A little hack that made our remote team not feel so remote anymore

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I’m jealous of people who work in coffee shops.

Not because I dream of pulling espresso shots and doing pour-overs (although they’re delicious. I wish I had those skills!). The thing I’m jealous of is how easy it is to just know how things are going at any given moment when working in that environment. Especially when compared to a distributed workplace like ours, with me here in Nashville, and the rest of the team spread out across Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami.

It’s too easy to wind up in a bubble when physically isolated like that, and end up completely missing things like:

  • Roger being buried with support the morning after we pushed out a new feature.
  • The mid-week rush of new signups after we were mentioned in a news article.
  • Tim being head-down in focus mode on some new stuff for the RescueTime desktop app.
  • The general “we’re all in it together” vibe that comes from seeing everyone busting ass to make things work.

Information like this just flows freely in my local coffee shop (and I’d assume in most other brick and mortar businesses). It’s obvious how long the line of customers is, that Megan is buried under a ten-latte to-go order, or that Joe is just plain wiped out after a ten-hour day. And there’s the shared satisfaction of knowing that everyone did a good day’s work together. That’s not to say that I dislike remote workplaces. I think they’re great, actually. I’m just saying that feeling connected takes more work.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of connectedness for the past few months since I moved away from our main office. It’s tricky, because there is so much about a loosely-connected team that actually works really well, and trying too hard to replicate an “everyone in the same room” feeling would be forced and likely bad for our culture. Always-on video chat? Nope. Every-day status meetings? Blech. Taking on a whole new project management system to understand what everyone else is working on? Doesn’t fit how we work at all.

A few weeks ago, we tried an experiment and so far it’s working out really well. We use HipChat as our company chat tool, and it’s great for general back and forth, asking questions to the entire team, even taking a quick break and laughing about ridiculous pictures of cats. You can also post messages to it programmatically with their API, so we created a new chatroom just for things that would hopefully make some of the basic rhythms of the workday pop out a little more. We used Zapier to plug a bunch of different applications into HipChat, then let everyone on the team get creative with it. We gave very loose guidelines ( ”Add anything you feel like telling the rest of your team about your day. It has to be automated. Excessive use of emoticons and gifs is encouraged.”) With only a few hours of experimentation, we came up with an interesting feed that required no manual input, but let us get and give some really interesting information about our days.

Some examples (with admitted over-use of HipChat’s fantastic emoticons)

New signups and upgrades (via Zapier’s Gmail integration)

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Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices

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My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via Foursquare)

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Several of our self-defined status updates based on our RescueTime stats, where we share some details about how we’re spending our time (via the RescueTime Alerts API)

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Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting

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It’s done a surprisingly good job at filling in a missing piece of the remote-experience for us. I feel like I’m much more aware of everyone else on the team, how their days are going, but without requiring tedious status updates that would just slow us down. I feel more connected, and it’s really nice.

The full "What's Happenin'" feed

The full “What’s Happenin’” feed in all it’s messy chaotic glory

We intentionally kept the messages light on details. I’ve seen a lot of “Quantified Self in the Workplace” projects, and they seem like they can often turn into micro-managing minefields. I think we avoided this by making everything voluntary and giving each person on the team complete control over what messages they wanted to contribute to the feed. For example, some of the feed items came from the RescueTime API, where there is a LOT of detailed information that each team member privately has about themselves. But at a team level, we don’t need (or want, if I’m being honest here) that level of insight into people.

It would probably be idealistic to assume that something like this would be helpful or even welcome in every remote-workplace, but it’s worked out great for us, and seems to fill a gap that has led other companies to take some pretty drastic measures to deal with in the past.

I’m really interested in ways that companies are taking advantage of the data-rich environments of their remote workplaces, and using them to create more engaging, more fun, and ultimately more productive experiences for their employees. Have you seen other examples, or tried something that’s worked particularly well?


I’m about to start working remotely, and it’s sort of freaking me out

In about two weeks, I’m moving from Seattle, WA to Nashville, TN. This is awesome for a number of reasons. Nashville has less depressing winters, some great friends and family live there, there’s an NHL team, and I’m really excited to reacquaint myself with the city I grew up in. (That said, I am going to really miss Seattle. This place is amazing). There’s just one part that makes me a little nervous: Working remotely. It freaks me out. It shouldn’t, but it does. Kind of a lot. Several people at RescueTime work remotely, and they make it work just fine, but I’m still uneasy.

