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Fixing Remote Work Communication

Published 8/10/2018

As a developer, you've probably encountered an offer to pursue remote work. More and more people are working in a nomadic state as opposed to in an office. So it makes sense to do some studying around remote work and the tradeoffs between remote and in-office work.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
As a developer, you've probably encountered the discussion or the offer to pursue a remote engagement. Some kind of work where you're not necessarily bound to a specific location. Most developers would otherwise be in an office, but then they choose to work remotely. Traditionally, this is working from home, but more and more people are working in a nomadic state. They're working as they travel, for example. This isn't necessarily all that surprising. Most of the materials that we need to do our work, well, it's pretty much a laptop and a good internet connection. It makes sense to do a little bit of studying about remote work. Seeing as many of us and many of the people listening to the show especially will end up with some kind of remote engagement as your primary means of income. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers just like you connect to your career purpose and do better work so you can have a positive influence on the people around you, the people who come in contact with you. It's not just the people who are using the stuff that you make. It's the people that you surround yourself with. One of the ways that you may have a positive impact is based on your location, the literal community that you are a part of. It's very possible that remote work is going to improve your community relationships. That's not what we're focusing on today. Today's episode, we're focusing more on the problems or more specifically, the one major problem that many managers are concerned about and that is how do we communicate with remote workers? How can we effectively create the same type of productive environment when people are not around each other? When there's no water cooler for example, no passing each other in the hall and sharing personal stories about what happened over the weekend. That doesn't really happen when your workforce is remote. We want to talk about some of those communication dynamics and maybe something a little bit more surprising about how to mirror a more natural communication pattern. We're going to talk about that a little bit more in just a moment. I want to share some news with you all. The first piece of news is that spec has just launched a jobs board for designers and developers. A quick shout out to Brian Levin for pulling that together. It's a super awesome job board. Of course, if you are wanting to hire designers and developers, the spec community is full of talented and driven people. Go and post your job. You can post that at the same place. Spec that FM slash jobs. The second piece of news is that Developer Tearecently rolled over 10 million listens. We have 566 episodes. Now we're actually nearing 10.1 million, but 10 million listens since we started this show. I can't tell you just how grateful I am for you all, the listeners, the audience of this show. I want to connect more and more with you. The future is exciting. Very thankful that you have stuck around this along, especially for those of you who have subscribed over the years and you've listened diligently. There's three episodes a week. That's a ton of content. Of course, we've had people listening. Some people even sense the very beginning. I'm very grateful for that amount, just that sheer number of people who have participated in making Developer Teahappen. Thank you so much. The last piece of news. I wanted to remind you all about Breaker upstream. This is a brand new partnership that Developer Tea and Breaker, the podcast listening app, Breaker, you can find it in the app store. We've partnered with Breaker upstream to release ad-free content. Let me clarify something. Developer Tea, we love the advertisers that we have on this show. They are the ones that have helped sustain this show for the years that we've been around. Advertisers are not going anywhere. There are plenty of people who listen to this show and you listen to it because you can listen to it for free. We're always going to have that model available to listeners of this show. I want to make sure that's very clear. Breaker upstream allows you as the listener to directly support the show. You can subscribe directly to the Developer Teaad-free feed. The Breaker team has made the experience really quite easy to do. If you go and search for Developer Teain the Breaker app, you can subscribe to that Developer Teaad-free. And for 499 a month, you will get access to that ad-free version of Developer Tea. This is specifically made for listeners who believe this show is creating value for you in your career. If you believe the show is actually adding something to your career in a positive way, then this method of support is available to you and you get the ad-free version of the show. Thank you again to Breaker upstream for inviting us to be a partner in this launch. This just launched on Monday, by the way. It's brand new out of the gate. Thank you again to those of you who have already subscribed using the Breaker app. How can we communicate better in a remote environment? Well, first, I want to talk about some of the ways that people communicate in an office environment and in a non-remote environment. If you were to watch a live video feed of people in an office, you're going to see points of communication, these kind of clustered points of communication. In the morning, when people come in the door and see each other for the first time, they may greet each other. Then they'll set up their equipment, set up the laptop, depending on how you enter your office environment. You may already have your computer set up, but getting settled in and as you're settling in, you may discuss a few things informally. As you transition into that working mode, depending on what kind of team you're on, you may have some kind of stand-up meeting. You may ask somebody around you, hey, what are you working on? There's this moment of transition into work mode, and then there's a break. There's a break for you to do something that requires your attention, where you can't actually talk. You can't actually give that person the necessary attention for communication. For a few moments, there's silence. It isn't really awkward because for those few moments of silence, the people who are being silent actually have something going on. Nobody is waiting on the next person to talk. Generally speaking, this is a very normal occurrence for people to go silent and continue their work. Of course, those clustered conversations happen throughout the day. For example, you're probably more likely to hear discussions happening around 12 o'clock or on lunchtime than at 10 o'clock. At 10 o'clock, people are typically going to be working. These patterns are pretty common for the average office environment, these pocketed moments of communication. In particular, healthy environments, healthy communication, healthy office environments allow for these pockets of communication, but they also protect quiet time. They protect focused work. There's especially no the importance of focused work. We talked about it quite a bit on this show. We won't belabor the point. Hopefully you understand that interruption is toxic to your focus. We don't want to have interruptions constantly. If the value of being in