Author Archives: Zachary Yorke

How choosing flexible tools fuels collaboration

During a recent early morning jog, I had a minor epiphany about a project. I slowed down, pulled out my phone, tapped the microphone and left myself a voice reminder in the margins of my document. Later in the day—after dishes, diapers and sweeping the radius around the highchair—I used that note to build out a better presentation. From the folding table in my 7-year-old’s bedroom, I shared the update with my team just before our working session. 

As a UX researcher at Google for the past six years, working on teams across four time zones in the U.S. and Europe has given me a front row seat for the increasingly fluid ways that customers and colleagues work remotely. Despite all that experience, I'm impressed at how rapidly we’ve adapted to change this year. Here are a few things I’ve learned about flexible ways of working and why it's likely to become even more important for many organizations in the future. 

The trend toward choice

First, it’s important to understand just how much remote work increased before the pandemic. Regularly working from home grew 173 percent between 2005 and 2018. Today, 40 percent more U.S. employers offer flexible options than five years ago. In the wake of COVID-19, that number increased even faster.

Having choices about when and where to work was seen as increasingly important to attract and retain talent even before it became essential to keep businesses running. More employee autonomy may even mean higher job satisfaction and performance, another reason why flexible working is likely to outlast COVID.

Demand for app diversity has also grown dramatically, giving professionals an “à la carte” mix of apps to choose from. Companies now use an average of 88 apps, a 21 percent increase from three years ago. If anything, the new challenge may be managing these choices effectively. It's something we think about a lot, and it's a big part of the way we've designed G Suite.

How flexibility helps my team

Today, tools like G Suite make remote teamwork accessible with video calling and content collaboration.

But what flexibility do these trends and tools actually enable? Here’s a typical collaborative workflow on my team: A few days before a meeting, I circulate a doc or slides. Everyone starts to review, raising questions, adding comments to specific snippets of content and tagging teammates who can add relevant context.

Tagging saves time in a few ways. First, it keeps the meeting smaller. Instead of meeting with 20-something people, we collect input before the discussion—getting everyone’s  latest thinking in one place without cluttering calendars (and saving everyone from yet another video call).  

Second, the asynchronous conversation before the meeting gives us a streamlined agenda for our live discussion. Instead of a lengthy meeting to reach consensus on every detail, we prep for 20 minutes and spend 30 minutes talking through a shorter list of topics to clarify. 

Smaller meetings have the added benefit of allowing for more dynamic discussion—a big deal because conversation dynamics are a significant factor in how well groups solve problems and make decisions.

As we get down to business, I send my doc out to everyone on the call chat thread. That way, no one has to hunt for the document and we can dive in quicker. Instead of presenting my whole screen, I show a single Chrome tab. This gives me the flexibility to show the content that helps us get on the same page, while taking messy notes in another document.

This review process emerged organically and allows the whole team to contribute regardless of where they sit. It shows respect for time and attention. It uses our flexible tools for virtual conversation to streamline conversations and speed up decision-making. Attention matters more working from home. Time crunched, my well-intentioned efforts to stay present are tested hourly. I don’t want to be the harried parent at work that you can’t rely on, but I don’t want to reply to emails during toddler bath time either. Teams, and the tools they choose, can help protect attention when you need to focus on work or on home.  

The future is the choices we make today

The pandemic put meetings and remote collaboration under a microscope and gave us an inspiring and instructive silver lining to learn from. Working from home has raised awareness of persistent problems like information overload, reminding us that we can make choices that enable flexible ways of working, protect our attention and streamline collaboration. 

As we look into the future, we can all make deliberate choices that bridge the virtual distance, no matter where your team members are working from.

How to harness the power of inclusivity on remote teams

As a user experience (UX) researcher at Google, I’ve spent the past several years working on distributed teams and helping build remote communication products. I recently wrote about the science behind why video calls feel different from in-person meetings. 

I’ve seen that working from home has sparked genuine introspection about team dynamics. Some colleagues feel isolated, while others can’t get a moment alone. Some are energized while others are struggling. 

