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  • feedwordpress 14:33:00 on 2020/04/10 Permalink
    Tags: , Future of Work   

    Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy 


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    I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Harris, author and host of the Making Sense podcast, for a wide-ranging conversation. Given the moment we’re currently living through, we naturally touched on the way companies are adapting to a new reality — one where remote work is a model to which they must adapt in a matter of days, rather than years.

    As I mentioned to Sam on the podcast, “any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed.” It’s a moral imperative. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces are getting right now is one that inspires them to keep trying.

    To make sense of this journey — from a company’s cautious exploration of remote possibilities to a fully realized distributed experience — I like to think of how it plays out through the concept of levels of distributed work, which I modeled after self-driving car levels of autonomy. I’ve seen some solid recaps of my conversation with Sam from Steve Glaveski and Steve Jurvetson, but here’s my gist of how distributed companies evolve:

    1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine construction worker, barista, massage therapist, firefighter… Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it has turned out they really did.
    2. The first level is where most colocated businesses are: there’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency. More often than not, they’ll likely put things off until they’re back in the office. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. You don’t have any special equipment and may have to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often have people in the same building or campus dialing into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.
    3. Level two is where many companies have found themselves in the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting, like Marshall McLuhan talked about new media mediums initially copying the generation before. You’re probably able to access information from afar, you’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been canceled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity — that’s the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also: Don’t stop at level two!
    4. At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people invest in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success, and you start looking for great writers in your hiring. When you are on a Zoom, you often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so you can take and check real-time notes together. Your company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world you plan meetups so teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.
    5. Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.
    6. Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an ideal that’s not wholly attainable — and that’s level five, Nirvana! This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun. 🤠

    A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.

    Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment. Close your eyes and imagine everything around you in a physical office: the chair you’re in, the desk, distance from a window, the smells, the temperature, the music, the flooring, what’s in the fridge, the comfort and privacy of the bathrooms, the people (or pets) around you, the lighting. Now imagine an environment where you can choose and control every one of those to your liking — maybe it’s a room in your house, a converted garage, a shared studio, or really anything, the important thing is you’re able to shape the environment fit your personal preferences, not the lowest common denominator of everyone an employer has decided to squish together for 8 hours a day. The micro-interactions of the hundreds of variables of your work environment can charge you and give you creative energy, or make you dependent, infantilized, and a character in someone else’s story. Which do you want to spend half of your waking workday hours in?

    For a good summary of Dan Pink, check out this animation. The other books I referenced in the podcast are Geoffrey West’s Scale and Nassim Nicholas Tabel’s Antifragile.

    My talk with Sam covered many other topics, from communicating in distributed companies to the challenges businesses are facing due to COVID-19, so I hope you head over and listen to the rest or stream it on Youtube.

     
  • feedwordpress 06:04:03 on 2020/03/25 Permalink
    Tags: Future of Work   

    Don’t Mute, Get a Better Headset 


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    One heterodox recommendation I have for audio and video calls when you’re working in a distributed fashion is not to mute, if you can help it. When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening. I’m always hesitant to disagree with Seth Godin, but that’s been my experience.

    So what should you do? Use the latest and greatest hardware and software to have the best of both worlds, a fantastic auditory experience for you and your interlocutors and little to no background noise.

    To summarize, I recommend a wired, USB headset with a mic that stays a constant distant from your mouth and has a noise-canceling microphone. Save mute for coughs and sips of drinks.

    The rest of this post I’m going to try out eleven different microphones and headsets, ranging from $35 to $1,000+, and record a short file on each, and intersperse some software tips for people on MacOS. You may want to listen to these samples with good headphones on to really hear the differences. I apologize some are louder than others, I didn’t edit to even out the levels, which Zoom or Skype would do automatically.

    My previous top recommendation was the trusty Sennheiser SC 30, in my previous bag posts. It’s cheap and effective, but the cord was too long and it was USB-A. If you read no further, get this one and revolutionize how you sound on Zoom calls. Here’s how it sounds:

    Sennheiser has upgraded to a USB-C version, with a much shorter cord, the SC 130. It feels and looks much better, you don’t need a USB-C dongle, and the sound quality of the earphones is quite bearable. The cost is about twice as much (~$70).

