Obviously, we talked a little about my “Distributed Teams” book, but most of the time we discussed the new mainstream reality of Distributed Teams in Government, including the work we’re doing on DistributedGov.
The trend from office to “work-from-anywhere” has been accelerating in private industry in recent years because of many factors – including generational changes, cultural changes and the competitive advantage of hiring people who live beyond commute range of your physical office building.
Then COVID-19 forced the issue.
While government has supported “telework” for decades, the default for government employees in most agencies was still to work in a government office. With COVID-19, government agencies found themselves suddenly and quickly needing to shift entire agencies to telework. This means transitioning *lots* of people. In a hurry. Some agencies I talked with only had same-day notice to transition literally thousands of people. Each with lots of agency specific issues around security, network bottleneck, server load, data privacy and human training to work through. While massive transitions like this obviously hit bumps, their ability to roll-with-the-punches, improvise-where-needed and quickly get reliable, security solutions in place was impressive.
Now, a couple of months later, most of the surprise gotchas have been figured out, or worked around. There’s still lots to be correctly stressed about but work life has settled into a new rhythm. A strange, different rhythm, but still – a rhythm. In this rhythm, work is still being done, and all the long-term benefits – for hiring, retention, workforce diversity and disaster planning – are becoming very apparent to government agency leadership.
With this context, discussions about returning to the office are now being balanced with discussions like “when will COVID-19 be contained enough to safely return to offices?”, “how do people safely get to/from the office?” and “what do we have to physically change to make the office workplace safe?”. The many complicated practical steps needed to make offices safe are still being figured out and worked on. Meanwhile, another question is becoming harder to ignore: “We’ve shown we can work from home for months now – so why do we even need to go back to the office?”
Dustin, Joe and I had a great, lively, wide-ranging discussion across all of these topics – and yes, we even got to talk about time machines! Watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.
ps: This was my first time doing an interview that was live streamed onto linkedin.com, and all the mechanics/logistics went quite smoothly! Nice work, Dustin and Joe!
Migrating from working in an office to working from home is tricky and takes careful effort. This is even trickier when done at short notice and for prolonged periods of time (like scenarios triggered by COVID-19). And then, of course, there is the extra complexity of leading, coordinating and managing others while physically distributed! If you are in this situation, I hope you find this checklist helpful.
(1) LeadByExample: Read and do everything on the manag-ee list. Crisp clear communications are live-or-die essential in a distributed team.
(2) GroupChat: Arrange channels carefully. Moderate who is in them, discussing what, where. Prune obsolete channels. Be a constant gardener.
(3) GroupChat: The phrase “I cant keep up with all the channels” is a warning sign. Remind everyone that all chat is transient.
(4) SingleSourceOfTruth: Multiple communication channels make it hard to know what’s going on. Agree on one place as accurate SSoT. Use it.
(5) SingleSourceOfTruth: If emails & project docs are inconsistent, people hold status meetings. If SSoT accurate, hold fewer status meetings.
(6) SingleSourceOfTruth: Brainstorm ideas anywhere. If you discover something others should know, your work isn’t done until you update SSoT.
(7) SingleSourceOfTruth: Don’t ask for status. Do ask where to find status. (Dont ask people to write things down then ignore what they write)
(8) SingleSourceOfTruth: Read SSoT before asking people questions. If you still have questions, then ask and get the answer added to SSoT.
(9) Meetings: Make sure every meeting invite has a link to the video call and a link to the shared editable document for agenda/notes.
(10) Meetings: Have people *append* items to the shared agenda, including topics added during meeting. Get better notes and better inclusion.
(11) Meetings: Don’t ask someone to take notes. Do ask *everyone* to take shared notes. Use the shared agenda doc for also taking shared notes.
(12) Meetings: As people join, say hello and comment on their video. This helps them informally test audio and fix errors before meeting starts.
(13) Culture: Use video in all meetings. Video meetings are usually faster than audio-only mtgs and video helps if tricky conversations arise.
(14) Culture: Have 1x1s every week. 30mins every week is better than 60mins every two weeks. Always on head-and-shoulders camera.
(15) Culture: Isolation is a real concern. Encourage ad-hoc coffee breaks and schedule weekly group “social meetings”. On video, as usual.
(16) Culture: Weekly “virtual happy hour” meetings, on video, help team cohesion – if people can talk freely and the “boss” talks the *least*
(17) Hiring: Are you hiring “the best person for the job”? Or “the best person for the job who lives near your office or is willing to relocate”?
(18) RealCostOfAnOffice: Physical offices cost money to lease, operate and maintain. Compare those hidden costs with costs of distributed teams.
(19) RealCostOfAnOffice: Why spend good money on physical offices in order to create a single point of failure for your organization?
I’m extending my free video training sessions until the end of April. I’ve also broadened the audience to include government employees, government contractors and civictech/NGO groups that work with government. For more info and to register, see here: https://civicactions.com/distributed-government
As always, these webinars focus on practical mechanical tips+tricks, suggestions to reduce work disruptions as well as help keep the humans connected as a team over a prolonged period… all with lots of Q+A to make sure it is immediately helpful to those who attend. Based on changing demand, I’m changing some of these sessions to be deep-dives on specific requested topics:
Running large remote meetings with 50+ people
Running effective and secure remote meetings
Knowing what others are working on and staying in sync
Dealing with isolation, trust, and team cohesion
All are free.