You see, I’ve worked remotely once before, and I was terrible at it. I mean, I still got my work done and all, but I fell into just about every conceivable work-from-home trap in the process. It was several years ago, and I was living in Boston, working for a small web design company in Anchorage, AK. The four hour time difference meant my work day didn’t start until noon (which is awesome), but it meant I was working until about nine (opposite of awesome). I didn’t have to keep those hours, but between everyone else being on Alaska time and me not being a morning person at all, it was an easy pattern to fall into. Finishing work so late each day sort of wrecked my motivation to go out and do anything afterwords, so often times I would just keep working. That’s a really bad habit to fall into, and led to some pretty bad workaholic tendencies (also not so great for my social life :\). I was working out of my house, so the isolation started to get to me. For days at a time, I found myself with literally zero reasons to put on pants. In a way, that sounds luxurious, but it stops being fun real quick. After a while, I figured out ways to get a little bit more balanced, but it never really got to a spot where I could say I actually enjoyed it all that much.

So you can see why getting back into a remote work situation would be unsettling. But I’ve got some reasons to be optimistic this time around.

I’m not the only one in my company working remotely

The last time I worked remotely, I was the only one in the company not in the main office, and that caused a huge disconnect. I felt guilty being the odd man out, like I was burdening everyone with my weird schedule and the fact that I couldn’t be there for meetings. At RescueTime, more than half the team works remotely, so I don’t feel that same pressure. It’s already a part of our culture. And the folks I work with have been doing this for years, so I don’t have to figure it out all on my own.

Technology is way, way better now

Before, the main options I had for interacting with my coworkers were phone calls, email, and FTP. Now I have all sorts of options to stay connected. We sync files through Dropbox, share code with Git, and share all sorts of random knowledge tidbits with Evernote and Google Drive. On a more social level, Google Hangouts makes it so we can see each others faces (and screens) whenever we need to. And we use HipChat for group chat, which has been surprisingly effective at making everyone feel a little less spread out across the country. On the time management front, RescueTime helps me steer clear of some of the really bad habits I’m prone to by keeping me aware of how my days are shaping up.

There are other options for not working strictly from home

I know that working from home drives me crazy after a short while, so I have to get out and find somewhere else to work. This time around, I have two things working in my favor. Coffee shops are a great option now that I’ve developed a fancy coffee addiction (thanks a lot, Seattle!), and Nashville has an abundance of coworking spaces that I can go to give myself some structure (as well as some physical distance from home, so I can draw the line when I’m done for the day). I’ve spent a few days at CoLab Nashville, which has been great, and there are several others that look really good. I have a lot of options.

Nashville-to-Seattle is way different than Boston-to-Anchorage

It’s not as hard to go back. Flying to Alaska was always a huge, expensive undertaking, no way around it. (To be fair, a huge, expensive undertaking that also involved moose, bears, Northern Lights, and a bunch of other completely magical stuff.) Seattle is still far away, but I’m only crossing two time zones, not four. (No direct flights though, so that’s sort of a bummer.) I’m not really sure how necessary going back will end up being. Going back to the first point, the other people working remotely give me some new options for face to face time. There are two RescueTimers in Atlanta, and that’s only a few hours’ drive.

Remote work is actually a thing people think about now

In the time since I last worked remotely, the conversation has gotten a lot more interesting and sophisticated. In addition to all the tools I listed above, there’s just a better understanding of what the tradeoffs and pitfalls are. A lot of people have put effort into figuring this stuff out, so there’s a better roadmap. It also helps that I have a pretty clear idea of some things that simply don’t work for me (living and working in the same space, all the time, for example). This time around it feels like there is a lot less that I’ll have to sort out by pure trial and error. I’m about halfway through reading Remote, by 37signals, and it’s a really nice rollup of the dos, don’ts, and current thinking about remote work.

So I think it’s all going to work out ok. Still, got any tips?

While I’m optimistic, I still know myself and know the traps I’m apt to fall into. Does anyone have any good tips or strategies for remote work? If so, leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!


Confession: I completely missed Information Overload Awareness Day

Oh, man. The irony of what I’m about to say…

This past Monday was Information Overload Awareness Day, and I totally missed it because an email about it went unopened in my inbox.

