Unlocking Your Remote Team´s Creativity Through Collaboration, with Jim Kalbach

Gabriela Molina

Jim Kalbach is a Chief Evangelist at MURAL, the co-founder of The Jobs To Be Done Toolkit, and then author, speaker, and instructor on design, customer experience, collaboration, and strategy.

Jim Kalbach

Read the transcript

Luis:

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. I am your host, Luis. And today I have as a guest on the show, Jim Kalbach. Jim is a Chief Evangelist at MURAL, the co-founder of The Jobs To Be Done Toolkit, and then author, speaker, and instructor on design, customer experience, collaboration and strategy. Jim, welcome to the show.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Luis:

It’s an absolute pleasure. I want to talk about all the things remote with you. Well, maybe not all the things remote because we are limited in time, but certainly about how remote work impacted your career. You also seem to have a lot going on. You’re the author of three quite popular books. If you’d like to share them with the audience, we’ll have links to all of them in the show notes. But, please tell the audience what’s your output as an author, which is quite nice.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, sure. So in 2007, I wrote my first full-length book called Designing Web Navigation. And that really reflects my background in design and UX and information architecture. And since then I started to get more interested in strategic aspects of design and innovation. And, I wrote a book called Mapping Experiences in 2016, which is all about customer journey mapping, service blueprints, experience maps. I just launched the second edition of that book in 2020 as well, too. So the second edition of Mapping Experiences is there. And then also in 2020, a new book called The Jobs To Be Done Playbook, which is all about jobs to be done. So, those three kind of represent my roots in design and innovation and human centered business thinking.

Luis:

Tell me a bit about Jobs To Be Done, because I admit I’m not familiar with the expression.

Jim Kalbach:

Jobs To Be Done is an innovation framework that was coined by Clayton Christensen, famous business leader, who unfortunately passed away recently. But, dozens of people have taken up his notion of getting a job done for a customer. So the job is the goal, or the objective that people have in their lives, not with your product. It’s not about your solution or your tool or your product or your service. It’s not about what you’re trying to sell them. It’s about what they’re trying to get done. And it’s a way to see that through a lens that is unbiased from your own product or solution.

Luis:

Yeah, that’s very interesting, because in my profession as a marketer, I taught in similar terms from a different framework from the positioning framework, thinking that, usually analyzing competitors to products. One thing that I tell clients all the time is that you’re not really competing with the product you think you’re competing to. You’re competing with whatever tool the people are using to reach their goals. So, maybe your fancy social media posting app, isn’t really competing with the others. They’re competing with an Excel spreadsheet.

Jim Kalbach:

Exactly. Yeah. And there are other frameworks out there that take a similar perspective from human-centered design, you mentioned from marketing. Jobs To Be Done does that particularly well. That is, it gives you that perspective to kind of see things from an unclouded unbiased perspective. So you’re not just thinking about, “Hey, my product competes with other products in the category.”

Jim Kalbach:

It is like, “No, your product competes with anything that customers think, get that job done.” And yeah, software and Sticky Notes and Excel sheets and pencils and things like that, they compete with each other, because at the human level, that’s what people are using to get their job done.

Luis:

Exactly. So, let’s rewind a bit. Let’s talk a bit about your experience with remote work. When did you first come to remote work? And how did remote work affect your career?

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, sure. I mean, personally, it was around 2003. I took a job that was based in London, but I was living in Germany. I lived in Europe for a while. But I was remote, and that was strategic that they wanted somebody close to our German business unit, but working in English with the development team in London. I worked for over a decade remote. Of course, back then it was about phone bridges. You remember how you stepped to dial in a number and you’d be on a phone bridge.

Luis:

That was the thing.

Jim Kalbach:

I know. Yeah. So we weren’t even using WebEx or any solution like that. It was just a lot of phone calls and emails and things like that. It was also pre Slack. But I really started to embrace the fact that I could be at a distance from my team, still feel connected to them, and still be productive and make an impact in my job. And I figured out how to do that, I think, pretty well. So personally, I became addicted to remote work pretty early on.

Jim Kalbach:

But then in 2013, I moved over to Citrix. I changed companies and I was in the design team at Citrix. The makers of GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, and GoToTraining. And I was working on those products as well, too. So I actually started to be involved with looking at serving remote communities or serving people who wanted to be remote. I was in the space, researching how people used teleconferencing software to get meetings and business done remotely. I realized that my personal experiences actually helped me do that then, at Citrix.

Jim Kalbach:

From there though, then I moved over to MURAL. So I’ve been at MURAL for over seven years now. I was employee number 12, so very early on involved in our early growth. And what MURAL did for me is it married my interest in remote collaboration, but also then with design, and design and innovation because MURAL is, it’s a lot of things, but I think it helps with creativity and imagination. So it really put me then on a path of not just looking at remote collaboration, but how do you do remote collaboration so creative teams can stay creative?

Luis:

Yeah. That’s a fascinating story. I feel that it mirrors my own a little bit, because I started working remotely. Actually, my first real job was in the video game journalism industry. So I was working with a team of writers that was completely remote, but fortunately we weren’t using telephone bridges. We were using IRC.