For those of you who attended any sessions (running since 11March!), and found them helpful, please do help spread the word. The goal of these sessions is still the same – we need government services to work in a crisis – so these sessions are to help government services keep running, even when the humans who work in government are suddenly not able to go into their usual government buildings. If you work in government (at any level), and your team suddenly transitioned from “working in a government office building” to distributed teams / telework / remote / “work from home”, these are for you.
Also, if you think it would help to arrange a dedicated session for your team, separate from these webinars, just let me know and I’ll be happy to do that too.
Given all the newly-working-from-home zoom users out there, and the recent flurry of security alerts for Zoom video conference software, I thought this summary would be helpful.
(1) A few zero-day security exploits for zoom were announced recently. Many are already fixed in the latest version of zoom. And watch carefully for new updates from zoom in the coming days. As expected, soon after writing this post, zoom released a updated version with security fixes. Make sure you are running at least v4.6.10 (20041.0408).
(2) “zoom bombing” happens when someone guesses your meeting url, joins un-invited and disrupts your meeting. To prevent this, there is an existing setting in zoom to add a password to your meetings. Use it. To make this easy for users, zoom appends the password to the meeting URL, so most people using zoom just click on the URL and join instantly without needing to type in the password. Importantly, people without the URL cannot zoombomb your meeting unless they guess the meetingID and the long password! To review your settings (and if needed change this setting), login to your zoom profile on zoom.us and look at your user profile settings. Under “Personal -> Settings -> Meeting”, make sure you have *at least* these three settings turned on.
(3) Zoom changed the default settings on Sunday (05apr2020), to address press coverage around zoom-bombings, and push users to use these passwords by default. Watch for changes to default zoom meeting behavior Monday morning – depending on your existing meeting invites, you may have to re-notify attendees of new longer-URL-with-password for upcoming meetings. NOTE: I recommend putting the zoom URL into your calendar invite, so all attendees see the same info at the same time. This helps you avoid delaying meetings while people search for the correct/updated URL and end up joining the meeting late. Zoom also wrote their own “tips and tricks for secure zoom meetings” post which you might also find helpful to read.
(4) The Washington Post reported that a bunch of Zoom “cloud” recordings were found on publicly-accessible Amazon S3 buckets. Details still developing, but until this is clarified, I recommend checking your zoom meeting invites for any meetings you record and change them from “cloud” to “local recordings”.
Thats all for now. If you know of any other zoom essential tips I should share, please let me know.
Its clear that that COVID-19 has been causing widespread disruptions to humans across society – in multiple countries – as well as to the government employees providing essential services to those who rely on those services. For many government employees, the hard reality of sudden shifting from working in an office to working as distributed / remote / “work from home” / “telework” is disruptive to ongoing day-to-day operations.
For the last week-and-half, I’ve been running daily webinars for government employees working their hardest to keep the wheels of government turning, even while facing these hard realities and changing health risk alerts. Demand has been so high that I’m going to continue running them and have now added more free webinars for every day this coming week (23-27mar). Again, these are all FREE.
Each webinar is based on lessons I’ve learned over my years of running distributed teams, as well as my experiences working in private industry, US Federal and State government, as well as coaching company leaders transitioning from an all-in-office to distributed-team. Intentionally, each session has lots of Q+A to make sure it is as helpful as possible for those who prioritize the time to attend. I carefully adjust each session based on initial registration questions from attendees as well as feedback from previous sessions. Depending on demand, we may again be doing multiple per day, like last week.
If you are a government employee, dealing with the sudden transition from working in an office because of covid-19, please do attend – these free webinars are just for you. My hope is that these webinars help you keep the wheels of government turning for those who rely on your services – especially in these tricky times and especially while you are struggling with the practical realities of workplace disruptions caused by rapidly move out of the traditional government office.
One of the hidden costs of a company office is office closures. If an organization requires people to be physically together to work, then anytime those humans cannot be in the office disrupts day-to-day operations. The physical office has become an expensive single point of failure for the entire organization. Brief office closures can usually be recovered from quickly – by having staff work late afterwards to catchup before clients notice the disruption. Prolonged office closures or transit disruptions are expensive per-day, can quickly become hard to recover from and even become company-threatening. In scenarios like this, how to change the culture from “office as single-point-of-failure” to “office optional”?
Having humans able to work well together, even while physically apart, is an essential skill that has to be learned and practiced regularly. The trick for office-based organizations is how to have humans learn this new skill without causing disruption during this transition. Impatient readers can jump down to the “Transition Plan in 7 Steps” section – but to improve likelihood of success, it is important to be aware of some common hidden assumptions.
