Trust is key to successful distributed work

You can't successfully operate in a distributed/remote work model unless your organization is built on trust.

So many teams and companies are wrestling with questions around if and how to continue some version of distributed/remote work, now that public health concerns may not require it any longer.

Unfortunately, these conversations often focus on the mechanics of distributed work or in-person/distributed hybrid models: how many days per week, schedules, locations, finances, technology tools and more.

These are important considerations, but without a culture of trust to start, it's like choosing the color of a bicycle that has no wheels.

Managers and supervisors need to trust the people they manage and supervise. If you don’t trust that your people are there to do their best for the success of the organization, and to figure out a way of working that fits their needs and their role or team's needs, no amount of remote work tools or tips are going to help. If you don't empower and enable people to thrive in their work, and acknowledge them when they do, a distributed work model will lead to poor performance, isolation, resentment and worse. (Tip: this is also true in in-person work environments.)

Individual contributors who work together need to trust each other. If you don't trust that your co-worker is doing their best to balance the long-term interests of the organization and their role with their own health and wellness, no amount of communication tools or stand-up meetings is going to help. If you can't be gracious and generous with your co-workers around flexible scheduling, stepping away or taking time off when they need to, offering support and encouragement, and expecting all of that for yourself as well, then a distributed work model will bring out the worst in your professional interactions and relationships.

Is it okay to "trust but verify"? Is it okay to have systems of check-ins and measurement and reviews? Sure! But these should be built on the assumption that the people being verified, checked-in on, measured and reviewed are doing their best to fulfill the goals of their position in the context of everything else going on in the organization and in their personal lives. Instead of being about punishing or scolding, they should focus on offering guidance, direction, constructive feedback, support and encouragement — again, trusting that people are there to do their best work for the long run, and helping them get there.

What if you don't have that trust? What if the people in your organization assume the worst about each other's intentions? What if you can't possibly imagine letting a co-worker decide for themselves, in consultation with their team and stakeholders, what work environment, practices, schedule, tools and timelines make the most sense given everything you're trying to accomplish together? Then there's no way you're going to be able to thrive as a distributed team, or maybe at all, until that trust is repaired or rebuilt.

Can a team work effectively in a distributed model without trust? Sure, for a while. But it comes at the expense of mental health, job satisfaction, a sense of ownership, productivity and long-term engagement. The work will eventually suffer, the people will eventually suffer, things will break. This is not the way to build or grow an organization. (Tip: this is also true in in-person work environments.)

Successful distributed work requires trust. Without it, everything else may be a waste of time.

Disclaimers, notes and further reading:

  • No, I'm not saying that in-person organizations are inherently operating without trust. Nor am I saying that the proper alternative to distributed-without-trust is in-person-without-trust. So many in-person organizations have come to equate "at your desk looking busy" with "high performing hard worker" and we need to unlearn those unhealthy models about what trust in the workplace looks like.
  • If the people you've hired don't seem trustworthy, then you may have hired the wrong people, but it's more likely that you or someone else set a bad example that everyone else is just following. Figuring out what can be salvaged is hard work, but it's essential. Abbie Moore has a great article on how to get started rebuilding trust.
  • One way you can build trust is by frequently delegating reversible and/or inconsequential decisions.
  • I personally don't think hybrid models — some people colocated in an office, some people remote — work well or are sustainable.
  • Power works differently in a distributed organization. Lean in to those differences.
  • You can't have real trust without transparency. Default to having everything happen out in the open, including how you make decisions, handle conflicts, learn from mistakes, document progress. If it's not uncomfortable, you're probably not being open enough.

Photo by Belinda Fewings

A new venture, WP Lookout

A few months ago I had an idea for a new tool and service that I thought could be useful to WordPress developers and agencies who manage lots of WordPress sites, but who can't or don't want to go all in on automatic updates. After spending some time thinking through the details and researching what was already out there, I decided to go ahead and build it.

I started writing code and building features on July 1. A month later in early August I launched the first version to a production environment, and now I'm starting to tell people about it.

Please, allow me to introduce WP Lookout.

I've already written about why I think this service fills in some important gaps in the WordPress ecosystem so I won't say a lot more about that here. If you're someone who has worked with keeping multiple WordPress sites up to date and secure, hopefully you see the potential benefit. And there are a lot more features I'm excited to be working on.

Even if you don't travel in those circles, perhaps you'll identify with this sentiment: we have all of these things in our lives running software that someone else has written (routers, computers, apps on our phones, the navigation systems in our cars, the firmware on our TVs), and we're supposed to keep them up to date with the latest versions, usually in the name of speed and security. But often that turns into a part time job of logging in to those devices, finding the settings screen where updates are displayed, and trying to understand what's changed and how much it matters. Automatic background updates are helping in some cases. But wouldn't it be nice if these devices and tools could come to us and tell us when they're ready for an update, and what exactly has changed? So, WP Lookout is set to do that for at least one small corner of the Internet.