Jim Kalbach:

Oh yeah. I remember that. Yeah.

Luis:

Yeah. That was a different trajectory, but along a similar timeframe. I’m curious about your insights from when you were at Citrix, because that was the wild west days of the internet. The 2010s, where it was definitely, I guess that the big gold rush had past. The web boom had gone, but people were really starting to build real stuff in the internet. So, what was the feeling about the state of online education and online learning, and just the possibilities for online collaboration at that point?

Jim Kalbach:

I think it was a lot less crowded field. That’s one thing that I can say. Microsoft just acquired Skype, but there weren’t dozens and dozens of teleconferencing tools, there weren’t all the whiteboards. Slack didn’t exist yet. So I think remote work was prevalent, and kind of widespread, but it was still not front and center. A lot of companies didn’t have remote work policies, or didn’t allow it, that when remote work happened, it just happened because a salesperson was out in the field, or there were multiple locations. I think that was one of the biggest causes of remote work, where things like travel, or the fact that a large company had multiple locations. So there was a lot of take up and a lot of interest in tools like GoToMeeting and WebEx, of course, but it wasn’t this hyper crowded field like you have now.

Jim Kalbach:

I think there was a complacency a little bit, at least at Citrix that they had a solution and they were making money. They kind of sat back and pushed on the marketing front, and pulled back on the product development front until it started getting really, really, really crowded, and there were 80 tools that did the same thing that we did that were free and browser based and things like that. We started getting worried about our price point. Our price point then became too high. So, it became a very competitive market. And I think those were signs of the changing field of remote collaboration, but this is all pre-pandemic. So, it wasn’t front and center like it is now.

Jim Kalbach:

At that time, I was kind of preaching, “Hey, your teams have to be just as productive when they’re remote. Hey, you have to connect your colleagues, even when they’re remote. Hey, how do you keep the creative momentum going, even when a team is remote?” And, customers would look at us and say, “Yeah, that’s important, but it’s not critical for me.”

Jim Kalbach:

We were working in that space, and it was successful. It was just successful business. And, I had a lot of fun exploring that space too. But, it wasn’t critical to folks like it is now.

Luis:

Got it. What were some of your conclusions back then, specifically regarding the creative aspect? What did you figure out back then that you feel that people still don’t quite get? Because some people still struggle with that.

Jim Kalbach:

It’s interesting you phrase it that way, because I did have some compelling insights. And, at the time GoToMeeting, one of our biggest use cases were sales demos. People would buy, GoToMeetings to do a sales demo. And, you can kind of imagine how that would go. Particularly if it’s software or anything, that’s on the screen. You dial in, you share your screen, you talk to the customer. Show them the tool and you hang up. But I was on Creative Teams and I thought, “Yeah, but how do you do a design thinking session? How do you do a remote design sprint?”

Jim Kalbach:

And that in particular, a design sprint, that was something where people in the field, that is people who were professional design sprint facilitators, before the pandemic looked me right in the face and said, “It is impossible to do a remote design sprint. It’s impossible. Jim don’t even try to do it. It’s impossible and not worth it.”

Jim Kalbach:

And I thought, “No, I actually do think it’s worth it. And it’s incumbent on us to figure that out.” This was actually by the way, some of the language that I used when our CEO at, at MURAL first contacted me back then, because he was describing the mission of MURAL. And I said, “Yeah, that’s my mission, is how do you keep creative teams going? And how do you do all the creative work? That’s the real hard part.” And, I didn’t believe that it was impossible at all, because I had seen some really cool things happening at Citrix, on ourselves and with customers. I knew there was a lot more possible than people thought.

Luis:

Yeah, for sure. And again, it’s so interesting because it’s like there are two worlds, and people in one world don’t realize that the other world exists. When I was, let’s say at the zenith of my video game career, it was something like 2011. I had just gotten this new book, a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonical, where basically the idea is a book about how video games can change the world. But, the lesson taught at fact about that book is that it described a lot of use cases where gamers really collaborated on very ambitious, huge design projects. Making their own video games, building their own communities, et cetera, and all through their computers. So, when reading this book and working in the video game community, I felt that I was being privy to a thing that people outside of it thought was impossible. But, it was very clear to me that it was possible.

Luis:

So now, fast forwarding to the pandemic time, and people needing to do these things. So figuring out that, “Oh, I guess that’s possible, because we need to do it.” There’s nothing for innovation than not being able to do anything else. How do you think that people… You’ve been thinking about that with 10 years in advance, what do you think that people are still getting quite wrong?

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah. I think there’s a lot of things that I think people are still getting wrong. At the same time, and I’ll talk about those in a second, but I also just want to acknowledge that there’s also been a lot of reimagination and a lot of invention that came out of the pandemic. And talking to customers is actually thrilling to me because they’ll come to me with things, and I’ll think, “I never thought of that. Wow. That’s great.” So it’s kind of kept me on my toes where I thought I had insight that nobody else had is, they got that insight themselves very, very quickly.

