Transitioning from Offices to Distributed Teams during a Crisis

One of the hidden costs of a company office is office closures. If an organization requires people to be physically together to work, then anytime those humans cannot be in the office disrupts day-to-day operations. The physical office has become an expensive single point of failure for the entire organization. Brief office closures can usually be recovered from quickly – by having staff work late afterwards to catchup before clients notice the disruption. Prolonged office closures or transit disruptions are expensive per-day, can quickly become hard to recover from and even become company-threatening. In scenarios like this, how to change the culture from “office as single-point-of-failure” to “office optional”?

Having humans able to work well together, even while physically apart, is an essential skill that has to be learned and practiced regularly. The trick for office-based organizations is how to have humans learn this new skill without causing disruption during this transition. Impatient readers can jump down to the “Transition Plan in 7 Steps” section – but to improve likelihood of success, it is important to be aware of some common hidden assumptions.

Hidden Assumptions

To start with, it’s important to acknowledge that if you require humans to be in an office to work together, then everyone in your company should know how they can continue to work normally when, not if, humans are not able to get to the office, or the office is suddenly unusable. Note: I said when – not if – because while you can try to reduce some risks, you will have some office closures at some point in the lifetime of the company building lease. While CoronaVirus is in the news these days, similar issues came up while I was in companies concerned by Avian Flu (H1N1), Ebola (first outbreak), MERS, nearby forest fires, electrical power outages, winter blizzards, large civic protests and even disruptive celebrations of large sports events. Most of these are beyond the control of the building owners. The only questions are: When will disruptions happen? How often? For how long each time?

I’ve worked in organizations that had impressive binders of printed emergency manuals, covering a range of different “disaster” scenarios. They each used slightly different language, but usually focused on three categories of problems:

  1.  “Smaller” disasters, like office fires and individual medical emergencies, occur more often and hence get more frequent attention. Office fires can be mitigated by installing smoke detectors, sprinklers and fire extinguishers and training employees on how to use them. All this planning helps keep people safe, even if false-alarms from burning food in the office microwave cause most of the disruptions. Planning and training like this usually get active support from your local fire department – after all, even if a first responder doesn’t *fully* put out an office fire, they can usually help slow down the fire and also reduce human injury by helping others out of harms way before professional fire fighters arrive on scene. Similarly, for individual medical emergencies like heart attacks, diabetic episodes, slips/falls, etc, providing CPR and first-aid training classes and toolkits of medical supplies can help trained nearby employees provide timely aid to a coworker in need before professional medics arrive on scene. More diligent organizations will run periodic “fire drills” and “fake medical alerts” to make sure that training stays fresh. (Sadly, at least two organizations I worked at would pre-announce the exact time of the next fire drills many days in advance, allowing some employees to simply time their arrival/departure from the office that day to avoid training they viewed as an unnecessary disruption to their work). These disruptions are usually resolved quickly, and company operations return to normal within a few hours. These rarely have long-term impact to company operations.
  2. “Mid-size” emergencies, like snow days or office closures because of neighboring offices doing pest spraying were usually handled by having everyone in that specific office take those days off. This includes events that block typical commuters getting to the office. Examples I’ve personally worked through include offices that were closed by transportation disruptions like Occupy Wall Street protests, US SuperBowl championship celebrations and a freeway collapse after a major accident blocking commuter traffic on a main artery bridge for almost a month. These events are frequently dismissed as an “unavoidable” cost of doing business, because employees are not already familiar with working from home. These costs are non-trivial, with snow day closures in New England area costing businesses $1.3Billion. Per day. 
  3. Larger emergencies, like earthquakes or hurricanes were also documented in these same binders. Some organizations did table-top exercises, verbally talking through what to do. However, I never saw them verify if these plans worked by actually testing them. After all, a multi-day closure of a large office campus is an expensive test to setup and run – and is also disruptive to thousands of employees across all departments. This makes it hard to get approval for large scale tests, especially when various leaders across the organization are focused on their own priorities, arguing that their own end-of-quarter deadlines are very real while these emergencies are statistically unlikely. Off the record, I’ve had organizational leaders tell me, semi-jokingly, that if something this serious hit the company office, they would not care because they would be focused on their own family home first and only focus on the company office much later. Thankfully, disasters like this don’t happen very often, but the lack of recurring training for these scenarios concerned me. Would these untested plans actually work when they were really needed? One agency included me in a review of their emergency plans for responding to a production system outage. The plan started with leadership gathering all essential individuals in a physical meeting room in the office. Dramatically called a “war room”, this meeting room would allow all involved to focus on fixing the production problem and just as importantly, avoid being distracted by anything else until they left the war room. Hidden assumptions were that the emergency happened during office hours and that everyone was able to access the building. When I asked about the scenario of the physical building being unavailable, or people being unable to reach the office, the first response was an incredulous “of course the office will be here”. I turned to look out the window at the parking lot outside, where parked cars were being coated with ash from the nearby uncontrolled forest fires, and the few people walking outside all wore face masks. As others started to also look out the window, there were several seconds of awkward silence before someone offered that maybe they could open a webex video connection for people to dial into. Discussions then moved on to how to identify and notify the appropriate people, instead of walking around the corridors looking for people who might “look helpful”. The reality was that this “office closure” scenario had never been considered in the planning.

