Wednesday 24 April 2019

How 'playbooks' can prevent remote working staff becoming estranged

The pros and cons of decentralising as cost savings bring a range of communication issues

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Stock image

Richard Rodger

In this startup diary I'm documenting my decisions as I go.

Whether I ultimately succeed or fail, it should offer a more accurate view into the decisions that anyone faces when building a technology company in Ireland. I can't unpublish these articles to embellish history, which is the problem with many success stories told after the fact.

One key decision has been to make this a remote-working company. It's not that we won't have an office (we will eventually), but more that we choose to build systems and processes that make remote work a natural part of working life.

I have previously justified this decision from first principles. The benefits are that it is cost-effective (less rent!); that it is far friendlier to a wider range of people; and that it gives access to the global talent pool.

The downsides also need to be acknowledged: it is more management overhead; communication is not as efficient; and it is not friendly to those who are more productive in a traditional environment.

The major deciding factor is my location in Waterford. I am at a huge geographic disadvantage, and a strategic counter-move is to go all-in on the remote model. So is this clearly a good decision?

No, I also need to be careful of my internal biases. We all have them. It is easy to see the world as we wish it to be, rather than as it truly is. This is the most dangerous mistake in any endeavour, and also one of the hardest to avoid.

Even though I enjoy public speaking and attending conferences, I'm an introvert, and I need time away from people to recharge. Working remotely gives me that.

Read more: Just over one third of Irish workers have the digital tools to work outside of office

I decided to build a remote working company, partly because it suits my biases. This means I cannot afford to take the success of the strategy for granted based merely on the benefits it should bring. In order to realise these benefits I have to assume that the strategy cannot work, find the flaws, and overcompensate. Just because I can't see the flaws, does not mean they are not there. This is why you are so strongly advised to have business mentors. They can help you see outside yourself.

If we start with the assumption that the remote working model is flawed then we can ask ourselves how to make it work nonetheless. There is a mental trick you can use to make this concrete. Assume you have a crazy boss, and that you just have to get on with it. You don't agree with the decision, but you have to make it work. Later on when you're successful this will actually be true-CEO or not, you still answer to the board.

Remote working makes open communication more difficult. If you're trying to build a company culture based on openness, you've just set an even higher mountain for yourself to climb. Let's take one aspect of this problem: one-to-one communication between any two people in the company is most likely to be text-only in form.

This means that interactions are more formal, because you're not sure exactly who you're dealing with. Deprived of the usual social cues that you get from body language and tone of voice, it is very easy to misinterpret words in written form, and perceive insult or aggression where none is intended.

As an individual you can overcompensate by writing longer more explanatory text, and taking care to be more polite and more exact. But this is often a luxury. Time is precious, and if you think you're drowning in email, just wait till you try remote working with a team distributed over multiple time-zones. Terse messages, by email, chat, or issue logs, can easily lead to friction.

Sometimes blow-ups can happen for almost farcical reasons. A smiley face appended to a text message sent from an Android phone of a certain vintage can appear as question mark on an iPhone, making a friendly affirmation look like a critical challenge. Suddenly a budding remote relationship starts to become toxic.

One tactic to counter this issue that I am going to try to use, is to make sure that everybody has a starting point for understanding everybody else. That way a remote colleague is not just text on a screen, but a real person predisposed to behave in certain ways.

This is not a new idea. The top tier management consulting firms use personality tests to profile their people. You are expected to share the basic results of these tests with new colleagues when you meet them for the first time, so they know how to handle you, and you know how to handle them. It works rather well, from what I hear.

I'm going to take this basic idea and modify it to work better for a software startup. We can't afford to send people off to do personality tests, but I don't think we need to. The tests are not an end in themselves. This is about understanding your colleagues so that you can communicate with them effectively.

Read more: 'It was a big step returning to work after 20 years at home'

Here's what we are going to do. Everybody in the company gets a 'playbook' (to borrow a sports metaphor). The playbook outlines key facts about the person. It is public within the company, so that anybody can look up anybody else's playbook. This is important because it aligns with the need for openness. It also limits the ability of managers to use knowledge control as a source of power.

The playbook tells you what the tasks and activities of your chosen colleague are. It tells you what their work goals are, and how they are measured. This information gives you to context to understand their actions.

When they say "no" to a request, you should be able to see how it would make sense in light of their constraints and incentives. You should be able to see the rational basis for a decision that you do not agree with.

Hopefully this will help to remove at least some paranoia and suspicion when colleagues seem to work against you. It also means that you have a mechanism to help rethink internal processes that are working against the interests of the company.

Playbooks necessarily cannot align completely, but they should do so in the main, and when they don't in a material way, that fact should not be an accident (as it so often is in cases like this - do not attribute to malice what can be explained by mere stupidity), but rather a careful considered trade-off that everybody understands and acknowledges.

The playbook also allows people to define their preferences, such as when they prefer meetings; what style of communication works best for them; whether they are an introvert or extrovert. This element is discretionary, but the more information you give your colleagues, the better their interactions with you. Likewise you can use their playbook to adjust your communication style.

Perhaps this all sounds a little contrived. We are trying to solve the "everybody knows that everybody knows" problem. Some social information has the strange quality that it only becomes useful when it is shared knowledge that everybody shares the knowledge.

You can't bully someone for minor differences when they know that everybody else is also a little weird in their own way.

The most powerful example of this phenomenon in recent times is the exposure of widespread sexual harassment in many industries. If you think you're the only victim of a rare attack, you stay silent because you have protect yourself. But if you see how many #metoo hashtags there are, it enables you to step forward.

We are only beginning the process of rolling out the playbook model. It will take many months, perhaps longer, to refine - and it has not been tested against the fast growth of a startup. Analytically it seems scalable, but we shall see.

As this is the first specific process innovation I am putting in place, I will certainly be writing more in future about the consequences of this decision.

Newsletter update: we publish a newsletter for aspiring technology conference speakers, and we've been struggling to reach our goal of 500 subscribers by the end of the year. But not anymore!

We now have 271 subscribers with a 23pc open rate. This acceleration is due to a focused LinkedIn campaign run by an ecommerce promotion expert - an investment that is paying off handsomely. We're not there yet, but it's looking good.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Metsitaba. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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