Luis:

No, but you did have a head start, right? That’s like…

Jim Kalbach:

I had a head start and I still just need to stay a couple steps ahead, which I’m trying to do now as well too, but saw some really interesting things that people had been doing. Overall though. I think a couple of the big key ingredients are, one being deliberate and intentional about the interactions that you have with your team and your colleagues. I find that when you’re in the office or when you’re face-to-face, things can be a lot more improvised. If I’m giving a day long workshop, I can be a lot less structured with the logistics and how I’m going to structure those eight hours. When you’re doing things remote, you have to be a lot more intentional about even the small details.

Jim Kalbach:

How are you going to get everybody to vote on the topic? How are you going to get everybody to contribute? And, just having a much more detailed roadmap. The other thing is shorter chunks of time. Something else that I think we see that instead of one, eight hour day, do a couple of two hour sessions across a couple of days or even weeks, which has a benefit as well too. I never quite liked coming from the creative side of things, this idea that, “We’re going to do a workshop today, and all of the good ideas from these people are going to come out on that day at the same time.” It’s like, “No, no, no. We have ideas throughout our lives.” So, I think spreading things out is an advantage of working remote.

Jim Kalbach:

So, being more intentional, thinking about time differently, and particularly what can you do asynchronously? For me, a lot of the driving force behind the Zoom fatigue phenomena that we’ve heard a lot about, is people just translated their in person calendars to Zoom when the pandemic hit. And then they said, “Crap, I’m just sitting on Zoom all day.”

Jim Kalbach:

Well, guess what? You were also just sitting in meetings all day. It’s just a little more tiring to look at the screen, but it’s not the software’s fault. What you needed to do before the pandemic that you weren’t doing was saying, “Do we even need to meet? And what can we do asynchronously?”

Jim Kalbach:

So I think this idea of being intentional, and smaller chunks of time, but also looking at your time in terms of asynchronous collaboration, because you can still be collaborating, that is working together as a team towards a common goal. You can be doing that asynchronously as well, too. Collaboration doesn’t have to start with a meeting. “Hey, we’re not collaborating unless we’re meeting.”

Jim Kalbach:

It’s like, “No, you can be collaborating, but doing it asynchronously as well, too.” So those are some of the themes that I think, for me, emerged from the pandemic. It’s really changed pretty much everything in terms of the way we work.

Luis:

That’s an interesting concept. I’ve been growing more closer with, as time goes by, to the async brainstorming and then async creative sessions, as time goes by. It never sat very right to me, the idea of getting five or six heads in the room and expecting them to produce creative output. There was always something that felt suboptimal, but I could never point my at it. And now with remote work, as I see myself starting to do that a bit. I do enjoy a lot, the concept of getting people in a Slack channel saying, “Hey, there’s this problem that needs solving. Would you think about it and leave your ideas here, as it’s ready? And we can discuss them.” That feels a lot more pleasant to me, though maybe a little bit unstructured. How would you think that you can add a little bit more structure to that problem?

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, I think there’s a couple things you can do. First of all, I don’t want to say, make a contract, but get them to be willing to work the way that you want them. “Hey, is everybody okay if we do this in Slack? And do you agree to participate?” Because, one of the problems with async work, is getting everybody to participate. If you give a pre-work assignment to a workshop, for instance, you’re only going to get like 50% of the people that actually do it.

Jim Kalbach:

Async is a muscle that we’re not necessarily trained to use right now. You need to overcompensate for that and get an agreement and a willingness of people to join in. But I think also then, just structuring your methods. Instead of saying, “Hey, here’s a topic let’s just brainstorm ideas,” put it inside of a game. Put it in some kind of context, or even just simple things like, “Everybody generate three ideas.” Just by putting that constraint on. I don’t want one or five or seven. I don’t want one idea from one person and seven for another. I want everybody to do three ideas. Just putting that little constraint on it, puts a little bit more structure.

Jim Kalbach:

I’m thinking about your Slack situation in particular, and how I would do it. I would say, “Hey, is it okay if we do this in Slack?” Get everybody to say yes so that they agree. And then say, “Okay, give me your top three ideas for this problem.” And then, use that as a microstructure to help direct their attention. So, they know when they’re, when to begin and they know when they’re done as well, too.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That’s actually a good idea. It goes back a bit to my game collaboration idea, where there is really a structure there, an expectation though, in most volunteer communities it’s opt in. But it’s amazing what those communities actually manage to.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah. Right. Yeah. Think about that.

Luis:

Tell me a bit, because, obviously, you are the Chief Evangelist at MURAL. I’d like to ask you a bit about how to do this in a more visual way, not necessarily through my experience, with Slack. What are some frameworks that you found that people seem to latch onto working, collaborating visually online?

Jim Kalbach:

There are hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of different methods and techniques and frameworks. And that is anchored in our strategy here at MURAL, is to be a method company that the structure and the organization that I just talked about, it’s not secondary. That’s primary for us, are the methods and the templates that we produce. And we just acquired a company called LUMA. It’s our first acquisition as a company. LUMA is a design thinking method company. They essentially took the 36 leading design thinking methods and packaged them in a way that can scale out across an organization, that folks who are not designers can learn those techniques as well, too. And a lot of those methods would be some of the ones that I would point to first, because those are some of the most popular ones.

