BT

InfoQ Homepage Presentations Remote Working Approaches that Worked (And Some that Didn’t)

Remote Working Approaches that Worked (And Some that Didn’t)

Bookmarks
49:21

Summary

Charles Humble talks about his personal experience working remotely at C4 Media, the company behind InfoQ and QCon. Topics included: how to decide if remote working is right for you; common pitfalls of remote working and mitigations we can take to avoid them; specific techniques for managing remote teams; and more.

Bio

Charles Humble took over as head of the editorial team at InfoQ.com in March 2014, guiding the content creation including news, articles, books, video presentations and interviews. Prior to taking on the full-time role at InfoQ, he led InfoQ’s Java coverage, and was CTO for PRPi Consulting, a renumeration research firm that was acquired by PwC in July 2012.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.

Transcript

Humble: When I was first putting this presentation together, the first company I thought about was IBM. If you were in Mark Rendle's talk yesterday, Mark [Rendle] remarked that IBM seemed to invent absolutely everything in the 1970s, and it turned out that one of the things they invented was remote working, kind of. In 1979, they sent five employees home from the Santa Teresa Lab, which is in California, with green screens, terminals, and said, "You folks go and work from home." The reason they did this was something to do with congestion on the mainframe, apparently. It's an experiment that presumably went quite well, because, by 1983, which is only 4 years later, there were 2000 IBMers working remotely, which is a pretty large team.

Fast-forward to 2009, the report I found said that 40% of some 386,000 employees in 173 different countries have no office at all. That's 154,400 people, which is, when you think about it, an awful lot of people with no office. Which made this report in "The Wall Street Journal" fascinating. This came out in 2017. What this says is that the 105-year-old technology giant – that'll be IBM – is quietly dismantling its popular decades-old remote working practice to bring employees back into offices in a move that it says will improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work. I want to particularly draw your attention to that last phrase, "improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work." That phrase or phrases like it are things you hear a lot when companies bring remote working practices to an end. That happens more often than you might think.

As another example, you might remember Yahoo! during Marissa Mayer's tenure. Again, large company, large remote working practice, and Marissa Mayer decided to bring it to a close. There was an HR memo, unsurprisingly, and unsurprisingly, it leaked, AllThingsD got hold of it. What it said was that, "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." Admittedly, the words are not exactly the same, but it sounds a lot like "improved collaboration and accelerate the pace of work."

Why This Talk

This idea that remote working makes collaboration difficult is very widely held as a belief. It's something that many of us, I think, naturally assume to be true. In fact, it's backed up by some scientific research. This is a paper from the Harvard Medical School website, and what it says is that scientists in close physical proximity to each other do better science and publish more impactful papers than scientists who are not co-located, which is quite interesting. It surely begs the question, is remote working just a really terrible idea? Is it an idea from the 1970s and the 1980s which honestly has no place in this modern highly collaborative sort of working environment that we all now work in?

After all, if agile and the methodologies that agile has promoted has taught us anything, it's this idea that team collaboration will outperform the individual. If that's true, then something which makes collaboration more difficult is surely just a rubbish idea and perhaps we shouldn't do it. Fairly obviously, I wouldn't be standing here if I thought that was true. I think it is the case that many people believe that to be true, and I think it is also the case that you need very specific skills and a very specific kind of mindset and approach to make collaborative work work when you're working remotely. I think it's possible, and not only do I think it's possible, but I think the advantages to both the individual employees and the company – the employer – are sufficient to make the effort worthwhile.

Who am I to claim such a thing? I'm @charleshumble on Twitter. I've done most things in IT. I actually graduated with a degree in English literature, and it turned out there weren't a lot of jobs for literary critics, which was a huge surprise. So, I moved into IT, started in desktop support, gradually made my way up to be a CTO. I started managing teams in 1997, so I've been managing for a little over 20 years. Most of that was managing IT delivery teams of one kind or another until this most recent job. I joined InfoQ as editor-in-chief in 2014, so I've been doing this job about six years, and I will keep doing it for as long as they'll have me really, because I enjoy it very much. In my copious spare time, I play in a band, and you are in the almost unique position of actually having heard some of our music, because we've been playing it at the show this week. You can find our album, if you're curious, that came out in about 2014.

C4Media, which is the company that runs the QCon events and also InfoQ, the part that I work for, is a remote-only company. The companies that I was talking about just now, IBM and Yahoo! and those, all have remote practices, but they're sort of hybrid mortals. They have remote office, also remote workers, but they also have physical offices. C4Media doesn't. It's an entirely remote organization, which I think makes it quite interesting from a case study point of view. It's also quite interesting because it's a very successful company. It's not big, the English part of the company is only 50 people. It's really not a large organization, but it sort of punches above its weight. InfoQ, which is the part that I run editorial for, has a worldwide audience of about 1.5 million people, and if you think that we're a site for senior developers interested in early-stage trends, that's actually quite a large percentage of the potential addressable market. We operate, now, seven QCons around the world. We're also independently profitable. We're not VC-backed. It's a small but fairly successful company. It's also the second remote company that I've worked in. I've worked remotely for about 10 or 11 years, and as I said, I think it's quite interesting.