Diseases are a special case that can fit into any of the small/medium/large scenarios, depending on the specific disease. 

Moving office workers from private individual offices to an open-plan space increased sick leave absence by 62%. Factors here include central recycled air systems in open plan offices and closer proximity of humans per square foot to save on real estate costs. These stats can be made even worse by company vacation / sick day policies which encourage sick humans to come to work in the office instead of taking a sick day, causing other healthy humans at the office to become sick. All these factors are annoying when dealing with cold or flu season – and scary when dealing with Avian flu (H1N1), Ebola, MERS and now CoronaVirus (COVAD-19).

The risk of an infected employee returning from a work trip, and unknowingly carrying one of these lethal infections into an office is a real operational concern to everyone in the company as well as the wider community of family and neighbors of all those employees. One company I worked in during the (first) Ebola outbreak and the Avian Flu crisis imposed an emergency requirement for C-level preauthorization before any employee was allowed to travel anywhere near any of these affected regions, even for urgent business or family needs. All non-urgent work travel was simply cancelled, because of fears of contact on airplanes or airport transfer areas. A multi-week work-from-home quarantine period was mandated for anyone returning from these regions before they were allowed to enter any office buildings.

Requiring humans to self-quarantine at home after travel is a reasonable default response to help protect others in the office. However, that human’s ability to work effectively from home assumes they have already verified access to all the systems they need and are familiar using them from home. For humans used to working in an office, it can be hard to start learning how to work well from home – when already suddenly trapped at home. Simple things like not having valid VPN passwords or hitting security imposed geo-ip blocks on network access to critical systems can totally derail your ability to suddenly start working from home. Fixing barriers like this when already stuck at home, and when other coworkers who can help are *also* stuck at home, is a problem.

With that background/context, here are some immediate steps you can take to help keep your office-based organization running smoothly when an office closure is suddenly required.  

Transition Plan in 7 Steps

  1. Keep in mind that changing an existing all-in-one-location team into a distributed team is tricky. After all, human culture change is tricky. Avoid making big announcements that encourage unreasonable expectations, raise concerns about “yet another management fad” and quickly doom your initiative with cynicism. In times of crisis, avoid adding a sense of panic by surprising people with major unplanned changes. Instead, quietly start improving how work is organized, in ways that are helpful to everyone in your current office culture and also allow humans to start working as part of a distributed team.
  2. If you already have any employees who already work from home on a periodic basis, meet them all on a video call. Do this today after you finish reading this post. They will have real-world, concrete advice, immediately specific to your organization. Ask them to describe specific problems they know impede them from working well from their homes, listen carefully, take notes and probe for suggestions if none are obviously forthcoming. Fixing their list of known issues should now be at the top of your todo list. Ask them to keep you posted if other issues arise. Also ask if they would be willing, as role models, to help coach and mentor others transitioning from office-only work to work-from-home work. If you don’t already have anyone working from home, then you need to find a handful of early volunteers willing to try a one-day experiment, starting today. Include at least one C-level executive, who will be the high-level champion to quickly unblock any roadblocks or purchase approvals needed. 
  3. Ask this group of volunteers to work from home the very next day for one day only. Importantly, they should do this using only what equipment they routinely carry home with them in their typical bag when leaving the office. Note: I have found it important to only do this “work from home” experimental day on a Tues/Wed/Thurs. Avoid doing this experiment on a Mon/Fri, as it is too easy for others to cynically view the experiment as an invitation for a long weekend instead of a normal working day.
  4. For this one day experiment, it is important that this group do the work they had normally scheduled to do in the office, but instead do that same work from their home. This is not about doing solo headsdown work at home. This is about doing their normal “office work” collaborating with coworkers, while each human is in a different non-office location. Specifically, I am not talking about everyone being at home, each doing solo headsdown work. I’m specifically talking about doing your normal meetings, co-editing documents with coworkers in other locations, negotiating planning meetings, taking calls with clients… everything you would do in a normal day at your office location – but from home instead. Start the “work from home” experimental day with a quick group video call to make sure everyone is still aware of the experiment. At the end of the day, meet for another quick group video call to discuss what problems were discovered during the day, and decide what can be fixed quickly before the next “work from home” day experiment. Worst case, if things go horribly wrong, some will struggle through their day, and have a busy catchup day after, but you have now learned valuable information on what practical things to fix quickly before possible office closures. 
  5. Start by making sure that you and your immediate team are crisply organized, using audio-video calls for all meetings, with everyone on their own head-and-shoulders camera, using shared meeting agendas, shared meeting note-taking, and so on – each of the chapters in the “How” section of my book. These baby steps are low risk, low cost, and they improve day-to-day work life for everyone, so good to do anyway. Just as importantly, each improvement helps build trust that future changes will also improve work life for everyone in or out of the office. As these initial improvements become the new normal for the team culture, start introducing other higher level improvements from the rest of my book. Keep relentless focus on quiet, gradual improvements. Keep taking baby steps. They might not seem to be helping at first, but I have achieved everything I’ve described in my book across decades of experience working in several different organizations through persistent, stubborn, relentless baby steps.
  6. Knowing how to use the tools is important. Just as important is knowing how to lead and manage teams while physically apart. For companies with offices, employees asking to work from home are often viewed as asking for an unnecessary perk that somehow reduces operational efficiency. Supervisors who typically manage by walking around the corridors (the “butts in seats” approach) don’t know how to supervise humans not in the office. A frequent concern is “how will I know people are doing work”, to which I usually ask “how do you currently know people in the office are doing work?” This is usually a good time to remind people that in the United States, every year we celebrate a day where people come to the office to shop online – Cyber Monday is so important, it shifts the stock market. It’s worth noting that this mindset also ignores a larger continuity of business problem. If you usually work from an office, managing by walking around, then the physical office has become essential to the manager’s daily operational work. Changing how you manage can be hard. Being able to lead and manage people equally well, in the office and/or at home, is exactly why I wrote this tactical hands-on management book. In addition, leading distributed teams during a crisis assumes you do all this perfectly *and* also give frequent, timely, truthful updates on what is happening. Anything less than this will enable rumors, erode trust in leadership and cause even more operational disruption. 
  7. As these volunteers become routinely successful, start expanding from one-day-a-week to two-non-adjacent-days-a-week, and if there are no problems, keep gradually increasing the cadence. As this group of initial volunteers become more accustomed to their new work arrangements, gradually start adding other volunteers who will be mentored by the initial group of volunteers. Keep doing regular debriefs, learning/adjusting the tooling and systems as new paper-cut issues are discovered and then fixed. Having the entire organization suddenly switch to working from home risks discovering some all remote-access system that had not been load tested, disrupting everyone at the same time. This process of scaling up group size and cadence helps quickly discover any load bottlenecks early and with disruption to the fewest possible humans.