    You can plug the USB-C into your iPad or Android phone as well and it works great, though the headphones can be a bit quiet on Android. Either of the above will spoil you for making calls, and you won’t want to go back to the old low-fi way of doing things.

    In order to have a bit more flexibility I tried out the much more expensive ($134) Sennheiser MB Pro 1. I liked the freedom of wireless Bluetooth, but you can hear that the sound is much worse. Connecting over Bluetooth lowers the quality a ton, and also occasionally means you need to disconnect, reconnect, etc.

    All three of the Sennheisers above come in two-ear versions, which I prefer if I’m in a noisy environment, but at home I find the one-ear a bit more comfortable. I got excited about this $70 TaoTronics “Trucker Bluetooth” headset because it had Bluetooth 5.0 so I foolishly assumed it would have better quality, but it sounds really terrible:

    But does wireless have to mean terrible quality? The Apple Airpods Pro ($249) are actually pretty decent, and you can easily switch them between your phone and your computer in the audio menu. If you haven’t tried the Pro version, the noise canceling is actually pretty amazing for something so small and light — I jog with them.

    And one of the best sounding mics in this entire roundup was the wireless $119 Antlion Audio ModMic Wireless, which sound amazing, but you have to provide your own headphones to attach it to, and the entire thing ends up being fairly bulky and has its own wireless adapter. On the plus side, you can bring your own super-fancy headphones and get amazing audio quality. With certain headphones it did cause a buzz in the ear of the headphone I attached it to.

    But hot dang that sounds good. If they made an over-the-ear USB-C version with an earbud, and had the mic be a little smaller, it would be work-from-home nirvana.

    I ventured into the gaming headset territory for this SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Gaming Headset, which at first felt totally ridiculous with its own connector box, a million cables, etc, but goshdarnit grew on me. It has this really cool boom mic that extends out, and I think it’s the most comfortable headset I’ve worn for an extended amount of time. I tried it out via its proprietary 2.4ghz wireless connection + USB, and Bluetooth, and unfortunately the results weren’t great, including the Bluetooth being a little garbled. I hope Steelseries does another iteration because they’re so close, it just needs to be USB-C on the headphones, the cables, the everything, and super high quality recording.

    One final entrant — how about just your laptop? Normally I would say this sounds terrible and judge people who didn’t use a headset, but John Gruber’s review of the new Macbook 16 had some really impressive audio files that intrigued me, so here it is, the Macbook Pro 16″, which starts at about $2,400. It’s a little boomy, but not bad.

    Okay now let’s get a little crazy. Here’s a Zoom H5 with the SGH6 shotgun mic attachment. (The other Zoom! $410 total.)

    Next up is the Sennheiser SM7B Cardioid Dynamic, which is what I usually use to record the Distributed podcast, and costs about $400. This is milky and smooth.

    A favorite of voiceover artists everywhere is the Sennheiser MKH416 Super-Cardioid Shotgun Tube Condenser ($1,000), which I like the sound of and I also use for if I’m doing a fancy video setup and want super-good sound that’s not in the frame of the camera.

    It’s a great sound, but the part of the house where I recorded all of these is pretty noisy with an AC unit on the other side of the wall, and there’s a ton of background noise in this.

    Software eats the audio world

    Just like photography has been completely transformed by software enhancing images to the point where the top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung smartphone camera is better than all but the very top pro SLR cameras, I think the same thing is going to happen for audio.

    None of these clips are processed, which is why some of the volume levels are different, but I thought it would be fun to demo a tool I’ve been recommending to a lot of people.

    There’s a $40/year program called Krisp.ai, which I first learned about in 2018 from this awesome post on the Nvidia developer blog, Real-Time Noise Suppression Using Deep Learning. What it does is create a virtual microphone, like a filter that exists between one of your physical inputs and what the software on your computer “hears.” For fun I re-recorded the MKH416 in the exact same place, but filtered through Krisp.ai:

    Now the audio quality is not as good, it sounds a bit clipped, but throughout there is no more distracting background hums or noise. Krisp can be a little awkward to use but they’ve made it a lot more user friendly. You could mix Krisp with almost any option here and it would make it sound much better, in fact when I’m in a pinch my favorite go-to is Airpods Pro + Krisp.