To start with, it’s important to acknowledge that if you require humans to be in an office to work together, then everyone in your company should know how they can continue to work normally when, not if, humans are not able to get to the office, or the office is suddenly unusable. Note: I said when – not if – because while you can try to reduce some risks, you will have some office closures at some point in the lifetime of the company building lease. While CoronaVirus is in the news these days, similar issues came up while I was in companies concerned by Avian Flu (H1N1), Ebola (first outbreak), MERS, nearby forest fires, electrical power outages, winter blizzards, large civic protests and even disruptive celebrations of large sports events. Most of these are beyond the control of the building owners. The only questions are: When will disruptions happen? How often? For how long each time?
I’ve worked in organizations that had impressive binders of printed emergency manuals, covering a range of different “disaster” scenarios. They each used slightly different language, but usually focused on three categories of problems:
“Smaller” disasters, like office fires and individual medical emergencies, occur more often and hence get more frequent attention. Office fires can be mitigated by installing smoke detectors, sprinklers and fire extinguishers and training employees on how to use them. All this planning helps keep people safe, even if false-alarms from burning food in the office microwave cause most of the disruptions. Planning and training like this usually get active support from your local fire department – after all, even if a first responder doesn’t *fully* put out an office fire, they can usually help slow down the fire and also reduce human injury by helping others out of harms way before professional fire fighters arrive on scene. Similarly, for individual medical emergencies like heart attacks, diabetic episodes, slips/falls, etc, providing CPR and first-aid training classes and toolkits of medical supplies can help trained nearby employees provide timely aid to a coworker in need before professional medics arrive on scene. More diligent organizations will run periodic “fire drills” and “fake medical alerts” to make sure that training stays fresh. (Sadly, at least two organizations I worked at would pre-announce the exact time of the next fire drills many days in advance, allowing some employees to simply time their arrival/departure from the office that day to avoid training they viewed as an unnecessary disruption to their work). These disruptions are usually resolved quickly, and company operations return to normal within a few hours. These rarely have long-term impact to company operations.
“Mid-size” emergencies, like snow days or office closures because of neighboring offices doing pest spraying were usually handled by having everyone in that specific office take those days off. This includes events that block typical commuters getting to the office. Examples I’ve personally worked through include offices that were closed by transportation disruptions like Occupy Wall Street protests, US SuperBowl championship celebrations and a freeway collapse after a major accident blocking commuter traffic on a main artery bridge for almost a month. These events are frequently dismissed as an “unavoidable” cost of doing business, because employees are not already familiar with working from home. These costs are non-trivial, with snow day closures in New England area costing businesses $1.3Billion. Per day.
Larger emergencies, like earthquakes or hurricanes were also documented in these same binders. Some organizations did table-top exercises, verbally talking through what to do. However, I never saw them verify if these plans worked by actually testing them. After all, a multi-day closure of a large office campus is an expensive test to setup and run – and is also disruptive to thousands of employees across all departments. This makes it hard to get approval for large scale tests, especially when various leaders across the organization are focused on their own priorities, arguing that their own end-of-quarter deadlines are very real while these emergencies are statistically unlikely. Off the record, I’ve had organizational leaders tell me, semi-jokingly, that if something this serious hit the company office, they would not care because they would be focused on their own family home first and only focus on the company office much later. Thankfully, disasters like this don’t happen very often, but the lack of recurring training for these scenarios concerned me. Would these untested plans actually work when they were really needed? One agency included me in a review of their emergency plans for responding to a production system outage. The plan started with leadership gathering all essential individuals in a physical meeting room in the office. Dramatically called a “war room”, this meeting room would allow all involved to focus on fixing the production problem and just as importantly, avoid being distracted by anything else until they left the war room. Hidden assumptions were that the emergency happened during office hours and that everyone was able to access the building. When I asked about the scenario of the physical building being unavailable, or people being unable to reach the office, the first response was an incredulous “of course the office will be here”. I turned to look out the window at the parking lot outside, where parked cars were being coated with ash from the nearby uncontrolled forest fires, and the few people walking outside all wore face masks. As others started to also look out the window, there were several seconds of awkward silence before someone offered that maybe they could open a webex video connection for people to dial into. Discussions then moved on to how to identify and notify the appropriate people, instead of walking around the corridors looking for people who might “look helpful”. The reality was that this “office closure” scenario had never been considered in the planning.
Diseases are a special case that can fit into any of the small/medium/large scenarios, depending on the specific disease.
Moving office workers from private individual offices to an open-plan space increased sick leave absence by 62%. Factors here include central recycled air systems in open plan offices and closer proximity of humans per square foot to save on real estate costs. These stats can be made even worse by company vacation / sick day policies which encourage sick humans to come to work in the office instead of taking a sick day, causing other healthy humans at the office to become sick. All these factors are annoying when dealing with cold or flu season – and scary when dealing with Avian flu (H1N1), Ebola, MERS and now CoronaVirus (COVAD-19).
The risk of an infected employee returning from a work trip, and unknowingly carrying one of these lethal infections into an office is a real operational concern to everyone in the company as well as the wider community of family and neighbors of all those employees. One company I worked in during the (first) Ebola outbreak and the Avian Flu crisis imposed an emergency requirement for C-level preauthorization before any employee was allowed to travel anywhere near any of these affected regions, even for urgent business or family needs. All non-urgent work travel was simply cancelled, because of fears of contact on airplanes or airport transfer areas. A multi-week work-from-home quarantine period was mandated for anyone returning from these regions before they were allowed to enter any office buildings.