When your physical office is no longer an organizational single point of failure, it reduces risk. This helps everyone at the company be more confident about their work and job security during this crisis. Even if there is organizational risk because of wider market disruption, at least the part each human has control over – doing their own work – is something they can still do to the best of their ability. This is obviously important for the organization to survive the current crisis with minimal disruption. This is also important for the humans, helping reduce feelings of helplessness and fostering a new-found confidence that the team can work through future unknown crises as well. Work is an important factor in people’s lives, so stability at work allows people to focus their concerns on caring for themselves and the humans around them.

Quietly, quickly and with very little fuss, the mindset of the organization will shift from “the office is a single point of organizational failure” to “the office is optional”. This is success. After the dust settles on this crisis, these newly learned skills will continue to be important for other future crises. Just as importantly, these office-optional organizations can keep the immediate benefits of hiring faster, hiring better, hiring more diversely and improving retention, while also reducing the recurring overhead of office costs as their existing office leases expire. The secret ingredient in this transition was consistent, thoughtful, humane, and crisply organized leadership.

(Portions of this are from my book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart”.)

Distributed Team vs Remote Work, Virtual Work, Telework and Work From Home

The terms “distributed teams”, “virtual teams”, “virtual employee”, “remote work”, “remote employee”, “work from home”, “work from anywhere” and “telework” are often used interchangeably, even though they mean very different things. Used incorrectly, these terms can (mis)communicate important human, social context in ways that are damaging and unintended. Hopefully, this summary helps people be more intentional and crisp when describing work arrangements:

  • Distributed Team: This clearly and correctly describes that all humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.
  • Remote worker / Remote employee: This term correctly denotes that one human is physically separate from other coworkers. However, I usually hear this term used from the perspective of the speaker who believe they are not remote – only the other person is remote. (This is physically impossibility and tells me a lot about the mindset of the human speaking. I’ve found this usage happens most often when one human is sitting in an office with a company logo on the door, describing another human coworker who is not in the same office.) This usually implies that the person in the office considers themself to be a first-class citizen in the center-of-their-universe, while they consider the “remote” person to be somehow a less-important, second class citizen physically located somewhere else. This mindset usually assumes that the “remote” human carries all the responsibility for communicating with the rest of the team – a mindset that is incorrect and operationally harmful to the team. To be explicit, if any member of the team is not able to reach out and tap the shoulder of each and every other human on the team, then everyone is remote from someone – and all share equal responsibility to make sure communications are clear across the entire team. Example usage: “I work remotely”, “We have a remote person on our team”.
  • Virtual employee / Virtual team: A variation of the “remote” term above, this implies that the “virtual” human is somehow not as valued as a real human and is somehow more disposable. No matter how politely someone says this, it feels to me like virtual humans are treated as second class employees in terms of career progression, new projects and even just basic human empathy – while humans “in the office” are somehow “real (non-virtual) employees” who should be cared for more intentionally because they are real humans. Like the term “remote”, this has the same first-class / second-class flaw where the speaker thinks of themself as a real, first-class human, while the other human is somehow a virtual, second-class human. Examples include: “I am a virtual worker”, “We have a virtual employee on our team”.
  • Work From Home: This term made sense when describing someone working from a fixed location outside of a physical office – back in the time when people working outside of the office used a desktop computer and a physical landline telephone connection. These technical constraints limited them to working from a predictable fixed location – typically their residence. Now that portable laptops, smartphones, high-speed internet and wifi are the norm, this term feels increasingly obsolete. Of course, some people do actually work online from their actual home. Confusingly, I’ve heard the phrase “Working from Home” used to describe someone working from a coworking space or a hotel conference venue – or when describing co-workers who travel the majority of the time. I’ve also heard the terms “road warrior” and “on the road” used to describe coworkers flying in planes or working from airport lounges. The terms “Work From Anywhere”, “Digital Nomad” and “Gray Nomad” are gaining popularity, and at least feel more accurate when describing someone’s non-permanent physical work location. Focusing on describing the physical location of coworkers, instead of how work is coordinated across the team, concerns me. Describing the physical location incorrectly bothers me, so I avoid the term “work from home” unless it is somehow relevant that the human is literally working in their place of residence. Example usage: “I can work from home sometimes”, “Some people on our team can work from home”, “There’s too many interrupts in the office, so I work from home when I need to do heads-down work”.
  • Teleworker / Telecommuter: This term originated in the 1970s, when people working outside the office had to use a telephone landline to “phone in” their work. Computer baud rate connections were so slow and technology so expensive that video calls and transferring large files were usually impractical. Communications between co-workers were limited to audio-only phone calls / conference calls and emails with small attachments. Because of the physical size of computers and the need for a physical landline telephone, this was usually only done from a fixed home location with plenty of advance time needed to setup and configure everything. The declining use of landline telephones and desktop computers make this term increasingly obsolete. Like “work from home”, the lack of coordinating work with others makes me feel this term applies to humans who temporarily use a different location to do solo heads-down work without interruption and will then return to their usual desk in the office when they need to coordinate their work with co-workers. Example usage: “Our company has a telework policy for decades, but almost no-one uses it.”

