Online work and support
Our garage description page for users: Scicomp garage. (This is an internal description page)
Since 2020, Aalto Scientific Computing has worked online. Since we are a distributed team supporting users in many locations, this has improved our work in numerous ways. Online work gives us:
A way to interact regardless of physical distribution close to users.
Higher-quality, continuous interaction (including better onboarding).
Better work-life balance and adaptability to different lifestyles.
Since 2017, we have had weekly office hours called “garage”. Since 2020, they have been online and revolutionized our support. The garage gives us:
A standard way to help users interactively, without the burden of scheduling meetings.
A “social time” in the middle of the workday to chat with each other.
By combining the above two, we can chat about useful things relevant to our work, handle many internal meetings that would otherwise have to be scheduled and allows us to better share knowledge, and in general provide the spontaneous interaction that everyone claims is missing from remote work.
rkdarst’s principles of remote work
The online garage helps with at least two of rkdarst’s principles of remote work, and part of a third:
No private messages (allow others to know what you are doing)
Don’t schedule meetings (use standard meeting locations and talk spontaneously)
Work in public (make it possible for others to join you)
How it works: “garage” support session
We have an announced time: 13:00, every workday.
Users and staff join the meeting during the scheduled time
We don’t promise any service level - some days, it could be that users arrive but there are no staff. But this has become so integral to our work that it never happens.
Users ask their question and we do initial triage
We help either in the main room or breakout rooms. (for example, main room for a question where there is one user and the topic is a good discussion point for everyone on the team)
At least one staff helps. Usually, we try to have two helping: one who knows and one who is learning the topic. (This is very useful “on the job training”.)
Staff don’t have to be always-on. It is usual for many staff to be working on their other work, passively listening in case something interesting comes up or someone says their name.
Staff can also easily be called to the meeting using chat.
Very low threshold for screensharing.
“Remote control” is very useful, and a middle ground between telling people commands to type (extremely slow and demotivating when someone has no idea what to do) and taking over their computer (demotivating/hiding information in another way) since the user can easily and actively see what is going on.
Often in other issues, when the actual problem is unclear, we will say “Let’s talk in garage” rather than try to debug by asynchronous chat. Since garage is so frequent, this feels good.
You can read our “support flowchat” from Help.
There is one recurring Zoom meeting
Meeting schedule = “recurring at no fixed time” option.
Everyone on our team is a co-host (must be in same Zoom organization)
The first co-host to join becomes the meeting host.
Any co-host can open breakout rooms or assign customers to breakout rooms. But for the most part we tell users where to go and they go themselves.
Normally, first person to need breakout rooms opens an excess number, such as 10, and selects “allow participates to choose”, click “open”, and takes no further management action.
Some people may initially use chat to ask their question (the dispatcher can also send these initial questions by chat). This is especially good as a second conversation while one problem is being discussed.
Zoom trolls have never been a problem, even though the link is public. One hypothesis is that by not listing specific dates on the webpage, it is not a findable target by someone looking for “where to troll now?”.
Usually one person is the effective “dispatcher”: they make sure that everyone is greeted, take a basic description of each problem. They make sure that people are handled, call in the best supporter, etc. (after a team gets enough experience, this role becomes implicit).
How it works: internal meetings
The garage room is actually our only meeting room for all normal team meetings
For example, we have our weekly team meeting right before the garage one day of the week.
This keeps meetings on schedule and provides a day when we can be sure most people are at garage, for the hardest questions
We would enable the waiting room towards the ends of these meetings (but normally we don’t use the waiting room).
Even other meetings, either two people discussing something, happen in this room.
Worst case: meetings overlap or run into each other. But this is actually good, doesn’t everyone complain that you don’t spontaneously meet people online? We split to breakout rooms and manage. Sometimes we have even made important connections this way.
This isn’t just for users - other staff teams can come talk to us during this time. Basically, it replaces a lot of the overhead with any meeting with us.
Online-default meetings is great for work-life balance of people, especially those with families.
Chat or other asynchronous text-based communication is a requirement for inclusive meetings. It allows anyone to contribute ideas without waiting for a pause, and more than makes up for any online awkwardness. (The “meeting agenda” below can also serve this purpose).
