Google has too much power

google with a crown

The older I get, the more I recognize that everything is just a series of compromises, and the true sign that you’ve “made it” is when you earn the right to spend most of your day on your terms. As soon as I accepted that, life got a little less complicated. I now know where I am, and I generally know where I need to be.

I’m still young enough to be naive though, and my simple brain hasn’t fully come to terms with the fact that powerful, external forces exist that can impose their will like a natural disaster. You plan for them and hope not to be caught in their wake, but some things are entirely unavoidable.

Exhibit A: Google search algorithm changes.

organic search drop

Due to reasons, Google has become the de facto gateway to the internet, and is the greatest driver of traffic to most websites. And their algorithm is like a medieval king. It sits on the highest of thrones, single-handedly willing the internet to bend a knee.

But this king doesn’t issue proclamations. He delivers messages like:

This week, we released a broad core algorithm update, as we do several times per year. Our guidance about such updates remains as we’ve covered before. Please see these tweets for more about that:

Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our results. Some are focused around specific improvements. Some are broad changes. Last week, we released a broad core algorithm update. We do these routinely several times per year.

As with any update, some sites may note drops or gains. There’s nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded

There’s no “fix” for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content. Over time, it may be that your content may rise relative to other pages.

Great. That’s great. Things were business as usual, and we plebs were over here taking a long view of our product, making steady progress based on the typical set of compromises. With a small team, sometimes you focus on performance, then features, then whatever. But you’re working under a framework that the ground you’re standing on will remain somewhat level.

Then, boom! You notice an organic search drop… then another. You look to the king for answers, and the official word is “there’s no fix… just continue to live your best life.”

Super. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the noble king is also your competitor, and is a competitor on so many fronts that he’s everyone’s competitor. Your traffic goes down; his traffic goes up. Everything’s fine!

“They’re not really a competitor,” you say. “You’re just a blip on their radar” you reply to yourself. “They make all their money in search, and everything else is just meant to keep you in their ecosystem… it’s just business.”

Then the little brain troll whispers, “Maybe if you prioritized the right things from the start, the king would be rewarding you. This is your failure.” And the troll is right. Using Google’s web.dev tool (still in Beta, of course), our performance and accessibility had much room for improvement. I made the wrong compromises along the way. Simple as that.

Google Lighthouse old score

But then your ego pushes back. “What, so the king’s little passion projects get to sit behind the curtain and reap the rewards of seeing the algorithm in clear view while the rest of the internet is desperately looking for answers? That’s bullshit.’’ And it is bullshit. But the king is the king, and there’s nothing you can do other than write your local representative to break them up, or sillier yet, protest by not paying for their services (problem… they give most of their services away for free).

So the compromise forced on you is to temporarily divert everything to Google optimization. Maybe it’ll work. Who knows… we’re seeing positive results from our recent push, but the king is a fickle character.

Google Lighthouse new score

The one-salary experiment, ten years in

picture of a person experimenting with electricity

Five years ago, Lenz (one of our co-founders) wrote:

At iwantmyname everyone earns the same. This sounds strange to many and I get asked a lot of questions how this may work once we grow bigger and the honest answer is: “I don’t know, but so far it works” and I give that same answer since we started 5 years ago.

The underlying idea has two main roots. First, we really think that everyone is as important to the success of our team as anyone else in the team. We don’t believe in a hierarchy or in more important people. If we hire you, we think you are valuable and want you to be part of our team as a level peer, not an underlying that does the stuff no one else wants to do.

Soon after, it hit the Hacker News front page, and the top comment went as follows (from a person called fishtoaster):

That’s a cool experiment. It’s always neat to see people trying new, weird ways to run a company.

That said, I would predict the following:

  • As the company grows, they have trouble hiring specialists or more senior people, since they’re competing with other companies for those people, but without the flexibility to offer a comparable salary. They could solve this by paying their highest-paid person what they’re worth, and everyone else the same, but that could be prohibitively expensive.
  • The need will develop for people who, though valuable, are plentiful (e.g., a janitor, but fill in any role here that’s generally near the bottom of the pay scale). The decision will be “We’d really like a janitor, but not enough to pay $X”, where X is their everyone-salary (which has to be high enough to attract their most valuable people). As such, they’ll be hard-pressed to hire roles that aren’t really worth that much to them.
  • Of course, you can solve either of those by having more money than you know what to do with. So, if they’re wildly profitable, it’s a system that’ll keep working.

That’s just my prediction, though. I’d love to see a followup blog post in a few years describing how it went.

Well, fishtoaster… this one’s for you.

Market rate

One thing that happened over the last 5-10 years is that people’s idea of what “market rate” is for a remote developer job seems to be shifting to the market rate of San Francisco. And that’s a tough place to play if you A. don’t have beaucoup VC money, B. aren’t sitting on a pile of disposable cash.

