A couple of weeks go, I wrote a post about an unexpected hitch of working in a distributed team. Yesterday, my ex-coworker, Ann McCarthy wrote a related, more elaborative post on the same issue. It’s worth reading.
It has been about half a year after I became a freelance data scientist. Before my career change, I worked in a distributed team for more than five years. Today, I suddenly realized that working in a distributed team has a significant problem, inherent to its distributed, multinational, nature.
My team was always spread over multiple time zones. Sometimes, the time zone span was so broad, that we could never find a time slot where all the team members were ordinarily awake. Automattic, the company I used to work for, is a firm believer in asynchronous communication, but from time to time, you HAVE to meet over a Zoom/Slack/Whatever call. Since I wasn’t a manager, the number of live calls that I had to attend was kept to a minimum, and yet, I found myself at least twice a week in a 10 pm Zoom call. I don’t know what about you, but my brain keeps working for at least two outs after log off. Thus, twice a week, I would find myself going to bed after one o’clock at night. As a result, I was sleep deprived for the majority of the week.
Only now have I noticed the fact that my sleep has improved so much after the career change. I know that people who work in “colocated” teams also find themselves in late night phone calls, but working in a distributed group means that you’ll do it regularly.
Before becoming a freelance data scientist, I used to work at Automattic, which I used to regard as my dream job. Not every current and ex-Automattician share that rosy point of view. Antimattic is an anonymous blog that allows ex-Automattic employees to vent their feelings about what used to be their workplace. One recent post on that blog raises a fascinating question about distributed (or work from home, or remote) companies. “Is Distributed Work a Divide and Conquer Strategy?” I have to admit that I haven’t thought about this perspective before. It looks like we will see more and more companies switching to remote work. It’s an interesting interpretation of the “future of work.”
Obviously this site exists because people have had negative experiences at Automattic. But many people have also had very positive experiences at the company. Could it be that the distributed nature of Automattic allows for such varying experiences? 45 more wordsIs Distributed Work a Divide and Conquer Strategy? — Antimattic
TL;DR Interesting “history of work” book (definitely not “future of work”) with insights on transition-state organizations. Read it if history of work is your thing, or if you work in a small company that grows rapidly. 4.5/5 (due to the personal connection)
I got The Year Without Pants in 2014 as an onboarding present when I joined Automattic. The author, Scott Berkun, used to work as a manager at Microsoft (and maybe more places) before he quit and became a career of an adviser and an author. In 2011, the Automattic founder brought Scott to work at the company. About seventy people were working in the company back then and the company was growing rapidly. Automattic has just introduced a concept of teams, and the idea was that Scott will work as a team leader, consulting the management on how to deal with the transition.
Being an ex-Microsoft manager, Scott was fascinated by the small distributed company, and wrote a book on it, proclaiming that the way Automattic worked was “the future of work”.
The book was published in 2012. Today, in post-COVID 2020, nobody is surprised by people who don’t need to go to the office every day. Automattic has now more than 1,000 employees and has adopted many of the rituals big companies have, such as endless meetings, tedious coordination, name tags, and corporate speak.
Why, then, did I enjoy the book? First, for me, it was a pleasant “time travel.” I enjoyed reading about people I knew, teams I worked with, and practices I used to love or hate. Secondly, this book provides insights on a transition from a small group of like-thinkers to a formalized organization.
My job wasn’t affected by the COVID madness in almost any way. I used to work from home before, and I work from home now, none on my customers cancelled any projects, the health system in Israel is still functioning, all of my relatives are in good health, everything is just fine! I know how unusual I am in the current world, with the skyrocketing unemployment, non-functioning governments, and three-digit body counts. I was about to write about that, but then I read AnnMaria’s post.
You should read it too
I’ve read a lot of cheery tweets that said something like, “Buffy, Biff and I are isolated at home with our terrier, Boo. Here’s a picture. Isn’t he cute? We played card games, then I baked this three-course meal I saw on Pinterest. Biff is taking this time to finally become proficient in Mandarin with…Everything is NOT just fine — AnnMaria’s Blog
The COVID-19 lockdown forced many organizations to a remote work mode. Recently, I spoke with three managers from three “conventional” companies and all the three told me how surprisingly efficient their 1:1 meetings became. This is how one of them described the situation “I prepare the agenda, we log in, boom, boom, boom, and we are done”.