Requiring humans to self-quarantine at home after travel is a reasonable default response to help protect others in the office. However, that human’s ability to work effectively from home assumes they have already verified access to all the systems they need and are familiar using them from home. For humans used to working in an office, it can be hard to start learning how to work well from home – when already suddenly trapped at home. Simple things like not having valid VPN passwords or hitting security imposed geo-ip blocks on network access to critical systems can totally derail your ability to suddenly start working from home. Fixing barriers like this when already stuck at home, and when other coworkers who can help are *also* stuck at home, is a problem.
With that background/context, here are some immediate steps you can take to help keep your office-based organization running smoothly when an office closure is suddenly required.
Transition Plan in 7 Steps
Keep in mind that changing an existing all-in-one-location team into a distributed team is tricky. After all, human culture change is tricky. Avoid making big announcements that encourage unreasonable expectations, raise concerns about “yet another management fad” and quickly doom your initiative with cynicism. In times of crisis, avoid adding a sense of panic by surprising people with major unplanned changes. Instead, quietly start improving how work is organized, in ways that are helpful to everyone in your current office culture and also allow humans to start working as part of a distributed team.
If you already have any employees who already work from home on a periodic basis, meet them all on a video call. Do this today after you finish reading this post. They will have real-world, concrete advice, immediately specific to your organization. Ask them to describe specific problems they know impede them from working well from their homes, listen carefully, take notes and probe for suggestions if none are obviously forthcoming. Fixing their list of known issues should now be at the top of your todo list. Ask them to keep you posted if other issues arise. Also ask if they would be willing, as role models, to help coach and mentor others transitioning from office-only work to work-from-home work. If you don’t already have anyone working from home, then you need to find a handful of early volunteers willing to try a one-day experiment, starting today. Include at least one C-level executive, who will be the high-level champion to quickly unblock any roadblocks or purchase approvals needed.
Ask this group of volunteers to work from home the very next day for one day only. Importantly, they should do this using only what equipment they routinely carry home with them in their typical bag when leaving the office. Note: I have found it important to only do this “work from home” experimental day on a Tues/Wed/Thurs. Avoid doing this experiment on a Mon/Fri, as it is too easy for others to cynically view the experiment as an invitation for a long weekend instead of a normal working day.
For this one day experiment, it is important that this group do the work they had normally scheduled to do in the office, but instead do that same work from their home. This is not about doing solo headsdown work at home. This is about doing their normal “office work” collaborating with coworkers, while each human is in a different non-office location. Specifically, I am not talking about everyone being at home, each doing solo headsdown work. I’m specifically talking about doing your normal meetings, co-editing documents with coworkers in other locations, negotiating planning meetings, taking calls with clients… everything you would do in a normal day at your office location – but from home instead. Start the “work from home” experimental day with a quick group video call to make sure everyone is still aware of the experiment. At the end of the day, meet for another quick group video call to discuss what problems were discovered during the day, and decide what can be fixed quickly before the next “work from home” day experiment. Worst case, if things go horribly wrong, some will struggle through their day, and have a busy catchup day after, but you have now learned valuable information on what practical things to fix quickly before possible office closures.
Start by making sure that you and your immediate team are crisply organized, using audio-video calls for all meetings, with everyone on their own head-and-shoulders camera, using shared meeting agendas, shared meeting note-taking, and so on – each of the chapters in the “How” section of my book. These baby steps are low risk, low cost, and they improve day-to-day work life for everyone, so good to do anyway. Just as importantly, each improvement helps build trust that future changes will also improve work life for everyone in or out of the office. As these initial improvements become the new normal for the team culture, start introducing other higher level improvements from the rest of my book. Keep relentless focus on quiet, gradual improvements. Keep taking baby steps. They might not seem to be helping at first, but I have achieved everything I’ve described in my book across decades of experience working in several different organizations through persistent, stubborn, relentless baby steps.
Knowing how to use the tools is important. Just as important is knowing how to lead and manage teams while physically apart. For companies with offices, employees asking to work from home are often viewed as asking for an unnecessary perk that somehow reduces operational efficiency. Supervisors who typically manage by walking around the corridors (the “butts in seats” approach) don’t know how to supervise humans not in the office. A frequent concern is “how will I know people are doing work”, to which I usually ask “how do you currently know people in the office are doing work?” This is usually a good time to remind people that in the United States, every year we celebrate a day where people come to the office to shop online – Cyber Monday is so important, it shifts the stock market. It’s worth noting that this mindset also ignores a larger continuity of business problem. If you usually work from an office, managing by walking around, then the physical office has become essential to the manager’s daily operational work. Changing how you manage can be hard. Being able to lead and manage people equally well, in the office and/or at home, is exactly why I wrote this tactical hands-on management book. In addition, leading distributed teams during a crisis assumes you do all this perfectly *and* also give frequent, timely, truthful updates on what is happening. Anything less than this will enable rumors, erode trust in leadership and cause even more operational disruption.