For instance, according to PayScale, the average software developer in Wellington NZ makes NZ$64k. We pay more than that, but when you become a remote company, people start looking for the $134k USD salary people are making in the top 10% of SF (which seems a bit low to me, but I’ll take their word for it). In one beautiful locale we pay in the top 10%, and in the other, we’re pretty meh.

So when fishtoaster says,

The decision will be “We’d really like a janitor, but not enough to pay $X”, where X is their everyone-salary (which has to be high enough to attract their most valuable people).

… I feel that. It’s a legitimate concern. Basically, we’re playing a game where the success of the company hinges on our ability to hire good developers, but we can’t offer top SF rates without shrinking our staff because our operating costs would be too high due to our flat structure. Fortunately for us, we’re competing not only on salary, but freedom, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

For as much as we hear about greed and people doing anything for money, the truth is that the world is large and full of people with different motivations. We’ve had people in emerging economies mention top-10% SF rates, but we’ve also had people in the more expensive parts of EU work for less because of the lifestyle we can somewhat uniquely offer. For example, I could probably make more in a management role elsewhere, but at iwantmyname, I get to pick my kids up from school every day without fail. To me, that’s worth a whole lot, but to someone else, it might mean very little. We’re all motivated by very different things.

I’m sure certain individuals are paid somewhat below market value while others are paid handsomely for their role. This can hurt when hiring employees in the former category. The flat hierarchy, general job benefits, and culture need to make up for the market pay-cut.

(Random quotes are from a team poll I did about our one-salary structure. You’ll see them sprinkled throughout.)

For us, everything has mostly worked out — we offer a certain amount, have had little trouble filling job openings, and our turnover is low (and to my knowledge, no one who has ever left did it primarily because of our pay structure). That said, I do feel the pressure of getting us closer to SF-senior-dev competitive wages because recruitment will inevitably get harder if the pay gap becomes too wide. We’ll never be able to pay the top-end salary of a Fortune 500 company under our current structure unless we stumble our way into a mind-blowing new market segment, but we can pull ourselves closer without making non-dev positions unreasonably expensive.

To be able to hire and retain good staff, the amount also needs to be focused on the high end of what’s needed to be competitive. What may be a good salary for support or marketing or whatever elsewhere may be quite low for good development talent, for example, and people are rarely, or only to a very limited degree, willing to accept a pay cut because they like a company’s culture or the projects they’ll be doing, etc.

Motivation and turnover

Turnover is a tricky thing to talk about because it feels like weakness, but it’s impossible to avoid when running a business. And it’s important to know that all companies are working from a different baseline. In a previous life, I worked at an ad agency that somewhat purposefully churned through recent college grads to maximize staff ROI (turns out, cheap labor being client-billed for ~$150/hr is a good way for owners to get rich). That world is different than this world though — clients came and went, onboarding was basically instant because each project was from scratch, and the work was more about immediate impact than retaining institutional knowledge. Turnover there was like watching the seasons change. So it went.

In a small tech shop like iwantmyname though, institutional knowledge is everything because nearly nothing is built from the ground up. And onboarding is relatively painful because we don’t have people we can just dedicate to training. Turnover sucks, so we do our best to avoid it. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job. Here’s what our “stats” look like:

  • 20 total employees
  • all but four are still involved with the company
  • all four that left were developers

As I said before, overall retention is good… much better than at any job I’ve had in the past. But while the sample size is small, there is a relationship between market rate and turnover. While we have 100% retention for non-developers, our typical dev window is roughly three years (again, small sample size… compounded by the fact that iwantmyname basically didn’t do any hiring for the first five years).

Here’s the thing though. Even in Silicon Valley, where salaries are extremely high across the board and employees are showered in benefits, tech retention is low. I don’t think income is the primary motivator here (although I’m sure it helps with recruiting).

My general theory is that people are motivated by two things in life: pain avoidance and happiness. No matter what you do, you’re always trying to find the thing that brings the most happiness with the least amount of pain. Some people find higher peak happiness through suffering, and some people are hedonists who work to experience minimal pain, but both are operating under the same framework.

So what we’re looking at here is a dev vs non-dev marketplace of employees. Every individual is different, but most people find happiness at work through money and perks (remote work, working on stuff you like, freedom to make decisions, etc.). The tangle is that in this market, non-devs tend to experience pain while looking for jobs, while even mediocre devs routinely get contacted by recruiters offering ++ salaries and signing bonuses. There’s no friction for a developer, and without friction, there’s no pain. So as soon as things lose their shine, stats show that developers tend to move on. And it’s understandable — why stagnate when there are endless opportunities to do new and interesting things?

