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Ep. 14 – Autonomy & Distributed Working

Autonomy, time and team management and common trends in distributed working practices, plus the issues we encounter when working remotely.

What are the ways that we can improve team cohesion and communication, so that distributed working practices support our teams better, instead of being an added stress? 

The answer lies in enabling more autonomy for everyone on the team, improving our discipline around how we work, and respecting each other’s time and attention more. In this episode I look at these three aspects in more detail.

 

Any resources referenced in the episode are listed below the transcript.

Creating Cadence Transcript – Ep. 14

“A distributed-first approach means we can evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it.”

Matt Mullenweg – Leading Founder of WordPress

 

As we’re starting to move towards more liberation from the constraints of Covid, business owners and teams are considering whether they continue using a distributed-first work approach, or revert back to a dedicated central office space for the team, or whether they test out a hybrid approach of both.

In this month’s Cadence Guide, I’m considering a few elements of the distributed working model and how they can support our autonomy at work. I’m also touching on the issues we face with team and time management when we work remotely.

What are the ways that we can improve team cohesion and communication, so that distributed working practices support our teams better, instead of being an added stress?

It boils down to enabling more autonomy for everyone on the team.

Plus improving our discipline around how we work, and respecting each other’s time and attention more.

Obviously these aspects can be a little more complex than they sound in a single line.

My guide for this month’s guide is a well-known leader in the tech industry. Matt Mullenweg (https://ma.tt/) is the founding developer of WordPress (https://wordpress.com/) and founder of Automattic (https://automattic.com/), which aside from WordPress, also make WooCommerce and a host of other software.

Automattic was purposefully created as a fully distributed company because Matt wanted to change the way he and his team worked.

He now also has a blog and podcast devoted to the topic, called ‘Distributed’ (https://distributed.blog/).

Now distributed or remote methods and styles of working are commonly embraced by tech startups. It’s nothing new, as it’s their business to innovate, both in what they produce and how they work. But this way of working is new to many businesses outside of the tech industry. However, just because your company might not be a tech startup, doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what these companies are doing.

There are thoughts, ideas and elements that I will touch on, which can be adopted by your company too.

Getting Motivated

 

According to Matt (https://ma.tt/2020/04/five-levels-of-autonomy/) and also research studies, there are three main things that motivate people at work:

The first is Mastery, the second is Purpose, and the third motivator is Autonomy.

Mastery is about skills acquisition. If you’re a business owner, you may want to master the art of gaining more income and growing your business. And in order for your team to help you do that, they need to master the skills required to do their job to the best of their ability. And to be able to keep learning and improving as they go.

So mastery involves curiosity and a learning mindset. Not everyone you interview for your team will have one, although this is something that can be learned. If you want healthy team dynamics and a team that works well together, it helps if they all have or develop a growth mindset around mastery and the desire to improve.

Next, let’s look at purpose. Having a sense of purpose at work comes from being guided by something that has greater meaning, and by doing work that helps other people beyond just supporting ourselves.

In your workplace, your company’s purpose can be communicated via your organisational values and principles. They can guide how your team works together. However, for your team to be truly engaged and committed to your values and principles, they also need to be able to identify with your purpose strongly on a personal level.

This is all super important, but for this guide, I’m most interested in the third motivator, autonomy, which is about having agency over ourselves and our environment.

In the workplace, autonomy refers to our ability to work in a self-directed manner.

Distributed working can give us autonomy over how we do our work and where we do our work. But only if we have the flexibility to be able to choose to work in the way we want. And only if we are able to adopt more asynchronous working styles and more disciplined habits.

Time Vs Attention

 

If we’re trying to replicate traditional workplace practices in a distributed environment, that reduces our autonomy and compromises our wellbeing and productivity.

This is because using traditional or synchronous working styles online inevitably means working online for longer periods of time, with our time for deep or focused work disrupted by incessant meetings and distractions.

Trying to work “traditionally” online is a common, but extremely detrimental practice.

This type of working style, where you are always contactable, and expected to respond immediately, or to be available throughout the day, is focused on your time instead of your attention.