It's been a while since I've set out to launch and grow a new business from nothing. It's thrilling to again be thinking through architecture, strategy, business model, marketing, finances, legal paperwork, scaling, innovation and all the other pieces that go along with trying to make something thrive for the long term. It's also vulnerable to be putting something out into the world and wondering how it will be received, or if anyone will care.

I'm hopeful that good things are ahead. Regardless, I'm proud of what I've done so far. I've learned a lot along the way — about building a SaaS ("software as a service") business, about how awesome developing with Laravel is (I'll write more about that soon on my tech blog) and about what solutions people who manage multiple WordPress sites might or might not be looking for to make their lives easier.

After I'm a bit further along I'll share more details and updates. In the meantime, please check out WP Lookout.

Does your organization need help figuring out remote work?

If your business or organization has been struggling through the unexpected shift to emergency remote/distributed work, and now wants to step back and build a distributed work culture that actually thrives, I'd like to help.

How does accountability and management happen in a remote workplace? How do we avoid Zoom meeting burnout? What does a productive home office setup look like? What cultural shifts are needed? What collaboration tools and software might be most helpful? How do we make decisions quickly when we're not in the same place?

If your leadership is asking these or similar questions, I can help you find some answers.

There are now a ton of great articles, podcasts, interviews and other resources out there about the mechanics of remote work. For some organizational leaders, that might be enough to get you started. For others, you may benefit from a collaborative, customized process to look at your particular organizational culture and structure, and develop a plan for shifting into sustainable distributed/remote work.

So I'm beginning to offer just that as a paid consulting service. Through conversations, workshops, assessments and other forms of engagement, I'm helping organizations move past the emergency reaction phase and into a long-term distributed/remote work setup that works for everyone.

Visit Distributed.Coach To Learn More

I'm passionate about the benefits — to individuals, organizations and society as a whole — of the distributed work model. I also enjoy helping organizations think about and plan for change. I've built and led fully distributed teams, and I've also built and led organizations where everyone came in to the same office to work together. I’ve seen both models up close, and I know from experience what works and what doesn’t. Especially as the implications of COVID-19 have forced so many organizations to rethink their operations, but even prior to that, I have wanted to contribute to this global shift in how we work.

If you are a part of an organization that would benefit from my expertise, or know someone who is, learn more and get in touch at Distributed.Coach.

Helping out at the local newspaper

I'm excited to be able to say a bit more about one of the ways I've been spending time professionally in recent months. Since January, I've been consulting with the folks at Hometown Media Group, the parent company of two weekly newspapers here in Wayne County, Indiana, as their Digital Editor to help them update, streamline and manage their expanding digital offerings.

It's been a really fun and challenging application of my longtime interests in news media, technology, small business and community building. It's been rewarding to bring to bear my skills and experience previously helping national and global publishers, now for the benefit of reporters covering the place where I live. It's been a geeky delight to help them shore up their technical foundations with the tools and best practices that I've used, implemented or created elsewhere. And I love being a part of the strategy conversations around how and where people get their news in our region, and what kinds of improvements will serve readers and subscribers best.

All of this work is a part of answering that recurring question around what I can contribute to the field of journalism. I'm so glad for this experience along the way.

And although the ground-shaking that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic makes a lot of the future uncertain for newspapers (and everyone), it's also highlighted the essential nature of local news with high standards for factual reporting. We have some neat projects and updates in the works for the weeks and months ahead to honor that responsibility, so I'm looking forward to helping them out for as long as I can be useful.

At some point down the road I'll look at sharing more about some of the technical work I've done here that might benefit other newspapers working on improving their online publishing efforts.

If you're living in or connected to this part of Indiana, I hope you'll consider buying a subscription and supporting local journalism. Their prices are incredibly affordable, but more importantly the staff and ownership of Hometown Media Group are doing impressive work, especially these days when advertisers are especially cautious and the breaking news is truly nonstop. They care deeply about the community and the people they serve, and would appreciate your business if you're able.

Running

I should go. I should do it.

I hate running. It’s stupid and hard.

Maybe there are other ways? Lifestyle changes, eating better, etc?

I could just do a long, invigorating walk in the park tomorrow instead.

But I said I was running. I told everyone I was going for a run.

I should go.

Maybe my running clothes are all dirty, I’ll probably need to do laundry first.

Oh. Nope, there’s a clean set.

What have I eaten today? Maybe I need more digesting time. Or actually, maybe it’s been so long that I’m going to be too hungry. Maybe after the next meal, then.

Or I could just go.