From a management perspective, all I can do is optimize the things I can control to reduce pain. Here are the three things I focus on:

  1. Freedom. The worst part of being in a traditional office is seeing how fast your calendar gets booked. Endless meetings, pointless team-building activities, random reporting reminders to make middle managers happy. Some of it is useful, but I do my very best to clear up people’s schedules so they can maximize their time not working. To me, the ideal workplace is one that lets me enjoy my own life… not one that tries to merge with it.
  2. Dysfunction. People tend to not like dysfunction, and dysfunction is really just a symptom of not understanding priorities. Yes, some people are just lazy, but if you can solve laziness, the best thing a manager can do is to be extraordinarily clear about the work ahead. Generally, if you can get smart people to work towards the same goals while avoiding institutional confusion, they’ll achieve great things.
  3. Fairness. The other thing people tend to not like is the feeling that their peers aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. And it’s especially bad when the person telling the team what to do isn’t doing anything themselves. The best way to make this a non-issue is to get dirty from the top-down. No one is above the rest — not even managers.

One-salary makes everyone feel they are an equal part of the team. Whether they’re in support, dev, or product areas, all have an equal voice. That equality helps avoid the “that’s above my pay grade, let someone else deal with it” attitude.

(A completely flat structure) negates the need for traditional performance reviews and salary negotiation, which are very difficult for some people and do not favour those who have not been raised/trained/educated to advocate and negotiate hard for themselves. (And can be actively penalized for it, in the cases of some demographics.)

Is there a better way?

When I talk about our flat salary, I often come at it from the angle of focusing on what alternatives would buy us. Barring a cash infusion, we have X dollars that can be allocated however we want. Right now we know precisely how much each position costs (because we all cost the same), but if we moved off our flat structure, what would that look like?

My best guess is that developer rates would go up, support rates would go down, and everyone else would be roughly the same. But it’s not like rates would change proportionally. At best it’s a wash, with support rates going down exactly the same as developer rates are going up, but that’s silly. SF rates for senior devs would cost far more than the savings we’d make on the support side, and the talent drain in support would make for a far inferior product. Plus, our support staff does a lot more than their direct tasks — they’re worth every penny they get paid.

In reality, our flat-salary has probably allowed the company to grow faster than it would’ve under a traditional structure. I don’t think that was the intention going in, but it’s essentially put a movable ceiling on rates that have increased exponentially since we started around the 2008 recession. Our salaries are tied to profit, and while they’ve gone up over time, they just don’t compare to the whims of a company tied to an out-of-control market or VC-infused debt.

To me (and to be clear, I’m part of the flat salary with no ownership stake), it’s a fair deal because everything was on the table from day one. Everyone makes X, there’s no excessive Apple-esque cash hoard that’s being syphoned to investors instead of the staff, and we’re free to leave at any time.

With that said, if we were to change, here are three models that seem acceptable (all have pros and cons):

  1. From an employee standpoint, the Basecamp model is a good way to maximize the retention and recruitment of “senior” talent while mostly keeping out the ugly popularity contests that come with salary negotiations. My understanding based on my recollection of the book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is that hey pay an upper-tier salary per position based (I think) on SF rates. They also use a junior/senior tier, which allows them to recruit raw talent without worrying about fair workloads (it’s be hard to justify paying the same salary to two devs who have vastly different levels of experience, but there’s also a lot of “grunt work” that needs to be done that might drive a senior person away).
  2. This one was floated by someone in the internal survey: ”A possible solution to retaining talent longer term (who may start looking to move on for financial reasons) is to add a ‘years with the company’ accelerator. Putting the fiscal focus on retaining experience and talent seems more logical to me than hiring a ‘rockstar’ candidate and offering them double their colleague’s salary so they can shoot through some work and leave in a year or two.’’ I generally like this, but it would probably have to be capped at some amount to avoid paying people too far above market rates. While retention is important, I don’t know if it’d make business sense to, say, pay someone triple what a comparable replacement would cost. And you don’t want to be in the position of laying off a tenured staffer because you mistakenly started paying them too much.
  3. I’m not sure how the accounting would work, but if we kept the salary the same and tied it to a quarterly bonus structure based on company profits, it could create a more direct link between short-term productivity and income. (That’s not really a fundamental change though… more like a nudge.)

Anyways, fishtoaster, here we are — getting by with a system that’s held up strong for ten years. We don’t have “more money than we know what to do with” (YET!!!), but I think everyone would agree that iwantmyname sits in the successful column of small businesses. And to me, that’s a win in the one-salary column.

I’ll make a note on my calendar to update this in 2024.

Information about the Tictail shutdown

Back in November, Canadian e-commerce company Shopify acquired the popular Swedish-based e-commerce platform Tictail.