It puts the spotlight on us being seen. And needing to be seen to be doing your work, takes away your autonomy to do your work in a way that works for you. Which in turn can affect your output and performance.

There’s been a lot of discussion these past few weeks around the strain which synchronous online work styles are having on our health and productivity. It was sparked by a Stanford Research Study about Zoom fatigue, and spurred further by the CEO of Citigroup announcing that her organisation has initiated Zoom-free Fridays, precisely because of the health impacts of these brain-straining practices.

Other companies are doing similar things, from two mornings a week blocked for deep work or a weekly Wednesday afternoon comms blackout, to one day a month offline. Although I really don’t think that one day a month is near enough action to help support people’s physical and mental health every other week! We can definitely be doing better here. There needs to be at least weekly, and more preferably daily, opportunities to work in a self-directed manner.

But what does it mean to work asynchronously as a distributed team?

In Your Own Time

 

In an engaging little YouTube video about why working from home can be good for business, Matt Mullenweg shares 5 key aspects that support distributed business practices.

The aspect that differs the most from traditional work communications practices, is that core communication within a distributed team now revolves around online documentation. These are shared documents where people can give considered thought and comment, either in their own time or at a specified meeting time.

Using shared documentation as the central point of communication is a fairer way of communicating. It enables even the quieter, more introverted members of your team to actively contribute and share their opinions, without being drowned out by the loudest or most opinionated on your team.

It gives people time to think about what they might want to say around a specific topic. It also serves as a record of discussion and encourages more focused debate around the points that matter.

Writing as opposed to talking becomes the core communication skill here.

When you’re following this way of working, the actual talking only happens at designated times to succinctly discuss or debate the commentary on those documents.

This way of working can guide your real-time conversations better and make your actual face-to-face meetings more productive.

Your time for and in meetings becomes more valued and more respected.

It becomes easier to understand the reason for or importance of the meeting, and easier to control what is discussed in the meeting. And it eliminates unnecessary meetings, or ones that drag on because they are unfocused and unstructured.

Email, typed chat or messages via your project management software are still important modes of communication too, but if we look at them through the lens of creating autonomy, they shouldn’t be continually open lines of communication either, because this does not support deep work. Instead they are tools that can be accessed at certain times of the day, times that are either designated by you or your team leader.

Consider … what are the right tools to better support your team’s collaboration efforts and asynchronous styles of working, so that they can have more autonomy over how they work?

Promoting autonomy puts more focus on our attention and less focus on time.

As Matt writes in an article defining the ‘5 Levels of Autonomy in Distributed Workplaces’, this way of working helps us to “evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it.”

And that is an important point.

As we continue to adopt more distributed styles of working, the mindset around productivity and delivery needs to change. We need to have more trust in our teams to do the work, without us having to babysit them or breathe down their neck.

As long as the work is done to the right standard at the right time, does it really matter when and how it is done?

No it doesn’t!

If they can’t do this, then of course, training needs to happen and/or decisions need to be made. But if your team are on board with your purpose, and are focused on mastery, then you as business owner should learn to back off and trust that they will deliver.

“Meetings are good when a debate needs to happen, but they force a specific way of working that is synchronous.”

Jack Dorsey – CEO, Twitter

 

I’m fortunate to be able to work remotely and asynchronously by choice. And over this past year, I’ve been able to hone my intentional productivity practices to support my autonomy in the way I work even more. I get to decide how many Zoom meetings I have in a day and no one else dictates what goes in my meeting calendar.

But … I know many people whose time is not their own on the work front. And they are struggling with the countless and relentless online meetings they are having to sit through every day, tethered to their screens.

As Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Dorsey), mentions in his interview on Matt’s Distributed podcast: “Meetings are good when a debate needs to happen, but they force a specific way of working that is synchronous.”

He references Clay Christensen’s  ‘Jobs to Be Done’ Framework, suggesting that we should analyse the purpose and value of a meeting before we schedule one. In other words, what is the job that this meeting fulfils?

Meeting Schmeeting

Can you embed a decision-making process or system into how and when meetings are booked?

You could ask questions like what is the true purpose of this meeting? What do we expect out of an in-person meeting? Could this meeting instead be handled in an asynchronous way? And why are we not already doing it that way?