Often, when we talk about inclusivity, we’re talking about making sure that people from underrepresented groups have a voice. Feeling included is especially critical as teams strive to do their best work from home. But in addition to visible differences like race and gender, we should also think about inclusivity in terms of cognitive diversity, a critical ingredient in how teams make decisions

Healthy teams use their diversity to tackle new challenges. Higher cognitive diversity on teams—differences in perspective and information processing styles—is significantly correlated with higher performance, and should be leveraged. 

Most of us probably agree that trust is important for fostering diverse viewpoints, but cultivating it as a team can be tricky, especially when we’re distanced. Here are some behaviors I’ve seen work on teams at Google:

Face the friction 

Different perspectives and working styles can create conflict, but according to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, we can harness those differences to achieve “productive friction,” She describes four distinct styles of work that reflect our diverse brain chemistry, and shows how the differences, if left unmanaged, can lead to tensions, misunderstandings and friction. 

  1. Pioneers: curious, seek out new information

  2. Guardians: pragmatic, want to see evidence before making decisions

  3. Drivers: assertive, generate momentum

  4. Integrators: empathetic, rely on intuition to get groups to communicate better

I’ve seen teams make hasty decisions when a Driver bulldozes the cautious warnings of Guardians, or people talk past each other without Integrator-level diplomacy. I’ve felt stuck on teams full of inquisitive Pioneers who needed a Driver to push forward. 

On the flip side, when I’ve felt safe to talk about challenges I’m facing, my colleagues do, too. When a team feels safe—a rare but fundamental factor—it can work together effectively in spite of different styles. With safety as a foundation, we see each other's experience more clearly, and have permission to help improve each other’s work more directly. 

Tip: Get comfortable talking about where you see friction. Carve out time to talk about a recent meeting where the conversation dynamics felt tense or out of balance. Identify what you could’ve done to make them better and how different dynamics might help achieve a better outcome next time. You can also look ahead: As a new project kicks off, ask each collaborator what personal success  looks like—being heard, having expertise recognized—and how it connects to larger team goals.  

Make meetings a safe space 

We build trust by talking to each other. In fact, how well we share the “talking stick” and our sensitivity to the emotional states of others are both significant factors in how well groups solve problems and make decisions. 

Who you invite, how many people you include and the length of the meeting you schedule all impact the outcome. When real dialogue is critical to achieve the goals of your meeting, carefully consider which voices you need in the room and if you’ve budgeted enough time to hear from all of them. Twenty people in a half hour meeting gives everyone 90 seconds to hold the mic, if conversational turns were hypothetically equal. If that’s not enough, you need to add time or subtract people.  

As we look ahead to a new normal—or more like a wildly diverse ecosystem of new normals (plural)—the conversations we’re starting today will pay dividends and may even help make in-person collaboration better than  before. 

Tip: Make it safe for individuals to share their working styles—the superpowers they bring to the team, where they want to grow, where they need help. Create a regular cadence to get your team comfortable showing work in progress and incorporating feedback. 

Let everyone know  this process of shaping each other’s work allows expertise to travel, and helps the group leverage everyone’s unique talents. Model what it looks like to apply your expertise to help someone and to get help from an expert in another area. 

Pair up

The simplest way to start turning diversity into a strength is by pairing up two people, who think differently. 

Last year, I partnered with another researcher in Europe to analyze a small mountain of survey data. We had different working styles and early on, decided to open a dialogue about how we could best complement each other. When things started to go wrong, we’d check in. After seven or eight months of check-ins every few weeks, we’d made a modest breakthrough in understanding cross-product user journeys—because we put in the time to find the places where we could be better together.

Pairs or duos—the most basic unit of teamwork—are the simplest place to start building safety. When two people who think differently join forces and accomplish something they couldn’t have done alone, it sends a signal to other teams. And the outcomes of a diverse partnership can become examples for your entire organization.  

Tip: Form a partnership with someone whose work you can complement. Set aside time to be ultra-clear about roles, responsibilities and nuanced topics. Be extra diligent about a tentative new agreement.  

You can also choose one working relationship and commit to over-communicating about what you need from that person and what they need from you to make things work better. 

Respect your team’s attention like it’s your own 

The channels we use to communicate matter. Throughout the day, we reach for different tools to get different things done for a reason. Groups work better when we use tools that fit with our communication goals and that match the preferences of our teammates. For example, I use chat messages as a quick way to share updates or request information or track down files. But some of my colleagues prefer email because it’s a more familiar way for them to keep track of things. 