Remote Working Upsides

The thing about remote working is it has tremendous advantages, in my view, for the individual employee, and that, in turn, is reflected in advantages for the company. Let's quickly run through what some of the employee advantages are. One of them is that if you are an introvert or on the autism spectrum, your not having to deal with people face to face is, I am told, liberating. I'm not on the autism spectrum myself, at least, as far as I'm aware, but I do have quite extensive experience of it through my immediate and extended family, so I'm reasonably happy to stand behind this statement. Actually, Floyd Marinescu, who you may have seen on stage on Monday, who is one of the co-founders of the company, also describes C4 as being an introvert's paradise. That was something that he had in mind when he was originally setting the company up and designing it.

Another advantage is that working remotely means that you can flex your work around your life more. That's a huge thing. It was actually one of the things that drew me to working this way in the first place. My wife and I wanted to have a family, and I wanted to be around at the beginning. That was an advantage that was afforded to me by this kind of working. It's also true for, for example, people who are perhaps caring for an elderly relative or maybe single parents with very young children, or for all varieties of reasons the normal business of coming into an office for seven or eight hours and going home again doesn't really work out for them. That's important because what it means is, from a company perspective, your team is almost, by definition, likely to be more diverse than it would be otherwise. As I think you probably all know, assuming you have the other bits right, diverse teams will typically outperform less diverse teams. More diverse teams will typically outperform less diverse teams, assuming you have the safety aspects and those things correct.

Other advantages: low commute. My commute when I worked in London was an hour each way, that's 10 hours a week. It was a little over a working day of time that I suddenly got back, and that wasn't my longest commute. Actually, my longest commute was almost twice that, 20 hours a week. That's a lot of time that you suddenly gain as an individual that you can use to do more interesting things than sitting on a train.

Amazing peace and quiet – you can actually concentrate and do proper deep work. Something that Judy was talking about in her talk with you in the room before was this business of a need to concentrate. We live in a very kind of hyper distracted environment, lots of things ping at us. This ability to have your own space and stop and actually think through problems is a luxury that is, in my experience, quite hard to get in conventional office design, particularly open-space office design. I think that this is actually a huge plus point for anybody working remotely. Also, there's the work environment that you can tailor to your own personal needs.

But…

The interesting thing about this list of five things is that it turns out that almost all of them have hidden problems, have hidden side effects. Some of them are more obvious than others. As an example, being able to flex your work around your home life means you've got to be really disciplined about actually doing work. If you are prone to procrastination, remote working is going to be horrible for you. What's more, you may not know this yet, you may not know that you're prone to procrastination. I was lucky in that I [inaudible 00:09:58] an art subject, which meant that by the year three of my university, I had five supervised hours a week, and the rest of my time I had to keep myself occupied. I learned quite early on that I could do this if I applied some tricks and techniques, but not everybody knows. When you're hiring people to work remotely, genuinely, they might not know whether they can do this. Most of us can motivate ourselves for a day or two or a week or two or even perhaps a couple of months. Think about motivating yourself week after week, month after month, year after year when, while at the end of a day, you're sitting in a room on your own. That is actually genuinely quite a difficult thing for awful lots of people to do.

Tricks

There are some tricks and techniques you can use. One of those is to have some sort of time management system. The one that a lot of people at C4 use is getting things done, the Dave Allen methodology. I was put on to this by Floyd Marinescu, and it's a method that I find incredibly helpful, mainly because it's really simple and because a lot of my work tends, by definition, to be unplanned. The job of an editor-in-chief, most of what actually happens is ad hoc, probably more than 50% of the work I can't actually plan in advance. I get work pinging in from email and Twitter, and goodness knows where else, it all has to go somewhere.

The way GTD thing works is you look at a task, if it's going to take you more than two minutes, put it into some kind of central repository, and then work from there. A central repository that I use is something called OmniFocus, which is a Mac and iOS tool primarily, although there is a web version. I spoke to some of the Windows users in the company, and most of them recommended a tool called Todoist. I haven't used it myself, but as an alternative to OmniFocus, it's pretty good. What I love about OmniFocus is it integrates really well with the Mac toolset. For example, if I'm in an email, I can have a command line set up, and afterward, it will actually do a command strike, send it into the OmniFocus toolbox, and it'll pop in there with a link back to the email and all those sorts of things. I can find the email later and it's all really quick and slick when you're working with it, which is nice.