That summarizes the most common terms I’ve heard recently, but if you know of other terms that I should add here, let me know and I’ll update this post. Hopefully, this explains why I think it is important to intentionally use the term “distributed team” and avoid other confusingly incorrect terms like “virtual worker”, “remote worker”, “work from home” and “teleworker”.

John.

Distributed Teams: a new approach to Economic Development

Here’s an interview I did at NomadCity in Gran Canaria, Spain describing how Vermont’s “Remote Worker” Law is such a different (and successful!) approach to economic development. Touches on multiple aspects, including the diversity, environmental and community benefits of this program.

Physical Proximity vs Employment Status

Your physical proximity to coworkers is orthogonal to your employment status.

I’m frequently surprised when people discussing “remote work” or “working from home” or “distributed teams” somehow start talking about gig-work, contract work or freelance work. Without realizing it, they have shifted from talking about the proximity of coworkers to the very different topic of contractual terms of employment. The hidden assumption is that if you are “working remotely”, “working from home” or part of a distributed team, you must not be a full-time employee.

Usually, but not always, I’ve seen this happen in conference discussions about “Future of Work” or changes to the employment economy. Occasionally, I have had founders and/or c-level executives tell me they don’t want to hire “remote workers”, because they prefer to hire “permanent” employees not short term contractors or gig workers. Each time, I’d be confused hearing these smart, experienced, people talk about “gig work” and “remote work” interchangeably!?! The first few times this happened, I hesitated to say anything, thinking that I had somehow misunderstood some important subtle detail in the complex discussion, so would ask them later to explain what I had missed. Only to discover they already knew the terms were very different and they themselves had not realized they were mixing these very different topics. Confusing these topics frequently misdirects the rest of the discussion down a very different path. Left uncorrected, this mixup also added to the confusion of others listening, trying to learn. Worst case, organizations make bad business decisions because of this miscommunication.

Now, whenever I hear this mixup happening, I’m faster to interject. Correcting the mixup (politely) when it first happens helps everyone in the discussion stay focused on the right topic and make better decisions. I found myself doing this again recently, causing me to write this post.

Over the decades of my career so far, I’ve worked in many large company offices, with a fancy logo on the door, or outside the building. Inside these buildings, there was usually an arrangement of cube farm or open plan desks surrounded by private offices and meeting rooms. In every single one of those buildings, some of the people sitting at desks were full-time employees. Some were part-time employees. Some were full-time contractors – not employees. Some were part-time contractors – again, not employees. Occasionally, there were even humans who were not employed by the company, but instead were hired by an intermediary sub-contracting company, either as employees or contractors. Dress code, seating arrangements, projects being worked on, even who reported where in positions in org. charts, were indistinguishable between employees and contractors. A collection of humans with a mix of employment status, all sitting shoulder to shoulder. Usually, the only way to tell someone’s employment status was to look for different colors or logos on their ID badge.

I’ve also worked in organizations where the same mix of full-time employees, part-time employees, full-time contractors and part-time contractors were physically distributed. Instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder, they all sat at desks in different locations.

The physical distance between you and your coworkers does not determine your employment status.

Summarizing another way, all of the following are true:

Of course, this is not new. It has been normal in business for so long that I think many people now simply take it for granted. However, it is important to point out because this miscommunication causes misunderstandings and complications for organizations that are transitioning from all-in-one-location to distributed team.

One possible origin for this confusion is that over the last 40 years or so, society has gone through seismic changes, complicating discussions for everyone. The idea of a job for life is no more. Per-project jobs, freelance work, and gig work are prevalent in the free-agent economy. Whether this is good or bad is a separate discussion; the point is that the social contract has fundamentally changed.