As these volunteers become routinely successful, start expanding from one-day-a-week to two-non-adjacent-days-a-week, and if there are no problems, keep gradually increasing the cadence. As this group of initial volunteers become more accustomed to their new work arrangements, gradually start adding other volunteers who will be mentored by the initial group of volunteers. Keep doing regular debriefs, learning/adjusting the tooling and systems as new paper-cut issues are discovered and then fixed. Having the entire organization suddenly switch to working from home risks discovering some all remote-access system that had not been load tested, disrupting everyone at the same time. This process of scaling up group size and cadence helps quickly discover any load bottlenecks early and with disruption to the fewest possible humans.
When your physical office is no longer an organizational single point of failure, it reduces risk. This helps everyone at the company be more confident about their work and job security during this crisis. Even if there is organizational risk because of wider market disruption, at least the part each human has control over – doing their own work – is something they can still do to the best of their ability. This is obviously important for the organization to survive the current crisis with minimal disruption. This is also important for the humans, helping reduce feelings of helplessness and fostering a new-found confidence that the team can work through future unknown crises as well. Work is an important factor in people’s lives, so stability at work allows people to focus their concerns on caring for themselves and the humans around them.
Quietly, quickly and with very little fuss, the mindset of the organization will shift from “the office is a single point of organizational failure” to “the office is optional”. This is success. After the dust settles on this crisis, these newly learned skills will continue to be important for other future crises. Just as importantly, these office-optional organizations can keep the immediate benefits of hiring faster, hiring better, hiring more diversely and improving retention, while also reducing the recurring overhead of office costs as their existing office leases expire. The secret ingredient in this transition was consistent, thoughtful, humane, and crisply organized leadership.
The terms “distributed teams”, “virtual teams”, “virtual employee”, “remote work”, “remote employee”, “work from home”, “work from anywhere” and “telework” are often used interchangeably, even though they mean very different things. Used incorrectly, these terms can (mis)communicate important human, social context in ways that are damaging and unintended. Hopefully, this summary helps people be more intentional and crisp when describing work arrangements:
Distributed Team: This clearly and correctly describes that all humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.
Remote worker / Remote employee: This term correctly denotes that one human is physically separate from other coworkers. However, I usually hear this term used from the perspective of the speaker who believe they are not remote – only the other person is remote. (This is physically impossibility and tells me a lot about the mindset of the human speaking. I’ve found this usage happens most often when one human is sitting in an office with a company logo on the door, describing another human coworker who is not in the same office.) This usually implies that the person in the office considers themself to be a first-class citizen in the center-of-their-universe, while they consider the “remote” person to be somehow a less-important, second class citizen physically located somewhere else. This mindset usually assumes that the “remote” human carries all the responsibility for communicating with the rest of the team – a mindset that is incorrect and operationally harmful to the team. To be explicit, if any member of the team is not able to reach out and tap the shoulder of each and every other human on the team, then everyone is remote from someone – and all share equal responsibility to make sure communications are clear across the entire team. Example usage: “I work remotely”, “We have a remote person on our team”.
Virtual employee / Virtual team: A variation of the “remote” term above, this implies that the “virtual” human is somehow not as valued as a real human and is somehow more disposable. No matter how politely someone says this, it feels to me like virtual humans are treated as second class employees in terms of career progression, new projects and even just basic human empathy – while humans “in the office” are somehow “real (non-virtual) employees” who should be cared for more intentionally because they are real humans. Like the term “remote”, this has the same first-class / second-class flaw where the speaker thinks of themself as a real, first-class human, while the other human is somehow a virtual, second-class human. Examples include: “I am a virtual worker”, “We have a virtual employee on our team”.
Work From Home: This term made sense when describing someone working from a fixed location outside of a physical office – back in the time when people working outside of the office used a desktop computer and a physical landline telephone connection. These technical constraints limited them to working from a predictable fixed location – typically their residence. Now that portable laptops, smartphones, high-speed internet and wifi are the norm, this term feels increasingly obsolete. Of course, some people do actually work online from their actual home. Confusingly, I’ve heard the phrase “Working from Home” used to describe someone working from a coworking space or a hotel conference venue – or when describing co-workers who travel the majority of the time. I’ve also heard the terms “road warrior” and “on the road” used to describe coworkers flying in planes or working from airport lounges. The terms “Work From Anywhere”, “Digital Nomad” and “Gray Nomad” are gaining popularity, and at least feel more accurate when describing someone’s non-permanent physical work location. Focusing on describing the physical location of coworkers, instead of how work is coordinated across the team, concerns me. Describing the physical location incorrectly bothers me, so I avoid the term “work from home” unless it is somehow relevant that the human is literally working in their place of residence. Example usage: “I can work from home sometimes”, “Some people on our team can work from home”, “There’s too many interrupts in the office, so I work from home when I need to do heads-down work”.