Jim Kalbach:

It depends on what mode of working you’re in. Are you in a discovery phase? Are you looking for problems to solve? Are you trying to define the problem or understand it? Or, you at the point where you’re actually creating things? That’s actually how LUMA organizes their methods into looking, understanding, and making methods. And then you can put those together as recipes so that you can take an entire workshop or a collaboration. It doesn’t have to be synchronous and think about, “Okay, how do we discover and look together and discover problems together?”

Jim Kalbach:

And, there are techniques like interviewing, all kinds of observations and looking at scanning, and looking at existing sources of input. And then, there’s understanding techniques as well, too, like abstraction laddering, the five whys, methods like that. They have this bullseye that’s very, very effective. Just drawing three concentric circles and moving topics in and out of them by priority. So the things that are in the center are the most priority, or have the highest priority. Just doing that as a team, you start to feel and see things in a different way.

Jim Kalbach:

And doing that visually on MURAL, by the way, helps people sync up right away. If you’re talking on Zoom or on Slack, you’re still going to have different mental models. If you have a team of five people, you’re going to have five different mental models of what you’re talking about based on words. But when you visualize that, it starts to sync things up really, really quickly. So the visual aspect of it is key for alignment.

Luis:

Yeah. That makes all the sense to me, actually. I was thinking as you were talking that something that the sync hasn’t cracked down yet, is the physicality of moving some stuff over a table, or on a whiteboard. Have you taught at all, lately, have you considered it at all what VR is able to do in that aspect?

Luis:

I found that I have tried a bit VR. I’ve tried it in gaming. I’m a big fan, but I’ve also tried it in the Facebook Workspaces. And while it doesn’t feel ready for prime time, it still feels very awkward, there is something there. When I was sitting at my virtual desk for the first time, and it looked like my computer was there. It was an actual computer that I could press the keys with my little VR thing. That was something, that felt special. And then, the fact that I can be in the room with someone, and grab a piece of chalk and make something happen with our movements. Maybe it’s not so much for the benefit of the people watching me, but I just think better if I’m moving my arms.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah. I have a VR headset right here, and we actually have an entire labs group working on VR. We’re doing some very interesting work there. We’re just getting started with partnerships with Facebook, or Meta, trying to figure this out.

Jim Kalbach:

One of our ideas is that we don’t just want to recreate the office. I think that’s some of the first targets that you see out there are, “I had a physical office. Let’s just recreate that in VR.” And we’re wondering what the benefit is. Our heuristic is more like, “Use VR to get the benefits of VR, not just to recreate the physical world in virtual.”

Jim Kalbach:

And one of the things that emerges very, very, very quickly is the personal and the human connection. The fact that, I’ve a colleague here in the United States who’s far away from me, and the other ones in London. And if we all get together, and we might be playing mini golf or something like that, but after a half an hour, you feel like you were there together with them. You just had this different immersive, visceral reaction to your colleagues. You literally feel more connected to them.

Luis:

And that’s very interesting, because why do you think that is? Because the definition is quite low. I mean, our avatars look nothing like the visual fidelity of a Zoom call. I mean, I have a decent camera. You have a very good camera, good visual definition. If you were doing this in VR, we’d essentially look like cartoons, yet, that feels more powerful for some reason.

Jim Kalbach:

I think it’s the immersion, that right now I’m looking at you and you’re 2d, and I’m 2d. Only one of us can speak at a time. When you’re in VR, first of all you, personally, wearing that VR headset, you detached from the rest of the world. Like right now, you are embedded in my other world. I’m here in my office and I can hear the street, and my cat’s in the other room or whatever, and you’re embedded in my world. I’m bringing you into my world. But in VR, you go into that world together, and you’re able to be more present with each other in a different way, even though the resolution is way, way, way lower than here. We have high definition cams here on Zoom, and I’m looking at you and it’s high definition, but it’s still 2d inside of my other world. With VR, we enter a new space, a metaphorical and virtual space.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s kind of funny because I usually talk about the NPC impact. One of the problems with remote work is that if you’re not really mindful about it, you start treating … not treating, but you start feeling that the other people that you work with are a bit like NPCs, non-player characters in a video game. There’s something there to hand out quests, and missions, and rewards, and just move you along. It’s funny that, that happens less in VR, although ultimately it’s closer to a video game

Jim Kalbach:

That’s true. That’s true. That’s an interesting observation. I would, then again, point to the immersive factor there that it’s an illusion, obviously your brain is playing tricks on you, but you feel like you go somewhere else. And just that immersion into a different world, and then my colleague’s there. I go into this different place, and my colleague is there. There’s a very, very different experience. And the thing that I think is going to be first and foremost, that we need to explore in VR is the connection, the social and the personal connection, because that’s one thing that folks tell us is missing during the pandemic, with remote work, is the fact that they feel disconnected from their colleagues.

Jim Kalbach:

We used to do a survey every year. We found that emerged even before the pandemic, that was one of the biggest pain points of remote collaboration is, “I’m missing the personal connection with my work colleagues.” Not necessarily as friends, or family, but you do have these work relationships that I think are important for productivity, that if your team is not connected as human beings, it’s hard to get real work done. And, a lot of that connection happened in the office.

