Tag: remote work

Friday ferretings

These things jumped out at me this week:

  • Deepfakes will influence the 2020 election—and our economy, and our prison system (Quartz) ⁠— “The problem doesn’t stop at the elections, however. Deepfakes can alter the very fabric of our economic and legal systems. Recently, we saw a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bragging about abusing data collected from users circulated on the internet. The creators of this video said it was produced to demonstrate the power of manipulation and had no malicious intent—yet it revealed how deceptively realistic deepfakes can be.”
  • The Slackification of the American Home (The Atlantic) — “Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. ‘The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,’ says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. ‘So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space’.”
  • You probably don’t know what your coworkers think of you. Here’s how to change that (Fast Company) — “[T]he higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.”
  • Sharing, Generosity and Gratitude (Cable Green, Creative Commons) — “David is home recovering and growing his liver back to full size. I will be at the Mayo Clinic through the end of July. After the Mayo surgeons skillfully transplanted ⅔ of David’s liver into me, he and I laughed about organ remixes, if he should receive attribution, and wished we’d have asked for a CC tattoo on my new liver.”
  • Flexibility as a key benefit of open (The Ed Techie) — “As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important.”
  • Abolish Eton: Labour groups aim to strip elite schools of privileges (The Guardian) — “Private schools are anachronistic engines of privilege that simply have no place in the 21st century,” said Lewis. “We cannot claim to have an education system that is socially just when children in private schools continue to have 300% more spent on their education than children in state schools.”
  • I Can’t Stop Winning! (Pinboard blog) – “A one-person business is an exercise in long-term anxiety management, so I would say if you are already an anxious person, go ahead and start a business. You’re not going to feel any worse. You’ve already got the main skill set of staying up and worrying, so you might as well make some money.”
  • How To Be The Remote Employee That Proves The Stereotypes Aren’t True (Trello blog) — “I am a big fan of over-communicating in general, and I truly believe that this is a rule all remote employees should swear by.”
  • I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked. (The New York Times) — “Ad campaigns that manipulate searchers’ behavior are frighteningly easy for anyone to run.”
  • Road-tripping with the Amazon Nomads (The Verge) — “To stock Amazon’s shelves, merchants travel the backroads of America in search of rare soap and coveted toys.”

Image from Guillermo Acuña fronts his remote Chilean retreat with large wooden staircase (Dezeen)

Remote work is a different beast

You might not work remotely right now, but the chances are that at some point in your career, and in some capacity, you will do. Remote work has its own challenges and benefits, which are alluded to in three articles in Fast Company that I want to highlight. The first is an article summarising a survey Google performed amongst 5,600 of its remote workers.

On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says [Veronica] Gilrane [manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab]. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

That doesn’t surprise me at all. Even though probably spend less AFK (Away From Keyboard) as a remote worker than I would in an office, there’s not that performative element, where you have to look like you’re working. Sometimes work doesn’t look like work; it looks like going for a run to think about a problem, or bouncing an idea off a neighbour as you walk back to your office with a cup of tea.

The main thing, as this article points out, is that it’s really important to have an approach that focuses on results rather than time spent doing the work. You do have to have some process, though:

[I]t’s imperative that you stress disciplinary excellence; workers at home don’t have a manager peering over their shoulder, so they have to act as their own boss and maintain a strict schedule to get things done. Don’t try to dictate every aspect of their lives–remote work is effective because it offers workers flexibility, after all. Nonetheless, be sure that you’re requesting regular status updates, and that you have a system in place to measure productivity.

Fully-remote working is different to ‘working from home’ a day or two per week. It does take discipline, if only to stop raiding the biscuit tin. But it’s also a different mindset, including intentionally sharing your work much more than you’d do in a co-located setting.

Fundamentally, as Greg Galant, CEO of a full-remote organisation, comments, it’s about trust:

“My friends always say to me, ‘How do you know if anyone is really working?’ and I always ask them, ‘How do you know if anybody is really working if they are at the office?’” says Galant. “Because the reality is, you can see somebody at their desk and they can stay late, but that doesn’t mean they’re really working.”

[…]

If managers are adhering to traditional management practices, they’re going to feel anxiety with remote teams. They’re going to want to check in constantly to make sure people are working. But checking in constantly prevents work from getting done.

Remote work is strange and difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. You can, for example, in the same day feel isolated and lonely, while simultaneously getting annoyed with all of the ‘pings’ and internal communication coming at you.

At the end of the day, companies need to set expectations, and remote workers need to set boundaries. It’s the only way to avoid burnout, and to ensure that what can be a wonderful experience doesn’t turn into a nightmare.