Another technique that I find really helpful is Pomodoro. I appreciate you all probably know the Pomodoro Technique. I find it's a technique that people forget about, maybe because it's so obvious and so easy, but it's really helpful. One of the things that I have to do every day, I get about 100 to maybe 150 emails a day that need a reply of about 200 to 250, so about half get thrown away and the other half actually needs a response. I find Pomodoro is the only way really that I can do that, because to be honest, writing emails is not my favorite thing. Choose a task – email. Set a timer – 25 minutes is a standard that works pretty well. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, and then take a short break, and then rinse and repeat. After about four of those, take a longer break. I don't personally use a tomato timer. I actually use Siri on the iPhone, because it's a use case with Siri on the iPhone. That's what I use for that one, but whatever works for you is fine.

I also strongly recommend having a separate office, separating your office from your house in some way, if you possibly can. If you think about writers, novelists have always worked this way. If you've walked around the U.K., you've probably come across these huge Victorian follies where Victorian gentlemen – it's always a gentleman for some reason – sat and wrote philosophical treatise and that kind of thing. You might think of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" or Roald Dahl's famous writing hut, which is in Great Missenden, and you can go and see the inside of, at least, or even David Cameron's shepherd's hut. The point is having a separate office allows you to separate your work from your home more, and that turns out to be really important, because otherwise, your work will bleed into your home life until you just can't separate the two. I think that's a problem for all of us, to be honest, but I think, when you're working remotely, it's maybe particularly challenging.

I really like this quote from Neil Gaiman. This is a podcast that Neil Gaiman did with Tim Ferriss. Neil Gaiman is a novelist. I guess many of you know him. It's another sort of productivity tip in disguise. What he says is, "I'm allowed to sit at my desk, I'm allowed to stare out at the world, I'm allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn't anything. What I love about that is that I'm giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while." If I'm having a low productivity week, which happens, then I give myself permission to sit in the office and stare out the window or stroke my cat or something. What I don't allow myself to do is move on to another task. I won't turn on the synthesizer because then I would get nothing done apart from playing with the synthesizer for eight hours, and that would be bad. It turns out that if you sit in your office, have a coffee, whatever, after a little bit, your brain will get back into working mode, and giving yourself permission to do that over a long term is something that I have found helpful. Thanks, Neil Gaiman, for that tip.

I mentioned this idea of amazing peace and quiet, that you can concentrate and do proper deep work. This is kind of true, but we mentioned that communication is a problem. We set this idea that collaborative communication is difficult, and of course, that means that you have a huge number of things that are going to ping at you: Slack, email, instant messaging of whatever kind, and so forth. Plus, if you haven't separated your office from your house, and your home is anything like mine, you probably have things like that going on. They do in my house anyway. Obviously, separating your office from your house is one thing that you can do which is really helpful.

Another thing that you can do which is really helpful is have a company-wide communication policy. Your company may not have a company-wide communication policy, in which case you could be the person to write it. You'll be an absolute hero, and it turns out they're not very difficult to write. The other thing you can do is you can just have a communication rule for your particular team, which is probably easier. If you're working on a remote team, or even if it isn't a remote team, set communication boundaries in place, "These are the rules, this is what is acceptable, this is what the sort of expected response times are." In my team, for example, we have a rule that everybody has WhatsApp installed, and if something is genuinely on fire, then WhatsApp is the thing that we use to contact somebody to say, "We actually need you now." That, in turn, allows us to turn off notifications on Slack and so on. To that end, "Do not disturb" is your friend. Use it often. Set your status in Slack or whatever tool you use for instant messaging, say, "I'm doing this," and then that allows you to concentrate.

This idea of deep work, I think, is something that we don't talk about or think about nearly enough, at least, in my opinion. I think that some of the things that have been promoted in conventional office environments, for example, open-plan offices, actually work against this. I know this is a slightly controversial view in a lot of circles, but I honestly this is true for me. A lot of noise around me makes it really hard for me to concentrate. In a lot of physical offices I've been in, that's turned out to be an enormous problem.

As an example of someone who did a lot of deep work, Bill Gates famously used to do think weeks twice a week. What he would do is he would take a stack of papers, he will then go to a holiday cottage or something, and he would go and sit in his holiday cottage and read these papers and think deep meaningful thoughts. Did anything significant come out of those? One famous thing that came out of them is the "Internet Tidal Wave" from 1995. This was the famous memo that turned Microsoft's attention to Netscape. Was that a good thing? Not for Netscape, certainly, but it probably was a good thing if you were the chairman of Microsoft.

If you are interested in the subject of deep work, then Carl Newport's book is really great. It has lots of good practical advice, lots of case studies. I find it hugely inspiring. I think that I've got stories in there, but there are lots of others as well, and it's really worth the read. If you're finding that business of being hyper distracted as a problem for you, this book is full of good advice.

