A quality critical take on distributed work

I’m a proponent of distributed work, and I’m not threatened by folks who challenge this way of working. It’s as exciting to me as the internet itself. Plus, most of the time the concerns are elementary, like the belief that designers can’t design if they’re not together physically, or assorted presenteeism-based fears about control. Most people just want to be trusted to do good work, and not be lonely.

Anywho, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been filing away lots of observations (smile). The very valid concerns people speak up about are nuanced, multi-variate, cultural, and changing. Which makes it harder to problem-solve, or make generalizations about, sure. But ultimately, this is a good thing. It means that things aren’t immutable, systems can be taken apart, and things can be fixed. At the core of these concerns is the reality that there are certain aspects of human society that seep their way into any place people spend time and work together. It’s the not acknowledging that these things exist or will arrive–that for some reason your organization is immune–that does you in, makes the problems harder to fix, and hurts people.

Compound that with the other realities of human society that we have had to face in a very raw way lately. It makes sense that this article would piss off advocates and critics of distributed work alike:

“Our remote work future is going to suck” on Sean Blanda’s blog.

This is my third year of working 100% distributed, in addition to 3 years where I was one of a small minority of employees who were not allowed to work distributed but everyone else was, and a few more years where different roles and teams had different options in a massive and old tech company. And a few years in an office where working from home was not okay. Lots of variation, and my working take on it all is that if you’re going to “go remote” your best bet is to bite the bullet and go fully distributed. (Ever met someone who said they were gonna go part-time keto and then felt both hangry all the time and didn’t lose weight? It’s sort of like that.) The “mixed methods” approach…might seem to provide ways to give yourself a break to ease in or change your mind…but in my observation it provides more loopholes for the problematic stuff in that blog post to fester.

I did not have the concerns going into my first fully-distributed gig that are referenced in this post. Now I do. Yet they weren’t enough to get me back into an office locally or to move to SF. I now know I can do quality work this way and from an office. But I’m much wiser about spotting the things that will prevent me and others from doing good work in a distributed organization, and pushing back against flawed claims that if one has these concerns, it means one is not fit for distributed work. These issues really often are a reflection of a conflict between upholding an idea or tradition over the needs of a business or its people. There is so much room in there for privilege and marginalization, with the added ease of never having to look people in the eye. So the more businesses and people work distributed, the easier it will become to call out the things that should not be the way they are.

(PS, I tend to write on the curt side, so I’m not throwing shade here. Just blogging….Con mucho mucho….amorrrrrr.)

How about that empathy

As much as I could, want to–and need to–there isn’t too much time for me to post right now. But I wanted to drop down a thought here. A snarky, spicy one. On empathy.

Yesterday, I was listening to Design Observer and Group Therapy, and hosts were discussing the unexpected universality of this truly shared human experience. As someone who has been called “Empathy Robot” before, the startling similarities between two discussions on very different podcasts pinged my subroutines, so to speak. We designers are some of the most inauthentic and even irresponsible proponents of empathy. The crux of empathy is being able to enter communion with the experience of another. Claiming to be able to have empathy for users as we enable the creation of things that we implicitly know will undermine their dignity…well that’s a variable load of bullshit, right?

For the first time in many of our designer lives, we’ll actually know empathy. I wonder what that’s going to do to all of us once we come out the other side of all of this. Will we throw around that word so cheaply?

Intentional Internet 2020

And so it’s already here, imposed on us in the most unfortunate of situations. Could the throwaway culture that the internet played such a formative–albeit aloof–role in fostering be slowly withering away? The way showy, trendy plants do when they’re left to fend for themselves in a garden they had no business in to begin with.

Earlier this year, I had to prune the plants in my garden. I planted boring, native species last year. Not willing to invest much energy or money in something that wasn’t going to give me instant beauty, I purchased small specimens that knew how to survive in the horrible Texas soil, and essentially neglected them through a brutal summer and an erratic winter. It was no surprise that, by the end of the year, they were still alive, but lackluster.

So, like many things I unexpectedly had to prune already this year, I pruned my garden, because that’s what a good steward does. No gardener can become a good gardener without getting over the fear of pruning, and no good gardener can become a great gardener without approaching pruning as part of the craft. Chop, whack, snip. It hurt, to see everyone almost exposed to their roots, not knowing whether they’d make it or not–driving home the guilt that was admitting that I had not taken good care of them. If they didn’t succeed, it would be my fault.

Two long weeks of staring out the window, walking up to them each morning to give them an encouraging poke or two. Then suddenly, they began to swell, and last week, burst in ways I had not imagined possible. Every leaf, bigger. Every stem, longer. Buds too many to count. I popped open the rain barrel and gave them the water I had withheld out of my own perverted sense of frugality. And then, the compost.

My plants didn’t really need me. They focused their energy on their root systems, preparing for challenge, growing the thick skin they would need in the face of uncertainty. But unlike humans, they don’t hold grudges, they are full of gratitude. I repaired my relationship with them, and now they feel safe to blossom and grow. Holy shit the birds that are going to show up!

Who knew that the things we took for granted in our midst could bring us so much joy and sense of place in a time of need. Netflix parties. Virtual happy hours on Zoom. Finding delightful new uses for features we took for granted. Yoga classes streamed live. Restaurants selling you eggs and milk tonight because you both need it but you also just want to see each other be okay.

We’re making it work because we remembered that life is fragile, because it doesn’t have to be. And so we’re freer to say no to the bad parts of the internet because it’s so obvious how awful they are. But we’re also saying no to the mediocre or bullshit ones because they are just in the way. Perhaps we can also realize that making it a better place doesn’t mean we have to hold onto the past, but rather, being very present and in tune to what’s going on right now.

Don’t get me wrong, most of gardening is still pulling weeds. But it helps if you have a clear vision, and feel some pressure (that’s rooted in reality, of course). I am optimistic that, despite everything that’s about to get worse before it gets better, the era of useless meetings and content is on its way out forever. Have you ever seen the wildflowers in bloom?

It was something from Jorge Arango’s post today that got me thinking about this.

…a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

My thoughts on meetings and similar events both online and IRL:

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

Like him, I expect an IRL resurgence after all of this passes. But not before we weed, prune, and yank out all of the superficial shrubberies in our lives, and on the web.