Also check out:

  • 5 Great Resources for Remote Workers (Product Hunt) — “If you’re a remote worker or spend part of your day working from outside of the office, the following tools will help you find jobs, discover the best cities for remote workers, and learn from people who have built successful freelance careers or location-independent companies.”
  • Stop Managing Your Remote Workers As If They Work Onsite (ThinkGrowth) — “Managers need to back away from their conventional views of what “working hard” looks like and instead set specific targets, explain what success looks like, and trust the team to get it done where, when, and however works best for them.”
  • 11 Tools That Allow us to Work from Anywhere on Earth as a Distributed Company (Ghost) —”In an office, the collaboration tools you use are akin to a simple device like a screwdriver. They assist with difficult tasks and lessen the amount of effort required to complete them. In a distributed team, the tools you use are more like life-support. Everything to do with distributed team tools is about clawing back some of that contextual awareness which you’ve lost by not being in the same space.”

Working and leading remotely

As MoodleNet Lead, I’m part of a remote team. If you look at the org chart, I’m nominally the manager of the other three members of my team, but it doesn’t feel like that (at least to me). We’re all working on our areas of expertise and mine happens to be strategy, making sure the team’s OK, and interfacing with the rest of the organisation.

I’m always looking to get better at what I do, so a ‘crash course’ for managing remote teams by Andreas Klinger piqued my interest. There’s a lot of overlap with John O’Duinn’s book on distributed teams, especially in his emphasis of the difference between various types of remote working:

There is a bunch of different setups people call “remote teams”.

  • Satellite teams
    • 2 or more teams are in different offices.
  • Remote employees
    • most of the team is in an office, but a few single employees are remote
  • Fully distributed teams
    • everybody is remote
  • Remote first teams
    • which are “basically” fully distributed
    • but have a non-critical-mass office
    • they focus on remote-friendly communication

When i speak of remote teams, i mean fully distributed teams and, if done right, remote-first teams. I consider all the other one’s hybrid setups.

Using these terms, the Open Badges team at Mozilla was ‘Remote first’, and when I joined Moodle I was a ‘Remote employee’, and now the MoodleNet team is ‘Fully distributed’.

Some things are easier when you work remotely, and some things are harder. One thing that’s definitely more difficult is running effective meetings:

Everybody loves meetings… right? But especially for remote teams, they are expensive, take effort and are – frankly – exhausting.

If you are 5 people, remote team:

  • You need to announce meetings upfront
  • You need to take notes b/c not everyone needs to join
  • Be on time
  • Have a meeting agenda
  • Make sure it’s not overtime
  • Communicate further related information in slack
  • etc

[…]

And this is not only about meetings. Meetings are just a straightforward example here. It’s true for any aspect of communication or teamwork. Remote teams need 5x the process.

I’m a big believer in working openly and documenting all the things. It saves hassle, it makes community contributions easier, and it builds trust. When everything’s out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide.

Working remotely is difficult because you have to be emotionally mature to do it effectively. You’re dealing with people who aren’t physically co-present, meaning you have to over-communicate intention, provide empathy at a distance, and not over-react by reading something into a communication that wasn’t intended. This takes time and practice.

Ideally, as remote team lead, you want what Laura Thomson at Mozilla calls Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, meaning that you don’t just get your ducks in a row, you have self-organising ducks. As Klinger points out:

In remote teams, you need to set up in a way people can be as autonomously as they need. Autonomously doesn’t mean “left alone” it means “be able to run alone” (when needed).

Think of people as “fast decision maker units” and team communication as “slow input/output”. Both are needed to function efficiently, but you want to avoid the slow part when it’s not essential.

At the basis of remote work is trust. There’s no way I can see what my colleagues are doing 99% of the time while they’re working on the same project as me. The same goes for me. Some people talk about having to ‘earn’ trust, but once you’ve taken someone through the hiring process, it’s better just to give them your trust until they act in a way which makes you question it.

Source: Klinger.io (via Dense Discovery)

Dealing with the downsides of remote working

A colleague, who also works remotely, shared this article recently. Although I enjoy working remotely, it’s not without its downsides.

The author, Martin De Wulf, is a coder writing for an audience of software engineers. That’s not me, but I do work in the world of tech. The things that De Wulf says makes remote working stressful are:

  1. Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  2. Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  3. Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  4. Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  5. Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  6. Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  7. You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  8. Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

I’ve managed to deal with at least half of this list. Here’s some suggestions.

  • Video conference calls: they’re not a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but they’re a lot better than audio only or just relying on emails and text chats.
  • Home office: I have one separate to the house. Also, it sounds ridiculous but I’ve got a sign I bought on eBay that slides between ‘free’ (green) and ‘busy’ (red).
  • Travel: at every opportunity. Even though it takes me away from my wife and kids, I do see mine a lot more than the average office worker.
  • Realistic expectations: four hours of solid ‘knowledge work’ per day plus emails and admin tasks is enough.

Source: Hacker Noon

How to defuse remote work issues

Good advice here about resolving difficulties with a remote co-worker.

When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”) Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”) Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”) Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.

Working remotely is great, but it can be an emotional rollercoaster.

Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.

Source: Harvard Business Review