It was business as usual for a while, however, Shopify did notify Tictail’s customer base that it would be shutting down the service, and that date is coming up fast on March 31st.

Tictail customers will have received specific details directly, but since we’ve heard from a few customers of ours about updating their DNS settings, we’re posting a bit more information as well.

Conveniently, our Marketplace has a one-click setup for Shopify if you are a Tictail customer who is switching over.

When you are ready to switch over, if you login to your iwantmyname account, just go to this page to begin the install process, which will add the Shopify DNS records and replace the Tictail ones in your dashboard.

The new settings will need a couple of hours or so to propagate, and then you’ll be able to login to your Shopify account to add your domain name and finish any remaining setup there.

If you are not planning to switch to Shopify and aren’t sure how to switch to the new platform you want to use, or have other questions, just get in touch. We’re happy to help get things set up.

Information concerning Brexit and UK holders of .EU domains

Brexit Logo

If you seriously don’t know what Brexit is by now, HOW WE ENVY YOU! You can, in all probability, go about your day (or life) and read no further.

For those who do, and specifically for our UK customers who are the intended the audience of this post, we empathize greatly with your pain and confusion. While clarity is hard to come by in this uncertain process, we’re sharing the following information, which we hope is of use.

Once the UK officially leaves the EU, EURid – the registry for .EU domains – has stated that UK residents will not have the same entitlements to the use of this TLD as before. The requirement is that the .EU extension is for use of residents and companies with a presence in member states of the European Economic Area (EEA).

The best place to look for updates is EURid’s website, they have set up this Brexit page for updates:

https://eurid.eu/en/register-a-eu-domain/brexit-notice/

However, on the 22nd of March they posted this updated…

Brexit Notice: Due to ongoing uncertainties over the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union, EURid has placed on hold any plan regarding domain names registered to individuals and undertakings located in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. Those plans were set out in European Commission’s notice to .eu stakeholders, published on 28 March 2018. As soon as we receive official updates from the European Commission on how to proceed, we will amend the plans on this web page and communicate with affected stakeholders as appropriate, and as instructed by the Commission. We thank you for your patience.

This is not entirely useful, but we can gather from their previous announcements on this page that once the UK does officially leave the EU, there will be a 2-month period where UK registrants of .EU domains can make arrangements to ensure they are in compliance with the .EU regulations.

Based on this, we do feel that it is sensible to offer the following advice:

1) If your company has a legal presence in the EU 27 or EEA Member State, we would advise that you update your .EU domains’ contact details to reflect this. Please do this for all of the domain contacts.

2) For those that do not have this option, our upstream Registrar partner for .EU has a trustee service that allows for registration and use of .EU domains without residing in an EEA country. In short, by activating this service, the registrant contact details for the domain will change to that of the trustee and you are allowing the trustee to act on your behalf. You still own your domain and management of the domain continues to be facilitated through your account with us. You can read more information on the .EU trustee agreement here:

https://account.hexonet.net/trusteetac/eu/en.pdf.

Note: This service can only be activated once the UK has officially left the EU and we will provide more information on how to do this at a later stage.

3) It may be a good idea to have a contingency plan for primary or business critical services that rely on a .EU domain. Consider moving to another domain that doesn’t use the .EU extension. This could be an existing or new .CO.UK or .UK domain, or really any other that you wish to use. You can then set up your .EU domain(s) to forward to the other domain or email address, or keep your current setup. Your reliance/risk on .EU domains would be somewhat reduced. 

Now let’s strap ourselves back in to the Brexit roller coaster, hold on tight and wait to see where it goes.

The state of remote work at iwantmyname, 2019

team map

A job is a job. No matter what position you are in a company, there are certain tasks that need to get done, and a general expectation that you’ll responsibly earn your paycheck.

But this generation of workers — a generation I’m a part of — has a particular fascination with personal empowerment, and a distinct lack of respect for how things were done in the past. We see “make X great again,” and think of insane gender/racial disparity, rampant corporate exploitation of workers, and global war. The past sucked, 80’s greed brokers are still running the present, and it’s our lot in life to make it better.

Nothing is sacred. Everything is disposable. And first on the chopping block are workplace expectations. If we’re going to maximize efficiency, we need to A. be comfortable, B. eliminate distractions, C. not waste time. The solution doesn’t even require that much imagination — get rid of the traditional office, eliminate the rush-hour commute, and let people do their jobs from home.

We — as a generation — didn’t get together to do a bunch of studies to gauge its effectiveness (although we did pull from the best practices of the earliest adopters), we just started making remote work happen. A company here. A company there. It’s clearly the solution to the problem, we just have to bend the general expectation of work to our will.

