While working on a contract with an entirely distributed company last year, I had a conversation with my primary contact about the distributed workplace. (This is a company with nearly 1,000 employees and no offices. They had been doing this for years before covid-19.) After a few weeks in that environment – still a novelty for me and many people in late 2019 – he asked about my observations. I appreciated the question because I had in fact been spending a good bit of time reflecting on my past experience leading, managing, and working in a traditional work environment – so traditional that my Data and Analytics unit’s one-day-per-week telecommuting option was met with skepticism by many in the organization – and how to draw on that experience in this “new” distributed context. I spent much of the following days thinking about the question. It prompted a long dinner discussion with my wife.
Now, nearly a year into the covid-induced work-from-home environment that will almost certainly become a new norm for many organizations, I looked back at those musings of a distributed work neophyte from late 2019.
My 7+ years leading a university system Data and Analytics team saw my colleagues and me immersed in building enterprise-wide analytics capacity; every day an exercise in change management. We overhauled the hardware, the software, the central data system (and related business practices, roles, and responsibilities). We changed dramatically the ways we surfaced and communicated our data products, most prominently through the creation of a shared analytics platform and shared services that connected our 16 public universities and linked our shared system to other education and workforce sectors across the state.
The most important component of that vision and each planning, implementation, and sustainability step along the way was the “we.” The greatest accomplishment (and greatest challenge at times) was the team we built and the culture of collegiality, collaboration, and communication (and alliteration :)) that was essential to our success. With every public recognition of our accomplishments, my managers and I highlighted the collaborative effort. Every pat on the back for me or any of my team was an opportunity to share the kudos. Every staff meeting provided a chance to recognize individual contributions and collective accomplishments. Those kinds of recognitions, as well as various other ways that we connect with folks during our meetings and other formal interactions, are not only transferrable to a distributed workplace; they are critical.
That explicit and deliberate team emphasis is just a part of building a strong workplace culture. Much positive culture-building and communication happens in the hallways, by the water cooler, when passing a doorway. My company handler at the time shared his own reading on the concept of phatic communication, which really resonated. That is, communication that serves a social function, such as social pleasantries. In other words, small talk. (See this article in Scientific American, for example.) This simple idea helped me verbalize some of my own not-yet-coherent ponderings. At work, as anywhere, we build relationships and trust through many different types of interactions. We eat and drink together – sometimes planned and sometimes spur-of-the-moment. We make small talk. And we just waive/nod/grunt at each other in passing (the non-verbal phatic stuff).
There’s a book called Learning to Improve. It’s focused on k12 school improvement, and its lessons are drawn from and equally applicable to all kinds of organizations. One statement in that book that stuck with me is, “Teams working on complex problems need tools to organize their efforts. The most basic of these tools is a common language….” The quote is talking about how we all need to have the same conceptual framework for problems we solve together. I also think of it at a more basic level, that it’s also a statement about the necessity of communication. In the case of my contractual relationship at the time, with an entirely distributed company with the motto “communication is oxygen,” this was probably obvious. And now, a year into mass shifts to distributed (remote) work, it is perhaps obvious and resonant to many more of us that would have been the case in 2019. And yet, for such a basic tool of obvious value, communication is complicated and requires sustained and creative attention to get right. And getting back to the notions of phatic communication and the larger concern with sustaining a positive and collaborative work environment, strong communication generally requires a sensitive sender and a receptive recipient, both of which are a function of the relationships we develop.
So, how do we draw on these notions and make our evolving workplaces places we want to be? How do we cultivate the collegiality and comradery that – in addition to a meaningful mission and appropriate compensation – help us enjoy what we do?
Back to the family dinner conversation. My wife and I were focused on how to be deliberate in pursuing workplace interactions that are not directly related to the work, perhaps that have no purpose at all other than to simply connect with each other. What does a distributed workplace water cooler look like? Purposeful 1:1 non-meetings. Intentional virtual spaces to go about our business (whether it’s our business-business or just the business of being) together. With my previous in-person team, this could be a monthly “tailgate” lunch where those available and interested meet at a picnic table in the trees behind our building. Occasionally, it meant coming together to a conference room to all work in the same space rather than in our cubicles or offices. Often we connected simply by bringing snacks to share or poking a head into someone’s space to ask about the weekend, the kids, etc.
These informal connections are doable electronically, if in slightly different form. Doable, and necessary. And as I progress in a world of distributed work, I will continue to spend time developing and experimenting with adaptations of both informal and formal (previously in-person) interactions. Beyond just being able to function as part of a distributed team, it’s necessary the team and organization’s health. Ultimately, if I can extrapolate from again from some other past readings, the company is positioned for long-term growth and sustained success if it is a learning organization. We can learn as individuals (Englebart’s “level A learning”). We can learn from each other, let’s say within the team (“level B learning”). And then we can extend that learning across teams (“level C”) – that’s when we are becoming a learning organization and best able to work on the business as well as in the business.