When you have offices, a lot of your communication is inevitably face to face, and I'd bet most of it is not documented anywhere. Jeff said "paint the walls red", and Anna's team did exactly that, but there's often no documentation of why this was decided, you can't easily go back and say "this discussion happened on April 2nd, 2018, these 3 people were involved, this is how it was decided", because there's often no calendar invite, and almost zero of that discussion will be documented. Now think of your remote team, and what the process for decision-making looks like. Let's say you have little practice and you haven't yet discovered the magical world of note taking during meetings. That means you have a few ways in which you decide things: email, IM (Slack, Skype, whatever) , project management systems, and video calls.

Let's do a quick run down of some situations and how we communicate.

Meetings:

  • Office: hallway, conference rooms, shoulder-tap on desk, video conference/phone from desk, video conference/phone from conference room, lunch, breakfast, coffee.
  • Remote: video conference software, phone

Who gets invited:

  • Office & Remote: everyone needed for the meeting, I hope?
  • Important note on extra remote work complexity:  important to be careful with missing someone due to timezones! (be careful about this in offices too, people take long weekends, please have kids to pick up, parents to take care of, and like, a life outside your workplace?)

How decisions are documented:

  • Office & Remote: meeting notes in some software or nothing

How decision-making is documented

  • Office & Remote: meeting notes, long form documents, slack or other IM tools, no documentation

What happens after a decision is made

  • Office & Remote: whatever was decided is acted upon (or not) and you let people know by any of your usual methods (or not). More documents and specific action plans may be created, or not.

How people get recognized for their achievements

  • Office: casual settings, or staff meetings.
  • Remote: same, but often it's going to be done in a message in a IM tool that will persist forever. Even if you do it in a meeting, it's likely someone is taking detailed notes.

With all this, what I see is that in remote companies the main communication blocker is in casual settings, not formal decision-making such as communication of goals and values. You no longer get to just tap Jeff in the shoulder(**) to discuss an important issue, or find them in the hallway(**) you now need to DM them or email them.  

In a remote company, you can't try to hide your lack of healthy team culture and values with a ping pong table and a few after parties. You have to do the work. You should still do the work in an office, mind you, but that's not the topic of this blog post.

You can gain alignment in culture just as well, and it's more likely that you will know at the very least who decided what because it's unlikely that something happened without at least a message in your internal messaging system (ie: slack), and if you follow some basic good practices like note taking and sharing back decisions in team channels, you will often have a detailed log of how something came to happen, plus more opportunities for people to give their thoughts in a structured or unstructured fashion.

Culture is not ping pong tables and beer. Culture is who gets promoted, who gets a raise, who gets hired. Culture is firing that person who is being a jerk to all your support teammates. Culture is how you treat your customers and whether or not people get promoted for being excellent at their jobs. Culture is the behaviors you reward and punish, and you can do those things just as well in a remote team.

I'm not saying remote work is perfect or easy (it's not!), all I'm saying is that we're giving remote work too much credit in its ability to create more dysfunctional teams than offices create.

We can create dysfunctional teams with unclear culture in both environments, but we have arguably more hard data about our culture when communication is optimized for asynchronous communication.


** please don't do this even in an office either, it's a great way to ensure you don't include everyone who is needed or that you are interrupting your coworkers while they are trying to think or that you... tap them in the shoulder (OHNOES).

PS: lots of people don't do well in offices. Lots of people don't do well remotely. For those groups, it's obviously detrimental to do one or the other. What's important to remember is that both groups exist and that some are in-between (need a balance, which can also be just fine).