The most fascinating thing about being a Millennial/young Gen-X’er is seeing our willingness to throw caution to the wind meet reality. We know it should work — it will work — but we won’t generationally reach our potential until we iron out all the kinks. Remote work is great for all the reasons you’d think it’s great, but it presents a number of challenges that probably weren’t anticipated.

It’s like we’re beta testing a societal shift. Someone has to do it.

Here’s our version.

Could you see yourself going back to a traditional office setting?

F%#$ NO. Kill me now if I ever have to.

(The block quotes are answers to an internal poll we did recently… you’ll see them throughout the post.)

General organization

At this time, iwantmyname has a board of directors that pass down general goals and expectations, a team lead (me) who manages all the work getting done, a support team, a dev team, a designer, and a person in marketing. Because of our team size, most of us moonlight as different things at different times. I’m slowly rewriting most of our site content, the support team is managing our documentation, all our TLDs, and even taking on finance tasks, and etc. for the rest of the team. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation — as many businesses are.

Day-to-day tasks are mostly self-guided, poked along gradually by an ever-evolving list of to-do’s in Basecamp (some still exist in GitHub as well), my mouth noises in video chats, and a surprisingly efficient system of checkins in Slack by the support team to ensure no gaps in coverage. From a project management perspective, I’ve found it to be nearly impossible to build out to-do’s with due dates in such a small team because that sort of rigidity just isn’t realistic (for reasons I’ll get to later), and it’s generally better to not ship garbage without external pressure forcing your hand. Instead, we list out tasks in order of when they need to be completed to unblock the next task, and when we ship is dependent on the situation — we usually ship when our work will help our customers rather than harm them.

On an operations level, most things tend to get done in Basecamp as well. The underpowered calendar has become a catch-all for everything from meetings to scheduled time off. And we have an open leave policy we don’t police at all — people just schedule off and remind the team in meetings when the time is coming. (I know there are plenty of companies that make a big deal out of time off… we just don’t. At most it’s a minor headache for managing products, but no one here abuses the policy, and I don’t see it slowing us down in any significant way.)

Intermission 1: Kevin’s desk

Kevin's desk

Meeting culture

At the start of each week, we have a Zoom meeting called ProdChat where we talk through the week and try to unblock people who are stuck. Ideally people have been chatting in Slack up to that point so the problems we’re facing aren’t out-of-the-blue, but getting together once a week for ~30 minutes has been extremely helpful.

We also have a once-a-month team meeting on Zoom where we talk about bigger-picture stuff. Honestly, at this point it’s more of a face time exercise — it can be hard to have empathy for people you don’t know face-to-face, so it’s a critical way for support (which is semi-autonomous) and product to interact.

I love (our team meetings)! Even though I have to drag my ass out of bed for them haha. I haven’t met a lot of the team in person yet and I am definitely the type of person who likes to be able to see people’s body language when talking to them. It makes the rest of the team seem like real people and not just textbots in Slack ;)

I’m one of the people who thinks a social component is valuable, and since the bulk of our work is done within smaller groups and/or asynchronously, there isn’t that much that the all-hands monthly meeting is critical for aside from generally touching base and company-wide updates. Beyond that, I think teams and groups have a pretty good handle on when they need regularly scheduled meetings or ad hoc ones. It’s unfortunately that it’s never ideal for one time zone, and I tend to support a rotating schedule to alleviate that somewhat, but I also understand sticking with a specific date/time since it’s such a pain to schedule.

Are they successful though? “Meeting culture” is the thing people most loathe about traditional offices, and they can easily get out of hand in a remote setting. Especially when people are in different time zones — there’s always someone who is forced to join in late at night (in our case, it’s our Europeans), and more than one late meeting a week can be a real problem. We all work remote to have more personal time, and so many of the workarounds we’ve created to make remote work succeed chip away at all the time we’re supposedly saving.

Meetings in general are very often a giant waste of time. That’s why I don’t like them, neither “IRL” nor remote. As we came up with agendas and stick to them, it has become less of a pain. It’s a good thing that we stick to as few meetings as possible.

Being on each side of meeting culture — as an employee and now a manager — I can really empathize with everyone. For management, meetings feel like a crucial part of ideation and getting things done. Most importantly, it’s hard to feel like you know exactly where the team is on a project without getting them in a room to report on it. But as an employee, I know how these meetings go. You say what you need to say to get out of the meeting, then ignore nearly everything and do whatever it is you need to do to get the job done. For most employees, frequent group meetings are a giant waste of time, and for managers, they’re at best a temporary dopamine hit. An attaboy for doing boss things, and a good way to get talking points for the next meeting with management further up the chain.

I tire quickly of reporting for reporting’s sake, so we do our best to keep meetings infrequent, short, and focused. It hasn’t always been that way, but it’s starting to feel like our meeting culture, which I think is healthy.

