A panel on distributed work

Last week I was a guest in a Q&A session in Lisbon about remote work. I would be speaking about my experience accrued over my years at Automattic. My co-guest was Pedro Moreira da Silva, a fellow Lisboeta working at GitLab, also a distributed company. Leading the panel was Malik Piara from Upframe. What follows are some takeaways from that session.

A couple of premises

It’s easy to forget that these exist when they’ve been the basis for your mental framework for a long time, and it struck me that they hadn’t been laid out properly at the onset of the Q&A.

Distributed ≠ remote. Remote (Lat. remotus, “removed”) implies distance. It fosters the idea that “all the action”—the bulk of knowledge, discussions, decisions, both formal and informal—lives in a central place—the “main office”—that is out of reach for the remote worker.

Assume there is no central location. If one is interested in making one’s organization more distributed, this is the starting point. Whether you’re bootstrapping in a garage or operate in offices, this premise will greatly impact your decisions, from everyday minutiæ to architectural.

You can’t do it on your own. This corollary follows from the above. You may be the one patiently and unrelentingly planting the seeds of change in an organization, but the latter ultimately needs a cultural shift from bottom to top.

It takes a certain profile. Working in a distributed environment requires a balance of worker autonomy and a responsibility to communicate. At Automattic we have the saying that communication is oxygen. We want self-driven people, but we don’t want Rambos who crawl into the marsh and disappear until they are done with their task. We want people who can determine what to work on and can find the answers on their own, yet who recognize and seek the immense value of the exchange of ideas between talented, articulate peers.

We’re all eternal learners and teachers. Document your work, decisions, processes, and personal tips. They will be useful for those around you, for those to come, and for your future self—you will be extremely grateful to find these resources when you need them.

Takeaways

The power of rituals

In work, as in everything, context is key. Some context can be taken for granted: in the lives of traditional workers, physical, temporal and social contexts exist that frame work. That is, there is a time and place for everything: the time and place to wake up and have breakfast; the commute on which to catch up or slowly wake up; the work desk at 9:00 for a round of e-mails; the water-cooler, office kitchen, or outdoors bench at 10:30 for a quick breather or chatter; the work desk again for more focused work. From day one at an organization, one is invariably exposed to others’ routines, easing one’s ingression.

Distributed workers don’t get these out of the box, but context can be manufactured with rituals. Examples follow:

  • A morning espresso in the local café or a thermos in a public park bench that drives one out of bed with purpose, forces a getting-ready routine, and acts as a buffer between bed and computer. I use this to catch up on Automattic’s internal happenings, team mates, and personal pings.
  • Letting the sun in and working from the living room on a sunny Winter day. Alternatively, coping with a somber day by finding the comfort of a crowded café; befriending the staff is helpful on a social level.
  • Getting up and brewing tea in preparation for a task, or the weekly meeting.

Routine and rituals are a personal long-term exploration, the goal of which is to optimize the use of one’s resources, namely: motivation, concentration, and time. These resources are provided by our brains, which ties into…

(To be continued in the next post.)

Author: Miguel Fonseca

Engineer at Automattic. Linguist, cyclist, Lindy Hopper, tree climber, and headbanger.

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