Working in the tech industry makes it easy to default to digital solutions for the systems and processes that are used on a day-to-day basis. However, these digital solutions are not always the best options to use when you are looking to promote engagement within your team. Operations Manager, Alyssa Lohmaier at WeAreMonsters shares how swapping out certain digital processes for analogue ones got her team to work better together.
Alyssa considers her company to be a medium-stage tech startup. With a team of ten, they are able to implement, test, and iterate fast. As a result, Alyssa’s team can optimise and adapt its daily operations (task-setting, meeting cadences, communication, etc.) relatively quickly, with a short feedback loop. This was really helpful for them when they decided to make the switch from digital tooling to analogue – in other words, going from GDocs to pen and paper.
Why the team moved from digital to analogue
Alyssa’s team’s set up was predominantly based on digital systems, with very little analogue communication. Company goals and weekly tasks would be set by one person and emailed to team members, or assigned to a person and tracked via an online project management tool – in their case, Asana and Instagantt. All general communications around those tasks and goals would be done electronically via the relevant apps or Slack.
What Alyssa noticed, however, was that people weren’t collaborating with each other that much, weren’t communicating or sharing the little challenges and lessons in their day-to-day operations, and didn’t have much sense of agency or ownership in company missions.
The only time her team really chatted, she says, was during their weekly update meetings: “On Mondays, for example, we chat about the week before, what this week was looking like, and who was assigned which task.” These chats were largely to discuss the tasks that had been electronically assigned to each team member, and as Alyssa explains, this system often made their weekly meetings feel more “policed” than collaborative: “It felt like someone was telling them this is what you have to do, instead of them saying, ‘I need to do this to help my team!’”
Alyssa felt that the team was blocked by their reliance on digital project management tools because they simply were not communicating enough face-to-face, away from their laptops. As a result, her team made a call to test a predominantly analogue-driven goal and task-setting system.
“The only thing we decided to keep digital,” she says, “was ad-hoc communication stuff, but from a process point of view, and how we operated on a weekly basis, it went all analogue.”
How the team moved from digital to analogue
Moving from all-digital to analogue wasn’t an easy switch at the start. Alyssa recalls that moving away from digital processes was a case of breaking habits, and getting used to the change. “Our generation is often happier staying at home and messaging friends, than actually going out,” she explains. “And I feel like it was the same with this: It’s quicker and easier to just send a message than it is to go and chat to someone, and ask them for help or whatever it is. Tech has made things rapidly faster, so analogue seems ‘slow.’”
This change of pace, however, was exactly what her team needed. By slowing down, they could better see where their current system wasn’t doing what they needed it to (for example, enabling more collaboration).
The first thing they decided to de-digitise was their goal-setting and task-creation system. Thereafter, they focused on getting better at daily stand ups and developing a ‘zero-tech’ meeting etiquette.
Goal-setting and task-creation using sticky-notes
Before going analogue, goals and tasks were set up by WeAreMonsters’ CEO, Pieter van Reenen, and then distributed to the team on a weekly basis via the project management tool.
Once they moved to analogue, they created a system of sticky-notes on a wall to demarcate their 30, 60, and 90-day goals with relevant tasks. This let them visualise everything at a glance, and have something tangible they could physically move around, which sending emails couldn’t do. Using the Monday and Friday status updates as a collaborative team discussion, each person would write their weekly and daily tasks for each goal on a yellow sticky-note and add it to the wall.
“That sticky note has to be structured in a very specific way,” Alyssa says, “so that it is easy to see what is being done and by when, and how it is useful for the team. It has the project’s name in the top left corner, the task to be done in the middle, the amount of time it will take in the top right corner, and then the team member’s initials at the bottom.”
This has not only acted as a forcing function for Alyssa’s team to come together to set weekly and monthly goals, but also meant that individuals took more ownership of their tasks because they had set them themselves, written them on paper, and stuck them up on an office wall. It became a tangible ‘thing’ that everyone could engage with, which Alyssa found gave the team the agency and ownership they were missing before.
Getting better at daily standups
Before making the switch, Alyssa’s team would only meet for the weekly status updates, and rely on online communication to keep track of tasks. Even though they moved away from sharing tasks digitally, they still needed to be visible. This meant that Alyssa needed to make sure her team got together every day, and so daily standups became part of their routine. Every morning, the team would leave their desks and meet in front of the sticky-note wall. She explains that the system worked like a Kanban board:
“On a Tuesday, for example, we’d move unfinished tasks from the day before to today, anything that was done would be stuck under ‘DONE’, and anything that was being blocked would move into ‘BLOCKED’ with the date on which it was blocked. This was so we could track how long things were staying blocked for throughout the week. It was a physical thing – we all moved, and you said what you were doing out loud as you moved your sticky.”
This helped Alyssa’s team with visibility and communication, and gave everyone a greater sense of actually getting things done and moving the company’s goals along as a team.
“Zero tech” meeting etiquette
With a better system set up for communicating daily tasks, Alyssa wanted to improve her team’s communication in other areas as well. To do this, they made it a rule that meetings had to be free from all and any kinds of technology – be it laptops, cellphones, or iPads.
“When somebody’s got their laptop there,” she explains, “and an email comes in, their focus is on that email; not on your meeting. That’s really frustrating for the whole team, and just made meetings longer than they had to be, because we’d have to say things two or three times before they stuck.”
To make this more effective, her team prints out the meeting notes they need before the meeting starts, which also encourages them to come into meetings well prepared. If they need anything displayed, Alyssa says they either project it onto the wall and then close their laptop, put it up on the TV, or simply use the white board to write on. “It changed the entire feeling of meetings,” Alyssa says.
“People focus on each other now, and actually talk to each other face-to-face.”
Why analogue helped
Although Alyssa says her team is still learning new things about analogue and digital systems all the time, there are a few key benefits she says they’ve experienced with switching to analogue:
It has helped foster collaboration, communication, and alignment: Getting people to talk in person allowed Alyssa’s team to discuss their daily tasks and company goals as a team. Removing the “digital crutch” from meetings helped people step out of their shells, and get better at communicating as people, rather than as Slack profiles.
It enabled more ownership and accountability: Writing one’s own tasks, and having them stuck on the wall where the rest of the team could see them, meant they were visible and tangible. Teams put more thought and effort into their tasks, which fostered a very natural sense of ownership and achievement.
It acted as a physical limit on the things you could do in a day/week: According to Alyssa, writing down everything you do in a day or week, made it easier to realise when her team was doing too much. “It’s hard to see that when it’s digital,” she says.
It helped centralise the channels everyone used for team-related things: Instead of one project management tool for the team, on top of everyone’s personal systems, the central analogue system reduced the number of things going on. This meant less ‘stuff’ got lost in space:
“One of the guys used to have things in a notebook, on sticky notes, on his computer, on Google docs – all in different places. That’s when things often fell through the cracks. Analogue has helped push everyone into one central way of doing things, and by doing that, be their most productive selves.”