Working out loud

For years, I’ve been active on social media. I’ve been blogging here even longer. Both of these are examples of working out loud, but they have their limits. I can’t talk specifics about clients – and it just wouldn’t be professional to say to my colleagues “read my blog” when they ask a question – but there really is a place for working out loud in business.

Collaboration in the enterprise

A decade ago, I would have been having conversations about enterprise social networks. The CIO would have been worried about people using Yammer (not owned by Microsoft at the time) in the way that we worry today about governance with groups using WhatsApp or Facebook. Meanwhile, those looking to drive innovation would be saying “hey, have you seen x – it looks like a great way to collaborate” (much like the conversations I’ve had recently around Altspace VR and Gather).

Back in the more mundane reality of the tools we have available to us, there are some pretty common factors:

  • Most organisations use email.
  • Quite a lot have some form of instant messaging.
  • Many have deployed chat-based collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. (Many more have accelerated their deployments of these tools over the last 12 months.)

As for enterprise social networks. Well, Yammer is still there, in the melee with SharePoint and Teams and other Microsoft 365 tools… maybe I’ll write about that one day too…

Wearing many hats

For the last couple of months, I’ve been juggling my normal role as Principal Architect with some Project Management. It’s tempting to say it’s only highlight reporting and resource booking (that’s how it was positioned to me) but there’s far more too it than that. I’m now handing over to a real Project Manager, because the project really deserves more than I can give to it.

I also have a team to manage. It’s not a big team. I like to think it’s small but perfectly formed. Most of the time, my direct reports (who are all experienced) don’t need a lot of input but, when they do, they can (and should) expect my full attention. Added to which, I am actively working to grow the team (from both the perspective of impact and headcount), so there’s a lot of planning going on. Planning that needs space to think.

And I deliver some consulting engagements myself. Typically that’s working with clients on strategies or forward plans but sometimes getting involved in the delivery.

I also work part-time. So all of the above has to fit into 4 days a week.

This is where working out loud helps.

You see, there is no way I can keep everything in my head. Tools like Microsoft To Do might help me with the daily/weekly/monthly task lists but there’s lots of surrounding minutiae too. Open loops need to be closed… I need a trusted filing system (see Getting Things Done).

When I’m not at work, or not available because I’m consulting, or because I’m working to support one of my team, things need to carry on happening. I don’t want things to stop because I haven’t responded. For those who have read The Phoenix Project, I don’t want to become Brent.

Working out loud is the answer.

Working out loud

At risual, when we start working with a client, we create a Microsoft Teams team. Inside that team, I create a channel for each project. Each channel will have a wiki (or similar) that describes what we’re doing for that client, what the expected outcomes are, and any key milestones. I also include standard text to use to describe the client or their project. And I include details of nearby hotels, car parks, public transport and anything else that might be helpful for our Consultants (or at least I did in The Before Times – when we used to travel).

When I manage a project, I post in the channel each week who’s working on what. I didn’t think it made much difference until, one week when I forgot, I was asked for the missing post!

I also encourage project team members to communicate with me in the open, on Teams. Sure, there are some conversations that happen on email because they involve the client but, in general, a message on Teams is better than one stuck in my Inbox. If I’m not available, someone else can help.

I do the same for my organisational team. Of course there will be some confidential messages that may happen over email (and I prefer to speak if there’s anything sensitive). But, in general, I don’t want things getting lost in my Inbox. Got an announcement? Teams. Need to bounce some ideas around? Teams. Let’s collaborate in the open. There’s no need to hide things.

Is that all?

This might not sound like much, but it’s a real mind shift for some people, who work in isolation and who rely on email for communication.

But I am not done. There’s always more to do. New tools come and go. My life doesn’t get any less busy. I am as stressed and anxious as always. And one of my sons told me that he doesn’t want to do my job because “it just involves getting annoyed with people”. Hmm… it seems I have more work to do…

“Perfection is the enemy of good” is a phrase often attributed to Voltaire, and my next step is to get more comfortable with sharing early drafts. I will generally share a document or a presentation for feedback when it’s nearly done, but I really must start sharing them when they’re barely started.

Do you have some ideas for working out loud? I’d love to hear more examples of how I can make this way of working more common. What do you see as the advantages? Or are there any disadvantages? Comments are open below.

Featured image by Harsh Vardhan Art from Pixabay.

Remote working: spare a thought for the managers…

With the current COVID-19/CoronaVirus health crisis, there’s a huge focus on working from home – for those who are able to.