Teleworker / Telecommuter: This term originated in the 1970s, when people working outside the office had to use a telephone landline to “phone in” their work. Computer baud rate connections were so slow and technology so expensive that video calls and transferring large files were usually impractical. Communications between co-workers were limited to audio-only phone calls / conference calls and emails with small attachments. Because of the physical size of computers and the need for a physical landline telephone, this was usually only done from a fixed home location with plenty of advance time needed to setup and configure everything. The declining use of landline telephones and desktop computers make this term increasingly obsolete. Like “work from home”, the lack of coordinating work with others makes me feel this term applies to humans who temporarily use a different location to do solo heads-down work without interruption and will then return to their usual desk in the office when they need to coordinate their work with co-workers. Example usage: “Our company has a telework policy for decades, but almost no-one uses it.”
That summarizes the most common terms I’ve heard recently, but if you know of other terms that I should add here, let me know and I’ll update this post. Hopefully, this explains why I think it is important to intentionally use the term “distributed team” and avoid other confusingly incorrect terms like “virtual worker”, “remote worker”, “work from home” and “teleworker”.
Your physical proximity to coworkers is orthogonal to your employment status.
I’m frequently surprised when people discussing “remote work” or “working from home” or “distributed teams” somehow start talking about gig-work, contract work or freelance work. Without realizing it, they have shifted from talking about the proximity of coworkers to the very different topic of contractual terms of employment. The hidden assumption is that if you are “working remotely”, “working from home” or part of a distributed team, you must not be a full-time employee.
Usually, but not always, I’ve seen this happen in conference discussions about “Future of Work” or changes to the employment economy. Occasionally, I have had founders and/or c-level executives tell me they don’t want to hire “remote workers”, because they prefer to hire “permanent” employees not short term contractors or gig workers. Each time, I’d be confused hearing these smart, experienced, people talk about “gig work” and “remote work” interchangeably!?! The first few times this happened, I hesitated to say anything, thinking that I had somehow misunderstood some important subtle detail in the complex discussion, so would ask them later to explain what I had missed. Only to discover they already knew the terms were very different and they themselves had not realized they were mixing these very different topics. Confusing these topics frequently misdirects the rest of the discussion down a very different path. Left uncorrected, this mixup also added to the confusion of others listening, trying to learn. Worst case, organizations make bad business decisions because of this miscommunication.
Now, whenever I hear this mixup happening, I’m faster to interject. Correcting the mixup (politely) when it first happens helps everyone in the discussion stay focused on the right topic and make better decisions. I found myself doing this again recently, causing me to write this post.
Over the decades of my career so far, I’ve worked in many large company offices, with a fancy logo on the door, or outside the building. Inside these buildings, there was usually an arrangement of cube farm or open plan desks surrounded by private offices and meeting rooms. In every single one of those buildings, some of the people sitting at desks were full-time employees. Some were part-time employees. Some were full-time contractors – not employees. Some were part-time contractors – again, not employees. Occasionally, there were even humans who were not employed by the company, but instead were hired by an intermediary sub-contracting company, either as employees or contractors. Dress code, seating arrangements, projects being worked on, even who reported where in positions in org. charts, were indistinguishable between employees and contractors. A collection of humans with a mix of employment status, all sitting shoulder to shoulder. Usually, the only way to tell someone’s employment status was to look for different colors or logos on their ID badge.
I’ve also worked in organizations where the same mix of full-time employees, part-time employees, full-time contractors and part-time contractors were physically distributed. Instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder, they all sat at desks in different locations.
The physical distance between you and your coworkers does not determine your employment status.
Summarizing another way, all of the following are true:
Of course, this is not new. It has been normal in business for so long that I think many people now simply take it for granted. However, it is important to point out because this miscommunication causes misunderstandings and complications for organizations that are transitioning from all-in-one-location to distributed team.
One possible origin for this confusion is that over the last 40 years or so, society has gone through seismic changes, complicating discussions for everyone. The idea of a job for life is no more. Per-project jobs, freelance work, and gig work are prevalent in the free-agent economy. Whether this is good or bad is a separate discussion; the point is that the social contract has fundamentally changed.
Across all industries in the US, this trend continues to accelerate. Baby boomers now average a new job every 2.5 years. The computer software industry has even faster turnover, with people averaging one and a half to two years per job. In some hyper-competitive locations like Silicon Valley, the turnover is even faster, with average tenure at major tech companies ranging from 1.2 to 2.0 years! Most of the software engineers I know already work on a per-project basis, even though they are administratively called full-time employees. They are hired to work on a particular project—and after one or two release cycles, they’ll leave to work on a new project at a new company before moving on yet again. These 18- to 24-month transitions lined up with the waterfall delivery cadence that was used by a lot of software companies. Soon after each major release shipped, there would be a predictable flood of “goodbye” emails, internal promotions, and new-hire announcements as people celebrated their successful project release and left while others were promoted internally or hired to fill the gaps before the next project started. As more software companies transition to an agile methodology, releasing smaller deliverables more frequently, I suspect that the average tenure will shrink further. This will be interesting to watch.