Jim Kalbach:

What we’re trying to figure out is how do we do that virtually? So going back to that statement that you can’t do remote design sprints, virtually? I’m hearing that now, too. I’m reading articles and people are saying, “Ah, you can’t have the same level of personal connection remotely.”

Jim Kalbach:

Guess what I’m saying is, “Nope, that’s what we got to figure out. How can you do that?”

Luis:

Yeah, for sure. Again, I go back to my past life for that, for examples, because when I was playing World of Warcraft, at a almost part-time level, I was part of those huge, 40 people guilds trying to do world firsts. Killing bosses world first, on a video game. And the connection, I had a deeper, more satisfying connection with those people than I had with the people at my college, in my class. Right. And, this was mostly chat based. We had the audio software, gaming audio software was always better than enterprise audio software. TeamSpeak was years ahead of Skype, which was the gold standard at the time. But still, it was mostly a text based and avatar based experience.

Luis:

So, it’s definitely possible. I’d like to hear your opinion about, I think we need to define that relationship goals with the people we work with, because lately I’ve seen a lot of pushback against the idea that, “Oh, we want you to be part of our family,” when they’re trying to hire. That’s probably great for some people, not everyone has the luck of having a family, but I do have one. I’m satisfied with my family. A lot of people are like that. I’m looking for a different kind of connection from work.

Jim Kalbach:

I agree. I would even push back harder and say the reason why you want to work remotely is so that you can spend more time with your real family. That, I think the liberating aspect of the pandemic, as terrible as it was for lots of people around the world is that we all had the opportunity to experience a different lifestyle, namely connecting with those people around us, like our literal friends and family.

Jim Kalbach:

But as I said, there is a social component to work. They may not be friends or family, but there needs to be… Some of the elements just to get back to your questions. Some of your elements are a willingness to enter into a challenge together that you’re trying to solve problems together. And there needs to be a willingness, but that needs to come with things like trust and respect as well, too. That needs to also come with thing like autonomy, and the sense of belonging, and accomplishment.

Jim Kalbach:

It’s different than, you’re not belonging to a family. When you belong to a family, you have brothers and sisters and parents, that’s a different type of belonging than belonging to a team at work, but there is still sense of a belonging. That there’s something greater than just a group of individuals. There’s this entity of a team or a working group. Those are human. Those are all human aspects that I talked about. Respect, inclusion, willingness, a feeling of accomplishment. I think it’s those things that we need to look at, at work, and not make the parallel to a family. It’s a team. That’s what we’ve been using, the word team and teaming as a verb. You team up. And what does that mean? You’re willing to collaborate. You’re curious about each other’s work, you respect them and you want to accomplish something.

Luis:

Yeah. That’s actually a good way to view it. I think that growth is also part of that equation.

Jim Kalbach:

Agree. Yes.

Luis:

I think that the best teams that I’ve ever been is a team where there’s some sort of a friendly rivalry, where you want to be at good together, but you also want to be a little bit competitive with your teammates. That seems to generate a certain different kind of friendliness, because when I’m with my friends that I have in other contexts, we don’t necessarily care so much about how good we are at our jobs. Our relationship isn’t based on that pillar. But when I went someone with the team, I take pride in seeing them grow. And then I also feel like I should catch up. I should catch up. So, that’s definitely a different dynamic.

Jim Kalbach:

I would add that to the list, absolutely, personal growth, team growth, sense of accomplishment together. Those all go hand in hand. Now my question then back to you is, can we do that remote? Can that be done with a remote team? Can you have that same level of connection? And I have a lot of people saying, “Can’t be done.”

Jim Kalbach:

Guess what? Guess what my position is on that. And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing, though. This is really important. It’s not about preference. I prefer to be in person, too. And that’s why every once in a while I will fly somewhere to be together physically in the same room with my colleagues. And, there is something unique and immersive about that as well too. This isn’t about, “Yeah, but I prefer to be together.” This is about, “No, the reality of work moving forward is we are going to be in these situations more time than not. How are you going to survive? How are you going to make a cohesive, creative team that innovates and solves problems together when they’re not physically together?” It’s not about preference. It’s about how are you going to do that moving forward.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

Luis:

All right. So I want to shift gears a little bit because I want to be respectful of your time. I want to transition into some rapid fire questions. The questions are rapid fire, but the answers don’t need to be, please expand as much as you’d like. And the first such question is about tools. If you had a decent budget, let’s say $150 for each person, what would you give everyone in your team? And the rule is, you need to buy in bulk, so you can’t ask them what they want. You need to decide on something for everyone. Could be physical tool, a digital tool, could be an experience. It just can’t be cash or a cash equivalent, like a gift card.

Jim Kalbach:

Understand. On the software side of things, I think you got to look at the jobs that people are trying to get done together in a team to use the phrase Jobs To Be Done. And I think there are about five different categories of things. You need to communicate asynchronously. You need to communicate synchronously. You need to have a shared space where you can store and trade materials. You need to coordinate progress. You need to have a process and a way to coordinate progress, with a calendar, or Asana and tools like that. I believe you’ll also need to be able to think creatively, and in particular, visually, because if you go into a physical office space, there’s writing all over the walls. There’s whiteboards. There’s flip charts. There’s sticky notes over on people’s computers. That, that is actually a need that teams and people have as well too.