    With everything, a pro tip on MacOS is to hold Option when you click on the sound icon in your upper right taskbar, and it will let you select both input and output devices. Sound Preferences, linked at the bottom of that menu, are your friend. If a mic is too soft you can boost the input volume in the preferences. To choose a camera or mic in Zoom, click the arrow next to the mute button in the bottom left. In Zoom audio settings, under Advanced, they are starting to expose a number of new options for real-time audio processing.

    The future sounds good.

     
  • feedwordpress 03:53:27 on 2019/11/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , Future of Work   

    Distributed Podcast: Clark Valberg, Lydia X. Z. Brown, Stephen Wolfram, and the Grand Meetup 


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    If y’all haven’t caught up recently with my podcast Distributed, this is a perfect moment to do so—the past several weeks have been full of insights from folks like InVision CEO Clark Valberg, attorney and advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown, Stephen Wolfram, and some of my own Automattic colleagues in-person at our Grand Meetup.

    You can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Google, Overcast, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. 

    The Importance of IRL in a World of Screens (Automattic Grand Meetup)

    “When you work in a distributed company, every time that you interact with your colleagues via text… you are taking out of your social bank account with them. So when you get people together, that’s when you have the opportunity to see each other face-to-face, and remind everybody that you’re all human beings. And fill that social capital back up because it’s so hard to communicate via text.”

    Building the Tools That Bring the Screen to Life (Clark Valberg, InVision) 

    “We needed it as a talent hack, as a talent arbitrage. Hire the best people wherever they happen to be, figure everything out later, hire them quickly, get them in the ship as early as possible and start seeing results. How can I just hire the best people no matter where they are?”

    Making Work Accessible, Wherever It Happens (Lydia X. Z. Brown)

    “I have believed from a very young age that every single one of us has a moral obligation to use whatever resources we have — time, money, knowledge, skills, emotional energy, access to physical resources — however that might be defined — that we each have a moral obligation to use those resources in service of justice, and fighting against injustice and oppression and violence in all of its forms, structural and individual, subtle and overt.”

    Inside Toptal’s Distributed Screening Process (Taso Du Val) 

    “I was going into an office but not seeing anyone or interacting with anyone except myself. So it almost was this zombie-like walk to the office every morning where I’m going to the office because I go to work, but I don’t see anyone who I work with. [laughs] And so I actually started waking up and just working on my computer at home. And then I said to myself, ‘Well, why am I even working from home?'”

    The Machine That Turns Ideas Into Real Things (Stephen Wolfram) 

    “You can do things that are very commercial, but a little bit intellectually boring. And it tends to be the case that you’re doing a lot of rinse-and-repeat stuff if you want to grow purely commercially, so to speak. Or, you can do things that are wonderful intellectually, but the world doesn’t happen to value them and you can’t make commercial sense that way. And I’ve tried to navigate something in between those two where it’s where I’m really intellectually interested and where it’s commercially successful enough to sustain the process for a long time.”

    Welcome to the Chaos (Sonal Gupta, Automattic)

    “I like to trust people and give them autonomy. But I keep in touch with them very regularly and I think it becomes clear pretty quickly if somebody is not doing work. We look at performance, and we look at communication at a distributed company. Communication is oxygen.” 

    Observe, Don’t Surveil: Managing Distributed Teams with Respect (Scott Berkun)

    “To work at a remote company demanded great communication skills, and everyone had them. It was one of the great initial delights. Every corporation has the same platitudes for the importance of clear communication, yet utterly fails to practice it. There was little jargon at Automattic. No ‘deprioritized action items’ or ‘catalyzing of crossfunctional objectives.’ People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.” 

    How to Build and Strengthen Distributed Engineering Teams (Cate Huston, Automattic)

    “A senior engineer makes the whole team better, but we don’t want to be prescriptive about how people made the team better. That was up to them. There were options, but that was the expectation for everyone on the team. You come in, you’re an experienced engineer, we expect you to be making the whole team better in some way, and what that looks like is up to you.” 