I mentioned no commuting, which sounds like that's just got surely to be a win. This might sound odd, but I really missed commuting. I didn't miss standing on a smelly train and trying not to put my nose in somebody's armpit. I didn't miss that bit at all. I did miss the time that I had for myself. I missed being able to read books, I missed being able to listen to music or listen to podcasts, all the things you do to pass the time in your commute.

I also piled on weight in my first year of remote working. I've put on over a stone, and you can probably tell, I haven't got it all off even now, shockingly. That was an interesting issue as well. It's fairly straightforward to mitigate against that. Make time for yourself – not difficult. The thing that I try to do is I try and schedule an hour in the morning. After I've got my children off to school, I then go for a walk. I can't really run anymore, my knees are a bit shot, but I can walk, so I walk for an hour. Then I'll go home, make a coffee, start work, and that's my day. I find that if I do that every day, it also seems to help with my mental well-being. If I stopped doing it even for a few days, then I start to feel out of whack, out of alignment.

I also strongly recommend getting a fitness tracker of some kind, because then you'll see how much exercise you're not doing, and I really find it a little bit motivating. That's a good idea as well. It doesn't have to be an Apple Watch. Something like a Fitbit is fine, and they're a bit cheaper. Someone was extolling the virtues of the Apple Watch to me yesterday, so I put it on this slide.

Sign Me Up

I mentioned this idea of a work environment that you can tailor to your own personal needs, and that is definitely a win. I have worked in some truly terrible offices, including some here in London. My wife and I met at an office Christmas party, hilariously, in a large retail bank here in London. My wife, I don't know if she would mind me saying this, is a little bit of a nerd. This would have been the late 1990s, and she looked up what the rules were for how close you're allowed to have human beings in an office in terms of physical proximity. Then she came in with a tape measure and measured the gaps between the chest and the desks. What she discovered was she wasting her time, because somebody in facilities had clearly already done it, because we were within about a millimeter over legal limit to how closely you are allowed to have human beings in an office.

Tragically, I didn't take a photograph of it, but if you picture something like that, you're honestly not that far off. This ability to tailor your office to suit you is a real plus point. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do. What it's not is particularly cheap, because you need kits, you need equipment. Most of you are probably developers, and your laptop is probably already up to the task, but it may not be unless you would know. If it isn't, you need to buy a new laptop, and they're not cheap. You may need a new keyboard, you may need a new monitor. All of these kind of things add cost. Can you get high-speed internet? You're going to need it. Surprisingly, even here in the U.K., sometimes you can't. My recording studio is in a farm building in North Essex, and it turns out that the broadband that we can get there is possibly slightly faster than the dial-up line I had 20 years ago, but I'm not convinced. Apparently, this will be fixed in 2025. There is no way that I could work there all the time. That's certainly true for people in U.K. locations and, obviously, further field as well.

How much is a good office chair? You'd be astonished, really expensive it turns out, typically, for a good ergonomic one. These are all things that you need to weigh in if you're making the shift, and of course, you've got to maintain the kit, which means you got to keep buying it. Your company may have a policy that helps you pay for some of this stuff, but it may not. C4 does, which is great. Of course, you also have a tradeoff because you're not commuting, so you're not paying for train tickets and those sorts of things. Again, think about it and factor them.

Mental Health

There's another topic that I want to touch on, and that's the business of mental health. About a week ago, I had a version of this deck that had a lot of slides about things like burnout on it, and then I took them all out again because I thought, "I'm not really qualified to talk about that. It's not my area. I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist." I took all of those slides out again, but I do want to say something about burnout. I have some personal experience of this, and I have also seen other people go through it. I have actually lost close friends to this. It is a very serious issue. It is my belief that it is quite endemic in the IT industry, and it is something that we do not talk about nearly enough. I'm sorry if I'm making you uncomfortable, but I think it's really important.

If you are having problems with your mental health, don't mess around. Go and get professional help. I don't know why this is so hard for people to accept. If you're sick, you go to a doctor. If your teeth hurt, you go to a dentist. If you're having mental health problems, seek help from a mental health professional. Likewise, if somebody in your team appears to be having mental health issues or a colleague or someone you know about, find a way of kindly and gently saying to them, "Have you thought about maybe seeking professional help?" It just possibly might save somebody's life. Take it seriously. People don't, I don't know why.

A little below burnout is loneliness. In the end, you're sitting in a room on your own, for weeks or months or whatever, and that's a problem. It really is. Even if you're talking to people remotely on cameras and so on, over time, the physical interaction of actually being with people is something that most of us, I think, start to miss. Things that I have personally found that have helped me, and this sounds impossibly glum, for which I apologize, is actually have a social life. It turns out that it requires a bit of activation energy sometimes to actually set up to go and meet people, and sometimes that seems like it's too much work. It will pay you back, honestly. Also, if you have a family, make your family a priority, assuming that's important to you, obviously. In general, make your social life a priority.

