Remote Work: so, I guess this is what we're doing now

The post below was originally written in late March as we were initially beset by (not the first) wave of 2020 chaos when COVID began getting diagnosed in the US and public life began to grind to a halt. In reading it again I found myself encouraged again to make the most of my current work-emstance. Hopefully the content has aged well for you too and you can continue to make the most out of your remote work.

Greetings from Minneapolis! I am one of the three Nate Anders[oe]ns at SPS (insert Minnesotan naming creativity joke here). Let me give a quick intro. I have been working here for a while now (including the Great Recession of 2008), and I’ve seen the company change quite a bit. Despite that and despite my changing role over the years, how I’ve approached my job has not changed. Each day I come into work, I check my email/chat. I try to get things done. I try to understand how my work adds value to our customers. I try to figure out how I can improve. And, I love the supporting teams I get to work with. And often, despite the success SPS has had, despite the success that I’ve had in my career, I struggle with imposter syndrome. As I type away in my bedroom in my not-quite-an-office, I’m feeling that all the more now. That said, if my 12 year tenure has taught me anything, it’s that when I feel like I have doubts about my place and experience I’m actually sitting in front of a big opportunity to grow.

When considering the topics that I might have contributed to this week’s blog post my mind kept coming back to our collective opportunity to grow. Every time I read an article or hear a podcast about how to maximize working from home, my curiosity has been piqued. I imagine my experience and approach to work is not too dissimilar to a bunch of you. Hopefully, I can share some of what has been of benefit to me and we can grow together.

I have an ‘opportunity’ for you…

Change can be hard, and changing the way we work is pretty core. Though it goes without saying, our work is important. We typically think about the externalities of our work (customer, company, community). We don’t often think of how it affects ourselves. What we do with half of our waking hours informs and helps define who we are. In it, we engage and find our Mastery/Autonomy/Purpose. We all have a mental model that we take into our work: how we know what to do, how we approach doing it, and how we understand that the work we’ve done…worked. And out of that milieu a part of our identity is formed. For instance, often in meetings with new acquaintances, we identify ourselves with our job title (it’s #2 in my default small talk agenda, right after the weather) as if that is one of the most relevant pieces of information to place ourselves within their social paradigm.

And as of the Covid-19 outbreak, that identity has been partially erased. I’m feeling it personally. I’m no longer able to come in early and be the first in the office to make coffee (silently nodding to the others that come in before 7:00, no small talk needed). I’m no longer able to greet my team as I see them arrive in the morning. I’m not able to read posture in meetings as I attempt to drive engagement. Things have changed, and it’s time for me to start to adjusting accordingly.

Though not everyone is new to working remotely, we’re all in new territory. Even for those who have already worked somewhere other than the official offices, they are no longer working with teams and communities that are largely located in a single location. Our work culture is undergoing a seismic shift. And, just to up the ante, SPS’ CEO Archie Black has said, “Not only do we have to get our job done, we have to get it done better than we ever have.” That ethos is based in the fact that we all have an obligation to our community, and that extends beyond self-isolation. The world needs our imposter-syndroming-selves to step up and be more than we’ve been. Our organizations need to start doing some double loop learning and make the most of our opportunity to shift to distributed teams.

‘Working from home’ vs ‘Distributed teams’

Let’s start there, what are the levels of proficiency at this new way of working? I was helped quite a bit by listening and reading some of the work put out by Matt Mullenweg @ He has a helpful 5 tier model for organizations approaching remote work. Each step defines a phase of maturity that an organization can go through as they transition to work being done in a modular, distributed fashion.

1. Work from home when you need to: At SPS this might correlate to the way business happened in the past. Work from home could happen, but it wasn’t as effective. Often times decisions or meetings were cancelled/postponed until you could be with your team in person. Or if a meeting was attended remote, the remote attendees were (unintentionally) second class participants - often they muted their audio and video unless it was their turn to speak.

2. The Office…virtually: At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, SPS entered this phase. We attempted as best as we could to replicate the rhythms and communication channels that we had when we were largely in the office together. Zoom and Slack usage spiked. Most communication in this phase is still assumed to be a synchronous.

3. Take advantage of the medium: As phase three is approached, teams begin to form social rules to optimize focus. They morph their practices to take advantage of virtual tools. Meetings shift, the purposes change and participants mute themselves less. People invest in optimizing their work space and begin to take advantage of personalizing their work flow.