Across all industries in the US, this trend continues to accelerate. Baby boomers now average a new job every 2.5 years. The computer software industry has even faster turnover, with people averaging one and a half to two years per job. In some hyper-competitive locations like Silicon Valley, the turnover is even faster, with average tenure at major tech companies ranging from 1.2 to 2.0 years! Most of the software engineers I know already work on a per-project basis, even though they are administratively called full-time employees. They are hired to work on a particular project—and after one or two release cycles, they’ll leave to work on a new project at a new company before moving on yet again. These 18- to 24-month transitions lined up with the waterfall delivery cadence that was used by a lot of software companies. Soon after each major release shipped, there would be a predictable flood of “goodbye” emails, internal promotions, and new-hire announcements as people celebrated their successful project release and left while others were promoted internally or hired to fill the gaps before the next project started. As more software companies transition to an agile methodology, releasing smaller deliverables more frequently, I suspect that the average tenure will shrink further. This will be interesting to watch.

In many ways, this transition feels similar to the movie industry’s transition from the all-in-our-studio model of the 1920s to today’s model of hiring independent specialists for each part of each different movie. How do you categorize a special-effects engineer or stunt driver working on a movie for a few months? Or a software engineer who switches jobs every 18 to 24 months? Or a four year tour of duty in the military? Or engineers hired for a few months because they specialize in complex skills that are only needed for a short project? Or an Uber driver? Or a sound technician at a concert venue? The line between per-project employee, contractor, freelancer, free agent, and gig worker feels very blurry.

All interesting stuff to talk about – and unrelated to the physical proximity to other humans working on the team.

Your legal employment status is one topic. Your physical proximity to other humans you work with is a different topic.

Language helps humans communicate complex topics. Rapid shifts in business trends are changing how we think and talk about work, and the language we use is still catching up. Errors in use of language confuse the situation, cause invalid assumptions to spread, needless conflict from miscommunications and confusion for others listening for advice from the experts. Speaking clearly and accurately helps everyone by reducing confusion. So, when I hear people incorrectly jump to the assumption that someone “working remote” must be not-an-employee-for-life, I think it’s important to help them avoid confusing the two topics.

Hopefully, this blog post helps clear up some confusion already out there, and helps others feel comfortable speaking up when they hear these very different terms being mixed-up. In turn, I hope reducing this confusion helps reduce the barriers to having more people start working in physically distributed teams!

Economic development on The Canary Islands with “Distributed Teams”

Last month (November2019), I spoke at Nomad City about “distributed teams” as a new approach to economic development.

This was the fourth Nomad City conference hosted in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. There were sessions on building careers while traveling, personal brand building, the challenges/advantages of building a remote business and other topics important to freelancers, “remote” workers and companies willing to tap into remote work. This year also featured a panel session, as well as a longer more in-depth think tank session, on economic development. I was invited to speak at both.

Why a conference about remote work – in the Canary Islands? For background, the Canary Islands are Spanish islands in the Atlantic, physically off the coast of Morocco. In Europe, these islands are most known for tourism – a “recent” focus of the local government. They started encouraging tourism in the 1970s, which required them to spend a lot of time and effort shifting the public perception of beaches from “sunny beaches with families of children making sandcastles” to “adults playing in the surf, sun and all night parties”. It has been wildly successful for decades and has encouraged other nearby sun/beach locations to do the same. At this point, approx ~14 million tourists visit the Canary Islands each year. For comparison, the total population of the Canary Islands is 2 million. At this point, direct tourism and tourism related revenue accounts for 35% of the GDP of the Canary Islands (or 55% of GDP depending on how you count tourism-related construction) and accounts for over 40% of the total employment. The rest of the economy depends on agriculture (~20%) and a diversity of industries. I was personally surprised to find that because of the natural deep ocean water so close to land creating sheltered ports, there is a long history of repair/maintenance of deep ocean going ships – from Columbus and Magellan through to modern fleets of oil exploration ships.

The local economy has been quietly and consistently growing pretty well for a while now, but there are concerns. Having an economy dependent on a single revenue stream is always a concern. After all, a diversified portfolio is more stable than having all eggs in one basket. In this case, their economy’s reliance on tourism has some additional concerns:

  1. Tourism is seasonal, so it is hard to predict accurately. This means that most of the economy literally depends on predicting the weather on the islands, as well as where tourists usually come from. This can cause surprise fluctuations to flights, hotel bookings and local major events at short notice.
  2. Climate change brings concerns about rising waters to these islands, like all other coastal locations around the globe. It also brings risk to their tourism industry. Many tourists come to the Canaries to escape the cold/dark of winter in northern Europe. As those winters become less severe because of climate change, would people decide to stay home or vacation somewhere nearby instead? This is further complicated by the recent closure of a major budget airline and tour operator in Europe, making travel to these islands more expensive. An additional factor is a rising “flight shaming” movement to counter the impact of airplane flights on the environment. The combination of all these raises the question: What happens if these tourists start choosing to stay home or vacation somewhere closer to home instead?
  3. Approximately 50% of citizens under the age of 25 are unemployed. Another 30% are underemployed, meaning they are overqualified for the work they hired for (while here, I heard in-person anecdotes of people with PhDs working as bartenders pouring drinks for tourists!).