They are a super important: as an efficient method of information exchange, with spontaneous questions/clarifications. Also can boost morale and team cohesion. They’re on late which can be tough, but they are kept as short as necessary, and mostly only once a week, for a period they were later some weeks would be 3-4 late night chats - much better now!

Intermission 2: MJ’s desk

MJ's desk

Communication

Communication goes much further than meeting culture, and it’s where most remote companies struggle. Speaking from my own experience at iwantmyname, I have a solid report with the people working in my orbit (design, dev, marketing) and in my general time zone, but have a harder time with support and people on the other side of the globe. We have casual chats in the “#social” Slack channel, but I don’t know them as well as I’d like, and I don’t know if I ever will.

Our annual trip helps (we meet once a year for a week or so to plan the year and have a bit of fun), but so much of getting the job done relies on asynchronous communication, which doesn’t really necessitate relationship building. Last year we moved into a more traditional project planning environment and chose Basecamp because of our strong cultural alignment (content marketing works, folks!). I went over Basecamp a bit above, but the most interesting takeaways are that A. mapping out a project is easy, B. having someone tasked to have a permanent overview of everything is essential (like a Janet, from The Good Place), C. ensuring things get done in a way that eliminates roadblocks is exceedingly difficult with a small team.

I think we’re most productive when everyone’s aware of who’s counting on them, and how their role fits into the larger scheme of the business. Currently, we have bottlenecks that I’d like to see opened up to prevent one person from having to wait on others for results.

Once you hit a certain size, everything is go go go — when one person is having a slow day, the rest of group is picking up the slack. But when knowledge isn’t spread evenly, or if the skillsets are siloed too much, so much can fall apart so quickly. Stagnation due to roadblocks kills morale faster than everything else combined.

What I’ve learned is that in an asynchronous environment, instead of worrying about perfecting communication, a product manager’s primary task should be to empower everyone with tools to do as many jobs as possible without friction. If your content team gets too far ahead of development and wants to tinker around with meta descriptions, empower them to do that easily. If marketing wants to spin up a landing page to run a campaign, don’t force them to wait for a free developer — give them the tools to roll that out independently. And don’t ever underestimate the power of easily searchable documentation. If you have someone on staff who seems to enjoy writing and organizing documentation, never let them leave.

Communication is a big deal, but you don’t need to herd a small group like they’re a room full of cats. They know what needs to get done, especially if you list the required tasks out in an easily digestible place. The key is empowering people to get their parts done asynchronously.

Here’s where things get exceptionally tricky though — if you thought siloing was bad in an office setting, wait til you see a remote office. From a management perspective, there’s literally an endless list of product enhancement tasks I’d like to see done in my lifetime. But sometimes you have to pump the breaks to sync up with support because there’s always an escalated queue of cases that need to be addressed. And if there’s one thing that’ll break the spirit of a support team, it’s seeing the same crap come in day after day, and not having any confidence the problems will ever be addressed.

With a big enough team, this is a no-brainer — you just assign some people to the EQ and rotate them out after their time is done. But in a small team, every person you put on the EQ puts an aspect of product development on pause. There’s no perfect solution (I don’t think), but what seems to be working is something Ley dubbed “Bughouse” (which I like to say in that “Swishahouse” drawl because I’m a 90’s kid from Houston). Every month, we drop everything to spend the final W-F pairing up to tackle bugs. As product changes become more or less a vanity task, we might move Bughouse to twice/month, but the current situation seems to be working.

I’d recommend something like this for every remote team, because silos are a force of nature you have to protect yourself from in advance. If you don’t support support, support will never be able to support efficiently.

Support, support, support. (I’m just getting it out of my system.)

The support team I feel are super productive — they’re the ones I have the most visibility over (being one of them!) The rest of the company, the reality is I don’t really see what they’re doing (unless something is horribly broken, then I see the devs). I assume productivity is happening though!

I still feel like there’s a bit of silo’ing between dev and support. It’s getting better than it was when I started though, for sure. But like I said above, I don’t really see what the dev team are doing. Customer support queries that have to be escalated to the devs are still an issue.

Staying sane

I can work from ANYWHERE. Because I’m support I have a set shift, but as long as I’m happy to work whatever hours my shift works out to be in another location, I can do it. I’ve worked from Wanaka a few times, am off to Perth next month to work there and spend time with my little siblings (not much point in burning leave if they’ll be at work/school during my shift anyway!), and will be spending Christmas overseas as well. I also really love that I can work with my music blasting at 5 billion decibels if I want to, stretched out on the couch if I want to, in my pajamas if I want to (the first couple of hours of my Sunday shift is almost always in my PJs.)

It lets you say “sure, why not to things” like impromptu tramping, because you can make up the time later.

