In 2013 Scott published his high-acclaimed book The Year Without Pants. In it, he recounts his year-long stint at WordPress.com, which has a completely remote workforce.
Berkun's story at WordPress reveals important insights on effective collaboration - even when your teammates are halfway around the world. His style is engaging and personal, making it well worth the read.
I was fortunate to catch up with Scott for an email interview. Find out about Scott's thoughts on remote work, trust, and the future of collaboration below.
JIM: There are lot of opinions and misunderstandings around "remote work" in general. What's the best way to approach the topic? How should we conceive of remote work in a healthy and constructive manner?
SCOTT: What percent of your workday is spent staring at a screen? When working through a screen you could be anywhere in the world. Why pretend otherwise?
The best way to think of remote work is that it’s possibly a better way to use technology to help productivity.
If someone wants to try working from home, or from a boat and sea, and can be just as productive from there, what’s the problem? If they can’t be productive, that’s one thing. But to not let them try is about a manager’s fear of change, and nothing more.
JIM: That's quite broad. Do you see different types or levels of remote work within that spectrum? For instance, is remote work with the ability for in-person interaction, if needed (e.g., working on different floors of the same building) different than remote work where you may never meet face-to-face?
SCOTT: There are differences, but I think it’s worth examining how often people actually use their in-person access. We have this untested belief that we take advantage of being able to go down the hallway. But many cultures do not, preferring to email and IM with people who are two offices down the hall.
What matters most is, Is the communication on the team effective?
In many workplaces where everyone is in the same building it isn’t. Yet on some all 100% remote organizations it is. Why?
The factors have less to do with tools and technologies and much more to do with culture.
JIM: That makes sense. But tools are also important, aren't they? What role do tools play in remote collaboration, in your opinion?
SCOTT: I’d rather have a great team, with bad tools, than a bad team with great tools. The great team will find ways to communicate well regardless of the tools. But it’s easier for executives to buy new tools than to figure out how to build great teams, so many of them focus on the former and ignore the later.
Fundamentally I believe it’s individuals, not managers, who are most familiar with the newest tools, which means they must be allowed to help define how the team communicates.
Every team is different - its combination of personalities creates a different subculture - and should be empowered to experiment and try out different ways of working together. Whenever I see a manager dictating tools and methods, I know the best people on that team are already thinking about finding a new job.
JIM: Do you think there is a specific or different challenge with design work or creative collaboration? How should design thinkers and doers approach working remotely?
They should be willing to experiment and find different ways of working. Do you really need that many real time meetings? Aren’t meetings (and their number) a major frustration for thinkers are doers?
Remote work shifts the emphasis back to individuals. if you want a daily whiteboard session you can probably do it, but the implication is that you don’t.
My experience at WordPress.com was a short weekly real-time meeting on Skype for the team was the sweet spot. We’d use the blog for most design conversations and add to the mix a real-time whiteboard session when the blog failed us or we needed faster paced discussions of ideas and critiques.
But every team is different and should experiment to find the right mix for themselves. There is no one magic answer for teamwork, remote or otherwise.
Scott's talk about The Year Without Pants on YouTube
JIM: What advice do you give people whose collaboration partners are not so willing? For instance, I hear a lot of consultants struggling to work remotely with external clients, where there is no real chance to experiment.
SCOTT: It’s only through earned trust that we can convince anyone to do something new.
If a coworker trusts your competence, intelligence and goodwill, they’re far more willing to do an experiment on your behalf then if not.
Find a problem or complaint the client has that is solvable by remote work (greater efficiency, documented conversations, etc) and cast your experiment in terms that help them, not just you.
JIM: Many people struggle with trust when working completely remote. Of course it's possible to gain trust in a distributed team, but meeting face-to-face seems to go a long way too. In your book The Year Without Pants, you talk about yearly meetings. How important is it get to know colleagues in person? How often do recommend meeting face-to-face, if at all?
SCOTT: The only way you demonstrate trust is to risk having your trust broken. That’s what trust is by definition. Any decent manager should be willing to *try* something new that their smart, high achieving, good-natured employee wants to try. If they try it out and there are problems, of course they should stop.
But not to try isn’t about trust or management: it’s entirely about fear.
It’s absolutely valuable to meet in person. We get more data from each other’s voices and facial expressions than from text and audio alone. The question is how much face-to-face interaction is necessary to be effective coworkers? There is not a simple answer.
Some cultures, like WordPress.com, get by with far less than conventional workplaces, but it’s still non-zero. Their approach was once a year invite everyone together. And then for each team, an additional smaller meeting each quarter.
But for most companies it’s the other direction - how much time apart is the right amount?
My answer is: leave it up to your employees. If they want to work remotely more often, and are just as productive, why on earth would you stop them?
JIM: Thanks, Scott. As always, fascinating thoughts on these topics!
Check out more posts on remote design and collaboration from MURAL: