Video Conferencing Is Not a Solution Either

Now that so many people are working at home, the question arises how to work together well remotely. Spatially distributed collaboration does not only happen through video conferencing, but also and primarily requires written and asynchronous communication.

The world is hold­ing its breath in the face of this Coro­na pan­dem­ic. Social dis­tanc­ing is urgent­ly need­ed to slow down the spread of the virus and to pre­vent over­load­ing health sys­tems. For many, this now means that they must work remote­ly. And this in the long run and not just for half a day in the home office because the plumber is coming.

So let’s talk about how this geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion can suc­ceed. Now sim­ply con­duct­ing all the pre­vi­ous meet­ings as video con­fer­ences is only a mediocre solu­tion: If you dig­i­tize a shit­ty meet­ing, then you have a shit­ty dig­i­tal meet­ing. (Fol­low­ing the state­ment of Thorsten Dirks, the for­mer CEO of Tele­fóni­ca Ger­many, about dig­i­tal­iza­tion)

Video con­fer­enc­ing is only part of the solu­tion. Dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion also and pri­mar­i­ly requires writ­ten and asyn­chro­nous com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Espe­cial­ly when every­one is sit­ting in the home office with chil­dren and part­ners and has to get every­thing sort­ed out some­how. So all the tips about good video con­fer­enc­ing that are now emerg­ing remind me a lit­tle of Hen­ry Ford: “If I had asked peo­ple what they want­ed, they would have said faster horses.”

The prob­lem is that in many orga­ni­za­tions there is (was) a dis­tinct cult of pres­ence. Home office and mobile work was cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble, but always the excep­tion and some­how sec­ond class work and not for real top per­form­ers. For the one day of home office in the week it was easy to use video con­fer­enc­ing or sim­ply post­pone the meet­ing to one of the oth­er days.

Very few have learned to work remote­ly and asyn­chro­nous­ly in the long run. Let us there­fore see the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to ques­tion our pre­vi­ous way of work­ing and to prac­tice new forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion over a dis­tance. An exer­cise that is also ide­al­ly suit­ed to mit­i­gate the threat of the impend­ing cli­mate catastrophe.

Meet­ings are by def­i­n­i­tion a con­ces­sion to defi­cient orga­ni­za­tion. For one either meets or one works.

Peter F. Druck­er, 1967. The Effec­tive Excecutive

With this, Peter F. Druck­er already in 1967 basi­cal­ly said every­thing that needs to be said about meet­ings. Orga­ni­za­tions are not paid for meet­ings. Peri­od. How­ev­er, meet­ings are nec­es­sary in order to orga­nize the high lev­el of divi­sion of labor in the process of val­ue cre­ation. So few­er meet­ings are bet­ter. And of course these few must then be well orga­nized and pre­pared. This has always been the case, but now, when every­thing has to take place vir­tu­al­ly, prepa­ra­tion and orga­ni­za­tion are par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant because there are few­er pos­si­bil­i­ties vir­tu­al­ly to com­pen­sate for this interactively. 

We don’t do Pow­er­Point (or any oth­er slide-ori­ent­ed) pre­sen­ta­tions at Ama­zon. Instead, we write nar­ra­tive­ly struc­tured six-page mem­os. We silent­ly read one at the begin­ning of each meet­ing in a kind of “study hall.”

Jeff Bezos

While in the past it was suf­fi­cient to write an agen­da with a few key points in the cal­en­dar entry (and that was already progress and good prac­tice) and then to go through a Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion with more or less well pre­pared con­tent togeth­er in the meet­ing, I gen­er­al­ly rec­om­mend good writ­ten prepa­ra­tion for dis­trib­uted work. It does­n’t have to be the six-page mem­os in prose that Jeff Bezos pro­pos­es, just a well thought-out writ­ten prepa­ra­tion. And this is best done in such a way that the con­tent can be dis­cussed asyn­chro­nous­ly in advance in the form of com­ments or through the pos­si­bil­i­ty of joint edit­ing (e.g. in a Wiki like Con­flu­ence or in shared doc­u­ments in Microsoft Teams or Google Docs). The actu­al meet­ing then serves — if still nec­es­sary — only for a joint decision. 

It’s hard to come up with a big­ger waste of mon­ey, time, or atten­tion than sta­tus meetings.

Jason Fried. Sig­nal vs. Noise

Jason Fried and David Heine­meier Hans­son have con­sis­tent­ly built up Base­camp in a decen­tral­ized way from the very begin­ning. One of their books is there­fore also called “REMOTE: Office Not Required” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link). At Base­camp, the employ­ees are scat­tered around the globe and can’t just meet quick­ly. The clas­sic sta­tus meet­ing or now Stand-Up does­n’t work in this rad­i­cal­ly decen­tral­ized mod­el, and Jason Fried also express­es doubts as to whether such meet­ings make sense at all, because usu­al­ly the indi­vid­ual team mem­bers does­n’t need the exchanged infor­ma­tion at the moment of the meet­ing, nor do they all need it at the same time.

Need­less to say, Base­camp also has a live­ly exchange with­in teams, but most of it is in writ­ten form and asyn­chro­nous. Every day the employ­ees do a so-called “check-in” and write (sup­port­ed by their soft­ware Base­camp) vis­i­ble to every­one what they have been work­ing on today. And at the begin­ning of a week, every­one also writes what they will be work­ing on this week. These more or less short writ­ten updates of each one and the result­ing dis­cus­sions replace the usu­al meet­ings else­where at no loss.

E‑mail is where knowl­edge goes to die.

Bill French

When we are talk­ing about writ­ten prepa­ra­tion here, we are explic­it­ly not talk­ing about email. For dis­trib­uted asyn­chro­nous col­lab­o­ra­tion, email is de fac­to still a stan­dard today, but not real­ly suit­able. It is basi­cal­ly a dig­i­tal let­ter and made for com­mu­ni­ca­tion between two peo­ple or at most for dis­cus­sion in a small group. Longer dis­cus­sions in larg­er groups quick­ly become con­fus­ing and then lead to a meet­ing being scheduled.

Dis­trib­uted work­ing requires vir­tu­al rooms for asyn­chro­nous dis­cus­sions beyond video con­fer­enc­ing. Be it in Slack, Microsoft Teams (which, by the way, is cur­rent­ly avail­able for free due to the Coro­na pan­dem­ic, which is a very fine move by Microsoft) or the Enter­prise Social Net­work. Or along doc­u­ments or oth­er arti­facts, e.g. on wiki pages in Con­flu­ence or in Google Docs or even on back­log items in JIRA. Any­thing is bet­ter than email, where dis­cus­sion is tak­en out of con­text and col­lec­tive knowl­edge dies a slow death.

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