Last Spring, when we were raising seed funding for Open Raven, our plans to be a remote first company were met with raised eyebrows by many venture capitalists. They had many questions. You, the co-founders, live in different cities? Your head of engineering lives in yet another? Won’t that make you slower in an intensely competitive market? We ultimately chose an investor who was ok with our approach, but nonetheless saw it as a liability versus an asset.
How the times have changed-- and quickly.
Companies now across the globe are unexpectedly embracing working from home out of necessity. There’s no shortage of great resources and tips available for working remotely. My own learning on the topic was influenced by podcasts including Matt Mullenweg, informal conversations with people such as the founders at HashiCorp, and reading books such as Remote: Office Not Required.
As the saying goes, there’s no substitute for experience. My recent experience was making the remote first approach at CrowdStrike work with an early stage team stretched across time zones, followed by attempting to reconcile a long-established office culture at Tenable with a later expansion to accommodate a remote workforce. I learned a different set of lessons at each and committed to applying both to whatever I did next.
At Open Raven, we were founded and remain a 100% remote team. Based on my experience, there are three big topics that determine team and personal success when working from home: getting communication right, understanding and neutralizing negativity bias, and structuring your day.
Yes, other stuff matters. However, if you do these three things well you and your business have a good chance of being successful even if you don’t nail everything else. You can think of them as describing a recipe rather than a list of ingredients. The latter is prescriptive (“do these 10 things”) whereas a recipe gives you the big picture and encourages you to adjust it to your own preferences.
In the same way there’s many ways to make a great apple pie by tuning the recipe to your tastes and experimenting, remote work is a skill that can be learned and should be adjusted to the needs of your organisation and values. As a result, I’ll be explaining the foundations of what I believe is a great work from home recipe in a series of three blog posts. Starting with getting communications right.
Getting Communications Right
If you were to rate the percentage of communication that was the actual “content” (e.g. the words, slides, etc.), what would it be? Well, according to a famous study by Dr. Mehrabian, less than 10% of communication is verbal. Shocking, right? Here’s the breakdown, as quoted in Youth Time Magazine:
He quite succinctly was able to explain how the voice, such as tone, intonation and volume, take up about 38 percent and most of a person’s communication; about 55 percent, comprises body language. Thus, it leaves only 7 percent to the words actually being spoken. This 7, 38, 55 model is probably as relevant today as it was, when he first presented his study way back in the 70’s.
When this breakdown was first introduced to me at a training session a couple of years ago, it was stated to be 20% “content” with the remaining 80% composed of tone, posture, gestures, and facial expressions). While the numbers from Dr. Mehrabian’s study and the ones told to me are different, the point remains the same.
Think about it: If you’re talking on the phone, you can get your words across and at least, some of your tone, but what about facial expressions, gestures, or posture? Only having the verbal aspect of a conversation and no non-verbal signals means that you’re losing at least half of the intended meaning. When you add multi-tasking into the mix where people are distracted and not listening to the verbal communication, it results in poor communication where meaning can be easily misconstrued. Not to mention the absence of a personal connection between both parties.
Now, imagine this scenario:
Sharon is used to working in the office where she has routine in-person meetings along with remote sessions that are made easy by readily available in room video-conferencing systems. In between meetings, she grabs a snack or coffee/tea, often while chatting with others nearby. So throughout her day, she’s accustomed to rich interaction with the people she works with. Upon returning home, Sharon spends time with her partner and loved ones that is at least equally engaging (and hopefully more so).
Now due to COVID-19, Sharon has to work from home with her family, and all of those in-person meetings she used to have are now done remotely. Since she doesn’t have a home office, she improvises by building one on the kitchen table. As a result, Sharon is hesitant to use video conferencing because the new environment doesn’t look or feel professional, and there’s the potential of being interrupted by others living in the same house.
The high fidelity, rich interaction Sharon’s used to has all been replaced with phone or “video off” conferencing. This situation makes it much harder for her to communicate and a lot less satisfying. Everything is muddled and task-driven without clear opportunities for human connection.
To compound the problem, Sharon’s situation is not isolated – many other people are having similar frustrations. Often in the very same house. Instead of family members reuniting in the evening after a busy day, they are now trying to get space from one another to make sense of what the hell just happened in a work day that feels nothing like it did just a few short weeks ago.
To find a successful solution here, we need to recognize that there are different types of meetings – “formal” meetings and “informal” meetings – and each meets different needs.
Formal meetings are (hopefully) a small group of people focused on a predetermined topic and informal meetings are unscheduled conversations. Formal meetings are the “muscles” of the organization, as they provide motion and are intended to drive the organization forward. Informal meetings are the “ligaments” that hold people and teams together. Both are essential.
There is no magical solution for traditional formal meetings during this pandemic when everyone is remote, but modern video conferencing restores much of the fidelity lost when in-person contact isn’t possible. Some advantages of video conferencing:
- Facial expressions, gestures, and posture all return.
- Communication richness is not the same as being in-person, but it’s a reasonable substitute.
- For those that need to mask at least some of the effects of home, most services allow you to use a virtual background – especially useful if you don’t have a dedicated office space. Video conferencing does have its own disadvantages and has to be used properly in order to avoid creating an entirely new set of problems, such as the following pitfalls.
- You need to be prepared and show up on time or early, otherwise you’ll lose the first five minutes of every meeting determining whether or not everyone has a decent Internet connection, getting audio right, waiting for the moderator, etc.
- Video has to be turned on, otherwise it’s often no better than the phone.
- Mute should be on by default for larger meetings to eliminate incidental noise (i.e., drinking, typing, etc.)
- There are times when video needs to go off, especially when someone is moving around or eating. Both are incredibly distracting and the former of which can create a nauseating “Blair Witch Project” feeling for the others as you project shaky, constantly changing video that overtakes the conversation.
Video conferencing can simulate an in-person meeting, but it does a poor job of replacing the impromptu conversations that are the mainstay of “informal meetings.” Since these are low risk conversations, I find a simple phone call is fine. Some tips to make these better:
- Having a loose agenda that touches on how things are going, what the person you’re talking to is working on currently, if they feel like they need anything they’re not getting at the moment, and so on.
- 15-20 minutes is plenty of time, depending on the person.
- I usually do calls like this while walking outside (away from people, and especially people with leaf blowers) so that I can listen better (i.e., without the distraction of a screen in front of me and its many temptations). Further, virtual team lunches, happy hours, or other unstructured time with each other can help offset the time you would have normally had in-person to help forge and maintain bonds with one another. At Open Raven, we do “show and tell” where one person shares a hobby or interest for 30 minutes or less with the rest of the team. During my show and tell, I shared how I co-run a podcast, while others have shared about cycling, lock-picking or building choppers (custom motorcycles). Does a steady regimen of well-run video conferencing and ad hoc phone calls replace the need for in-person meetings? Nope. In-person meetings are still essential for building trust and multifaceted relationships, and I have yet to find a great substitute for time at a whiteboard with another person. So, can you stay productive, healthy and sane during quarantine with this approach? Absolutely.