To address these issues, local government officials and industry leaders have been looking for ways to diversify the income economy of these islands for a while now. Some impressive steps so far include:

  1. High speed internet: Residential internet connections of 600 Mbs are guaranteed and affordable. For specific business districts, internet connections of 1GBs are considered normal. These numbers were confirmed by my (non-scientific) sampling of internet speeds in various locations while I was there.
  2. Tax incentives: These islands are part of Spain and within the European Union (EU). This means that any company based here can operate across the entire EU. These islands are part of a special EU tax incentive zone to encourage companies to be created and grown here. I am not a tax accountant, and there are small-print-conditions to consider, but companies in the Canaries meeting those criteria have corporate tax rates significantly lower than others in the EU. Also, humans living here pay a lower consumer sales tax of 6.5% compared to an average 21% in the rest of the EU. 
  3. Bike rentals: There are well organized, affordable, bike shares widely available across Las Palmas and a growing network of dedicated bike-only lanes. This makes getting around easier then figuring out car ownership and parking – and cheaper than taxis.
  4. Conservation policies: Because of the geographic terrain, there are protected deep ocean scuba diving areas just off the downtown beaches, walking distances from offices. And preventing light/radio pollution in the high mountain tops has allowed the creation of two space observatories as well as a deep space communication center for the European Space Agency. These unique assets only exist today because of previous forethought creating policies to protect these unique locations.

Encouraging non-tourism companies to relocate to these rugged, beautiful islands would help diversify the local economy. The local civic leaders are well aware of the importance of this, so no surprise that it is something they’ve been trying for a while now, with mixed success.

However, if there was a way for humans on the islands to have meaningful work with employers that are not on these islands, that would be a game-changer. My “incentives for humans not corporations” mantra was eagerly agreed with – and some were even already working towards this. There are several co-working spaces on the islands – each with their own slightly different focus. Some cater to tourists or surfers looking for an impromptu place for some professional video calls/meetings before returning to fun in the sunshine. Some cater to digital nomads who will be daily users for a few weeks/months, until they leave to explore somewhere else. (Many of these also include “coliving” – with small apartments or shared accommodations.) Some cater to locals or expats who are now residents of the Canary Islands, usually running their own companies – and need a reliable office-as-a-service to work from outside of their home. Ignacio “Nacho” Rodriguez created a coworking space in 2014 which has been a big success. His mantra of “We work from places we love” is obviously popular.

All this explains why Ignacio wanted me to talk about this new approach to economic development at the Nomad City conference and also at some workshops before/after. Attendees were a mix of digital nomads, company founders, academics and civic/government leaders. This mix of different perspectives made for some very interesting discussions, on and off stage. These discussions have continued gathering momentum even after the official conference ended. It’ll be exciting to see what we end up creating and if more people can start working from places they love!

John.

A “Distributed Teams” workshop, distributed across eastern Australia

Earlier this year, while in Sydney, I gave a presentation on distributed teams at Fishburners in Sydney Startup Hub. As I blogged about before, the Sydney Startup Hub is huge – a government supported initiative bringing together multiple co-working spaces under one roof to create a critical mass of entrepreneurs and literally revitalize the entire neighborhood. The event was packed. The attendance was even more impressive when you keep in mind that this was a holiday week in Australia, so all those attending interrupted their vacations to come to a work event! The event was so successful that afterwards, I was asked if I would do another session.

The twist was that this next session would be with co-working members who were not able to make the journey to Sydney in person.

It turns out that many of those attending my session traveled hours to be there. Because Australia is so large, Fishburners has a special “virtual membership” for people who are not in Sydney, yet need the features of a great co-working community, professional support, business networking and the occasional professional desk space with wifi when visiting Sydney for meetings. Catherine “Cat” Kitney is Head of Virtual at Fishburners and felt this session would be particularly helpful to those “virtual” members – if it could be done.

Holding a session on how to work well while physically distributed to a group of people who are themselves already physically distributed is tricky. The idea of explaining video etiquette to strangers who might not have working video or stable internet was concerning. Also, my workshops tend to have quite a lot of interactive Q+A as topics come up. I enjoy the questions and lively real world anecdotes but was worried that this back-and-forth might be too unstructured for a large, very distributed video call where strangers without shared cultural norms might talk over each other and keep tripping over internet and microphone glitches. Overall, it felt like a bootstrap problem and I was concerned by the very real risk these mechanical risks could turn the session into a bad waste of everyone’s time.

Fortunately, this group of people had already been trying to wrestle with the various mechanical barriers for a while now, and Cat was willing to support me as “remote moderator” during the session, so we agreed to try this experiment – a large workshop on a video call about distributed teams, with distributed strangers I’d never met before.

Those attending were scattered along the eastern coast of Australia. The bigger towns represented were Brisbane, Coffs Harbor, Wollongong, Sydney and Byron Bay, with some people joining from countryside between those towns. I was the only person in a different timezone – now back home in San Francisco.

If you’ve never been to Australia, its easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the place. Driving from Brisbane to Wollongong would take ~12hours – not including any stops for breaks. For context, driving from Ashland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California is shorter. Also shorter is Boston, Massachusetts to Raleigh, NorthCarolina. And Berlin to Paris. Australia is big. Very big.

The session was a great success.

There was lots of Q+A throughout, and Cat did a great job moderating to make sure all questions were answered and the flow of discussions felt naturally inclusive. Most people who joined were the only attendee at their physical location, with only a few people who gathered physically in one meeting room together. Everyone’s internet connections was solid and high speed throughout. We never hit any of the camera/microphone problems I had been worried about. It all just worked, flawlessly. There were even impromptu side discussions between different participants across the different locations. Everyone was very eager and motivated to learn how to work better together while physically apart. After all, this was the reality of their daily lives!

