Remote: Book Summary
I’m sure I’m not the only one where all of a sudden, I’m leading a remote team for the first time ever.
Last night I started reading the book Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of Basecamp. It had a lot of great insights for how to work remotely. Thought I’d share them.
Here are some of the key concepts I learned from it:
Forward motion: have a weekly discussion thread with the subject “what have you been working on?”
Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. It’s not a precise rigorous estimation process and it doesn’t attempt to deal with coordination. It simply aims to make everyone feel like they’re in the same galley and not their own little rowboat. It also serves as a friendly reminder that we’re all in it to make progress. When the commitment becomes visual, it gets reinforced.
We all have a natural instinct to avoid letting our team down. No one wants to be the one who reports that this week was spent completing Halo or eating leftover pizza and catching up on Jersey Shore. It’s also a lot harder to BS your peers than your boss. In talking to a project manager without tech chops, programmers can make a 30-minute job sound like a week-long polar expedition but if they’re tall tale is out in the open for other programmers to see, it won’t pass the smell test. Simply put progress is a joy best shared with coworkers.
The work is what matters: Instead of asking workers “what did you do today” or “when did you do it”, you can now just ask them to show you what they did today.
When you can’t see someone all day long the only thing you have to evaluate is the work. As a remote manager you can directly evaluate the work and ignore all the other stuff that doesn’t matter.
Another idea is to start the day by sharing with your colleagues what you plan to work on. This is a good way to help plan your day and stay connected.
Check-in check-out. Expect and encourage people to work 40 hours per week on average.
When you’re working remotely, it seems like the risk is for people to work too little — but a bigger risk is that it’s easy to accidentally work too much — e.g. end up stretching the work day from 7am — 9pm. There are no hero awards for putting in more hours. Sure every now and then there’s the need for a short sprint, but most of the time the company is doing what it does as a marathon. It’s crucial for everyone to pace themselves.
Try to work ‘a good day’s work’: One way to help set a healthy boundary is to encourage employees to think of a good day’s work. Look at the progress at the end of the day and ask yourself “have I done a good day’s work”? If the answer is yes you can stop working feeling satisfied that something important got accomplished if not entirely done, and if the answer is no you can treat it as an off-day and explore the five whys (by asking why to a problem 5 times in a row to find the root cause)
It’s everyone’s job to be on the lookout for co-workers who are overworking themselves, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the managers and business owners to set the tone.
Compute different: Use different devices or spaces for work and play where possible. The grey line between work and play can be hard when you use the same device for both. Try to separate the two completely by using different devices e.g. reserve one computer for work and another computer or tablet for fun. This works doubly awesome if your fun device can’t even run the programs needed to do your real work. You can back this up by confining the home the work computer to the home office. This works even better if you hook it up to a mess of keyboard mouse and monitor wires to make it a real hassle to disconnect. Having created conditions that necessitate getting off your comfy couch to check work email, your laziness will win most nights leaving you to recharge your mental batteries until the morning. If you can’t have two computers or devices, try to create two separate spaces within your computer. Also make sure to separate work and home accounts for email and chat.
Ergonomic chair, desk, and monitor height: use them if you can.
Personalize your space with whatever you want! And feel free to wear sweatpants :)
Don’t forget to move, exercise and eat healthy.
Now you have more time to do so! Perhaps check out a workout video online.
Get engaged with interests beyond just your work
Take time off to do hobbies so that you benefit from the diversity of human experience. Interests, diversity, and personal development are encouraged.
The manager’s role is to lead and verify the work
Not to herd cats or check if/when people are working.
Meetups and sprints
It’s important to get the entire company together sometimes. It’s also a great idea to occasionally do a sprint with a smaller group to finish a specific project. If the company must make a mad dash to meet a deadline — with the unreasonable hours and pressure that implies — it can be nice to slave through the ordeal together. Basecamp has done this in the past when they’ve launched a new product or finished a particularly gnarly feature in their software, or when people have simply wanted to top off on some social interaction.
Have frequent check-ins with all your employees — pick up the phone and talk with every remote person on a frequency that works for your company — daily, weekly, monthly, or less frequently. The key is to make them casual and conversational. This is a “What’s up and how are things?” call more than a specific critique of a specific project or response to a piece of work. These chats typically last 20 or 30 minutes but it’s good to keep an hour open just in case. If a conversation is going well you don’t want to have to cut things short. The goal here is really just to keep a consistent open line of communication. These quick calls prevent issues and concerns from piling up without being addressed. Morale and motivation are fragile things, so you want to make sure to monitor the pulse of your remote workforce.
Getting stuff done while working remotely depends on being able to make progress at all hours and without waiting. Empowered everyone to make decisions on their own. Mistakes are the price of learning and self-sufficiency. Make sure everyone has access to everything they need.
Build a Routine
Without clear boundaries and routines, things can get murky when working from home. While some might be able to juggle a floating lifestyle where you work from your bed or your couch, some people need some sort of routine that they can stick with most of the time. Consider separating the clothes you wear depending on whether you’re in work or play mode. Consider dividing up the day into chunks like catch-up, collaboration and serious work, and have a clear delineation between work time and family time. If you can, use the layout of your house as a switch. Make sure the real work only happens when you’re you’re in your dedicated home office. No checking work email in your bedroom. Find out what works best for you.
The only reliable way to muster motivation is by encouraging people to work on the stuff they like and care about, with people they like and care about. There are no shortcuts. If a worker’s motivation is slumping, it’s probably because the work is weakly defined or appears pointless, or because others on the team are acting like tools. If you find yourself taking a week to do a day’s work, that’s a flashing red light and it should be heeded. The sooner you act on that message, the better. Don’t blame yourself. The truth, more often than not, is that you are not the problem; it’s the world you’re working in. Have the courage to speak up and turn de-motivating work and environments into the opposite.
Motivation is pivotal to healthy lives and healthy companies. Make sure you’re minding it.
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