Episode 7 | The rhythms and rituals of remote with Hera Hussain

Episode 7 May 31, 2023 00:26:36
Episode 7 | The rhythms and rituals of remote with Hera Hussain
Remote Culture Club with Alix Dunn
Episode 7 | The rhythms and rituals of remote with Hera Hussain

May 31 2023 | 00:26:36


Show Notes

As the leader of a remote team, you set the pace of work. When things get tight, this probably means asking folks to push to meet a deadline or take on more work. But what if you asked your team to go more slowly and do less instead?

In this week’s episode, Alix talks with Hera Hussain of CHAYN about the rhythms and rituals of remote work. Hera discusses how slowing down and making time for reflection can energise a team, and she shares both big and small rituals you can implement on your own remote team.

For more from Hera, you can say hello here. To connect with Alix check out our website or follow along on Twitter.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:06 What I talk about to other CEOs all the time is like there's something about being a leadership role which dehumanizes you somehow, even if it's a small team. And it's so important for people to see you as a person behind the screen, but like you're not just the powers that you have in the organization, there's more to you. Speaker 2 00:00:24 Welcome to the Remote Culture Club podcast. On this show we inspire and equip leaders to build remote culture that works. I'm your host Alex Dunn and even though I've been leading remote organizations for over 10 years, I'm always learning more. It's really nice to have you here. And without further ado, welcome to the show. Speaker 2 00:00:48 I think we're all familiar with that end of year feeling where there's kind of a race to the finish line of completing projects and wrapping everything up and can be a really exhausting period for organizations. And I wanted to get in conversation with someone who I think has done a great job of reframing the end of the year as something to structure in a way that helps your team really wind down, think of the end of the year as a closing of a chapter rather than a final sprint in the context of a marathon <laugh>. So we're gonna be talking with Hira Hussein who has structured a process for her team that I find really inspirational and it's called the Winter Wind Down. I'm not gonna give too much away because she goes into detail with how it works. But I hope this gives you some inspiration of thinking about the rhythms of your year and how you can support your team to work at a pace that's sustainable and also uh, find special time for you to grow as individuals and you've learned together as teams. So without further ado, here's my interview with Hira Hussein. Speaker 2 00:01:59 Okay everybody. I have Eric Hussein here who is the c e O of chain, um, which I'll let her explain in just a second. Um, we're gonna be talking about how Hira and her team close out her year in a way that is not chaotic, but we'll get into more specifics about what that actually looks like in practice. But before we do that, HIRA, can you tell us a little bit about how did you end up doing this work? How did you end up running a remote distributed organization? Tell us. Speaker 1 00:02:25 Sounds great. So, um, hi everybody. I'm super excited to be here and talk about this. Um, I love organizational design so this is exactly my jam. So I started chan nine years ago, um, and I started it as a volunteer organization because I was helping two friends close to me get out of an abusive marriage and I just could not find online resources to support them as specifically looking at their um, identity. As you know, I grew up in Pakistan and so, um, they were Pakistani too but one of them was living in the uk so I just could not find those kind of online like non-judgmental, intersectional, like really rich diverse services that were not in English. So that's why I started with Chen and then I actually did ran that as a volunteer up until two years ago. I only went full-time on Chen in 20, in June, 2020 and I had a full-time job, which is actually how I knew Alex. Speaker 1 00:03:19 So I used to work in the anti-corruption and open data space. One of the really good things about in that space is that the organization that I worked in were all removed, had some of these really collaborative ways of working given the sector. When I was transitioning chan into uh, a hybrid organization, which is where we have staff and volunteers, I brought those principles in it actually from the get-go of how Jen began, it was volunteer run. So we had volunteers from different parts of the world. I had a full-time job, other people had jobs. So I had to consider how do we have a motivated, engaged volunteer community from different parts of the world working together to create these resources that were all online. And so, you know, how do we work asynchronously but also how do we come together for that moments of belonging? And um, we created lots of sort of cultural practices for the organization that really helped in doing that and structuring in a way. So throughout this conversation, you know, I'm super excited to share what those things were and what's