During my appearance on the Product Marketing Experts podcast I spoke deeply about building longterm remote culture, something I’ve written a lot about since I’ve been working in remote organizations for 11+ years, and how many organizations are working remotely “for now.” What the pandemic has made clear is that many office-based organizations are far more distributed or remote than originally thought.
If you’re working in an office, but you have teammates or colleagues in other offices…you’re working in a distributed company. If you’re communicating across time zones, continents, and cultures…you’re working in a distributed company. You’re not that much different from a pure, remote-first company, except that your organization is likely not prepared or structured efficiently to make your company effective at collaborating across those offices and time zones.
We’re now faced with a great opportunity for every company, especially those which plan to go back into offices partially with a hybrid remote approach, or even fully in-office but spread across offices and time zones, to look at how their distributed organization is communicating and collaborating.
There are three areas the leadership, teams, and organizations should examine and deliberately set up to effectively collaborate in a distributed fashion: access to information, richness of asynchronous discussion, and a habit of knowledge sharing.
Work in Public: Create Open Access to Internal Information
A key job of the leadership team (and eventually of a team or person managing the organization’s knowledge) is to make sure the barrier to accessing and sharing information in the organization is as low as possible – ideally, without barriers.
The leadership team and organization needs to examine and define the following:
- Where is our information and, when we create documentation and other assets, what is the highest level of visibility and access we can embrace by default?
- Do we have a place, such as a Google drive or (insert specific tool/platform), designated so that everyone knows where information should be created and shared?
- Can every team member access that location today, regardless of where they sit in the organization? Is it somewhere new hires can access by default or in an automated manner, on day one?
- How can we encourage and set up a norm of transparency and availability of our information by default?
Ideally, an organization would default to being as transparent as possible, and embrace the concept of “working in public” inside the organization. Truly personal information can be kept very private and very personal. But in general, if the information is something someone else in the company will need to read, discuss, or react to eventually, it’s a good practice to put it in a “public place” and start that habit of allowing other people to learn from and build upon your work.
That’s really what access to information is about – sharing and enabling team members to enrich their work with knowledge from other parts of the organization, to increase visibility of the good work being done, and to ultimately improve business outcomes.
I obsess over building and enabling organizations with a longterm vision and for business continuity, and as a leader I constantly worry about single points of failure. And by single points of failure, I mean actual people, whether they move on from the organization or even just take a vacation. I want to make sure if someone knows something, they’re not the only one who knows where it is and how it works.
One of the great things about working at Automattic was that internal information was transparent by default. It made it incredibly easy to bring in a colleague from anywhere in the company into a project or discussion and to allow them to access all the background, discussions, and decisions without needing a meeting or digging through your inbox for the (hopefully) latest emails on the subject.
I have talked before about working in public and how to document and share knowledge like you’re constantly training your replacement. I believe it’s an important concept for the entire organization to embrace.
Leaders and leadership teams, your homework:
- Ask yourselves the above questions and drive to some quick solutions regarding access to information.
- Identify if you have single points of failure in your team and/or organization, and how you can start to capture that organizational knowledge and share it more widely across the organization. Plan for deliberate shadowing of key individuals and documentation of key initiatives or processes for business continuity reasons.
Enable Rich Asynchronous Discussion
The second area to examine is how the organization can enable leadership, product, and project teams to have rich asynchronous discussions internally.
I want to make sure I distinguish discussion from collaboration artifacts like documents and other assets, which are becoming richer at incorporating feedback right where the work is being done (Google Docs changed the game forever on that).
Discussions are often where the important but not urgent information needs to be shared, processed, and responded to. We all know how easy it is to spin up a quick Zoom or Teams meeting to talk through something, or to keep a weekly status meeting or a regular cadence of meetings to provoke progress on things. When you’re rushing from meeting to meeting, that’s how the organization gets conditioned to get work done: synchronously in meetings, and also whenever you’re able to carve out deep work on specific items you can drive yourself, which might mean early in the morning or at night.
There’s a better way to meeting. As in, not meeting.
If you start to shift away from synchronous meetings, which often require preparation to participate (and prep time or materials aren’t always available) and solo processing power and reflection to respond with thoughtfulness and insight (which often isn’t afforded for in the agenda or project timeline), then you can look to rich asynchronous discussions to enable more collaboration across offices and time zones.
Strategy definitely requires discussion, and while there are some major benefits to doing synchronous work sessions on strategy, you want to make sure you have multiple avenues to have these rich discussions because synchronous time is always a distributed organization’s most limited resource.
I wanted to talk about these three things independent of tech stack, because many leaders and even organizations may not have a choice or control over their tech stack. In terms of solutions for asynchronous discussion, this is potentially the hardest tech stack solution to find today, and a area ripe for disruption for the modern distributed workplace.
Email is technically asynchronous, but not rich – it’s linear, which means every single response has to acknowledge or ignore the previous one, and it’s very difficult to drill down into specific sub-topics or comments as a group, or to handle parallel discussion topics in a single email thread.
Slack is also not a great place for asynchronous discussions to happen, though they’ve gotten a better with being able to use threads, allowing you to drill down into a specific comment or subject. Some organizations get really creative with using threads as headlines and soliciting feedback and discussion below them. Some even use Slack DMs to encourage 1:1 asynchronous discussion by creating a private channel between you and that person, so you have a low urgency communication channel, and then keeping Slack DMS for urgent and “Hey, you need to be in this meeting” kind of communication.