Several discussions have continued since then, with some interesting further developments being worked on. More on those later. For now, I just wanted to note that the idea, and the entire event, was a great success.

Thank you, Cat for suggesting the idea and also to Fishburners for putting so much practical attention into their “virtual membership” as a way to help encourage entrepreneurs across all of Australia. Very very cool to see and I admire them for it.

“Distributed Teams”​ book now in SFO bookstores

My book “Distributed Teams” is now available at all Compass Books stores in San Francisco airport!

This photo still gives me goosebumps.

“Distributed Teams” book on display in Compass Bookstores, San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Even more exciting – the first in-store sale was just hours after the books were first put on display on the shelves that morning!?!?

Many thanks to Chris, Andrew and the rest of the staff at Compass Books for being willing to help me through the process as well as for being willing to carry this first-time author on their precious shelf space! If you are passing through SFO, and don’t already have a copy of my book, please do consider buying it here. You’ll be supporting good independent bookstores and the short actionable chapters will be good reading for your flight.

Book sales at 6 months

My “Distributed Teams” book was published six months ago, so this felt like a good time to review some metrics.

While writing my book, I had multiple people telling me that print books were dead, Amazon/kindle was the only way to go. Some literally lived on the road, with no home, so their opinion was understandable. After all, books can be heavy to carry. Maybe it was true for the specific subject matter of their books? Maybe they only used kindle, and thought others should do the same? My own reading style was different. I have a few books on my tablet, but vast majority of my books are physical books. Was I the only luddite who still skimmed over packed, curated bookshelves at home, re-reading specific helpful passages when the situation arose?

Despite all the kindle-only suggestions, I decided to create my book in multiple formats: Physical paperback, Amazon/kindle and Apple/epub. This decision delayed the release of the book, as it added significant complexity to the book creation process. But it felt like the right decision, so I did it.

Instead of writing words in the book, I found myself working on the mechanics of the book publishing process dealing with a flurry of time-consuming questions like: paperback-vs-hardback? book height and width, font size, margin size – all of which in turn change the total number of pages? How do paragraphs wrap on page boundaries? Where to put footnotes and page numbers? etc, etc, etc. I also decided that I was going to ship the book in all these formats at the same time, not one-after-another. Doing sim-ship like this is obviously harder to do, but my experience in shipping software taught me that the organizational rigor this requires has two very important side effects. 1) This avoided any perception of one format being more important or better than another. 2) This makes it easier later to track, coordinate and ship any fixes/edits to the book over the lifespan of the book. Something I’ve been thankful for with each small book update I’ve shipped since August 2018.

Six months after launch, here’s what I discovered: 72% people bought physical paperback while 28% bought kindle.

Book sales: Aug2018 – Feb2019

It is worth noting for the record that these numbers does not include physical copies of the book handed out in workshops I run on distributed team or as copies to people I’ve worked with. If I’d included those numbers too, it would have skewed the sales numbers even more towards paperback. I find it oddly great to watching people who don’t know me casually flipping open the book, politely skim a little and then stopping to lean in and start intently reading. Just like I enjoy watching people highlight passages and inserting post-it notes during workshops. My opinion, without evidence, is that this is less likely to happen with electronic versions.

I am now convinced that, as a writer, the right answer is to make your content available in whatever format(s) your readers use.

John

ps: While creating my book, I also created an epub version. However, I stopped part-way through the legal paperwork with apple, and then in the middle of everything else, I simply forgot to revisit. Earlier this week, a reader reminded me of this, so I’m now working on it again. The next six month report should include numbers for epub sales also. I’ve also had a few requests for audio-books, which I know nothing about but am starting to research.

Work From Home – in Vermont!

Starting 01January, 2019, an important new law came into force.

The State of Vermont will pay you to move to Vermont. Of course, there is a catch. You need to “work from home” (or from a co-working space) for an employer who is not based in Vermont. And the money has to help cover your costs of relocating to Vermont and/or of working “remote”. Put another way, Vermont wants to encourage people who “work from home” to move to Vermont.

You can read the entire law here. As a non-lawyer, I found it surprisingly short and easy to read. There is also additional coverage in The New York Times, National Public Radio, RouteFifty, SevenDaysVT – including interviews with some of the people who used this incentive to help move to Vermont.

Of course, if you prefer to work in an office, there are also employers in Vermont who are looking to hire. Everything from large corporations to scrappy startups, across a range of industries. But the incentives in this law are specifically focused on people who “work from home” (or a co-working space) as part of a distributed team, working for an employer that is physically located outside of Vermont.

This is the first US state law I know of providing job incentives to humans – not companies – and is a very exciting change in the social contract.

(Disclaimer: I do not work for the State of Vermont, but I did provide testimony, advice and helped review early drafts of this bill as it worked through the various committee meetings and became law over the last year or so. My work was unpaid but I did this because I am passionate about distributed teams and their impact in society… which readers of my blog and my book already know!)