been really important to me is like really thinking about how do I center principles of feminism and and decolonization and my organizational practice, um, and get experiment with how we been organizations remotely. Before Speaker 2 00:04:33 We get into seasonal rituals, um, I'd love to hear a little bit about how you think about rhythms in your work. So just generally speaking as a person who works and sort of works in different ways how you think about rhythm but also as a leader of an organization that has maybe periods of intense work, periods of rest, um, or other sort of rhythms that we try and build throughout the year. Could you reflect a little bit um, on that and how you think about it? Speaker 1 00:04:56 When we were just volunteers, we definitely noticed that somewhere in the northern hemisphere was something that really everything slowed down and so we then changed the way we were interacting with volunteers, the goals we set for ourselves for that. And similarly we noticed that in during the end of the year, half of the people, cuz I work on like, like gender-based violence and trauma, half the people would be really motivated to do lots of work because either that was the free time that they had or because of whatever's happening in their personal life they felt more motivated to work during the holiday season. And for the rest of them they were like, I'm out, I just wanna spend time with my family and relax. So it was also about like figuring out that there's that rhythm that is not in your control because it's people's lives, uh, where's happening in their country and their community and their family. Speaker 1 00:05:46 And then there's the rhythm that you set as the organization which people tune in into. I like thinking of it like there's like this base tune that the organization has, right? And then different times of the year it'll be different and sometimes it's gonna be because you have a big project happening that again is out of your control so it's gonna get busy and you have to respond to it and you have to be agile to it. And sometimes it's that purposefully you are gonna ch that rhythm is gonna change and though people will have their individual like ways of working and their tunes, they have to attune to the organization and come as close to it as possible. And that's a completely fair way of running an organization. But because you, what you cannot do is completely tailor an organization to every staff member that is impossible to do. Speaker 1 00:06:31 And I just, I don't like setting myself off of failures <laugh>, so I'm not gonna set myself off of that failure. So it's about, yeah, setting that rhythm for the organization. So we have four um, retreats a year which are like week long. We work a four day week, so it's like four days of where the whole team comes together and the volunteers come together to, and we plan for the, for the next four months. So we divide the year in cycles or like quarters and then we do it for every quarter. And there's learning in there, there's social events in there but then there's also like planning, reflection, retrospectives, all of that stuff. And I think that also sets the pace for the organization. But I ha I have to say it is probably the toughest thing to talk to people about is pace. Speaker 1 00:07:15 It's a topic where I feel like I, the staff disagree with me the most and we have the most contention in the team is around pace because what I've learned is people have a very individualized concept of pace of work based on the sectors they've been in based on their own personality and their working patterns. And you can create all the flexibility in the world but it's very hard for people to abandon that idea that there is a base that should be default. We have people who will come from the startup space and they're like wow, everything is so relaxed here. And then we have people who come from the non-profit space and they're like, this is like this is too much, this is way too much. I cannot cope with this. And then we have people who come from another kind of non-profit space where they're doing frontline work and they're like, this is manageable, this is fine, this is how it is. So it's just like, you know, and I try to tell people there is no default space, there's literally no default way, there's no right pace. It's about us setting it for the organization for different projects and then seeing what works. We cannot hold ourselves to an arbitrary center because there is none. It should be whatever is like healthy, beneficial and also appropriate for the work. Speaker 2 00:08:22 I think pace is an interesting sort of echo of rhythm because I think you can create rhythms that make certain cases feel normal. I really like that reflection that individual rhythms are different. So basically every individual's gonna have a different rhythm and if we think of an organization it's just a stack of those individual rhythms. There's no music like it's just really loud and really difficult to sort of get a read on, which I think creates more stress which makes the pace feel faster and also just more difficult to process. I've never thought about the pace of the rhythm. I've