I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 and remote working has been the norm for a good chunk of my career. That means I kind of take it for granted and didn’t really appreciate some of the things that others struggle with – like how to focus, finding space to work, and social isolation. (I’m also an introvert, so social isolation is probably not a huge concern to me!)

Somewhat disappointingly, there also seems to be a surge of articles on “how to work from home” – mostly written by people who seem to have very little real-world experience of it. But there are some notable exceptions:

  • Last year, Matt Haughey (@mathowie) published his tips from 16 years of working from home. Whilst some of the advice about his chosen tech (wide angle lens, special lighting, Apple AirPods and Slack) might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a lot of good advice in Matt’s post.
  • And, earlier this week, my colleague Thom McKiernan (@ThomMcK) wrote an excellent blog post on what he calls the six rituals of working from home. I hadn’t really twigged that working from home is a fairly new experience for Thom (since he came to work at risual) and Thom’s post also flagged some of the bad habits I’ve slipped into over the years: the 08:55 starts; the procrastination; not taking regular breaks; and going back to work in the evening). It’s definitely worth a read.

But equipping people with the tools and mindset to work remotely is only part of the problem. Whilst I believe (hope) that the current crisis will help organisations to discover the benefits of remote and flexible working, some of the major challenges are cultural – things like:

  • Trust: comments like “Oh, ‘working from home’ are you?” don’t help anyone. Sure, some people will slack off (it’s human nature) but they will soon be found out.
  • Presenteeism: linked to trust, this often comes down to a management style that is reliant on seeing people at a desk, between certain hours. It’s nothing to do with how productive they are – just that they are there!
  • Output: so many people are hung up on hours worked. Whilst we owe it to ourselves not to over-do things, or for employers to take advantage of employees, much of today’s work should be output-driven. How effective were you? Did you manage to achieve x and y, that contribute towards your personal goals (which ideally contribute towards the company’s goals)? It’s not about the 9-5 (8-6, or 6-8), it’s about delivery!

For managers, it can be difficult when you have a remote team. I struggle sometimes but in some ways, I’m fortunate that I have a relatively senior group of Architects working with me, who are (or at least should be) self-starters. If they don’t deliver, I will hear soon enough, but then I’ll have another problem in that I’ll have a dissatisfied client. So, ideally, I need to make sure that the team understands what’s expected of them.

My approach is this:

  • Trust: everyone I work with is trusted to “get on with it”. That’s not to say I don’t check in on them but there is a huge reliance on people doing what they have been asked to.
  • Empowerment: I don’t micro-manage. I’ll make sure that we have regular 1:1s, and cross-team communications (see below) but everyone in the team is empowered to make decisions. I’ll be there to support them if they want guidance but I need people to make their own choices too… which means I need to be ready to support them if those choices don’t work out the way they, or I, might have liked.
  • Clear guidance: of course, I have a manager too. And he reports to our Directors. Things get passed down. I may not like everything that “passes my desk” but sometimes you just need to get on with it. Communication to my team about what’s required/expected, why it’s needed and when it needs to be done by is vitally important.
  • Communication: related to the above but making sure there are regular team calls. Even once a fortnight for 45 minutes (because we always over-ran 30 minute meetings and an hour is too long) is an opportunity to disseminate key messages and for everyone to share recent experiences. Every few months we’ll meet face to face for a day and work on something that gets added value from being together – but that’s not really remote working (or advisable in the current climate).
  • Understanding my limits: I’m a practicing Consultant as well as a people manager, so I’m not always there (I also work part-time). This goes hand in hand with the empowerment I mentioned above.
  • Tools: everything I’ve written in this post up to now has been about the people but technology can play its part too. I use Microsoft Teams extensively (you may have another choice – email, Slack, SharePoint, Yammer, or something else):
    • I work in the open – on Teams. Email in an Inbox is hidden whereas a post on Teams is visible to all who may have an interest.
    • When I’m not at work, my out of office reply directs people to post on Teams, where another member of the team might be able to help them.
    • Voice and video calls – Teams. Even my mobile phone is directed to a phone number that ends up in Teams.
    • When I set up a project, I use a Wiki in Teams to set out what is required of people – useful information about the client; what they expect from us; what the project is delivering (and how).
    • When I want to get a message out to a team (either hierarchical or virtual/project), I use Teams to communicate (hopefully clearly).

I’m not sure how successful I am – maybe my team can tell me – but it’s an approach that seems to work reasonably well so far. Hopefully it’s of some use to other people.

If you’re a manager, struggling with managing a remote team – or if you have some advice/guidance to share – please leave a comment below.

Further reading

(The up-to-date version of the Remote Work Survival Kit can always be found in Google Docs, with most of the content on the website). A PDF extract is created periodically.