Dispatch 06 — Mar 13, 2020

Working from home

Aside from the one topic on everyone’s mind, a related one is something I’ve spent some time paying attention to: distributed or remote work. As country after country and company after company decides to have people work from home, how to best do it while staying sane is a very timely question. Here are a few ideas.

This Dispatch is made possible by members of Sentiers and currently unlocked and free to read for everyone. If you are new here, you can subscribe to the free weekly or become a member to also get extra dispatches.

Why working from home is good for business

You might have noticed that in the intro above I mention “distributed or remote.” It’s a distinction made by Matt Mullenweg, cofounder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic. He uses that language to make the distinction between a company with a head office(s) where work happens in person with remote people vs a company with no office and a completely distributed team. He believes (and I tend to agree) that “remote” makes for second class colleagues where those remote are not on the same footing. A truly distributed company has no center of gravity, every location is equal. The link above is to a short TED video on the topic. Mullenweg also has an excellent podcast called Distributed. The most recent interview is with Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp another proponent of distributed work (although they use the word remote), who literally wrote the book on the topic. (And, right now if you buy the book and send Jason a copy of the sales ticket, they pay you back.)

The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done. In fact, offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor — it chops your day into tiny bits. Fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there, twenty here, five there. Each segment is filled with a conference call, a meeting, another meeting, or some other institutionalized unnecessary interruption. […]

When nobody can take anyone else’s time through a system, people end up with more time to themselves. When you have more time to yourself, you end up doing better work and more work. You can get a lot more stuff done in a given day than maybe you could in another organization that has six times as many people but 20 times as many meetings, 30 times less time during the day to yourself. So we try to avoid anything that breaks days into smaller and smaller chunks.

Work & Learn Out Loud

I wrote this one when I was working quite a bit with e180, it’s a mashup of many articles and ideas around working-out-loud, a practice we were implementing then, and which can be useful to any organisation at any time, but especially for remote or distributed teams. It’s actually one of the things Matt mentions in the video above; document everything. In the case of e180, with their strong focus on learning, we called it Work & Learn Out Loud, because it’s also a good learning practice and framing it as such gives even more opportunities to gain insights from the documenting.

“It involves putting incomplete thoughts and ideas out into the world and getting feedback. Learning out loud is the cognitive equivalent of learning by doing. It is a proactive and iterative approach that involves making mistakes and adjusting accordingly.” […]

Working Out Loud = Observable Work + Narrating Your Work […]

[N]arrating your work is “journaling…what you are doing in an open way.” And making your work observable is “creating/modifying/storing your work in places that others can see it, follow it, and contribute to it in process.” […]

“When exceptions to the workflow occur these can be saved as explicit cases from which to learn. Recording of decisions, including decisions not to do something, ensure that we can go back and reflect upon what we have done, and learn from the past. This becomes a virtuous cycle of implicit to explicit knowledge flows.”

How to Work at home: staying productive, creative and energised

I’m including this piece by Ian Sanders for the recommendations—simple ones but I do pretty much all of them, so good list—but also as a pointer to his site as a whole. Lots of good short pieces on working from home, creativity, walking, and more.

I usually ‘walk to work’ - made easier by having a lively dog - which means I get some fresh air along with a punctuation mark before getting started. Similarly on my most productive home working days, I’ll start off with an hour at a local cafe which gives me a boost before getting my head down for the rest of the day. […]

It’s really important to tune into what you need and then make time for it. Know what ingredients you need in order to have a good day at work and design your working day accordingly.

Loup’s Guide to Remote Work

The great team at Loup Design have a short guide with some good tips, which I’m including here because they also link to multiple other short articles of their’s, each diving a bit deeper in sub-topics, so you can read what interests you most, and it’s an interesting publishing format to notice. The piece also closes with some recommended reading elsewhere.

Switching to full-time remote work can be a tough transition and many people struggle to set work-life boundaries. For a team to thrive, it’s important to respect each others’ working hours as nothing burns people out faster than frequent calls interrupting family or personal time. […]

Focusing on just a few practices keeps us organized, limits the software we must learn, rely on, and pay for, and keeps our spirits intact as we contend with the work ahead of us.

Remote Work Insights You’ve Never Heard Before

Very thorough and interesting look at the flavours of remote work, trust (and swift trust) in distributed teams, and “[a]dditional unheralded benefits of distributed teams.” Good read for comparing models, good insights to potentially transition, and some useful things to implement.