Jim Kalbach:

You want to look at the jobs and you want to make sure that your tool set, which I call the digitally defined workplace, actually covers all of those jobs. Does your team have the tools that it needs to get the jobs done from a software perspective? From a hardware perspective, investing in a remote workstation is much cheaper than what a manufacturer has to invest per workstation for an employee in a factory. If you look at automobile, the amount of money that each worker has on an assembly line for cars, what that workstation costs is violently more expensive than a couple thousand dollars for a good monitor and things like that.

Jim Kalbach:

So basically, I get annoyed when people skimp on the physical, the hardware and the things like that. For me, one of the key things is multiple screens. They call them productivity monitors for a reason, is because if you have multiple screens, you’re going to be, just two is enough. I only have two right here in front of me, but I have Zoom over here, and have other things opened over there, and be able to look at multiple things at the same time without toggling. So at a minimum, everybody needs two screens.

Luis:

It’s the same thing. It’s really hard to convey. You probably know how to convey it better than me. I was a nonbeliever for the longest time. My mentor used to tell me that, “Oh, that’s the number one thing that you need to get, is a second screen.” And I’m like, “I can just split my regular screen. Why have that expense?”

Luis:

And then, on a whim, I got a new monitor for my gaming PC, and I had nothing to do with my previous one. So, I just connected it to my laptop. And that was immediately, after two days of it, I’m like, “I’m never going back.” But I find it hard to explain people why the real estate matters.

Jim Kalbach:

Well, it’s about being able to get multiple jobs done at the same time is that, when we’re collaborating, I need to see and hear you, and I need to be able to chat with you, and we need to be able to contribute visually together. It makes it rich. The more channels that you add to your collaboration, the richer, the collaboration is. Because if we’re in person, it’s very, very rich. So to be able to have all of those parallels, you need to have a richer experience. And just having that second monitor allows you to have more channels.

Jim Kalbach:

The other thing that you need to do, if you only have one monitor is, you have to be able to switch applications very, very quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I do a workshop and I want people to use two or three tools. And then I see the people. I’ll say, “Okay, everybody look at Zoom now. And I see the people going over and clicking with their mouse and then closing the other one, and “Wait, where’d you go? I lost the screen.” And, “Hey guys, alt-tab and you can… Or most desktop environments, you can actually minimize things and see the thumbnails of all of your open applications at a glance and things like that.

Jim Kalbach:

If you’re only going to have one screen, you have to be very… And when I say quick, I mean like less than a second, you have to be able to get from one application to the other, so it’s as seamless as possible, one or the other.

Luis:

Yeah. It’s actually, we were talking about virtual reality a while ago. That’s actually one of the wonderful things that I love about virtual reality spaces, is that you can have one screen per app. It’s virtual. You can have as many screens as you want.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, exactly.

Luis:

Right. And you can-

Jim Kalbach:

It’s not overload either. Human beings can actually have all of these things around us, and mentally, “Oh, that’s over there. And the whiteboard is over there. And my colleagues are sitting over there.” When you’re physically in a room, you actually have all of those things and your brain can parse it. So, I don’t think it’s a cognitive problem. I think it’s a logistical problem. And two screens help you get over those logistics really easily.

Luis:

Yeah. One of the things that I was most impressed, even though again, I still think it’s very rough, but one of the things that I was most impressed with the Facebook Workplaces on the Oculus Rift was that I immediately got the usefulness of that Minority Report experience, where people are just using their hands to bring a screen up and expand it. And, it just works immediately, even though you have no real world analog for it, but for some reason, your mind just knows, “Oh, that’s how this is supposed to work.”

Jim Kalbach:

Right. Yeah. Yep. Yeah. Totally. I agree

Luis:

As for yourself, what’s the investment that you’ve made in your workplace that has improved your work life productivity, your balance, or whatever, whatever metric you’d care to measure?

Jim Kalbach:

I think there are a couple things. One is just being physically comfortable and healthy, I think is important. Do you have things at the right height? And do you have a chair that’s going to be supportive? Just being able to be comfortable without having physical and health repercussions there, as well too. The other thing that I’ve not struggled with as much as other folks, although I can completely understand it is separating work from home life, particularly if you’re working at home. it might just be because I’ve been doing it for 20 years, coming up on 20. In 2003, I started to be a full-time remote worker. And I have not gone back to in office for like 20 years.

Jim Kalbach:

I don’t know, maybe I have a more fluid work life balance. I’m not sure, but I know a lot of people have trouble turning off, or being able to detach. They can’t stop working or when they go into their living room, they’re still thinking about work, because it’s right next door. I’m able to blend those things, but I totally understand about having physically separate space for your work, so you step in and out of it, are things. And I actually have done that for myself, even though this doubles as my music room here, too. I’m in a little area here that work is over here. The play is over there. And then, I sleep and live over there.