an office is being able to interrupt each other, able to easily have access to another person, that's counterintuitive to this idea of focus. What is it actually that works in this communication model? The healthy version of this communication model has nothing to do with being in close proximity to each other. Of course, this is an arguable opinion. Having proximity has other effects, but this doesn't necessarily mean that communication becomes easier per se. And perhaps more directly, just because you have the opportunity to interrupt somebody that doesn't mean that your communication with that person is going to improve in some tangible, important way. How can we model our remote communications in a similar fashion? That's what we're going to talk about right after we talk about today's awesome sponsor, Reactor. We love the sponsors who choose to support Developer Tea. Our sponsors typically provide excellent products to developers. Reactor is just a little bit of a different type of sponsor. Reactor is a digital product studio in New York City and they're designing and building products and services for forward thinking businesses and organizations. Reactor is spelled by the K, not with a C. The finish language doesn't use a C and Reactor has roots in Finland. So they've partnered with huge companies like HBO, Supercell, Viacom, and NeverThink to work on their biggest product challenges. They've also partnered with people like Finair, the Finnish airline, to design and build the perfect digital customer journey, including their mobile apps and their in-flight entertainment system. They're developing their own satellite. This is so cool. They're developing their own satellite to explore emerging new space business opportunities from hardware to rethinking putting code into space, literally launching to orbit later in 2018. Reactor is looking for great software engineers and I know there are people who are listening to the show right now who would make excellent software engineers for Reactor. Head over to Reactor.com slash careers, Reactor.com slash careers. Remember that's with a K, not with a C, R-E-A-K-T-O-R.com slash careers. The way that you're going to apply, you're going to actually tell them what your dream role is. They don't have a specific definition for your role. You're going to go and tell them what you want in your next job. So go and check it out Reactor.com slash careers. Thank you again to Reactor for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So how can we do a better job of mirroring this kind of communication style that actually happens in the office? And this is really what we're trying to do and we get it wrong so often. Let me explain how we get it wrong. So when we have this concept of silence in the office, the concept that people are actively working, they're around us, but they're not necessarily interrupting us. That they're focused on their thing and where focused on our thing. And we can do that without actually having to convert. We can do that without even necessarily listening to the room. We can put our headphones on and tune out everybody around us. Of course there's kind of the unwritten headphone rule that if somebody comes up and taps you on the shoulder, that it's urgent enough for them to interrupt you. And hopefully if you are actually running a physical office environment, this is a seldom occasion that something that important comes up that you would interrupt somebody. So how does this translate into remote work and how are we getting it wrong? Well part of the reason that focus is accomplishable in that office environment is because we're turning off our listening mechanism. When we have to listen and wait for somebody to reach out to us, to contact us, we're kind of running this background process. This is my hypothesis at least. We're running this process of listening to what other people might say. And here's what the research says about this. Christopher Riedel, I believe that's how you say his name, and Anita Williams-Wooley, published a paper actually back in December of 2016. And it talks about this idea of remote work and more specifically about this type of communication. It's called Bursty Communication. And what they found is that teams who had Bursty Communication, remote teams who had periods of a lot of back and forth messaging where the team was online and collaborating together through something like Slack, for example, that they were more successful than teams who would have long lag times but had kind of an always on mode, a constant slow stream of incoming messages. And the problem here again is that constant switching between communication mode and working mode between highly focused and highly distracted modes. And so even if you have only a small amount of messages coming in, and even if you are able to respond to messages in your own time, one of the kind of touted benefits of remote work is that choosing your own hours concept, especially with a distributed team, a geographically distributed team, one of the trade-offs that you're going to face if you don't have some kind of aligned hours is that lower productivity. So I've got two very simple action steps for remote teams to try. If you're on a remote team, if you are a manager of a remote team, I encourage you to try this for a couple of months. Hopefully, that's enough time to see if it's going to work well for you. Maybe even a couple of weeks will show whether it's better or worse. So two things. One, have some short period of time, both in the kind of the morning and the afternoon sessions if you want to call at that, typically people work in two sessions. In a given day, you're going to work in the morning and then sometime in the afternoon or evening. So have some time where employees align at either one of those during the day. So again, with the distributed teams, it'd be hard to ask everyone to align to both of them, but have every employee align to one or the other of those specific collaborative times. If you have a team that is relatively similar in terms of their location, their geographic location, time zone, then try to get all of them to align to one of those times. What this facilitates is a single period of time where back and forth, quick question and answer, kind of call and response, those things can happen in a more synchronous fashion, which is a little bit counterintuitive to this model, but it happens in a more synchronous fashion and then allow your employees to disconnect entirely from Slack or email or whatever they are using to stay connected. Allow them to disconnect entirely or at least expect no response from them for at least three or four hours. So what does this do? Will it directly facilitate this different way of communicating? Community communication, allowing people to communicate like they would in a real office environment. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Hopefully, these ideas are useful for you as a developer or as a manager, especially hopefully the managers of remote teams are willing to try this kind of stuff out. Thank you again to Reactor for sponsoring today's episode. If you are interested in a job at Reactor, head over to Reactor.com slash careers to get started today. That's Reactor with a K, not with a C. Don't forget to subscribe and whatever podcasting app you use, but I encourage you to try out Breaker and check out the Developer Tea. Add Free Feed. You can find it at breaker.audio and of course, it is available in the iOS app store. It's coming to Android soon, so stay tuned. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.