    How to Stay Connected in a Distributed World (Leo Widrich) 

    “I started to feel like I was hitting a wall. This thing that I always dreamt of, to have a profitable company, to be financially secure, to have a team… I felt that having that success, having some of that financial security — it left me unfulfilled in a lot of other areas. — in the sense of deep lasting connection and also a lack of emotional resilience to deal with the ups and downs that startup life comes with.”

    Helping Creativity Happen from a Distance (John Maeda) 

    “My point is blogging is good for you. It’s mental health, it’s expression, it’s sharing your process with the world. And when you relate to the world, your standard of quality floats to that value of the world. It’s a market economy of ideas and by putting ourselves out there, you become relevant.”

    Engineering with Empathy (Han Yuan, Upwork) 

    “We really want to encourage empathy in general. And so a key part of empathy is being able to try to see the other person’s point of view. And in an organization as distributed as ours where people come from all around the world, we view it as an essential ingredient to developing deep and meaningful collaboration.”

    How to Do HR in a Blended Company (Zoe Harte, Upwork) 

    “That means saying, ‘Okay, our entire organization will connect this many times a year in this many ways. There will be an all-department meeting once a month, once a quarter — whatever is appropriate — and that we will cover these three priorities and in broad progress and how it’s impacting the business overall.’ And then the expectation would be that the smaller subsets of teams are meeting in this way.”

    On Building Automattic (Me)

    “Our distributed roots did not come from some grand vision, but instead emerged from cold realities. Colocation (being in the same place, at the same time) is expensive!”

    Is Remote Work Bulls—t? (Arianna Simpson)

    “I think having people come and interrupt you every 25 seconds, as is often the case in open floor plans, is definitely not the most productive situation. So the model I’ve seen work well, or the model I lean towards, is having an office where people are working from, but having private offices or spaces where people can plug in their headphones and just do work alone while still being in the same place as, hopefully, all of their colleagues.”

    For Years, VR Promised to Replace the Office. Could It Really Happen Now? (John Vechey, Pluto VR)

    “The technology forces you to be present — in a way flatscreens do not — so that you gain authentic experiences, as authentic as in real life. People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”

     
  • feedwordpress 15:59:00 on 2019/11/11 Permalink
    Tags: Future of Work, , productivity,   

    Farnam Street’s Great Mental Models, Presented by Automattic 


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    I’ve been a fan of Shane Parrish and his indispensable Farnam Street for many years now. Shane is a fascinating person — he’s a former cybersecurity expert for the Canadian intelligence agency and occasional blogger who turned his website into a full-time career. Oh and fs.blog is on WordPress, too. 😎

    His book, The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts, has been tremendously valuable to me in my work. So valuable, in fact, that Automattic is now sponsoring the next printing of the hardcover edition. You can pre-order it here, then learn more about the mental models outlined in it.

     
  • feedwordpress 19:54:48 on 2019/04/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , Future of Work, happy tools   

    Happy Tools, for the Future of Work 


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    Distributed work is becoming a reality for more companies. Automattic has been operating in a distributed-first fashion for more than 13 years now — we’re now up to more than 850 employees in 68 countries. But even in companies with physical offices, more employees are distributed around the globe and working together. Google just shared some fascinating stats about its work culture, with 100,000 employees working across 150 cities. Two out of five work groups have employees working from more than one location:

    We’re a more connected world, so it makes sense that global business wouldn’t be confined to just one physical space. I often use Google as an example because I’ve been in meetings there where people were one building away from each other but still using video chat because of the time required to walk between meetings on their campus.

    With that in mind, the team at Automattic has decided to start sharing our expertise and the technology that makes it all work. Introducing Happy Tools:

    Our first product is Happy Schedule, which helps teams manage flexible schedules across time zones. Right now we’re rolling it out in a consultative way with just a few early customers to make sure the team can be totally responsive to their needs. We’re excited about this and other upcoming tools, because we believe that this is the future of work. We’re excited to have other companies give it a try.

    Keep an eye on this space: There’s an entire suite of tools that make up the operating system of what has helped Automattic scale so effectively over the years. I’ve always believed it’s important to invest in your internal tools, and I’m excited to release more of them. If there’s something better in the market, we won’t release a tool for it — I’d rather use something external than have to build things ourselves — but where the industry still has a gap after such a long time, we’ll throw our hat into the ring.

     
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