Luis:

That’s very classy, music. Right now I have a bigger place, actually, this is not my… I’ve moved in the past couple of years. And here, this is where I’m building a game room. So it’s not where I expect to work in the long run. But I figured that sometimes all that you need really is a little physical separator, just to enclose you a little bit. And that works for me.

Luis:

One thing that also works for me pretty well is just again, if I’m doing some lower interaction stuff, so I don’t feel the need for the second screen, is I just grab my laptop and I go and work from the kitchen for a little bit, or from the living room, or the balcony, or even outside the house. That seems to work out great for me.

Luis:

So tell me a little bit about books. Apart from your own books, which I’m sure you’ve given out a lot, what books have you given out the most?

Jim Kalbach:

Given out?

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah. You want someone to succeed. We were talking about growing together with the team. What are the books that you most often give to your team or to someone you want to see grow?

Jim Kalbach:

That’s a good question. I actually have stacks of books right next to me around collaboration, because we’re writing and we’re doing a lot of work on collaboration. So it probably changes quite a bit depending on what I’m reading.

Jim Kalbach:

One of the books, I actually have it right here. I was just looking at it again the other day, is from Amy Edmondson. It’s called Teaming. She wrote a couple of books, but the one called Teaming is particularly good, I find. And she talks about what does a team need in order to collaborate well? She’s an academic researcher, so it’s well researched, but it’s also very accessible.

Jim Kalbach:

In that book, I think she has some of the best material on psychological safety. She talks about the psychological safety of a team. Do people feel comfortable speaking up without the fear of repercussion? And if not, then you don’t have psychological safety. If so, then you have psychological safety. But talking about that as a base layer for well performing teams. And, if you think about fields like Agile, even. Agile is a set of rituals for developers to get from point A to point B. But a lot of it, it’s basically a social engineering tool to get over the team interaction problems of software design, are regulated by a series of rituals. You do the grooming session, you do the sprint planning, you do the retrospectives. These are all rituals that are really social engineering rituals, but they make the assumption of psychological safety, that when you go into a retrospective, that people are actually saying what’s on their mind because they don’t fear that putting something out on a sticky note, that’s negative is going to have repercussions on them.

Jim Kalbach:

So, this idea of psychological safety and being comfortable to speak your mind. And as you are saying, even challenging your colleagues, right? You can still respect your colleagues and have empathy for them, but you can also be provocative. And we can say, “Hey, we’re a great team together, but you know what? I’m going to call BS on that. You’re way off track there, man. Come back to reality.” And be able to do that without fear of them getting upset, or without fear of you getting in trouble in any way, is super important.

Luis:

Yeah, exactly. And, in the topic of psychological safety, I think that it’s important to underscore that this is not just being a nice person, or being positive. I’ve seen a lot of people be afraid to speak, because they have one level of energy, and there’s a colleague or a manager that has 10 times the amount of energy. And they feel like, “Well, if I suggest this, this person is going to be supportive, but is also going to be pushing me far more than I’m comfortable, too, doing it. So yeah, maybe I’ll just not add that bother to my life.”

Jim Kalbach:

“I’d rather not say anything.”

Luis:

Right, exactly. So, that also happens. I think that the psychologically safety aspect is also understanding, “Okay. So this person said this, how can I support them in a way that’s pleasant and organic, and a good experience for them, versus just supporting them in my own way?” Which is my own way is not necessarily, in fact, it’s probably not something they will be comfortable with because we’re different people.

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah. Agree, agree. I have this notion that encapsulated in a post out on my LinkedIn page. I call it Provocative Empathy, or I actually think I’m calling Empathetic Provocation, sorry, it’s not… It’s Empathetic Provocation, that when you’re on a team, you need to be empathetic and respectful of your team. And you need to understand their position, but you can also be provocative and challenge them at the same time. And we see time and time again, that high performing teams, teams that work well together, they’re able to have empathy for each other, but they’re able to also provoke each other and challenge each other.

Jim Kalbach:

Empathetic Provocation is based on the assumption that you have psychological safety on that team. That I can both respect you and challenge you at the same time. And that’s not only okay, but that’s to the benefit of our own personal growth, and that’s to the benefit of the growth of the team as well, too.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Plus it reveals a certain amount of respect. “Hey, I’m provoking you because I believe that you can handle it.”

Jim Kalbach:

Correct. And, “I believe we’ll be better if we get these differences out on the table.” And that, again, that’s what Amy Edmondson talks about in the book, is that if you don’t have psychological safety, what happens is everybody holds their own perspective back, but that could be critical. It could be critical to the mission of the team and to the success of the team. So you don’t want people holding back.

Jim Kalbach:

Now this doesn’t mean you can just be rude and tell people what you’re thinking at any point in time. It’s not about being rude, or anything like that. It’s about challenging and saying, “Yeah, but what if we look at this another way?”

Luis:

Of course. So I do have a final question. This one is a bit more elaborate, so please bear with me. But let’s say that we’re in a position. I know that restrictions vary still, but let’s say that we’re in a position where it’s okay for us all to go out to dinner. And you are organizing a huge dinner where in attendance are going to be the decision makers at top tech companies from all over the world. The round table of the night is about remote work, and the future of work. And the twist is that the dinner is happening at the Chinese restaurant. So you, as the host, get to pick the message that goes inside the fortune cookie everyone will eat. So what is that message?