The effectiveness of distributed work doesn’t surprise me, after all, I have been working in a distributed mode for about six years now. However, this super-efficiency has its own problems that one needs to know. Here’s the thing. We, humans, are social creatures. We depend on social interactions for our mental and physical well being. When people share the same physical office, they have enough social interactions “in-between” — in the hallway, next to the watercooler and in the parking lot. However, working in a distributed team creates isolation. That is why it is very important to start and end every meeting with a personal conversation. It is also important to make sure that the meeting feels as personal as possible. To do so, place the chat window below the camera, so that the person feels as if you are looking at them. During the conversation, resist the urge to check emails, read your Facebook feed or check my blog. Make the personal meeting personal, even if it’s remote.
I have been working in distributed teams for about six years. If you need advice on how to make the transition easier for your organization, I’ll be glad to give one (or two).
Before becoming a freelancer data scientist, I used to work in a distributed company. Remote communication, including remote presentations were the norm for me, long before the remote work experiment no one asked for. In this post, I share some tips for delivering better presentations remotely.
- Stand up! Usually, we stand up when we present in front of live audience. For some reason, when presenting remotely, people tend to sit. A sitting person is less dynamic and looks less engaging. I have a standing desk which allows me to stand up and to raise the camera to my face level.
- If you can’t raise the camera, stay sitting. You don’t want your audience staring at your groin.
- I always use a presentation remote control. It frees me up and lets me move more naturally. My remote is almost ten years old and I have a strong emotional attachment to it
- When presenting, it is very important to see your audience. Use two monitors. Use one monitor for screen sharing, and the other one to see the audience.
- Put the Skype/Zoom/whatever window that shows your audience under the camera. This way you’ll look most natural on the other side of the teleconference.
- Starting a presentation in Powerpoint or Keynote “kidnaps” all the displays. You will not be able to see the audience when that happens. I export the presentation to a PDF file and use Acrobat Reader in full-screen mode. The up- and down- buttons in my presentation remote control work with the Reader. The “make screen black” button doesn’t.
- I open a “lightable view” of my presentation and put it next to the audience screen. It’s not as useful as seeing the presenter’s notes using a “real” presentation program, but it is good enough.
- Make a dry run. Ideally, the try run should be a day or two before the event, to make sure all the technical problems are fixed.
- Go online at least five minutes before the schedule. Be in front of the camera, don’t let the audience stare at your empty room
- Make sure nothing in your background will embarrass you. This risk is especially high if you present from home or a hotel. Nobody needs to see your bed during a business meeting.
I work at Automattic, one of the largest distributed companies in the world. Working in a distributed company means that everybody in this company works remotely. There are currently about one thousand people working in this company from about seventy countries. As you might expect, the international nature of the company poses a communication challenge. Recently, I had a fun experience that demonstrates how different people are.
Remote work means that we use text as our primary communication tool. Moreover, since the company spans over all the time zones in the world, we mostly use asynchronous communication, which takes the form of posts in internal blogs. A couple of weeks ago, I completed a lengthy analysis and summarized it in a post that was meant to be read by the majority of the company. Being a responsible professional, I asked several people to review the draft of my report.
To my embarrassment, I discovered that I made a typo in the report title, and not just a typo: I misspelled the company name :-(. A couple of minutes after asking for a review, two of my coworkers pinged me on Slack and told me about the typo. One message was, “There is a typo in the title.” Short, simple, and concise.
The second message was much longer.
Do you want to guess what the difference between the two coworkers is?
Here’s the answer
The author of the first (short) message grew up and lives in Germany. The author of the second message is American. Germany, United States, and Israel (where I am from) have very different cultural codes. Being an Israeli, I tend to communicate in a more direct and less “sweetened” way. For me, the American communication style sounds a little bit “artificial,” even though I don’t doubt the sincerity of this particular American coworker. I think that the opposite situation is even more problematic. It happened several times: I made a remark that, in my opinion, was neutral and well-intended, and later I heard comments about how I sounded too aggressive. Interestingly, all the commenters were Americans.
To sum up. People from different cultural backgrounds have different communication styles. In theory, we all know that these differences exist. In practice, we usually are unaware of them.
Someone asked me about distributed companies or companies that offer remote positions. Of course, my first response was Automattic but that person didn’t think that Automattic was a good fit for them. So I googled and was surprised to discover that my colleague, Yanir Seroussi, maintains a list of companies that offer remote jobs.
I work at Automattic, one of the biggest distributed-only companies in the world (if not the biggest one). Recently, Automattic founder and CEO, Matt Mullenweg started a new podcast called (surprise) Distributed.