If it’s just because you’ve become so accustomed to scheduling and attending a Zoom meeting, then that’s the wrong answer!

Incidentally Jack Dorsey is involved with two massive tech companies who employ thousands of people around the world, who all work in a distributed manner.

A couple of months after the pandemic forced us all to work from home last year, he announced that his teams could continue to work from home once things lifted, if that’s what they preferred. The reasons cited were that they have found this way of working to overall be more efficient, convenient, and effective.

Location, Location, Location

Having autonomy over how you work in a distributed workforce means you don’t have to work at home. You just don’t necessarily have to be in a central headquarters that you all commute to, and work from.

So if you work remotely, you could be working at a coworking space, which I do regularly. Or even from a coffee shop (as and when they open up). Or working from the office twice a week and from home the rest of the time.

If you’re serious about continuing with a distributed-first or hybrid model for your company, then can your decision makers allocate a budget for your teams to use as they need, to help them work in the best way possible?

That could be a monthly stipend to cover the cost of coworking membership or a perhaps a small office hub that some of your team members might work from together, if they happen to live local to each other.

Can you support your team’s ability to be more autonomous by ensuring they have the right space and equipment to do their jobs well?

You have a responsibility to support their autonomy if you’re opting for distributed. That might mean raising their salaries to cover these costs, or that the company is directly paying for the kit and faster internet at home.

Distributed Improves Diversity

Another benefit about embracing distributed working styles is that you get to employ people with the best skills for the job.  They are not necessarily the people in closest proximity to where you’re based. So it levels the playing field, and enables a more diverse workforce.

This is important, as having diversity in your team has been proven to support better innovation and more creativity within companies. Something we all need more of in our organisations.

Also consider the needs and expectations of your future workforce.

Many young people just starting out on their career paths are specifically looking for the flexibility to be able to work from where they are. This might be as a digital nomad while they do an extended gap year to travel while they work. Or working from their parent’s home or a cheaper part of the world, while they build up a nest egg. And one reason they are doing this is because getting on the property ladder or even renting in large cities is not easily affordable for most.

Three Key Things

 

If you and your organisation are contemplating continuing with a distributed-first or hybrid working style, then there’s three things you need to consider:

One

Is it enabling the autonomy of your team members, giving them the flexibility to decide how and where they work?

Two

Is this way of working supporting a more disciplined approach to work?

Three

And are you able to respect each other’s time and attention more, so that you can all get on with what needs to be done without adding more stress and strain to our already full and pressured lives?

Please don’t misunderstand, connection in real life is still very important for building team cohesion and supporting team morale. This type of physical interaction is also essential for our health and wellbeing. And even with these successful distributed teams I’ve mentioned, they do make the effort to provide monthly, quarterly or annual opportunities for team members to meet up in person.

And some people find they prefer to be in an office with other people, or perhaps some of the work that needs to be done, has to happen at a formal premises. So perhaps your company has to cater for both options with a hybrid approach.

Either way, hybrid or distributed working has the ability to support better work-life cadence.

It gives us the opportunity, time, space and flexibility to be able to develop our mastery, work with purpose and create more momentum in all parts of lives.

And for that reason I am a huge fan.

Resources

Distributed Working – 5 Levels of Autonomy (Matt Mullenweg’s Blog)

  • https://ma.tt/2020/04/five-levels-of-autonomy/

Why working from home is good for business (YouTube)

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6fIseKzzH0

Distributed Podcast Interview with Jack Dorsey (Matt Mullenweg)

  • https://distributed.blog/2020/12/16/episode-26-jack-dorsey-and-remote-collaboration/

‘Jobs to be Done’ Framework (Christensen Institute)

  • https://www.christenseninstitute.org/jobs-to-be-done/

Citigroup introduces Zoom-free Fridays (Guardian)

  • https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/mar/23/citigroup-ceo-ordains-zoom-free-fridays-to-ease-relentless-pandemic-workday

Zoom fatigue and ways to combat it (Stanford University)

  • https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/

Companies initiating breaks from Zoom (Guardian)

  • https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/24/zoom-refuseniks-why-companies-are-banning-constant-video-calls

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