I need to cross it off the list. I’ll ostensibly feel good if I do it. Maybe.

Fine, I’ll go.

Continue reading "Running"

Why are you giving social media companies free marketing?

Pretend you are the Director of Marketing for a business or organization. A tech company approaches you and they ask if they can put their logo on all of your promotional materials. All they want is a little space in the corner of each brochure, billboard, business card, television spot and newspaper ad you pay to produce. Preferably in color. But they can’t pay you for it. They need you to do this for them as a favor, for free.

What would you say?

If you wouldn’t take that deal, why in the world would you give Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media company free advertising space on your real-world promotional efforts?

If you get a few precious seconds of someone’s attention as they skim through your thing, why do you want them to spend part of that time thinking about someone else’s thing?

Continue reading "Why are you giving social media companies free marketing?"

Restorative justice and resolving online conflict

The most important part of last week's episode of On The Media was probably the segment on how the Restorative Justice process can serve as an alternative to the broken prison system in the U.S.  I highly recommend it. But the segment that followed, about what role Restorative Justice could play in resolving conflicts that happen online, was also intriguing, especially as someone who has been trained as a conflict mediator and participated in conflict resolution advocacy programs in the past. It got me thinking about what the one-off experiment on Reddit that Micah Loewinger and Lindsay Blackwell conducted might look like in wider practice.

Right now when two or more people are in conflict on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or elsewhere, the most likely eventual outcome is that someone will be blocked, banned, muted or otherwise removed from the conversation, either by a participant or by a moderator of the service itself. As the On The Media episode notes, the best that social media companies seem to be able to come up with in this problem space is making it even easier to report or block someone. (And to be clear, I'm generally a supporter of users being able to block/mute someone else at will without having to explain themselves.)

But if anyone involved in or affected by the conflict was interested in a different outcome, how could they get there?

An idea I'm exploring here would be a bot that someone, either one of the parties or an observer, could mention to initiate a conflict resolution process with elements of the Restorative Justice approach included.

Continue reading "Restorative justice and resolving online conflict"

Air travel and the carbon footprint of distributed work

In touting the benefits of distributed models of work, which I do often, there's a temptation to make the point that not having an office building and the energy-intensive practices that go with it (commuting, for example) must translate to a lower overall carbon footprint for distributed organizations.

While I think a lower carbon footprint is a possible benefit of distributed work, and one very much worth pursuing, it should not be taken as a given.

In fact, my experiences with distributed work (and in the tech world particularly) indicate that there are many, many energy-intensive practices to be considered, including:

  • The energy required to light, heat and cool residences with home offices that might otherwise go unoccupied during the day. I imagine temperature control in cavernous co-working spaces is also energy-intensive.
  • The computing power, equipment and energy usage at the growing number of data centers that support the many online services created and used by distributed workers (from collaborative office suites to audio/videoconferencing tools to Slack-bot cottage industry startups and more).
  • Any additional tendencies for distributed workers to have supplies and equipment shipped to them individually on a regular basis, compared to bulk buying or centralized shipping to an office. (Amazon next-day delivery is killing people.)
  • The materials, production processes and energy usage of laptops, phones and other devices that facilitate working from anywhere. Yes, there might be similar energy usage in an office environment, but whereas a physically central org might have an IT staff to repair/refurbish those items, with distributed that all mostly happens via shipping and may be less likely to facilitate re-using and recycling older devices.
  • Air travel and related energy usage to enable in-person meetups of distributed workers.

The last one feels important to dwell on for a moment.

Aircraft usage and flying account for a growing percentage of the climate change impact of human activity, some estimate 4 to 9 percent. "Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year," says the New York Times, citing the EPA.

So from an energy usage perspective, "I don't commute to an office anymore" starts to feel like a bit less to celebrate if at the same time one is flying around to meetups or conferences several times per year instead. More so if your office might have been a reasonable walk or bike ride away.

Continue reading "Air travel and the carbon footprint of distributed work"

What can I contribute to journalism?

What can I contribute to journalism?

It's a question I’ve been asking for years now.

My questioning has taken a variety of forms, including:

  • writing and editing for my high school and college newspapers,
  • hosting a weekly podcast with analysis of the local news,
  • blogging as a media critic,
  • serving on the local daily paper’s editorial board,
  • having letters to the editor accepted in local and national publications,
  • working professionally to advise and support some of the biggest news publishers on the web,
  • helping to organize a three-day national conference for publishers, and
  • researching business models for local journalism.

I’ve been rewarded and challenged in all of those things, and in most cases I’ve been told that I’ve made a positive difference. And yet...I feel more concerned than ever about the waning appreciation for journalism and pursuit of the truth in modern society. I also feel more drawn than ever to trying to do something (else) about it.

Continue reading "What can I contribute to journalism?"