In many ways, this transition feels similar to the movie industry’s transition from the all-in-our-studio model of the 1920s to today’s model of hiring independent specialists for each part of each different movie. How do you categorize a special-effects engineer or stunt driver working on a movie for a few months? Or a software engineer who switches jobs every 18 to 24 months? Or a four year tour of duty in the military? Or engineers hired for a few months because they specialize in complex skills that are only needed for a short project? Or an Uber driver? Or a sound technician at a concert venue? The line between per-project employee, contractor, freelancer, free agent, and gig worker feels very blurry.
All interesting stuff to talk about – and unrelated to the physical proximity to other humans working on the team.
Your legal employment status is one topic. Your physical proximity to other humans you work with is a different topic.
Language helps humans communicate complex topics. Rapid shifts in business trends are changing how we think and talk about work, and the language we use is still catching up. Errors in use of language confuse the situation, cause invalid assumptions to spread, needless conflict from miscommunications and confusion for others listening for advice from the experts. Speaking clearly and accurately helps everyone by reducing confusion. So, when I hear people incorrectly jump to the assumption that someone “working remote” must be not-an-employee-for-life, I think it’s important to help them avoid confusing the two topics.
Hopefully, this blog post helps clear up some confusion already out there, and helps others feel comfortable speaking up when they hear these very different terms being mixed-up. In turn, I hope reducing this confusion helps reduce the barriers to having more people start working in physically distributed teams!
Last month (November2019), I spoke at Nomad City about “distributed teams” as a new approach to economic development.
This was the fourth Nomad City conference hosted in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. There were sessions on building careers while traveling, personal brand building, the challenges/advantages of building a remote business and other topics important to freelancers, “remote” workers and companies willing to tap into remote work. This year also featured a panel session, as well as a longer more in-depth think tank session, on economic development. I was invited to speak at both.
Why a conference about remote work – in the Canary Islands? For background, the Canary Islands are Spanish islands in the Atlantic, physically off the coast of Morocco. In Europe, these islands are most known for tourism – a “recent” focus of the local government. They started encouraging tourism in the 1970s, which required them to spend a lot of time and effort shifting the public perception of beaches from “sunny beaches with families of children making sandcastles” to “adults playing in the surf, sun and all night parties”. It has been wildly successful for decades and has encouraged other nearby sun/beach locations to do the same. At this point, approx ~14 million tourists visit the Canary Islands each year. For comparison, the total population of the Canary Islands is 2 million. At this point, direct tourism and tourism related revenue accounts for 35% of the GDP of the Canary Islands (or 55% of GDP depending on how you count tourism-related construction) and accounts for over 40% of the total employment. The rest of the economy depends on agriculture (~20%) and a diversity of industries. I was personally surprised to find that because of the natural deep ocean water so close to land creating sheltered ports, there is a long history of repair/maintenance of deep ocean going ships – from Columbus and Magellan through to modern fleets of oil exploration ships.
The local economy has been quietly and consistently growing pretty well for a while now, but there are concerns. Having an economy dependent on a single revenue stream is always a concern. After all, a diversified portfolio is more stable than having all eggs in one basket. In this case, their economy’s reliance on tourism has some additional concerns:
Tourism is seasonal, so it is hard to predict accurately. This means that most of the economy literally depends on predicting the weather on the islands, as well as where tourists usually come from. This can cause surprise fluctuations to flights, hotel bookings and local major events at short notice.
Climate change brings concerns about rising waters to these islands, like all other coastal locations around the globe. It also brings risk to their tourism industry. Many tourists come to the Canaries to escape the cold/dark of winter in northern Europe. As those winters become less severe because of climate change, would people decide to stay home or vacation somewhere nearby instead? This is further complicated by the recent closure of a major budget airline and tour operator in Europe, making travel to these islands more expensive. An additional factor is a rising “flight shaming” movement to counter the impact of airplane flights on the environment. The combination of all these raises the question: What happens if these tourists start choosing to stay home or vacation somewhere closer to home instead?
Approximately 50% of citizens under the age of 25 are unemployed. Another 30% are underemployed, meaning they are overqualified for the work they hired for (while here, I heard in-person anecdotes of people with PhDs working as bartenders pouring drinks for tourists!).
To address these issues, local government officials and industry leaders have been looking for ways to diversify the income economy of these islands for a while now. Some impressive steps so far include:
High speed internet: Residential internet connections of 600 Mbs are guaranteed and affordable. For specific business districts, internet connections of 1GBs are considered normal. These numbers were confirmed by my (non-scientific) sampling of internet speeds in various locations while I was there.
Tax incentives: These islands are part of Spain and within the European Union (EU). This means that any company based here can operate across the entire EU. These islands are part of a special EU tax incentive zone to encourage companies to be created and grown here. I am not a tax accountant, and there are small-print-conditions to consider, but companies in the Canaries meeting those criteria have corporate tax rates significantly lower than others in the EU. Also, humans living here pay a lower consumer sales tax of 6.5% compared to an average 21% in the rest of the EU.
Bike rentals: There are well organized, affordable, bike shares widely available across Las Palmas and a growing network of dedicated bike-only lanes. This makes getting around easier then figuring out car ownership and parking – and cheaper than taxis.