I have also discovered that pets can help, for real. Dogs are great, because dogs force you to get out and walk and get in some fresh air and get some exercise. This is a fine and wonderful thing. I do not have a dog. I have a cat. Her name is [inaudible 00:25:15]. This is what she looks like. I'm fairly convinced that people on calls with me think I have like a cat's tail on a stick just wave in front of the camera, but she is actually a real cat. She's a cat. She's dreadful. She bites me, she scratches me. I don't know why I like it so much, but I do. She spends all day in the office, because laptops are warm. She'll sleep on my laptop all day, which is great. I had to work out at one point what the kernel commands were for a Mac laptop to turn the keyboard off so she could sleep on it. I got a Bluetooth keyboard. I promise somebody a cat video, so there it is. Look, real cat. This is actually a real conference call, by the way. I blacked out the people on the right though, because I didn't want their faces up. There you go, real cat. Yes, cats can help, it turns out.

There is a growing body of evidence that getting out into nature actually helps with your mental well-being. I was reading on a paper a piece of research last week – I don't have the citation on this slide, for which I apologize – which said that about two and a half hours a week in nature is actually enough for most people to have genuine positive measurable benefits on their mental well-being, which I thought was quite interesting. My sister, Kate Humble, has written a wonderful book called "Thinking on My Feet," which is not a typical QCon book recommendation, but I'm throwing it in, because it's a really lovely book about walking, and the benefits of just getting out into nature. I honestly think, for those of you that are working remotely, it's an important thing to read.

Make Remote Work Work

It turns out as well that some aspects of C4Media's organizational design specifically help with some of these challenges of loneliness and other mental health issues. It's not perfect. You have to make some decisions on your own, but I think it genuinely helps. I'm going to dive into that in a second, but before I do, I'm just going to quickly mention some of the advantages that the company gets from have remote employees.

One of them is that your overheads are low. Obviously, you don't have officers, you don't have facilities people, that's cheaper. Another advantage is that if you get your hiring right, which turns out to be quite tricky, then your employees will generally be happy or are more productive in my experience. I think, certainly, your turnover will be lower, by the way. Part of the reason for that is because there aren't that many companies who work remotely, and so, if remote working is attractive to the people that you're hiring, then they're less likely to move bluntly, because their options are a bit more limited. That's a thing. I also think that, for the right kind of people, this environment works really well, again, as long as you got it set up right. It's also the case that you can hire the best people because location is largely irrelevant. The important word in that sentence is largely irrelevant, for reasons that will come to you in a sec.

I love this quote from Martin Fowler. This is an essay that he wrote on remote working, which is well worth reading. What he says is, "A remote team may be less productive than the same team if it were co-located, but it may still be more productive than the best co-located team you can actually form," because you don't have to physically get people to the same space.

Hiring

Getting the hiring right is tricky. Sometimes just having incredibly complicated tax regimes that you need to understand. Your geographical spread is going to be broader than it would be for a typical office space company, and therefore, the level of company bureaucracy that you have to deal with is perhaps more. As I've already said, not all locations can get decent internet, even here in the U.K.

Time zones are a problem at scale. That's fairly obvious, I think, but it's something that becomes really problematic as you scale the company up. Just as an example, if you've got people here in London and you've got people in, say, San Francisco, when the time that your meetings can take place, the time that you can actually talk is late in the day for people in London and early in the day for people in San Francisco. What happens at the beginning is you have this narrow band at the end of the day when all of your meetings are. Guess what happens. Your day gets later and later if you're in London, and earlier and earlier if you're in San Francisco until you get mad and quit. That turns out to be a thing. I reckon roughly four or five hours is ok. I think that it's just about enough overlap, and that's a pretty broad area that you can hire from. I think much more than about four or five hours, and honestly, you start to come unstuck, at least for people that you need to talk to at least weekly, say, if it's an occasional meeting. I have people that work for me in Australia or New Zealand and places like that, and it's fine, as long as we only need to talk about once a month. If it's about more than that, it honestly starts to become very difficult.

Interviewing remotely turns out to be really difficult. You lose an awful lot on camera. You lose a lot of the body language signals and those kind of things that you would typically use as a way of assessing how people are performing. If you've ever done a screening call with somebody and then brought them in for an interview and gone cranky, "They're not what I thought they were at all," then you'll be familiar with that kind of experience. Judy [Rees] was talking about this a little bit in her talk – there are some techniques to do with active listening, or focused listening, that can really help with this, but I also honestly think that, at least for key hires and in reality, probably for everybody, get them somewhere and actually have a proper face-to-face interview with them. My suggestion as well would actually be to pay people for this, because you're actually asking them to travel and spend maybe a day with you, so treat it as paid time, like a paid consultancy thing. Get them in and spend a day.