always thought about it as as how to use rhythm to tell a story to your team about what to anticipate and sort of where their head should be as a group. But I've never thought about it as you can like accelerate, you know the difference between uh, you know, a slow rhythm and a and a fast rhythm. That's super interesting. I wanna talk to you about this winter wind down thing but I wanna talk to you about like before you had this ritual, what was the end of year sort of process? How did the end of the year feel for you? Why did you think about needing this as a ritual? So Speaker 1 00:09:26 I mean we've always had it since we became a hybrid organization but when the volunteer in the volunteer space, we used to just slow down. We would have like a holiday checklist of tasks that people could elect to do and then they would working by themselves, um, and then doing them and then we'd report back uh, in January. Um, and then we would do that for the last two weeks of December and then we'd come back in the first week of Jan being like, okay regrouping the volunteers and seeing what's happening. And we basically at the end of every cycle we ask volunteers to tap in and tap out and we bring new people in. So there's no more than 30 people in the group in any cycle or any like quarter just it was naturally like a place in January to be like okay, new team, new configuration, let's see what we did last cycle. Speaker 1 00:10:08 We did their holiday work, what happened? Let's pick things up. But when I was working for open contracting partnership they used to have this thing called winter wind down where the last two weeks of every year the team was expecting to work one third or two thirds of the normal working hours and independently. And the idea was to use that time to do reflective work and work on things that you don't get time to work on throughout the year. And what I liked about it was it was so clear because it was like we're not gonna have any normal meetings, no standups, nothing. You can talk to your colleagues one-to-one, but really like there's, you don't have to, it's independent work. Like you didn't have to take holidays. So many people are used to taking holiday at the end of the year that you just up all of their holiday. Speaker 1 00:10:51 Whereas this meant that you were working so little and if you're in a remote organization you can like rest while working <laugh>, I just loved it so much. So when I uh, left open contracting and started working full-time on Chen, I told the trustees that this is something we have to do and then I change it slightly to being three weeks to add more time because our staff all have experienced trauma, they're working with people, we're dealing with very difficult situations. So it's to purposefully have that there. And again so much of the pace setting is out of out of our control because of what grants are available, what's happening. At least this is the time period where we know and we can plan for it. And the idea is that everybody knows that they're gonna have time to do things for their personal development, for the team's development, project development that they would not do. It's the big sky blue sky thinking and the line managers get to decide that. So we even in open contracting, everybody would know each other's winter wind down task list. We all had task lists. Can you Speaker 2 00:11:47 Give an example of something that would go on a winter wind down task list? Speaker 1 00:11:51 Yeah, so for me uh, cause I was doing community and advocacy work, it was things like I'm gonna create like five briefs off our different policy asks and for different stakeholders I was creating community resources. So for my comms colleague it was he was gonna create a communication strategy for the next year. That was his time to just work on that. So in 10 we try to do work on template, personal reflections, what did you learn this year? What are the resources you can create for the team for for the whole community And reading Another thing is what we, we asked people to do is to read up on like the latest studies that have come up and use that time to upskill. One of my team members last year we asked her to learn a new quoting language because she knew she was gonna have to do it so there was the perfect time for her to actually spend like just time doing that. Speaker 1 00:12:39 So a lot of the thinking work goes in there. If someone's had a very busy time then they, we we also just give them the two, three weeks completely off of like paid holiday basically. But for everybody else I encourage them like my thinking is that people should not take holiday in those three weeks and instead use that as a holiday supplement and then use their holidays for the rest of the year. But it's interesting, some people still take those weeks off even though they're only expected to work two to three hours in that day and it's like asynchronous work, they still like that idea of like complete switch off. So that's their choice. Speaker 2 00:13:10 So do you have, throughout the year, are you keeping track of things that could end up on winter wind down lists or how does that work? Is it like there's a moment in