Oftentimes, and especially because we’re working from home, we rely on text-based tools. But when a teammate asks, “should we jump on a call to clarify?” they’re suggesting a live conversation can resolve an ambiguous topic better than text-based tools. 

If your meeting schedule looks anything like mine, trying to navigate that ambiguity over email might seem easier, but it’s a mistake. Making time for a quick call allows you to hear nuance, adjust to new information in real time, build trust and can often get you to clarity faster than more emails could. 

Tip: Develop strategies for managing your energy and attention. Share them with your team and trade best practices. Maintain an ongoing dialogue about which communication tools are best for different scenarios. 

Hopefully, these insights and tips can help you and your team use your different strengths to your advantage, and everyone can benefit from a more inclusive workplace--even from home.

The science of why remote meetings don’t feel the same

As COVID-19 has pushed more teams to work remotely, many of us are turning to video calls. And if you’ve ever been on a video call and wondered why it doesn’t feel quite the same as an in-person conversation, we have something in common. As a researcher at Google, it’s my job to dig into the science behind remote communication. Here are a few things I’ve discovered along the way. 

#1: Milliseconds matter. 


As a species, we’re hardwired for the fast-paced exchange of in-person conversation. Humans have spent about 70,000 years learning to communicate face-to-face, but video conferencing is only about 100 years old. When the sound from someone’s mouth doesn’t reach your ears until a half second later, you notice. That’s because we’re ingrained to avoid talking at the same time while minimizing silence between turns. A delay of five-tenths of a second (500 ms)—whether from laggy audio or fumbling for the unmute button—is more than double what we’re used to in-person. These delays mess with the fundamental turn-taking mechanics of our conversations. 

On your next video conference, pump the brakes on your speaking speed to avoid unintended interruptions. If it’s a smaller group, try staying unmuted to provide little bits of verbal feedback (“mmhmm,” “okay”) to show you’re actively listening. 

#2: Virtual hallway conversations boost group performance. 

At the office, my meetings usually start with some impromptu, informal small talk. We share personal tidbits that build rapport and empathy. Making time for personal connections in remote meetings not only feels good, it helps you work better together. Science shows that teams who periodically share personal information perform better than teams who don’t. And when leaders model this, it can boost team performance even more. 

Carve out time at the start of a meeting to catch up and set aside time to connect with colleagues over virtual coffee or lunch breaks.

#3: Visual cues make conversations smoother.


If you’re face-to-face with someone, you might notice they’ve leaned forward and invite them to jump into the conversation. Or, you might pick up on a sidelong glance in the audience while you’re giving a presentation, and pause to address a colleague’s confusion or skepticism. Research shows that on video calls where social cues are harder to see, we take 25 percent fewer speaking turns. 

But video calls have something email doesn’t: eye contact. We feel more comfortable talking when our listeners’ eyes are visible because we can read their emotions and attitudes. This is especially important when we need more certainty—like when we meet a new team member or listen to a complex idea.

Resist browser tabs competing for your attention. 

#4: Distance can amplify team trust issues.

When things go wrong, remote teams are more likely to blame individuals rather than examining the situation, which hurts cohesion and performance. Different ways of working can be frustrating, but they’re important. Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher has shown that we can harness the “productive friction” of diverse work styles today similar to how hunter-gatherers did 50,000 years ago to determine if a newly discovered plant was poisonous, medicinal or delicious.

Have an open conversation with your remote teammates about your preferred working styles and how you might complement each other. 

#5: Passing the talking stick makes remote teams smarter.

talking stick.gif

Conversations on calls are less dynamic, and the proverbial “talking stick” gets passed less often. That’s a big deal for remote teams because sharing the floor more equally is a significant factor in what makes one group smarter than another. Computational social scientists like Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland and Anita Woolley have shown that higher performing groups aren’t made up of individuals with higher IQs but instead people who are more sensitive to emotions and share the floor more equally.

Identify calls where conversational dynamics could be better. Encourage more balanced conversation, help some get their voice heard and remind others to pass the talking stick.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of this science, you can check out my sources here.