Obviously, we have a huge advantage here, because it's QCon. Three, four, five, six, seven times a year, we can bring people in and physically meet them face to face, which is a huge advantage. The other thing you need is a really robust onboarding process. That means that the onboarding process needs to be documented. You need to have a set of Slack standard steps that you go through. Documentation, in general, for remote teams, tends out to be absolutely essential, by which, I mean actual written documentation. You can't rely on sort of trouble knowledge as much. I recommend having two bodies, if at all possible, two mentors. Have a mentor in the team and have a mentor in a completely different team that has nothing to do with whatever the new hire is working on, because the mentor on the other team will tell them things about the company that people in your team will not.

Trust

C4Media has a set of core values. These are they: transparency, integrity, continuous improvement, service, and accountability. Most of these are pretty obvious, and I'm not going to spend very long talking about them, but the thing I wanted to highlight about them is the fact that they all essentially roll up to something to do with our trust model. You have to be able to fundamentally trust the people that work for you remotely, because you can't see what they're doing. See, they have to tell you. The one that I think is particularly essential in this mix is actually transparency, so I'm going to spend a little bit longer diving into that.

Transparency starts at the company level, not at the individual level. I think people often get this wrong. C4Media has a one-page business plan, and we have a set of dashboards, all of those are in Google Docs. Everybody in the company can see them. That means that somebody working for the QCon team can see how my unit, the InfoQ editorial unit, is performing and can come and ask me questions. They do, and this is great. It's extraordinary what happens when you give smart people access to the actual data that people make decisions off. It's amazing what people will spot. If you learn how to use this well, this is also where your best strategy ideas come from, in my experience.

In general, the best strategy doesn't tend to come from top-down, it tends to come from talking to your customers, talking to your employees, and listening to what they have to say. In order for your employees to be able to do that, they need to be informed, and in order to be informed, they need to have access to good data. Every single bit of data that we have about the company pretty much is available to everybody in the company, which I found very fascinating when I first got here. I came out of banking, so this was super unusual for me.

Communication: Meetings

We found the following meetings to be useful. We have standups. This word, standups, seems to have become a bit controversial recently, so daily huddles if you prefer. We actually don't do this daily. We do them twice a week, for most teams, Tuesdays and Thursdays. We actually find that that's enough. We don't like to have more meetings than is necessary. We have one or two departmental calls a week. My team does a two-hour departmental call once a week where we look at the operational numbers, we look at how the sprint is progressing. We have an open partial agenda where we look at any customer feedback and all of those sorts of things, and that's a standard to our call. I also have a call with the marketing team. Then we do what we call tertile planning. We call it tertile planning because we do it three times a year rather than four. That's typically done around the QCon timing. After QCon, we'll typically sit down and plan out the next four months' worth of activity.

Then we also have an annual all-hands meeting. The annual all-hands meeting is, I think, completely key. What we do is we get the whole company together somewhere physically for about four days. That includes the China operation, it includes the Brazilian operation, and those groups generally don't meet each other apart from this one meeting. It's four days long. We start the day with departmental meetings. Then we have a day of formal presentations, which is planned. Then we have a whole day of open space, which is generally everybody's favorite part of the whole thing, so we do a whole day of open space. Then we normally do some kind of fun thing at the end, go sightseeing or something like that. It's quite an expensive thing, if you think about it, to bring a large group of people together. You've got to find hotels that can put you off, meeting rooms that are big enough, and all of that sort of stuff, but it's totally worthwhile.

Actually, when I was researching this talk, I talked to several other companies that worked this way, including a company called [inaudible 00:35:39] here in London. It turns out that they're a hardware company, so I thought it was an interesting difference, and it turns out they've settled on this same thing. I think what that's telling me is that you don't have to be co-located all the time. I think we have this obsessive idea that somehow collaboration can only possibly work if we're all in a room all the time. I'm sorry, I just think it's nonsense. I do think that you do sometimes need to get people together, particularly, I find, for any kind of strategic conversations. I think strategic conversations remotely just turns out to be legitimately really hard.

We have a set of meeting rituals. One of these is the check-in. We have two different formats of check-in. We have the core protocols version. If you're not familiar with the core protocols, that's the one that's, "I am sad, glad, or afraid because this happened." We also have an informal version, which is really just, "This is what's going on in my life" or "This is what's going on at work." The check-in is the next point where transparency happens. As a manager, you probably all know this, but your team tend to reflect back to you the behavior that they see you exhibiting. What you do is much more important, it turns out, than what you say. The check-in is your opportunity to show people that transparency is ok, that this is a safe environment. We have psychological safety, so we're allowed to be vulnerable in our check-ins. You might say, "I'm having some health problems at the moment. I've got to go to the hospital next week, don't really know what's wrong with me. I'm a little bit frightened about it." Something like that.

