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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