Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes; http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/), GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

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