November let's say where you all say start working on those lists or is it more of an ongoing thing? Speaker 1 00:13:24 It's more of an ongoing discussion and then it'll pop up in our retreats. We know this could be something you do in your winter wind down. We would just mention that at the end of November is when the line managers start talking to people that they manage about what those things are gonna be and people come up with a proposal and the line managers and they discuss it and then we approve it and then everybody knows about it. So we all know how we as a team are reflecting in that time period. Speaker 2 00:13:49 That's super interesting. And is there any other reflections you've had when instituting this in terms of like what you're learning about your team, what you're learning about yourself or sort of as you're actually doing it <laugh> um, sort of what's coming up for you as yeah just reflections. Speaker 1 00:14:03 Yeah, I mean the people's responses are really interesting. So some people are like, oh my god this is like holiday but like I'm like barely working and other people are like, no, no, no I just wanna take holiday, I don't want this. And then it's us explaining that it's their choice. Like this is a bonus off. Like no one's like forcing them to not take holiday. If they wanna take this holiday they can take it but essentially if you look at the hours, it's an extra week of holiday, paid holiday if you look at the hours for three weeks. But because we have flexible working hours so people could just end up doing those two to three hours a day at any time of the day and it'll be completely fine. So I definitely encourage people to not take it at house holiday like and just like use it as another holiday. And then some people, someone knew was just joining the team asked a really interesting question. She was like, can I just stack up all my hours and just finish my winter like wind down in like two or three days and then just like take the rest of the week off. And I was like absolutely not. Speaker 2 00:14:53 <laugh> totally defeats the purpose. Speaker 1 00:14:55 Yeah I was like nope, that is not the idea. The idea is also that there's some level of services are still being provided to our users and there's someone around. So even if people are working different hours, someone's always manning the team in block. We are taking a winter wind on the rest of the world isn't. So we still need to have some sort of like work happening in that time period. We're just not asking you to do intense work. And also if you're gonna cram everything in three, four days, I don't know what the quality of that work would be when we are asking people to sit with things and learn. So that was, that was a really funny moment and it was just like trying to explain to people how purposeful rest can make them better and everybody's super excited about winter wind down when they come back from it. They're so grateful for that time. Yeah. Speaker 2 00:15:36 How does it change the vibe in January? Speaker 1 00:15:39 I mean we've always had it so it's hard for me to say but what I can say is everybody who doesn't have winter wind down, when they hear about it they, they definitely seem to think that they would change the lives. So I, it's hard for me to reflect on that like I've had it for the last five years so Speaker 2 00:15:53 And so when you come back in January everyone sort of presents, can you say more about sort of what that looks like? Speaker 1 00:15:59 Yeah, so we come back from the 6th of January and we, cuz we are a hybrid team, we have a, we have a team day with volunteers on Sunday so everybody comes back on a Sunday, we all get together cuz volunteers have their own winter windup tasks as well <laugh> so that they, they can do what they want and uh, we all present what we did and then it's a planning week so we have four days of planning for the next like cycle but also for the year thinking about like big targets and setting up our OKRs and all that stuff and reflecting on the winter wind down things that came up for us. We also have line management check-ins in the first month, which often one of the winter wind down tasks would be for asking someone to fill out things that they've learned that year, things that they wanna develop more hands like reflecting on that too with the line managers and setting up plans for staff development. Yeah, it's a very slow and considered kind of like vibe which I really love. Speaker 2 00:16:49 And when is the first of your quarterly retreats? Speaker 1 00:16:53 So the first one would be in I think March and then there's the next one. So it's every like three months from there. The January time is just the planning week. That's Speaker 2 00:17:03 So cool. Uh, I remember I think it was last year you wrote a blog post about this and I remember having my mind kind of blown, it feels like such a considered way to sort of decelerate pace full from that backlog that you're gonna have forgotten about by next year. And to actually get that space to think while working rather than thinking outside of the work, which I feel like is uh, what we normally do. We work really intense days <laugh> and then