By doing that, you're making it clear to the people that work for you that it's ok, that it's all right to be a bit vulnerable, to be a bit exposed, and then they will be willing to do that for you. That's really important because it's the only way you're going to know, because you can't see what's going on. If someone's having a difficult time, the only way you're going to find that out is if they choose to tell you. If you're not familiar with the core protocols, then Richard Kasperowski did the book on InfoQ, which you can download, and I've put the link in there, which is a nice little summary of how those work while getting hold off. We've been experimenting with them and some of the other teams at C4, and we've found them quite useful.

You also need to have one-on-one meetings. I hope you all have one-on-one meetings, those of you who are managers. If you want to really annoy me, cancel the one-on-one meeting without a proper reason. I consider one-on-one meetings absolutely sacrosanct. I don't think I have ever canceled a one-on-one meeting with somebody. I don't think I have. A one-on-one meeting is not a status meeting. If you're using one-on-one meetings for status, you're doing them wrong. You have lots of other tools for status. You don't need one-on-ones for that. One-on-ones are your opportunity to find out what's really going on for your employees, where they want to go, and maybe think about things like career development and those kinds of things. As a manager, you have people's careers literally in your hands. People join companies, but they leave managers. They'll leave you because they don't think their career is going to progress, because you're not doing that job. Certainly, in a remote context, one-on-ones is, as far as I can see, the only way you can do it.

I recommend having some repository of shared notes. Google Docs is really good for that. Obviously, not everything goes in there, but things that you need to follow-up on next time or in a few weeks is really good to have in a shared repository. Camille Fournier's book, "The Manager's Path," which is an O'Reilly book, was a book about moving from being a developer to being a manager. It's a book that I wish I'd had when I made that transition. It wasn't out at the time, but it's a really good book, and it has really good advice on one-on-ones, including lots of stuff about different styles of one-on-ones and how to mix them up a bit. If you find that one-on-one meetings are all getting a bit samey, it's a really good book to go and refer to and get more advice on.

Tools

In terms of tooling, we use Slack for instant messaging, like just about everybody else it seems. I also use Slack for daily journaling. I don't journal daily, but sometimes I just have stuff in my head at the end of the day which is a bit unstructured and it needs to go somewhere. I find the channel for you in Slack works well for that. We use Zoom for video conferencing. Zoom is, in my opinion, the best video conferencing tool, at least of all the ones that I've tried. I think I've tried possibly all of them, certainly many. It's very good at adaptive bitrates. If the internet connection isn't great, it works best the most. It also has facilities for breakout rooms, which again, Judy [Rees] was talking about earlier, and that's really good too. We use Workplace, which is basically Facebook but for work, for that kind of "water cooler" type chat – happy birthday threads, team Y just hit this milestone, those kind of things. We use Google Docs for basically everything. I love Google Docs. It's a wonderful collaboration tool for just about everything. It works really well.

Then we also use a tool called 15Five, which we use for private weekly retrospectives. This has a slightly mixed reputation in C4, and in fact, I'm currently experimenting with not enforcing its use in my team. I used to enforce it. It's a bit like gratitude journaling, if you're familiar with that. Basically, you can configure it any way you like, but this is how we have it set up. It asks you how your week goes, rate it 1 to 10, and asks you things like what challenges did you have, what did you learn this week, those kind of things. It's just a nice structured format for reflecting back on your week and maybe thinking about what you want to do next week. Some people find it really helpful. I quite like it. Other people, not so much.

Scaling Up

The final bit that I wanted to bring into here is the subject of scaling up. As I said, C4 is quite a small company, but we are starting to have some interesting little scaling challenges around working with a largely distributed team. The main thing that I think I've picked up from this is the importance of actual written documentation. I think it's probably more important if you're working remotely that you have everything written down, because, particularly as you start spreading people across time zones, that's really the only way that they're going to find stuff out. We've recently started capturing all of our process documentation and all of those kinds of things, again, in Google repositories where you can pick them up. Basically, I think what I'm saying is that, for a remote team, you really do need a strong written culture, and I think that becomes more important as the company grows.

Wrapping Up

As I try and bring all of this to something of a close, it's my view that, for both employee and employer, remote working can work really well, provided you're very intentional about how you go about it. I think a lot of the reason actually why people find remote working so challenging is because they're set in a mindset of thinking about sitting people in physical offices as being the only way that work gets done, because that's how we've done it for so long. To be honest, I think that's necessarily true.

Separate your office from your house if at all possible. Somebody I interviewed when I was researching this talk, actually, does a commute every day. He has his office in his house, but what he does is he leaves his front door, and he goes for a walk around the block, and he comes back into his house and starts working. When he told me that, my reaction was a bit like that really. I thought that's mad. Actually, it turns out that it works quite well, because it gives you a transition point. It means that you stop thinking about work and start thinking about not work, or the other way around. That might be a trick if you can't, for whatever reason, get a physical office.