Again, remote work is awesome for all the reasons you think it’s awesome. And if you have friends who also work non-traditional jobs that can meet occasionally for extended lunches, it’s even better. And if you have a Mario Tennis addiction, only a remote job will let you consolidate your breaks enough to be world ranked (not even a humble brag).

mario tennis

But there are drawbacks, and they’re very real.

We have a very Europe/North America heavy dev team, so there’s a LOT of conversation that happens in Slack while I’m asleep that I then have to try and catch up on. I have to make a point to get myself out of the house (the dog helps with that). I also have to deal with people who seem to be under the impression that “at home” = “not actually doing anything”, and don’t seem to understand that while yes, I’m at home, and that’s amazing, that doesn’t mean I’m free to do whatever — I am, in fact, working.

Can be hard to define the parameters, temptation to check slack at night, weekends, on holidays is there. Harder to switch off, leaving work behind at an office and commuting home creates clearer boundaries of where is what, without that any time can be spent doing something work related, or just finishing off that one thing. I also tend to think about iwmn stuff all the time, pretty sure I dream about it as well.

Isolation, the likelihood you’ll find yourself working in a silo for any amount of time. For small, timezone diverse teams: team camaraderie has to be drummed up. Morale is needy.

There’s no magic pill for being ok sitting by yourself all day. Some people love it, but others — like myself — are fairly social by nature. Not being able to go get coffee and blow off steam with your coworkers is admittedly hard. But there are plenty of ways to make it better. Here are a few that are common:

  • Video chats (with coffee). Just because you can’t drag someone into a coffee shop doesn’t mean people won’t talk. Have a “buddy” of sorts in your timezone and don’t be afraid to call whenever you’re lonely.
  • Work out of the house. I really don’t like coworking spaces because they tend to feel like working in terrible open office environments, but for some reason I can sit at coffee shops for hours on end. Find a place you like to go, and do it a few days a week if you can.
  • Exercise. Don’t just use all that time you gained not driving to work sitting on the couch. Lift something heavy. Sweat a little. Exercise really does make you happier. It’s science.
  • Eat better. I don’t want to get too far into the healthy lifestyle thing, but you have so much more flexibility at home to eat healthy than you would at a typical office. And I’m 90% sure your mood is 55% tied to your gut bacteria. Also science.
  • Keep your space clean. A common occurrence — especially if you’re married — is having your wife/husband come home vaguely upset because there’s a bunch of dirty dishes sitting around. “I was in work mode and lost track of time!” I sheepishly say. Every home situation is different, but I’ve found that cleaning up for 15-30 minutes at the end of the day leads to more peaceful nights.
  • Set up a routine. Some people walk their dogs. Some people take naps. I make myself espresso shots throughout the day. What I’ve found is that establishing a small set of norms keeps you grounded, and that’s usually a good thing for consistency. Remote work is known for letting people live these exotic digital nomad lifestyles, but most of us work best when things are exceedingly normal.

My last thought is about vacations. I read a lot of advice in tech circles about taking more vacations, and they usually go like this: “If you’re burned out, go on a trip and you’ll come back recharged.”

Utter crap.

When something is grinding your gears, you can’t just walk away and hope for some kind of Office Space zen moment to make it all better. You’re just postponing your misery — it’ll be right there when you get back. Instead, identify your problem and address it head on. A good manager should be flexible enough to make a miserable situation better, and if they can’t, you should save your sanity and quietly start looking for a new job.

Vacations should be their own thing entirely. Instead of taking a vacation to recharge your engine for work, you should be taking vacations because you have interests outside of work entirely. Pursue them. Go to the spa because you really like going to spas. Go to the beach and surf because your soul needs the ocean. Sit on your couch and watch all of Game of Thrones because you want a distraction-free refresher before the new season starts.

Whatever you do, don’t go on vacation just because you’re burned out and can’t take it anymore. Vacations won’t fix that. Only action will.

Intermission 3: Melle’s coworker

statler

Would you wish this upon others?

I asked a very specific question to the team, which I’ll end this lengthy post with: If your best friend owned a company, would you recommend a remote-only workplace?

Absolutely.

It would depend on what the company did and the particular friend. I don’t think it’s for everyone or every company. Generally, though, I would say companies that’re dead set against it are hamstringing themselves.

I believe it could be hard for a new company to be fully remote from day one while building out the initial product, unless people have worked together previously and know each other’s work style.

It’s a big trust-fall exercise which I guess can go both ways, if you hire the right people and harness the right culture - they’ll catch you and help grow the company; if they’re not the right people you’ll face-off with gravity and likely come of worse.