the weekends we have ideas and I think combining those two things is just really great. What else? Do you all ritualize? Are there other things throughout the year? Yeah, Speaker 1 00:17:36 Lots of things because the original chan is in like the volunteering community so you know it's, it's now still a hybrid. We have um, every first Sunday of the month is a chan day where all the volunteers and staff get together and work on things together and it's like a moment for both the collaboration between staff and volunteers but also for everybody to like take strategic decisions together. We have a reading week in summer which is something new that we've done this year and there we deep dive into either something we've produced ourselves that half of the staff have not read or someone else in the sector has and we just wanna give it time. So for this year we did it on orbits, which is a report that we wrote on technology facility, gender-based violence and how to mitigate that. So all the staff members as a 200 page report so everybody had to read it every day. Speaker 1 00:18:24 We discussed a different part of it. So for next year we're gonna see like what is a gap in our team's knowledge or something new that's come up that we wanna do. Then we also have a town hall every three weeks which is a space for the team to ask questions from us but also run sessions for each other around like why our team culture And actually something new that I did last year, which not everybody loves is we have a gratitude robin at the end of the year and it's uh, it's like a Google document where we put everybody's name who volunteered that year, staff members, contractors that worked for a considerable amount of time and we ask everybody to leave compliments on it. So, and then we share it out to everybody as like a last thing that we sent out in in December and it's so dying it's just so, so nice. Speaker 1 00:19:08 It was just an idea that came into my head one day because I was like, you know what, when you go to the activist retreats and they ask you to write like compliments on a piece of paper anonymously and then you get like an envelope full of them, it's so nice to read it afterwards. I always read mine and I keep mine next to my like in my drawer so whenever I'm feeling down I read that <laugh>, I think I should do a digital version of this. We've used that document actually throughout the year. So anytime a staff member is like we know it's going through a phase where they're kind of going through self-doubt or we know a volunteer has had a breakup or some something, something has happened in someone's life, we copy paste and like take a screenshot of that compliments the God and then we send it to them like remember this? Speaker 1 00:19:48 Uh, and just to remind them that there's so many people who like love their company and love them and won the best for them. That's great. I'm gonna steal that. I think <laugh>, the other thing I was gonna mention is we also do wellbeing two wellbeing related things, which is we do a wellbeing check-in every month that our, one of our staff members does with every uh person. And uh, we give a wellbeing treat which is the ideas that everybody is eating or drinking or doing something fun at the same time to put a different mood into that call while discussing wellbeing. And we had three months where we were just did not have money for wellbeing traits. Um, and people really missed them so now we have a little bit more money so we're doing them again. But yeah, it's like supposed to be quite small and nominal but like bubble team people really enjoy that. And we have collective care sessions every month where volunteers, staff, contractors are all invited and it's held by a therapist. Therapist will bring up a topic or will find a topic based on what people are feeling and then we'll spend an hour and a half discussing it. Um, and people really, really love, it's a very compassionate space. So yeah, these are, I guess I've covered all the rituals that we have. Speaker 2 00:20:55 Amazing. It sounds like they keep coming so I feel like the next time we chat you're gonna have more of which I love and I love that as just a message that this is the kind of thing you should be looking for those not just moments but also moments that you can repeat because I think there is something really beautiful about doing the same thing at the same time each year and I think that it just gives it an extra layer of meaning that I think doesn't exist if it's a sort of one-off kind of thing. Although you get pretty busy with your rituals I imagine at some point Speaker 1 00:21:21 Every time we think of something new we're like we already do so much <laugh>. I think it's interesting because we used to have games night and everybody wanted more social occasions but then the games night just ended up being me and one other person and like the attendance kept dropping so we were like okay, we're gonna drop this. You all say you want this but no one's coming to it so we're not doing it anymore. So yeah, that's one thing we dropped. And we also pick up things from other places. So like you know the Winter Wind down came from Open Contracting, we