So what about other solutions?
- Microsoft Teams has channels which can provide some infrastructure for non-urgent / rich discussions, but they’re lacking some granularity controls to allow for public sub-channels to be spun up easily which don’t need to involve the whole team in that instant.
- Notion is doing some really interesting things with collaboration in their software (I’m a big fan) and I know smaller teams are using it as an intranet and for organizational knowledge sharing.
- Google is also making a play for Notion by including integration of more rich media in Docs with “Smart Canvas.” Once they start to pair it more closely with Google Rooms (and improve GDrive search, file structure, and navigation) we could start to see some distributed team tools on Google become more powerful.
- Automattic has started to make their P2 platform available to all (which I’ve used the internal version and it was the best solution to this problem I’ve seen so far).
- I’ve seen other suggestions that Asana, Confluence, Basecamp, Yammer, or even Facebook’s Workplace are trying to fill that rich asynchronous discussion gap.
Have another suggestion? Drop it in the comments.
One critical thing to do regarding rich asynchronous discussion is to build in time into your planning for these discussions to happen, so it’s not seen as a “delay” to centralize and enable that discussion asynchronously, but rather that it’s an expected and critical step in advancing that decision, product, or project across teams and time zones.
What you don’t want is for someone who has vital information or insight to think about whether they should weigh in on an email thread or meeting notes from yesterday because everyone’s moved on from it. Providing methods, places, and time-space for these asynchronous discussions to happen can improve the organization’s collective knowledge and problem solving.
Leaders and leadership teams, your homework:
- Examine where discussions are happening now – are they all during sync meetings or in linear emails? Are there opportunities to use additional tech and tools to facilitate richer asynchronous discussion?
- Have you planned for the necessary time to solicit feedback and discussion across teams and time zones in your projects and leadership alignment?
Cultivate a Habit of (Written) Knowledge Sharing
The third macro area, which is very much related to and supported by open access to information, is cultivating a habit of knowledge sharing. I’ll go a step further to specify written communication as a critical form of knowledge sharing.
Written information is currently the strongest medium for individuals to process large amounts of information in an asynchronous manner, but also when it comes to indexing, searching for, and referring to specific pieces of information.
Internal information organization and search is another category ripe for disruption. Has your company developed a custom layer of search to bind together all the places where you work like Teams/Slack, GitHub/Confluence, Intranet/wiki, Salesforce/HubSpot to search effectively across teams and knowledge centers?
Documents and assets we create are one form of knowledge but there are other ways we create, share or store knowledge in teams and organizations. I’ll write about these in more detail and how they support each other in a future article, but I touched on them ten years ago in my talk about the Future Way of Working at LeWeb (yes, talking about the future of work way back in 2011!): documentation, decisions, and discussions.
Meeting notes are one documentation artifact of the discussions and decisions we make as teams and organizations. The next step is to combine a habit of sharing meeting notes with working in public and sharing at the highest visibility possible to empower the individuals in your organization. Note that I don’t intend for sharing to mean broadcasting and requiring everyone’s attention on everything you create, but regularly and consistently documenting in the accessible information places your organization designated above. Using the “public” information spaces also means that the information is pervasive beyond the duration of the feature build, project, or even team.
Documenting and sharing discussions and decisions is not only about enabling the organization, teams, and priorities you have today. Continuous knowledge sharing is about enabling access to information and knowledge for the teams, priorities, and company of tomorrow. You want to reduce as many gatekeepers to institutional or historical information as possible and that means creating habits of documentation and sharing even when it’s unclear who the future audience will be.
The muscle and that habit of knowledge sharing is important because you want someone to build off of the work. You want to reduce silos and you want to reduce people doing double work on things and having parallel conversations just to transfer knowledge or get someone “up to speed.” I’ve experienced situations where misalignment of a request happened to the tune of $100 million because the information wasn’t written nor shared as publicly as possible with the team involved.
If you’ve written the answer to something twice, it’s likely you’ll be asked a third time. It’s the greatest feeling in the world to say “I wrote about that, here” and link to something you created.
It can be scary for people who aren’t used to transparency in communication, and might believe there is power in hoarding knowledge. My advice to that person is to make sure you’re separating out processes and historical background from your strategic expertise. It may feel important for a short time to be the only person who knows something, but you’re actually not being valued for your strategy -you’re just acting like a historian and that is not where you want to be building your value.
That’s part of the reason I wrote more than a million words while working at Automattic. I would make sure that all the background and information I had was clearly documented so I could focus on next steps regarding the strategic whens and whys instead of just factual whats.
Someone mentioned to me recently about “knowing where the bodies are buried” regarding a company’s information. As a leader, as a manager, you don’t ever want to have that in your organization. You don’t want individuals as keepers of critical or historical information. Get it documented and let / help that person move on to the next thing they’re going to be better at. Get the whole organization sharing knowledge regularly.
Leaders and leadership teams, your homework:
- Can you identify some meetings or projects which would be made more efficient with fewer participants and with a commitment to timely knowledge sharing of decisions and key points?
- Do you find yourself repeating strategic or priority information to more than one direct report when you could be doing it in a group forum to ensure alignment and knowledge transfer?
- Do you make a habit of following up meetings with notes on what was agreed and next steps?
- Do you keep each other accountable by gently requesting notes when not available?
- As an individual, is there any information you’re a subject matter expert for which could be documented and made widely available?
How has your organization tried to better collaborate across offices and time zones?
Categories: Remote and Distributed Work