The New Future of Work
In his recent podcast, Sam Harris talks with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg about distributed work and the benefits of working from home or in some other remote environment, topics that are particularly relevant during this COVID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in. I thought this episode was great so I wanted to share some notes that I took away from this conversation.
The levels of autonomy
Matt makes an argument for a kind of remote work on steroids, which he calls distributed work. His company, Automattic, works in this way with ~1,200 employees in 75 different countries. He explains many companies land somewhere on the scale of distributed work with tech companies usually leading the way while more legacy companies are trailing behind. He explains this scale in a little more detail and calls it the “5 levels of autonomy”:
Level 1: You can get by for a day without being in the office, but you’ll probably be less effective and put things off
Level 2: You try to recreate what you do in the office but just do it online. Everything is still synchronous - you still work fixed hours, attend the deluge of meetings, etc…
Level 3: You start to really take advantage of remote-work-enabling tools. You might:
- Share your screen
- Use a shared Google Doc for meeting notes so everyone can see notes being written live and ensure the notes accurately reflect the shared understanding of what was agreed to, thereby preventing drama and conflict over the confusion down the line
- Invest in better equipment for audio, lighting, etc… Matt mentions krisp.ai which uses machine learning to remove background noise from incoming and outgoing audio
- Invest in the quality of written communication since it plays a more valuable role in these conditions
- Make information more transparent internally so that information is not locked up in private email boxes or other siloed software
Level 4: You start working asynchronously. This means you don’t have to be on your computer at the same time as your team. You can design your day. Your boss judges “work” based on output, not time spent in office.
The effects of this is transparent - what would normally take an organization 3 days to do using synchronous work patterns could take just 1 day with asynchronous work. On a technical level, this makes sense - synchronous patterns have dependencies; operations must wait on previous operation to complete.
Level 5: You’re doing better work than any in-person organization could do. You can design your environment and your day around health and well-being, like doing squats and pushups after a meeting, using a treadmill desk, lighting a candle at your desk, etc… people can bring their best selves to their work.
You might observe that as these levels of autonomy increase, there’s more emphasis on using technology that enables work to be done in a more asynchronous way. For example, if communication and progress is transparent through tools like Slack and Jira, then their advancement is much like a baton being quickly and easily passed from runner to runner. Blockers are minimized and work is more easily distributed.
How to work distributively
Fortunately, Matt provided some tips on how many of us can move more toward this distributed way of work.
He mentions software like Zoom, Slack, email (just for private stuff like HR things), a blogging system like Discourse for discussion threads, and something like Google Alerts for your company’s internal content so that you can set alerts for content you care about or when someone mentions you (far better than those long CC email chains). He also throws in the idea of asynchronous audio where you send short audio clips (like in WhatsApp or Signal) instead of synching up for a call.
Of course, we’ve all seen the difference between a moderated thread and an unmoderated one. He suggests to start a thread with what you want the outcome to be and when you need it by. Then after everyone provides their arguments, summarize the best arguments on every side and then what the decision was. In essence, each thread will be a self-contained decision making artifact that can be used for later reflection.
In a similar vein, messages in general should be specific and contain as much of the context as possible. Each message should be self-contained so that a person has everything they need to respond and so there’s less chance for misinterpretation.
When reading others’ messages, assume positive intent (consider Hanlon’s razor). It’s also helpful if you remove ambiguity in the intent of your own messages by perhaps throwing in some extra fluffy language or using an emoji or gif.
I’m a big fan of working remotely and fortunately I’ve been able to work with teams who share similar ideas of how to best work more distributively. That being said, I am aware of the fact that this comes easier to those who might work in a technical field as I do.
I also think there’s a place for on-site meetups, and Matt makes mention of this a bit on the podcast as well. However, for many companies, the balance of on-site meetings vs. remote work can afford to be adjusted a bit more in favor of remote work. This not only decreases operational overhead but also makes your team more antifragile to unforeseen circumstances.