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.

Stay Current!

You nev­er want to miss an arti­cle on my blog again? With our Newslet­ter you will receive the lat­est arti­cles in your inbox once a week.

Leave a Reply