Information Overload Day 2013 - October 21, 2013

I usually do a pretty good job of keeping email under control, but it’s really gotten away from me over the past few weeks. It’s downright sad how out-of-sync I feel when I have upwards of 100 unread emails in my inbox. I feel more and more scattered by the mental weight of those un-dealt-with messages as they pile up. “Am I missing something important? Probably? But do I have time to deal with it right now? Probably not, especially if it’s something really important.”  Once that cycle starts spinning, it just gets worse and worse.

Even though it seems ever-so-slightly corny to holiday-ize the concept, I’m really glad there’s a serious conversation going on about information overload. It’s one of those things that (increasingly) affects our days so much, yet it feels like so many people simply write it off as an unfortunate fact of life.

The Internet Overload Research Group (IORG) brings together a really interesting mix of smart folks that are focused on the effects of information overload and possible solutions to the problems it can create. IORG members Joshua Lyman and Jared Goralnick hosted a really interesting webinar on Monday (which I did not watch live, due to the email being stuck in the aforementioned purgatory of my dumb ol’ inbox). The recording is really worth checking out if you find this stuff interesting.

The webinar features a panel discussion with Dimitri Leonov from SaneBox and Shawn Carolan from Handle, two companies which take different approaches for helping people cope with information overload. There is also a really interesting presentation by Professor Sheizaf Rafaeli of Unviersity of Haifa in Israel. He questions if multitasking is really as evil as some people make it out to be, and makes a really good case for the fact that, sometimes, it’s actually something to strive for (which runs fairly counter to a prevalent meme in the information overload world that multitasking is the root of all evil).

It’s a long video (just under an hour), but really interesting if you’re curious about the current thinking around information overload and multitasking.


Does self-tracking help (or hinder) creativity?

The Quantified Self movement, in all it’s various shapes and sizes, is giving us the opportunity for an unprecedented view of ourselves. Examining ourselves through a lens of data holds the promise for better health, increased productivity, even greater happiness.

But what does self-tracking do to your creativity?

Now, it could be argued that all this careful measurement and instrumentation is really just a misguided way to optimize all spontaneity out of life. Albert Einstein said “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There’s absolutely truth to that. Today’s knowledge workers need to be creative. It’s probably the most important skill to have, especially as more process-oriented work is increasingly automated. The problem, from a self-tracking standpoint, is that creativity is subjective, and damn near impossible to express in a structured way. Some people are certainly trying, but I think it will be a long time (if ever) before any broadly agreed upon metric is established.

I think that’s just fine. Self tracking can still do amazing things for your creativity.

New problems, new solutions

“self-tracking paints an interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output.”
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Just as we’re faced with problems we didn’t have 20 years ago (when you could work for more than three minutes before being interrupted by email), we need to discover new coping strategies. A data-based approach makes a lot of sense.

Sure, it’s true, quantifying creativity is problematic. But do you know what’s not problematic? Quantifying emails, meetings, workflows, and all the other process-oriented stuff that takes up increasing amounts of our day. All of that is easily measurable, and self-tracking paints a pretty interesting picture in the negative space around our creative output. One of the observations we hear over and over from RescueTime users is “wow, I spend WAY more time in email than I thought!” Multiple studies have shown that the average desk worker spends about 30% of their time in email. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s generally spread out across the day in small chunks.

Switching back and forth on tasks takes a toll on our cognitive performance, and some research suggests that heavy multi-tasking diminishes our ability to recognize a breakthrough idea. Humans are nearly universally bad at multi-tasking, but it’s increasingly difficult to escape. But we can at least keep track of it, and that can bring an awareness that allows us to take steps to minimize it.

Different strokes for different folks

It’s easy to imagine creativity as this innate quality that manifests in spontaneous bursts of genius, but if you look at creative minds throughout history, you’ll see a very sophisticated creative process that’s been refined over time. It’s part of mastering your chosen craft. But what works for one person may not work for others. Hemingway only wrote in the morning, and had a very specific flow from handwritten pages to the typewriter. Picasso on the other hand, worked late into the night and slept in. Self-tracking can enhance this process, allowing individuals to methodically tweak their behaviors to find the ideal state of flow. Is the time you wake up more or less important than the total amount of sleep you got the night before? What about the quality of your sleep rather than the duration? Or is the really important thing the strong cup of coffee you drink before work? These are questions you can answer with self-tracking.

