Over the years, I’ve worked on and off as a remote employee. Living in North Carolina the opportunities to work with tech startups are limited, but I’ve had the good fortune to work with several in the area and a few outside the area as a remote employee. At my latest gig, Launchable, we are fully remote with my Product Manager in Texas, both founders in California, and our development team in Japan.
I am a very collaborative person by nature. I really believe that great design is a product of multiple minds coming together to work on a problem. Ideas seldom spring from the mind fully formed. They require constant iteration and critique.
Great design is a product of multiple minds coming together to work on a problem.
Working remote presents its own challenges for collaboration. People can only handle so many hours of video chat. Meetings take an extra toll and are typically scheduled. This makes ad-hoc discussion difficult.
In the past, I’ve been the one pushing for more meetings with my remote team. It’s where I get feedback on ideas and build consensus around where we are heading.
But at Launchable, we have a big emphasis on a written culture. You could even call it non-verbal. It’s not that we don’t have meetings, it’s that we try to limit the number of repeating meetings each week. And often when we do have a meeting, it’s to review a document and finalize decisions that have been carefully articulated in written form well before the before the meeting begins.
One of the reasons we do this is that we are passionate about what we call deep work. Deep work is when you are in the zone, uninterrupted, and able to do your best work.
Deep work is when you are in the zone, uninterrupted, and able to do your best work.
Practically, one of the ways that we encourage deep work, is that we have two days a week that are designated for meetings (Tuesday and Thursday). The other three working days are reserved for deep work. We don’t hold to this policy strictly — we still schedule some meetings throughout the week (particularly when meeting with people outside the company) — but the policy encourages you think twice before scheduling an internal meeting on a deep work day. It’s also not uncommon to have several days a week with huge blocks of time open for more focused work.
What do we do on our deep work days? We are often writing or reviewing documents that other people have written.
We record all major decisions in Confluence. Here we are exploring using DoveTail for customer notes.
There are a few other practices that help us here.
We use Confluence as our central knowledge repository and everything is recorded there. Our plans for the product, engineering specifications, insights on customer environments, marketing plans, customer handouts and documentation — you name it, it’s probably in Confluence.
We also insist that all major decisions have an associated Confluence page where the details are documented (we use the DACI format with pros & cons).
When people do have meetings we encourage folks to write notes and share them in Confluence so that those who are not at the meeting can still benefit from the discussion. This has the side benefit of making it less important to attend every meeting.
We also have a practice of recording daily check-ins on a long running Confluence page. You typically write a short paragraph on what you worked on that day. This becomes a kind of activity feed where you can learn what others are working on.
The last part of our Confluence strategy is that we encourage written conversations to take place in Confluence rather than via email. As documents are written and commented on, we mark threads as resolved that are no longer relevant. This avoids long and confusing email threads.
As a result of these practices, one change that is taking place in my thinking is the concept of urgency. Many times when I’m in the moment I find myself reaching for action. I quickly send some raw thoughts over Slack or ask to bounce something off a coworker.
But lately I’ve realized that doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. Not every problem is urgent. Many problems are much easier to discuss after a little private thought and deliberation. Putting my thoughts down in writing first is also more respectful of my coworkers’ time.
Is there ever a place for the urgent? Of course. But does every question need an answer right way? Have I clearly thought through the issue before asking for input?
Does this mean that there is not a place for raw thinking? Do my thoughts need to be in perfect order before asking for input? Also no. Draft documents are a great way to ask for input. Writing helps focus the work and leads to more pointed feedback.
So what does this way of working feel like in practice?
At first, it definitely feels slower. In the moment it is. But it’s also much more intentional. It forces you to make your case in a thoughtful, well reasoned way.
It’s not a high-bandwidth rambling communication that wins the day, but rather precise well chosen words.
The funny thing about this form of written communication is that to be effective you need to be concise. People don’t have patience for anything else. It’s not a high-bandwidth rambling communication that wins the day, but rather precise well chosen words. Abraham Lincoln famously quipped that it took him much longer to write a five minute speech than an hour.
For me, the real benefit of working this way is that it leads to clearer thinking and better decisions. I’m learning that quality of thought is better than quantity of words.