When Distributed Work Works

There’s definitely something interesting in the distributed work paradigm. I thought that this comment by a friend is particularly apropos.

“I think it works great for a group of executors. But it works less well when people who need to do something strategic, or coordinated across a sizable group, or tackling anything ambiguous.”

My response to them was:

You can’t easily suss stuff out together with emoji reactions, little bits of texts, and tons of interruptions. Strategy work, coordination work, and general “ambiguity work” requires full concentration that’s grounded in the kind of trust that’s more easily built through copresence.

This article on Vox is particularly apropos, with this main pullout:

“By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication.”

But I believe that we’ve always had the opportunity to be interrupted well before our addictive devices and apps. The main difference is when one’s entire worklife is centered around our devices — which is more normal for super senior executives, but it doesn’t work so well for middle-managers as a paradigm when you excise the F2F part.

For that reason, I find computing pioneer and giant in the field of computer languages MIT Institute Professor Barbara Liskov’s point on the secret to her success as being an important one:

“I don’t work that many hours a day. I always went home at night, and didn’t work in the evening. I always found that downtime to be really useful.”

Which within this thought includes the fact that there’s the F2F part and there’s the “me time” part. Ensuring there’s solid “me time” is step one. Step two involves the socialization/communication part — which depending upon what you do will determine whether all-distributed is going to succeed for you. Or not. If it’s about coordinating the work between a small band of incredible executors that know each other well and respect each other’s craft well, then distributed can be awesome. If it’s a differently configured team of non-executors sprinkled in with a few executors, and then you pump up the scale to lots and lots of people, then that will prove to be more difficult. Not impossible at all. Just more difficult. And that’s what makes it truly exciting for me! —JM