Let’s admit that maybe some of that creative output can be measured, and that’s really awesome

Even though there’s really no way your creative genius will be fully expressed by some numbers sitting in a spreadsheet (unless you are a mathematician, I suppose), most any creative endeavor has output that can be be revealing when tracked. Hemingway kept a daily log of his word-count “so as not to kid myself”. He used this to keep track of his progress, but also to reward himself. After a particularly productive day of writing, he could spend the next day fishing, guilt-free.

Motivation is key to creativity, and consistently measuring output is a fantastic way to stay engaged, especially with creative projects that require long slogs of work before seeing a finished outcome. It’s the digital equivalent of turning around after an exhausting uphill hike and beholding the beautiful view you’ve trudged into. Services like iDoneThis make this as easy as giving a short reply to a daily email. Another example is National Novel Writer’s Month, where daily word count is celebrated as a way of keeping authors pumped up about writing their novels.

Your turn. Do you think self-tracking impacts your creativity?

Obviously, we’re a little bit biased here at RescueTime. We think the greater awareness that comes from self-tracking has a huge benefit on one’s creativity. But I’m curious what you think? Do you agree? Or is it too clinical of a lens for such a organic thing? Or, is it simply navel-gazing, and a distraction in and of itself?

Further reading:

NPR.org: The Myth Of Multitasking

99u: The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

Courting a Muse In a Data-Driven Workplace

MeasuredMe.com: My Attempt at Tracking Creativity

RescueTime Blog: 5 habits of highly motivated novelists


How social feedback loops are changing our workplace (for better and for worse)

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Reputation data, culled from social feedback loops, is playing an increasingly large role in our professional lives

In Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people don’t work for money. Currency, as we know it, has become obsolete as technology has created such abundance that the old models of scarcity fall apart. Instead, paychecks are replaced with a new currency called Whuffie. Whuffie is a measure of reputation, or esteem. It rises and falls based on a person’s actions. Be a jerk to someone on the bus, and your Whuffie falls. Help a little old lady cross the street, and your Whuffie rises. Write an amazing story, and your Whuffie shoots up exponentially as it’s enjoyed and shared by thousands of people. And there’s the tricky part. It’s not enough to just to be good, you have to also be recognized for being good. In fact, one of the major plot points is when a series of unfortunate events and a fit of rage cause the main character to lose all his Whuffie, effectively making him an outcast from society.

Ok, so that world may sound far fetched, and a post-scarcity economy probably isn’t coming along anytime soon. But the concept of Whuffie is starting to turn into a very real thing in our professional lives, and it’s only going to get more prevalent in the future.

One of the top ‘future-of-work’ trends predicted in the book The 2020 Workplace is that workers will be hired and promoted based upon “reputation capital”. This will be a combination of both the depth and quantity of an employee’s social and professional networks, as well as hundreds of smaller data points indicating the worker’s influence in those circles. This already makes sense today in sales or marketing positions, but in the future it will extend to all roles within an organization.

Social feedback loops in the workplace today

iStock_000017132931XSmallTwitter and Facebook have given customers of all businesses a vehicle for voicing opinions on interactions with employees.  This amplified message can make it easier for a worker to be recognized for her hard work and good service (unfortunately, it can also have some negative consequences as well).  But many services are going a step further and  formally baking their worker’s reputation directly into their business models.

Micro-outsourcing marketplace TaskRabbit matches workers with people willing to pay them for odd jobs. Workers are rated and reviewed at the end of each task and those rankings in turn affect the likelihood that a worker will get more work in the future. Your ability to put together an IKEA bookshelf is important, but it’s equally important that other people recognize you for it. Similarly, the private car dispatcher Uber uses rankings by customers as it’s indicator of driver quality and will deprioritize or let go drivers with low overall scores (which has caused some controversy).

It’s not just customer service jobs

Reputation capital is becoming important in other areas, beyond customer service. At a previous company of mine, one of the things recruiters looked at when hiring software engineers was their level of participation on GitHub. While it was never a requirement, having a presence and being a member of the community was a considered a huge plus. Doing a quick scan of software engineering jobs on various job boards suggests that this preference is becoming more widespread.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Other niche communities where reputation is starting to matter more and more to employers include StackOverflow for software engineers, Kaggle for data scientists, and Dribbble or Behance for designers.

The rise of corporate social networks

For people already employed by a company, internal social network tools like Yammer and Work.com have features that allow colleagues to recognize an employee for a job well done. All those individual data points accumulate on the worker’s profile in the form of badges. This helps top performers stand out, and lets others in the organization easily identify experts on specific topics.