My theory is that a combination of three things underlie this experience of stronger trust: 1) people with personal propensity toward trust are drawn to remote work; 2) remote teams develop swift trust; and 3) ingroup bias creates a shared basis of trust among remote coworkers. These three factors combine into a strong foundation for remote teamwork. […]

“Swift trust,” a term coined in 1996 by Stanford professor Debra Meyerson and colleagues, describes the interaction that’s needed and often takes place on temporary teams with specialized workers solving complex problems. They observed that under these conditions, swift trust emerges as “a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations.” In other words, these teams have a propensity for trust. Movie sets are a common example of a workplace where teams form swift trust. […]

Getting along well with others is a key part of work. When you don’t have to share a physical space, you can focus that energy on key tools and collaborations instead. Discussions about Slack hygiene tend to be more important for work outcomes than discussions about kitchen hygiene. […]

Communicating more about how you work makes for better outcomes. Colocated workers say often that hallway conversations help them gather and share key information. Without unplanned meetings and other unstructured connections, distributed teams have to be intentional about when, where and how they communicate.

Distributed Collaboration Manual

The Edgeryders team have completely open sourced their distributed collaboration manual and made it available to everyone. It’s a very long manual so I’ve just jumped around to a few things but it looks like an excellent deeper dive in the methods they use.

Zen level: a fully distributed organization. The chapters about communication, collaboration and tools show how to use existing tools and processes for more enjoyable distributed work. Now if you are in the lucky position to have some control over the organization’s processes and tools, you can and should go further. Over time, you can modify the organization so that “being distributed” is embedded into the organization’s DNA. With that in place, much of the friction in internal and external collaboration will fade. On top, the organization will be part of the avant-garde: the new wave of organizations adapted for a low-carbon future. Plus, you can harvest additional benefits like space efficiency, cost reduction and work / life integration.

The Math Behind The 5-Hour Rule: Why You Need To Learn 1 Hour Per Day Just To Stay Relevant

It’s a bit funny that Simmons is using math in his title and framing because I find he cuts corners in his intro and a couple of numbers. However, I’m including it here because it does attach a few very real trends which usefully paint most professionals’ work life today. The need to learn constantly, the speed at which knowledge changes, the need to keep up with others doing the same, and the forgetting curve. Pay attention to the underlying trends he presents and keep his basic rule in mind; learn 1 hour per day to stay relevant.

Data, facts, information, and knowledge are all growing exponentially. With the advent of the Internet Of Things, more precise measurement tools, and online tracking, the amount of data about us and our world is growing. As a result, researchers have more data from which to derive scientific facts. […]

Just as we have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins, steps per day, and minutes of aerobic exercise for maintaining physical health, we need to be rigorous about the minimum dose of deliberate learning that will maintain our economic health.

Why the future of work is learning

Breaking up the office and working at home is a good opportunity to rethink how we learn at work, and even how work fits into life longterm. Two reasons why this interview with Heather McGowan is useful:

First, for the idea of “ecosystems of learning,” likely to be “a blend of technology-enabled collaborations and shared workspaces that enable serendipitous conversations and collaborations.” Which is presented as a step for organizations but also sounds like a very intriguing vision for networks of people.

Second, in Connections there’s a link to her frameworks page, which we might dive into in further briefings but the first one about “Shifting Life Blocks” is on the next page as a visual and worth pondering, especially the periods of “re-conditioning / retirement” which is a good way of seeing the inevitable changes in careers and training as well as sabbaticals and the idea of micro-retirements throughout life instead of one final retirement which you might not be able to enjoy completely.

If we are to move forward and create societies with high levels of productivity and well-being, we need to shift our focus from the what we do (our work tasks) to the how (our unique skills and abilities) and why (our purpose and passion). […]

[T]echnology can support this shift – for example by “giving greater insights into the individual, where their strengths are, and how they might want to move” – and teaching will need to become focused on ‘let me help and coach and mentor you as you learn to learn, unlearn and relearn’. […]

“The ability to learn, unlearn and adapt coupled with uniquely human skills will build much more resilience and propulsion than any set existing technology based skill.”

Now is the time to implement the flipped workplace at scale

This seems like a good idea to have in mind for the eventual return to normal. Hopefully some will be able to keep some of the remote work habits, using this concept would be one way of doing that: Flipped classes have students watching lectures and reading at home, coming to school to ask questions and apply the learning. A flipped workplace would have collaborative and face to face work take place at the office, and everything else left to be much more fluidly done anywhere at anytime.

Nearly every consumer experience has become highly personalized … so why hasn’t our work? If we can consume anything on our own terms, why can’t we also produce on our own terms?

Productive individual work is done outside of the office, on your own time, in your own place, at your own pace. Consequently, the office transforms into a space purely dedicated to meeting people, asking questions, brainstorming, and making unexpected connections. Liberated from enforcement of time-based productivity, managers don’t need to be babysitters. Instead they are coaches, enablers, and facilitators focused on unlocking each employee’s unique value to the entire organization.

Further reading