people running into issues there also especially when Skype for business is prescribed obviously now that’s getting phased out so I can stop by Skype for business bashing soon um but what do you recommend then in those organizations where they are being prescribed tools that are not necessarily helpful for the team but yet the team is being forced to use it, how do you solve those problems?
Molood: That’s a tough one sometimes it’s not solvable I am not going to lie here but something that I do try is try something try the trial period of some other tool and make sure you do not share any sensitive information I already said this ones. So I think the fear that a lot of organizations have is the fear of their data being stolen or their information spreading out through a tool that uses the cloud and it’s not safe enough it’s not secure enough, it’s not validated by their security department. So when you want to give a new tool a try I don’t think any leader would stop you from trying to have you know a virtual coffee using a new tool. Do a virtual coffee make you know a drawing and share that on the screen to just give the tool a try and if it works then you have data you have an actual example to go up to the to the leaders and to show them that this tool is potentially better than the one you’re already using.
Lisette: Right, right and hopefully if it is at all possible the organization will want you to have the best tool possible in order to get the job done.
Molood: Sometimes that’s true.
Lisette: Yeah sometimes that’s true and sometimes the problem is not solvable and our hands are bound and we just have to use the tools that are given to us, that’s also situations. Many banks have that situation because of security and they just don’t allow any exceptions yeah that’s the way it is that is how it works sometimes.
Molood: My background is actually insecurity so I’m very sensitive about those topics and when I do recommend tools to people sometimes I actually go and make sure that the tool is end to end encrypted before I recommend it to people, I don’t like using the cloud or services that use flash for example so I am careful already there but then again I tell people to experiment sometimes even when you’re using a tool that’s not secure enough for the purpose that you’re going to use it you don’t need that much security maybe you just needed to have you know a friendly chat with a person on the other side of the world.
Lisette: Good point good point all you IT departments out there I hope you’re listening, and also tools you know it’s come a long way in the last five years a lot of tools are on the market I mean it seems like almost every day I get e-mails from people introducing me to new tools because I’ve got the tools list on the website that everybody loves so and I’m a tool junkie so bring it on send them all my way. So every day there are new tools being developed so it is really hard I think for IT departments to also keep up because well that’s not their job to keep up on that, so yeah.
Molood: But then again we come back to processes if you’re bound to a certain set of tools change your processes change your mindsets, you know you have three different factors to play around with the first one is the mindset the second one is the processes and the third one is a tool. So the tool is actually the least important thing in the equation.
Lisette: Agreed. It’s just a thing we all get hung up on the tool and if you’re right we should be stepping back and asking what problem are we trying to solve here.
Lisette: Yeah awesome words of wisdom awesome, hope people are taking notes. So very last question Molood is if people want to find you online where do they go?
Molood: That’s a good question most people find me on LinkedIn, It’s I’m pretty probably the only Molood in agile so it’s not hard to find me but also you can find me on my website remoteforever.com or in the summit website that’s remoteforeversummit.com, there are contact forms on both of those and my email is Molood at both of those domains so that’s pretty easy.
Lisette: That’s pretty easy and also put it in the show notes for people but indeed if you just think if you google Molood you’re probably first on Google.
Molood: Actually no I’m not in the images I might be the first one but I’m not, Molood is a very typical Arabica name for guys so you would find a lot of bearded guys that are named Molood.
Lisette: And if anybody is watching this video Molood does not have any kind of beard whatsoever so, yeah great that should be the first clue.
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