Instead of managerial performance reviews, software company Valve uses a multifaceted peer ranking system to get a better idea of each employees contribution to the company. Evaluations from multiple co-workers are aggregated in a way that forms a comprehensive picture of how the worker is performing, in a way that may not be evident by solely concentrating on traditional productivity output metrics.

Where should the line be drawn?

Part of the reason that reputation is becoming a big factor in our workplaces is that it’s now so easy to access all this new information about people, their accomplishments, and their impact on others. Data-points that would have been impossible to compile ten years ago are now cheap and abundant, either as a byproduct of existing networks, or due to technological advances that make giving feedback a frictionless experience.

But access to all this new data raises a lot of questions, and it’s clear that employers and employees are still struggling to find the proper balance.

Uber was recently on the receiving end of protests by some of their drivers. Among their complaints was the fact that drivers were being algorithmically dropped out of Uber’s labor pool due to low customer rankings. In a thought-provoking reaction, Om Malik refers to the potential for “data darwinism“, as some workers inevitably won’t be able to keep up with the ever-shifting emphasis around reputation, data and feedback.

Here in Washington State, a bill is in the works that will make it illegal for employers to request passwords for an employees personal social network sites. Other similar employee protections are already in place in many states. I personally can’t imagine ever asking an employee for that information in the first place, but the fact that bills are being passed prohibiting it is proof that the lines of what reputation information is acceptable in the workplace haven’t been clearly defined yet. I expect issues like this will receive much more attention in the future, and employers will have to ask themselves some hard questions about where their ethical boundaries are.

A reputation-based workplace could be really great, though

Despite the growing pains of social feedback loops in the workplace, there’s a lot of potential. Imagine a world where you never worry about your upcoming performance review, because you’ve had a constant stream of feedback from your peers letting you know exactly how you’re doing at your job. Imagine that feedback being multi-directional and transparent, so you are able to rank your manager on their performance and see how they rank compared to other managers at your company (or at other companies, for that matter).

What needs to happen to get us there?

Social feedback loops in the workplace are still in their early, prototypical stages. There are a lot of kinks to be worked out.

Both managers and workers need to become more data-literate (or, systems need to get more human-literate)

reputation-transistionAll this data is overwhelming, and most people don’t have a good sense for what decisions to make based on it. This will cause problems until decision makers become more skilled in integrating data into their processes. Used correctly, it can be an extremely powerful tool that empowers workers and scales really well across large organizations. Used incorrectly, it can be the source of a lot of really bad knee-jerk reactions. There will need to be experts to guide people through how to incorporate all these new streams into their thinking.

The flip side of this is that the systems aggregating and presenting this data will need to build in safeguards to encourage good data-based decision making. Social feedback loops can be terribly messy and lack context, so systems have a challenge of setting the proper expectations of how they should be used.

Raw data is generally really bad at giving context, and as such fails to paint a complete picture of the situation. Part of the solution may be even more data, presented in a coherent way that tells a more complete story.  Take Uber’s five star rating system, for example. How would those ratings changed based on some data about the passengers giving them? Should a 1 star rating mean less if it was clear it came from a person who consistently gave 1 star ratings? What if it was determined that a driver was mostly picking people up from an area that statistically gave lower rankings than usual? What if it was clear that a driver who received low ratings was new to the area? That may mean that instead of grounds for dismissal, it becomes an opportunity for some relatively inexpensive training that would remedy the situation.

Workers will need to start considering the role of reputation in their careers.

For sales people, journalists, and a handful of other professions, this is nothing new. But for everyone else, the idea that it’s not how good you are at your job, but rather how recognized you for being good at your job will be a bit of an adjustment.

What do you think?

Are social feedback loops part of the future of the workplace? And is that a good or bad thing? Do all these new data streams represent a better way for being recognized for doing a good job? Or is it just a bunch of irrelevant noise, a distraction from the work people are supposed to be doing in the first place?

Further Reading

Wired: Welcome to the new reputation economy

GigaOm: Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work

FastCoExist: The Future of Work: Quantified Employees, Pop-Up Workplaces, And More Telepresence

TED: Rachel Botsman: The currency of the new economy is trust

Follow RescueTime on Twitter or Facebook for more thoughts exploring what’s in store for our rapidly-evolving workplaces.