Jim Kalbach:

Well, you want different messages, right? Because if everybody maybe gets around. So, one message that I would put in there is that, “Collaboration is too important to be left to chance.” And that goes back to the point that we were talking around structuring the interaction. Again, when we’re face-to-face, things can be a little bit more improvised. But, particularly when we’re remote, you don’t want that to just happen at chance. I want to structure things, even at the micro level, “Everybody give me your three best ideas. Oh, and then by the way, what happens to those three ideas? How are you going to synthesize them and prioritize them and make a decision”? On all of those points, you can actually structure and don’t have to be left to chance.

Jim Kalbach:

The other fortune cookie message that I’d put in there is, “Make time and space to connect.” Again, I think a lot of workplace connection, which isn’t your family or your friends, it’s a different type of social connection, but there still is a human connection that you have with your work colleagues. A lot of that happened naturally, organically in the office place, the water cooler moments, the lunchtime, the happy hours. And then, when we all went to our home offices, during the pandemic, everybody said, “I can’t connect with my colleagues.” You need to make that intentional as well, too. And the way to do that is not with quarterly off sites with trust falls. But, every time you meet, take two minutes to connect as human beings. “Hey, how’s the weather there? How was your weekend?” Or, play little games, like what was your first car? Or, if you were a superhero, what superhero would you be and why? If you’re doing that all the time, you will build connection even if you’re not in the same room.

Luis:

Yeah. That, that’s definitely that’s definitely a great point. And it goes back to being curious. I always say, “Try to have fun.” Try to have fun with the people that you’re doing. It. It’s like, “Well, Luis, I’m evaluating Facebook ads returns. How am I going to have fun? And like, “I’m sure we can have fun with that. Let’s figure out what some weird stuff here. Let’s figure out why do the numbers look the way they do? Can we stop some patterns? Just pattern recognition can be fun.”

Luis:

I think that part of it is that we’ve gotten a little bit jaded about our jobs, I think. And it’s understandable because there’s a lot of bad practices going along. But now that we are building our digital offices, I think that there’s a chance to make work fun, again. Now, obviously some situations, it’s called work for a reason. Some cases you do have to go through a grind in every profession, no matter how much you love your job. But I do think that we’re still leaving a lot in the table when it comes to opportunities to making work fun.

Jim Kalbach:

I agree, and fun and play actually help with psychological safety. They help open up creativity and imagination, which are vital for businesses these days. I would make that my third fortune cookie. I would say, “Collaboration is too important to be left to chance. Make the time and space to connect with your colleagues on a personal level. And bring fun and play into work.”

Luis:

Yeah. That sounds great. That sounds great. That’s a great place to leave on.

Luis:

So, Jim, thank you so much for being a guest. Now I do want you to let people know where can they find you? Where can they continue the conversation with you? Where can they find more about MURAL and what MURAL can do for them? And of course, where can they find your books?

Jim Kalbach:

Yeah, sure. So I like to connect with people on LinkedIn. So you can find me out on LinkedIn, Jim Kalbach. I’m happy to connect and have conversations there. I post every once in a while, so you can keep up with my activities. For instance, over at the Jobs To Be Done Toolkit, that’s another place where you can find me. It’s JTBDToolkit.com. You can find me over there. We do some meetups and things like that, but otherwise, MURAL.co. M-U-R-A-L.co and check out MURAL.

Jim Kalbach:

We’ve just defined a new category that we want to occupy around what we call collaborative intelligence. Part of that launch was the acquisition of LUMA that I just mentioned. And, we’re taking a lot of these topics head on. Don’t leave collaboration to chance, connect with your colleagues, have fun at work. These are all things that are part of our model of the future of collaboration. Check out at MURAL.co.

Luis:

Sounds. Awesome. We’ll leave links to all of that in the show notes. Jim, thank you so much for being a guest. It was an absolute pleasure.

Jim Kalbach:

Likewise. Thanks for having me.

Luis:

And thank you for listening. Thank you so much. It’s the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about leading and building awesome remote teams. I was your host, Luis. See you next week.

Luis:

And so, we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners. And the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me. And I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well.

Luis:

You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to DistantJob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode, and any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up, and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up, so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. And to help you with that, again, DistantJob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who we need and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard. And with that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of DistantJob Podcast.

Video call meetings, for most teams, were the best solution to boost collaboration and creativity. Until people started burning out and panicked at the sound of a video call. The so-called “Zoom fatigue” made leaders realize that synchronous communication is not the best in all cases.

During this podcast episode, Jim Kalbach shares how “asynchronous communication is a muscle we haven’t trained” and how boosting creativity in a remote environment is mostly about using different tools and strategies. He shares his experience developing creativity in remote teams and what has worked and what hasn’t.

Highlights:

  • Insights about boosting creativity in a remote environment
  • Why remote work implies being more intentional in terms of communicating
  • Identifying what tasks can you and your team do asynchronously
  • How to encourage creative collaboration remotely
  • How to make async collaboration work
  • Frameworks to collaborate visually online

Book Recommendations:

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