Meetings are managed with a Google Docs agenda.
Each week, a new heading is made, and it collects topics for the next meeting. There is no running through a list of ongoing projects and hearing “going on”, every agenda item has been actively placed by someone over the last week, who actively needs thoughts and a decision from the rest of the team.
Someone screenshares the agenda. Instead of needing to find a pause to talk, people can write information/thoughts directly into the agenda, so meetings scale better. People can write information already in advance of the meeting, to focus the meeting on discussion and not sharing information.
Everyone should have the agenda open themselves so they can see, scroll, and contribute - a meeting is no longer just voice talking!
The meeting agenda can also serve as chat - if someone wants to say something but can’t find a time to use voice, they right it there directly as a point.
If you want, you can expect everyone to write down their most important points and summaries of their points directly in the agenda - themselves (instead of delegating that to a designated note-taker). This is more fair, allows everyone to write their notes in their own words, emphasize their most important points (unimportant points not written), and gives others a time to talk.
It is only one running document (not a new one each week). New weeks are added to the top (since top loads first). Attendees can easily scroll down to refer to past weeks.
This strategy has revolutionized our meetings. Other meetings have much more of a “this meeting should have been an email” feeling after this. (In no small part because the “this should have been an email” parts get written and read by everyone, with only a short mention if that’s all it needs).
How it works: general common space
If two people are text-chatting and need to talk in person, there is zero overhead. One simply asks “Zoom now?”, the other confirms, and they know exactly where to go. Or the answer might be “Garage tomorrow?”
This space is also is used for random coffee breaks, etc, which are usually spontaneously announced.
In theory, especially when we are onboarding people, this can be a generic hangout space during downtime. You might meet someone there and chat and learn something.
In short, the meeting is the “commons” of “caves and commons”.
Problems with in-person office hours / garage
People have to bring their own laptop. When someone works on a power desktop, they can’t bring it.
No screen-sharing. People are crowded around one computer looking at it.
You can’t type on their computer without taking it away from them. For screen sharing, if you do “remote control” at least they can clearly see and feel in control.
Really hard to have multiple supporters with one customer.
From your main workspace, you hopefully have multiple screens. One screen can be the screenshare while the other is your own debugging/testing work.
For individual-person office hours, or even an open office policy, someone may come by and the best person to answer may not be there, may be in another building, etc.
Even if they are there, one-on-one support doesn’t give the “on-the-job training” to other team members.
“Open door policy” makes for constant distractions.
In-person garage tends to be limited to once a week, since everyone has to go there. Staff leave their main workspace, so can’t work as efficiently. Online, it is completely reasonable to be working on other work while muted/video off and passively listening in case something useful comes up.
What is the largest size team for which this works? What happens when we go over that?
What’s the best frequency? We really think that every day works best for something within a team.
Mixing different teams in general: how different of teams can use the same garage/standard meeting room.
If multiple teams have separate garages, should they be at the same time or different? Combined? (does it get too big?)
Is it even possible for one person to have multiple garages they need to keep in their mind - or is it a “one-per-person” kind of thing?
How many garages can someone attend (as staff) before it becomes “too much”.
Is there a better tech than Zoom? In 2022, it works much better than early 2021, and at least people can join via browser.
When people start working in-office again, how does this continue? (People have started, and Garage seems to be a permanent culture shift. But it helps that our offices are distributed around).
Flip it around: don’t look it as a “how to scale garage to more staff”. Scale communities to the size that can be supported by a garage, then make more communities as needed, each with their own support infrastructure.
So garages contain 5-15 supporters, and the communities perhaps several hundreds. The communities can overlap/be virtual inside of organization units.
The support staff within the garages network between communities on the support/tool side, so that they are aware of the broader environment and can direct the members to other garages as needed.
Coordinated garages across different teams? At the same time or different?
Some sort of cross-organization garage sessions. But, is something only once a week good enough to support continuous work? Does it work as a starting point, then you direct the user to your own specific daily garage?
Recommendations for how to implement your garage
(I’m not sure what to say here, that isn’t already said or implied above. Any ideas?)