It would depend on the what they made/did, how mature the company was, whether people were already in the same timezone, etc. A one-size-fits-all answer would be a lie here I feel. The things I would say to the friend are, the problems will probably be things you don’t expect, and try and hire someone who’s already worked remote if you can.

With a LOT of pro-tips and recommendations. I don’t know if anyone has perfected it.

My desk for the day

backyard

Habits to improve productivity

productivity habits

Recently we've talked about tools to improve your focus and some productivity apps we love, but now it's time to dig into habits. Apps and tools are helpful, but if you really want to improve your productivity you need to look at your habits.

Mise en place

Mise en place (French pronunciation: [mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means "putting in place" or "everything in its place." It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift.[1]

You are likely not working in the culinary world, but mise en place is a good habit anyone can use. It means to gather your tools and materials together before you start. The idea is to not give your brain an excuse to break your focus. Gather your pens, papers, books, research, computer, including the charger, and whatever else you'll need to get your work done before you start. According to some research from the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after a distraction. Jumping up from your work to track down a computer charging cable, pen or other items you need for your task even once can set you back nearly half an hour.

Set the scene

Similar to mise en place, you will also want to make sure your work environment is set up and ready for you to work. Have a warm drink (I wish there was a magical mug that would refill itself with freshly brewed coffee), a glass of water, tissues, snacks to nibble on, set up and ready. Adjust the temperature and the lighting if you need to. Ideally, you'll have a workspace at your company office or your home that is dedicated to work only.

This can be a tricky task for those of us who work remotely. If we're working from home, we tend to work in the same places we relax. Sitting on the sofa or at the kitchen table can work, but it might be affecting your overall productivity.

Triggers and cues

If you commute to work, you already have some triggers built into your routine. The daily commute to work, the stop at the coffee station to pour your jolt of caffeine, getting settled at your workstation, these are all triggers for your brain that work is about to begin.

For those who work from home, you may need to get a little more creative with your triggers, especially if you're working in a space you otherwise would relax in.

A writer friend of mine who works from home, mainly sitting on his sofa with his laptop, has developed some cues for his brain to help trigger "it's time to work" mode.

First, he gets dressed, including shoes. Sure, the thought of working from home in your pyjamas seems ideal but if you're trying to improve productivity in your daily work, try getting dressed as if you were going to work at an office to help your brain move into "work mode".

His other cue is silly but he swears it works every time. As he is setting up for his day's work, making sure he has everything he needs, he plays the Imperial March from Star Wars. By the time the Imperial March is over, his brain has triggered into work mode. He assures me his productivity and focus has improved noticeably since he started using this technique. Any other sound or music can work as a cue to trigger your mind into work mode. Perhaps the theme song from The Office or maybe My Shot from the musical Hamilton.

Other cues you can to trigger your brain to know it's work time?

  • Sitting at a desk or in a chair that you reserve for "work time" only.
  • putting on a piece of clothing you only wear for "work time", such as a hat, sweater, watch.
  • after any activity such as walking the dog, going for a run or making a cup of tea

The goal is to create a cue that tells your brain, after I do this thing, in this way, it's time to work. With an activity, you also do after work time, like walking the dog, make it slightly different between work time and non-work time. Walk the dog in a different direction or for a different length of time, run a different route, make green tea if your "work mode" tea is chamomile. It doesn't matter what the activity triggers are, just that you are consistent

Brain dump

Having ten different ideas, projects, things to remember is a productivity killer. Instead of trying to remember other things while you're in work mode, write it down. Trying not to forget you have to pick your child up from school today because your partner has a meeting? Set an alarm on your phone or a reminder in your calendar and let it go. Thinking about what to say at your review next week? Make a note, let it go, and refocus.

Brain dumps, writing down everything that's going through your mind, work best if you use the technique regularly. Every morning before you start your work with a brain dump with a pen and scrap paper, in your journal or in an empty text file. Brain dumps can be point form, in a rambling stream of consciousness pile of word vomit, or fully formed paragraphs. The important thing is to clear your mind of anything that's not related to the work you're about to do right now.

You can repeat brain dumps after breaks and at the end of your work time as well.

Task chunking

Personally, the best habit I've ever developed is task chunking. I group similar tasks such as making phone calls, writing emails, writing content, and other daily or weekly tasks together and focus on those task for a period of time each day or each week, depending on the type of task. If my mind is already focused on making phone calls (my least favourite thing to do), it's easier to get them all done at once before moving to a different type of task.

Eat that frog

“Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” Excerpt From: Brian Tracy. “Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.”

We often have tasks we don't enjoy doing (have I mentioned I hate making phone calls?) which we often put off as long as we can. In Brian Tracy's Eat That Frog! he recommends the opposite - do the task you hate doing or the task that's most important first. Once you've eaten the frog of that task, the rest of the day is easy.

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