I feel that the ability to spin up and then successfully operate remote engineering locations is a skill that technology companies need to develop earlier in their development than used to be the case.
For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.
Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapier employees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.
Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.
Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency. At Basecamp, there are no all-hands or town hall meetings. All updates, decisions, and subsequent discussions are posted publicly to the entire company. For companies, this is pretty bold. It’s like having a Facebook wall with all your friends chiming in on your questionable decisions of the distant past that you can’t erase. But the beauty is that there is now a body of written decisions and discussions that serves as a rich and permanent artifact of institutional knowledge, accessible to anyone in the company. Documenting major decisions in writing depoliticizes access to information.
I updated “Communication is oxygen. Build a districtwide collaboration infrastructure and an open by default culture.” with selections from “Channeling the inevitable: Slack and the future of work | The Official Slack Blog”.
By their very nature, channels increase transparency — and I like to say that with a big asterisk, because transparency is often defined, in the business context, as bosses and leaders being more forthcoming. In this case, we literally define transparency as the opposite of opacity: People can actually see what’s going on in different departments and working groups in a way they couldn’t with email, because emails are addressed to individuals, or mainly received individually.
Take the process of closing a deal as an example. It’s incredibly complex and involves a lot of participants, from sales to legal to engineering. When I wanted an update on how work with Oracle was coming along, which is one of our biggest accounts, I didn’t have to ask anyone. I just went into the dedicated #accounts-oracle channel and I could see everything that’s been happening.
Channels have opened my eyes to the importance of alignment and clarity for people. Now someone in engineering who may not be involved with the account on a daily basis, but might be working on a feature that’s blocking a customer deployment, can go into a channel and get context behind requests and understand the potential impact of their actions. They’re not just getting a message into their inbox, dropped from the top.
The nature of an organization is that it produces a lot of information. Depending on the organization’s size, the volume of information can increase by orders of magnitude — from 10 to 100 to 100,000 times more. But you don’t have to read all of it. It’s not being pumped into an inbox. With Slack, you have choice. There are channels you can elect to join or view as you see fit. We give people tools, like notification settings and comprehensive controls, so they manage what they need to see.