Obviously, you can use drop-in offices, sort of WeWork or Regus or those kind of things. In rural parts of the U.K., there are lots of farms that have converted stable blocks and that kind of thing to a couple of cheap offices that you can run for very little. Someone I know who's a professional wildlife photographer has done that, for example, and that works quite well too.

Prioritize your mental health. Please, take it seriously. If in doubt, seek advice. Have a social life, take exercise, take breaks, get out into nature, all of those things are approvably, demonstratively good for you, and they also help with your general sense of mental well-being.

The most important thing, I think, is that, for remote working to work, both the company and its managers need actual transparency, and they need to be prepared to be vulnerable. That's the psychological safety thing. You may be familiar with the work that Google did, Project Aristotle, and all of that stuff, which was basically saying that psychological safety is the number one factor on high performing teams in Google. For some reason, we always miss the "in Google" bit. I don't know why. It turns out that you don't need psychological safety to have high performing teams. I've worked on high performing teams that had zero psychological safety by design, and it was ok. I mean, it was horrible, but it was effective. You don't need it. It's just much nicer.

I do think, actually, you do need it for remote working, and the reason I think you need it for remote working is because, as I said earlier, people need to be able to tell you what's going on, because otherwise, you're not going to find out. You don't overhear stuff, so people have to be willing to volunteer it. Getting psych safety right is really hard, and one of the reasons it's really hard is because, if people don't feel safe, they won't tell you they don't feel safe. How do you know? I don't have an answer to that, by the way, but if anybody does, speak to me afterward.

These are the books we found helpful. "Drive" is a Dan Pink book. That's the one that says autonomy mastery purpose. If you haven't read it or if you think all it says is autonomy mastery purpose, get hold of a copy and read it. It's a really good book, and it was a huge influence on C4 when C4 was being set up. We also use the "Scaling Up" book. That's sort of Rockefeller Habits 2.0, the Verne Harnish book. I personally found "Traction" really useful when I started at the company. There were some things that I didn't really understand, because it was a brand new environment for me, and "Traction" really helped me.

Questions and Answers

Participant 1: You mentioned the importance of written documentation. I agree with, but there's a perennial problem with written documentation in that it grows stale. Do you have any ideas for how to tackle this staleness problem? Would you like to hear one of mine?

Humble: I'd love to hear one of yours.

Participant 1: I think it's important to separate living documents, where you look at them, work through them regularly, maybe say, the one-to-one document, you're looking at it regularly with your manager. A project document, as you update things, you update that document, but then, when that project ends, it explicitly goes from being a living document to a historical document. It's no longer ambiguous. Is this documentation trustworthy? That documentation is trustworthy about the project at the point it ends, and you can say, "Why were we trying to do this?" "Well, two years ago, we had this goal." Then, of course, you want a system for noticing, "This thing that we intend to be a living document, we haven't touched it in six months. It has grown stale."

Humble: Yes, that's a really good tip. Make sure that everybody can also edit the document and they know that it's ok to do that. Then, if you're using a working document and you find a mistake in it or something that's out of date, you know it's ok for you to just go and fix that, and you don't need permission. That helps. Then, the final thing is have a process by which you regularly review the documents that your department is relying on or your team is relying on. I will typically go through this sort of core body of stuff that we maintain in terms of process documentation and that kind of thing around about the same time that I'll do tertile planning, so about two or three times a year, and I find that that's enough. Of course, if it turns out the documentation needs updating, that's an objective for some lucky person. That works too. Yes, that two or three times is generally about right.

Participant 2: Do you have any thoughts on one-on-one frequency?

Humble: Start with one a week. For some people, every other week may be fine. I think probably once a month is about the minimum. I would always start with doing one a week, and then, if you find that that's too often or you don't have much to talk about, then you can take the frequency down, but I would do it that way rather than, say, starting with once a month and then going, "That's not enough." I didn't mention it in the talk, but I also strongly advocate for skip level meetings. Your manager, my manager should be having one-on-one meetings with people that report to me. Those don't need to be nearly as frequent, but again, I think they're valuable. The person above you in the hierarchy will hear things that I do not hear, so that's really useful. I didn't mention that, but skip meetings, I think, are a really good thing.

 

See more presentations with transcripts

 

Recorded at:

Mar 16, 2020

Related Sponsored Content

    Related Sponsor

    Build Relationships and Network with a Global Developer Community. Attend QCon Plus (Nov 4-18) and Connect with Your Peers.

Hello stranger!

You need to Register an InfoQ account or or login to post comments. But there's so much more behind being registered.

Get the most out of the InfoQ experience.

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p

Community comments

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p

BT

Is your profile up-to-date? Please take a moment to review and update.

Note: If updating/changing your email, a validation request will be sent

Company name:
Company role:
Company size:
Country/Zone:
State/Province/Region:
You will be sent an email to validate the new email address. This pop-up will close itself in a few moments.