4. Distributed work native: As phase four is approached, communication defaults to asynchronous channels. Individuals focus on handoffs and outputs. Decisions can take longer, but end with better outcomes and engagement. Meetings are no longer about hearing some new information and reacting, instead they are focused times where groups can speed up the thinking they’ve already put into a topic. Meetings are less dominated by the most gregarious. There is space for more reflection and types of contributors.

5. Nirvana (I didn’t find this to be too different from stage #4 ): Organizations are able to do better work than any in-person organization.

Now, I’m not sure I believe in Nirvana on earth, and as it pertains to how we work, I’m not confident there is an end state. That said, we have a practical and moral imperative to make the most of our current work locations. Climbing the ladder to get some of the benefits of stage 3 and 4 would be a boon wherever we spend our working hours. SPS Commerce, I would say, has started to feel the advantages of a solid footing in stage 3 and is testing out working models in stage 4. So, as we isolate ourselves in the midst of this pandemic, let’s think about how we can elevate how we work.

Maybe not by choice…but there are perks

While we may be adjusting to this situation at a time that wasn’t of our choosing, there are a number of attributes of working in a distributed fashion that we can control. There are ways for us to work together to optimize the next few weeks/months until things “normalize” again (whatever that will mean or look like). Here are some of the best ideas I’ve run across…

Unexpected Benefits

You can set the temperature to your own liking (no need to wear gloves at the desk - unless you’d rather…)

You can set the lighting to your liking (you get to be that person…turning on the lights in the office in the morning or working in the dark - you know what I’m talking about <7:00ers)

You can light a candle (w/o setting off a building fire alarm)

You can control when you listen to work-small-talk (there isn’t an ambient din of open office work-lite conversation)

You don’t have to smell my microwaved broccoli (sorry about that btw)

Your time is flexible and can be syncopated by personal investment (family, exercise, music)

Optimization tips

Optimize for Focus: Start to observe your own personal flow rhythms. Is the mess behind you distracting you? Clean it up. How long does it take for you to start to have work flow and how do you get past mind-blocks? Take a break. Are you regularly distracted by chat? Manage your notification settings and leave/mute channels that don’t justify their level of distraction.

Start Threading in Slack: Seriously…thread the chatter.

Embrace Asynchronous Communication (realize the new distributed social norms): Once each of us start taking advantage of our flow, we need to realize that breaking into everyone else’s is increasingly taboo. You can’t see if your coworker is jamming some code out w/ some headphones on anymore. You don’t know that a mention in slack is just as much of an interruption as a drive by conversation. Just like how previously we avoided a mention after a teammate has gone home for the day, we’re going to be building new social norms. To that end, make the most of asynchronous communication channels. Prepare more thoughtful write-ups. Read the full article. Don’t just skim, listen actively and add comments.

Assume Positive Intent: as our team begins to embrace async communication channels, we need to realize that the non-verbal soft skills in communication get a lobotomy and we easily revert to functioning in a fight-or-flight mode. However, if we change our default reception of others’ contribution as coming from a place of common interest, and if we’re as humane as possible with the material we produce, it’ll go a long way to filling the gap.

Use Emojis: With the opacity of written communication, we’re going to need to bend some grammar rules so that we can soften and personalize what we write. This doesn’t just apply to emojis, it even applies to capitalization and punctuation. Just think of the difference in what you perceive from the following sentences: “no, that’s not it”; “No, that’s not it”; “No, that’s not it 😜”. Put some life in your writing!

Continue to invest in Relationships (they’re still important!): Though you might not be able to shake hands or high five anymore, you’re still on a team. As a team, you need to understand how to best compliment one another and optimize your handoffs.

Looking Ahead - It’s Time to Be Even Better!

With this thing we’re all living through…COVID-19, isolation, working from home…the world is getting an opportunity, a collective epiphany that we need to be better in order to meet tomorrow’s challenges. And when looking at tomorrow’s challenges, that could be somewhat daunting for folks with imposter syndrome. It’s somewhat improbable that we will play an important role in the rollout of a vaccine or the effective operation of Government, but we have a key role to play. We’re supporting one another. We’re a part of a business (taxes, employment, profit). We at SPS are enabling the supply chain to function. I do not think it’s hyperbolic to say that the world needs SPS (& the broader tech community), and it needs us to be better. So, in this time of changing surroundings, let’s make the most of this ‘opportunity’ and #GetAfterIt.

Nathaniel Andersen

Nathaniel Andersen @nrandersen