do user manuals for all staff members, uh, and contractors that came from Cassie Robinson who wrote about it and then we, we took it. Um, so we also like take from other places Reading week, uh, glitched us in reading week and we want to do our reading week as well after being hearing from their experience and going really well. And I know that a lot of organizations are thinking about like the four day week because of the fact that we do it and like taking some of our practices onto. So that's like a really beautiful way of thinking about it as well that those rituals definitely create a sense of belonging and offers a structure to for people to sort of operate in but also they can change and we can evolve how they look. Speaker 2 00:22:25 Yeah, I love that. Oh my last question is just as you're doing this for longer and you're sort of managing this hybrid volunteer staff and also some remote, some in person, Speaker 1 00:22:36 A lot of us are in the UK but we don't actually meet unless like there's a need, like there's a social event but otherwise yeah, it's all remote. So Speaker 2 00:22:44 What other reflections, just to kind of close us out, as you have been leading the organization for several years now, sort of what other reflections do you have? Uh, for small teams that are thinking about how to build remote culture and sort of institute good remote management practices? Speaker 1 00:22:58 I'm a big believer in creating warm spaces and fun spaces. So all of our meetings start with either a grounding exercise or a fun question. And a fun question is just something someone thinks of. Like it could be like which parting of your hair do you find most problematic? You know, like this was where the most like fun questions and people went crazy. Like we had so much <laugh>, it was wild, it was wild. People had such strong opinions on par hair partings and you know, or like food combination. They don't like things that you're, you just, you just really, really interesting. And then there's was something I would love to do but just don't have money for is open contracting cuz again it was a remote team we used to do in-person retreats and they really, really were so effective. They were just, just so good. Speaker 1 00:23:41 And whenever I have the chance to spend time with my staff in person because there's a conference and a funder is paying two people to go to and I'm like, okay, who have I not met yet? Can we go together? It's just not replaceable for teams that can afford it. I definitely would recommend like even though once a year just everybody getting together and not just getting together to do things that are work meetings but getting together to spend some downtime. It's just so good. I got a chance to go with my trustees to Berlin, my staff members. We went to a conference but it was loads of parties there too. So we got to like hang out in a complete different setting with another one of my colleagues. I went to an activist retreat and we were sat sitting by the fire like roasting marshmallows, so nice, you know, going for long walks by the river. Speaker 1 00:24:24 Another one of them we went to beach together cuz we were at a conference which had, we had a beach there and we went sightseeing and we, it's just so good to have that time. And what I notice is with some of those staff members, it also increased their sense of belonging. Also trust in my leadership because they got to know me not as a C E O but as a human that exists outside of my c e o role and has insecurities like problems in my life, but good things, aspects of my life that they like they didn't know, you know, but it really humanizes leadership and I, this is like what I talk about to other CEOs all the time is like there's something about being a leadership role which dehumanizes you somehow, even if it's a small team and it's so important for people to see you as a person behind the screen, but like you're not just the powers that you have in the organization, there's more to you. So our concept of collective care in chan in extends to me as well. So we talk about this a lot about how I am responsible for taking care of the team, providing enabling environment, but so is the team responsible for providing an enabling environment for me, <laugh> and taking care of me as their leader. So just changing that some of the dynamics that people have inherited from other workplaces. Totally. Speaker 2 00:25:34 Well this is amazing. Thank you for sharing these tips. I suspect people might have questions, um, and we will do our best to answer some of them and hopefully this is useful for folks and for those of you who are reflecting on what you can do to mark the end of the year, because I think it, it sounds like it works really well, not just within chain but within other organizations and also we oftentimes default to doing more and I feel like sometimes we should do less for a while. I feel like that's a good, uh, mode to know how to get into. Um, but this was great Harra, thank you so much for sharing these reflections. I think it's super useful and I really appreciate your time. Yeah, Speaker 1 00:26:09 Anytime.

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