Conservation policies: Because of the geographic terrain, there are protected deep ocean scuba diving areas just off the downtown beaches, walking distances from offices. And preventing light/radio pollution in the high mountain tops has allowed the creation of two spaceobservatories as well as a deep space communication center for the European Space Agency. These unique assets only exist today because of previous forethought creating policies to protect these unique locations.
Encouraging non-tourism companies to relocate to these rugged, beautiful islands would help diversify the local economy. The local civic leaders are well aware of the importance of this, so no surprise that it is something they’ve been trying for a while now, with mixed success.
However, if there was a way for humans on the islands to have meaningful work with employers that are not on these islands, that would be a game-changer. My “incentives for humans not corporations” mantra was eagerly agreed with – and some were even already working towards this. There are several co-working spaces on the islands – each with their own slightly different focus. Some cater to tourists or surfers looking for an impromptu place for some professional video calls/meetings before returning to fun in the sunshine. Some cater to digital nomads who will be daily users for a few weeks/months, until they leave to explore somewhere else. (Many of these also include “coliving” – with small apartments or shared accommodations.) Some cater to locals or expats who are now residents of the Canary Islands, usually running their own companies – and need a reliable office-as-a-service to work from outside of their home. Ignacio “Nacho” Rodriguez created a coworking space in 2014 which has been a big success. His mantra of “We work from places we love” is obviously popular.
All this explains why Ignacio wanted me to talk about this new approach to economic development at the Nomad City conference and also at some workshops before/after. Attendees were a mix of digital nomads, company founders, academics and civic/government leaders. This mix of different perspectives made for some very interesting discussions, on and off stage. These discussions have continued gathering momentum even after the official conference ended. It’ll be exciting to see what we end up creating and if more people can start working from places they love!
Earlier this year, while in Sydney, I gave a presentation on distributed teams at Fishburners in Sydney Startup Hub. As I blogged about before, the Sydney Startup Hub is huge – a government supported initiative bringing together multiple co-working spaces under one roof to create a critical mass of entrepreneurs and literally revitalize the entire neighborhood. The event was packed. The attendance was even more impressive when you keep in mind that this was a holiday week in Australia, so all those attending interrupted their vacations to come to a work event! The event was so successful that afterwards, I was asked if I would do another session.
The twist was that this next session would be with co-working members who were not able to make the journey to Sydney in person.
It turns out that many of those attending my session traveled hours to be there. Because Australia is so large, Fishburners has a special “virtual membership” for people who are not in Sydney, yet need the features of a great co-working community, professional support, business networking and the occasional professional desk space with wifi when visiting Sydney for meetings. Catherine “Cat” Kitney is Head of Virtual at Fishburners and felt this session would be particularly helpful to those “virtual” members – if it could be done.
Holding a session on how to work well while physically distributed to a group of people who are themselves already physically distributed is tricky. The idea of explaining video etiquette to strangers who might not have working video or stable internet was concerning. Also, my workshops tend to have quite a lot of interactive Q+A as topics come up. I enjoy the questions and lively real world anecdotes but was worried that this back-and-forth might be too unstructured for a large, very distributed video call where strangers without shared cultural norms might talk over each other and keep tripping over internet and microphone glitches. Overall, it felt like a bootstrap problem and I was concerned by the very real risk these mechanical risks could turn the session into a bad waste of everyone’s time.
Fortunately, this group of people had already been trying to wrestle with the various mechanical barriers for a while now, and Cat was willing to support me as “remote moderator” during the session, so we agreed to try this experiment – a large workshop on a video call about distributed teams, with distributed strangers I’d never met before.
Those attending were scattered along the eastern coast of Australia. The bigger towns represented were Brisbane, Coffs Harbor, Wollongong, Sydney and Byron Bay, with some people joining from countryside between those towns. I was the only person in a different timezone – now back home in San Francisco.
If you’ve never been to Australia, its easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the place. Driving from Brisbane to Wollongong would take ~12hours – not including any stops for breaks. For context, driving from Ashland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California is shorter. Also shorter is Boston, Massachusetts to Raleigh, NorthCarolina. And Berlin to Paris. Australia is big. Very big.
The session was a great success.
There was lots of Q+A throughout, and Cat did a great job moderating to make sure all questions were answered and the flow of discussions felt naturally inclusive. Most people who joined were the only attendee at their physical location, with only a few people who gathered physically in one meeting room together. Everyone’s internet connections was solid and high speed throughout. We never hit any of the camera/microphone problems I had been worried about. It all just worked, flawlessly. There were even impromptu side discussions between different participants across the different locations. Everyone was very eager and motivated to learn how to work better together while physically apart. After all, this was the reality of their daily lives!
Several discussions have continued since then, with some interesting further developments being worked on. More on those later. For now, I just wanted to note that the idea, and the entire event, was a great success.
Thank you, Cat for suggesting the idea and also to Fishburners for putting so much practical attention into their “virtual membership” as a way to help encourage entrepreneurs across all of Australia. Very very cool to see and I admire them for it.