If you could live anywhere and still have a meaningful job/career, where would you choose to live? There are many factors in deciding where to live. Everyone has different interests in their life. People who are enthusiastic surfers are unlikely to consider moving to Vermont. However, the skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and hiking in Vermont are world-class. So too is the leaf-peeping. Housing is plentiful and great value. Crime is low. Schools are good and it has the highest number of universities per capita in the US. Overall, quality of life is good. Really good. Of the 50 states nationwide ranked by wallethub.com, Vermont ranked 4th best for raising a family and 5th best for quality of public schools. Oh, and if you do need an occasional trip to a big city office (say for client meetings or group gatherings or conferences), you are within 3-5 hours drive/bus/train of Boston, Connecticut, Manhattan(NYC) and Montreal. Too far for a daily commute, but otherwise very reasonable.

Before you decide to relocate to Vermont, I recommend you first visit and explore. Not just as a tourist, but as someone thinking of moving there – as a potential new resident who cares about the reality of day-to-day life. To help with relocating decisions, Vermont has online sites which give details about the state. Vermont is also running free “Stay-to-Stay” events, where you visit Vermont for a long weekend to meet with locals who will help answer any/all of your relocation questions. They’ll help make sure you find your way around, introduce you to other local professionals and realtors, invite you to business networking events, arrange school/college tours, etc. The idea is to help answer any questions about housing, schools, healthcare and the other details of life that people care about when relocating.

Once you know you want to move to Vermont, click here to read the rules and to apply. It is all intentionally quite straightforward and if you have any remaining questions, you can contact the organizers at remoteworker@vermont.gov.

When running my own “distributed teams” manager bootcamps, I describe how vacant job postings are filled faster, simply by adding the words “remote welcome” in the job description. I’m excited to see Vermont saying “remote welcome” at a whole new level.

It will be exciting to watch how this turns out. Last but not least: if you are reading this and do decide to relocate to Vermont, I’d love to hear from you.

ps: Another interesting part of the new law is about co-working spaces and maker spaces. Vermont already has a bunch – see a partial list here – but this new bill provides funding to encourage creating even more maker spaces and co-working spaces with high speed internet. More on this in another post.

pps: In July2019, an amendment (H.533 / S.80) was passed which made two changes. Firstly, people who were moving to Vermont and would be doing “remote work” for a company based elsewhere in Vermont would now be eligible. The original law required the employee *and* the employer to both be outside of Vermont. Secondly, existing grant money earmarked for later years could be spent now to help keep up with the backlog of pending grant requests. This was to help address the high demand since the start of the program and avoid the confusion of turning people away now, even when there was still grant money available for next calendar years.

“Distributed Teams as a Competitive Advantage” in Sydney!

On Thursday, 10jan2019, I’ll be leading a presentation and Q+A about distributed teams at Fishburners / SydneyStartupHub in Sydney, Australia. Doors open at 6pm, with formal event starting at 6.30pm and ending ~8.30pm. Click here to reserve your spot. (All proceeds from tickets go to charity.)

“Distributed Teams” in the Blue Mountains, Sydney, Australia

This presentation will build on a focus of my “Distributed Teams” book – the competitive advantages and wider economic impact of this trend to distributed teams (or “remote work” or “virtual teams” or…). Over the last ~20 years, we’ve moved from jokes about “working at home in bunny slippers” to viewing distributed teams as a competitive advantage. How did this happen? What are the cold, hard, business advantages to this trend that can help you and your organisation be more competitive and more successful? How can this trend help your organisation hire better, hire faster and improve retention? Can your organisation save money while also addressing important social, diversity, urban planning and environmental issues? How can your team or organisation work well together even when physically apart? Can you have a meaningful, well-paid career without a daily commute to a physical office?

This is usually a very interactive topic, so we’ve scheduled extra time for Q+A discussions as well as some time for networking before/after.

It is also worth noting that this will be the first presentation of 2019 in the large, newly renovated, event space at Fishburners, in SydneyStartupHub. I heard a lot about this venue earlier this year while working in Singularity University with Molly Pyle and Brian Lim, so when I arrived on holidays in Sydney and Melbourne, I had to check it out for myself.

Yes, SydneyStartupHub is a co-working space. But its like none I’ve ever seen before. This one location has ~183,000 sqft / 17,000sqm of office space across 11 floors. There’s a fantastic 110 seat theatre. There’s a large public speaking event space that can hold a few hundred people. Serious professional-grade kitchens, coffee machines and social spaces. Rock-solid internet connection. Many many many meeting rooms. Phone-booths for video-calls. Glass-walled offices and open-plan co-working desks arranged for different size startups. After a while, I just stopped counting. All renovated and stylish – yet mixed with the carefully preserved original heritage details. If you’ve never visited, you need to see it yourself to grasp the scale and great attention to detail throughout. Its mind-boggling! Oh, and the location in downtown Sydney means that it is easy to get to/from here on many different forms of public transport.

If you are now (or will be) part of a distributed team, please stop by – I hope this event will help your organization be more effective and I’d love to hear what did/didnt work for you. If you’ve never seen Fishburners or SydneyStartupHub, please use this event as an excuse to stop by and check it out. It is short notice, but I hope you can make it. 

(Note: This would not have happened without a lot of help from: Molly Pyle, Brian Lim, Fishburners, JobsForNSW, Margaret Petty @ UTS, Pandora Shelley, Georgia Marshall and Justin O’Hare. Thank you all for making this happen.)