Building momentum for your distributed work day

Imagine that you are about to go on stage to perform some amazing thing that you know how to do. You're waiting in the wings for your moment to shine, and you want to bring your very best to the experience.

But then also imagine that you spent the last several hours or even days in isolation. You haven't really talked to anyone or had much human interaction at all. No one has given you encouraging words or expressed excitement about what you're going to perform.

And then you find out that the time of your performance has not really been set or advertised. There will be an audience but they will be coming and going from the auditorium where you're performing, and they may or may not be paying attention to you. When you do the thing you're best at, someone may or may not notice. Oh and the stage is actually going to be a small, dark closet.

Now go out there and be awesome? Umm....

It's a silly scenario, but for some people who work in a distributed environment, especially one where a lot of collaboration happens asynchronously across individual schedules and time zones, this is what the beginning of our work day can feel like: quiet, slow, isolated.

In a traditional office setting where workers tend to arrive, collaborate and leave on roughly the same schedule, the energy and pace of work can come from the environment itself. But for distributed workers, even when there is actually a lot going on in the organization we're working with, it can be a challenge to build momentum at the start of our days. Sometimes the work itself is enough to generate that energy, but sometimes we need help getting into the right mental space for high productivity.

So how can you build that momentum if it's not coming from your physical work environment? Here are a couple of things that I've seen work well:

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Digital receipts for paperless living

In trying to live a relatively paperless lifestyle, I notice what options stores and restaurants offer for providing electronic receipts instead of paper ones.

My favorite kind is where you use a credit card or mobile payment method that some lower level of infrastructure already knows about and you automatically get an email receipt without further prompting. Square has a great implementation of this.

Slightly less awesome but still great is the version where you use a digital payment method and then have to enter your email address manually, even if you've used the same payment and receipt delivery method at the same location before (I'm looking at you, most American chain restaurants that have the little mini-computer waiting at the booth when people sit down). A bit annoying, but still paperless.

Then there's everywhere else where printing a receipt is probably the only option. Especially at the grocery store, where the receipt and personalized coupons are several miles long, requiring their own bag to carry out. And look, there I am a few days later, awkwardly holding a crumpled piece of paper up next to the networked super-computer on my desk, manually typing in some details that some other networked computer somewhere else already knows about.

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Power in a distributed org

It's striking to see the differences in where power gathers in a distributed organization, compared to where that happens in a more traditional office setting.

When people come together in a physical space there is a lot of time and energy spent on appearance. The work isn't just about "what are we doing" but also "how do we look and how do people perceive us while we're doing what we do."

When people come together to work in a virtual/online space, the focus shifts.

In an office setting, I see power and influence gather around...

  • The person with the newest, coolest and/or most expensive clothing
  • The person with the larger corner office
  • The person with the most assistants
  • The person with the most impressive sounding title
  • The person with the closest parking space
  • The oldest, richest, whitest males
  • The person who's allowed to create or interrupt meetings
  • The person with the most impressive social and public-speaking skills
  • The person who uses their power to get what they want

In a distributed organization, I see power and influence gather around...

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Startup

startup-podcast-coverI've just finished raising $1.5 million in investor dollars, building an office and growing a staff to start a new media company focused on narrative podcasts.

Okay, not really.

But I HAVE just finished listening to the first season of Alex Blumberg's podcast Startup, which documents his process of envisioning and then creating exactly that new company, Gimlet Media, from the very beginning. The show is so well done that I felt in on some of the best and worst moments in starting the business, and I learned a lot along the way.

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Charitable giving, receiving FAIL

It's science!I recently had this experience trying to make a charitable donation to a not-for-profit organization I want(ed) to support:

I Googled their name to find their website. The "Donate Now" button was located prominently on the front page of the site, so I followed it to the donation form where I filled out my contact information, my credit card number, etc. and hit "Donate".

I got the form back with an error message in red saying "An error occurred during processing. Please try again." There were no other messages indicating whether the error was with something I'd put in one of the form fields, or if it was an error on their side (perhaps talking to their credit card processor, etc.). I fiddled with some of my form data (maybe the phone number field needs dashes? Maybe the postal code field doesn't actually accept 5+4 format?) but still got the red error message.

So then I sent email to the generic contact address on the site saying "I'm trying to donate to you online, here's what happened." I sent them all the details they'd need to troubleshoot the issue, including a screenshot of what I saw on the form.

Several weeks went by with no response to the email message. So then I saw that they had a fairly active presence on Twitter, and I sent them a message there saying something to the effect of "I'm trying to donate to you online, are you still taking donations?"

No response.

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