Bad Office Habits can creep into remote teams just fine. A proud and happy remote worker, I didn’t realize this until I read on reddit a couple of days ago that Slack is “asynchronish”. That’s to say asynchronous … but not quite. That got me thinking.

Slack is Asynchronish

Asynchronous communication is about replying in your own time. Anything that’s not critically urgent can wait a bit. Until your task is done, until you’re ready to switch context and reply. Is chatting asynchronous?

We use Slack. When you get a message on Slack (or any such tool) you don’t really have to reply right away … but you kinda have to, too. It’s a bit like having your phone lying in front of you while talking to someone. Suddenly, the notification light is blinking every so gently … it’s hard to resist. And then there is the issue of the eye in Slack.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

I can’t stand seeing it. I MUST reply. Which brings us to the office.

Bad Office Habits

Bad office culture comes in many forms. Here is one:

Hey, do you have a minute?

(No, I was focusing but now I lost my train of thought anyway.)

Actually, it’s even more beautiful in German: “Kann ich dich kurz stören?” which roughly translates to:

May I interrupt for a second?

(Well, you kinda did.)

The point here is that you get disrupted, of course. You lose your train of thought, you switch context. There are many studies (probably at least two) about why that’s bad. That it takes you 20 minutes to get back into the flow—for a “quick question”.

And that is what you, me and all remote workers are running away from: the constant disruptions of the office. At least offices that are too open. Open floor plan, open doors, always available.

The Headphone Rule

How do office workers counter this? With culture: the headphone rule, for example. You put headphones on and that clearly signals to others that you need focus time, no disruptions, thank you. But if you go to the coffee machine (or the water cooler) then you’re up for a talk.

That can work, if everyone is a bit considerate. Of course, you’re still at the mercy of other people’s boredom. Not so in a remote office.

A tap on your shoulder (remotely)

In a remote setting notifications are the proverbial tap on the shoulder. A notification that someone wrote something somewhere. Must be important, right? Nope. The first step is to turn those OFF. Shoulders are not for tapping, remote or otherwise. The only notification you may want to allow is when your alias is tagged. (See how nefariously close that is to tapping? 😉 ).

With just disabling notifications, 95% of noise is gone. I did this long ago. And still, when I considered how Slack is supposed to help with asynchronous communication, I realized how reactive I am to messages. And that has to do with my job.

Managers!

As CTO my job is to make sure the right things are built well enough and on time. That means figuring out what exactly to build and sometimes how to build it. It also means letting my colleagues do what they’re really good at—and getting obstacles out of their way so they can move fast.

What I am saying here is: it’s a lot about communication. Which is why I easily fall into the trap of being available way to much. And that’s not helping me to focus. The irony is that remote work is supposed to encourage focus and productivity. So, how do I find time to write up good requirements that someone else can work with? (Maybe even: That someone is delighted to work with?)

As in the office, it’s about culture. And as with the office, it starts with you doing your part.

The right tool for the (communication) job

We remote teams are lucky: our toolbox for communication is full. Unfortunately, we don’t always use the right tool for the job.

Did you ever find yourself basically chatting via email or Github comments? I certainly did. Did you ever ping someone in chat with something that really was not that urgent? Yup, done that. Can you remember chatting and chatting where a simple conversation on the phone would have resolved the issue in seconds? Nah, not me. OK fine, me.

Here is a simple guide when to use which channel.

  1. Is it an emergency? The website stopped responding and only Anna can help? Yes: Call her.
  2. Do you need an answer within minutes? Maybe you’re blocked or a customer is waiting? Yes: Slack.
  3. Can it wait an hour or even a day? Will the Earth and the Solar System be Just Fine and not Implode into a Gigantic Black Hole? Yes? Ah, good. Then use email.

(Someone should do a fancy flow chart for this.)

Since this is about work, it’s a bit harder to make a hard & fast rule as with channel hygiene for off-time. The good thing about these steps is that you can start by following them yourself. And it works great … if everyone does. If not, you have one option left.

It’s okay to be offline

The productivity boost of working remotely comes from a number of things, including skipping the daily commute and setting up your work place according to your preferences. But most importantly it’s because you can work asynchronously, at your own pace. The best way to do that is to turn off Slack. Be offline.

Really. It’s fine. Most people overestimate how much they’re actually needed. You can go on vacation, right? (If not, fix that first.) That means you can be offline for an hour. If the team really, really needs you, they’ll call.

Of course, don’t just be absent either. Announce that you’re focusing for a while. Tell your colleagues if it’s going to be 15 minutes or an hour. If no one screams, turn off Slack—and show results.

Working remotely is a journey. I think refusing to work asynchronishly is an important step in it. Let’s keep moving!

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