The Future is Distributed: How & Why to Make Remote Work, Work. | John O’Duinn

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John O’Duinn, author of “Distributed Teams”, discusses why making remote work work is critical to the Future Of Work, our communities, our companies and above all — how to do it well.

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John O’Duinn

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Jamie [00:00:17] Welcome to the Future of Work podcast from Allwork.Space. My name is Jamie Orr, I’m the co-founder of Jellyswitch, as well as Cowork Tahoe. I’m proud to be a writer with Allwork.Space and even more proud to welcome our guest today, John O’Duinn, the author of “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together while Physically Apart”. It’s an amazing book and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Welcome, John!

John [00:00:45] Hey there, Jamie. Good morning.

Jamie [00:00:47] Good morning. So a little bit about John and then I’ll let him take it away. John O’Duinn is that computer guy who has written code and led teams in companies ranging from four person startups, to nonprofits to multinationals, including the U.S. government as part of the U.S. digital service in the Obama White House. So, quite a decorated career. You want to add anything about your background? And then I’m really curious to hear what motivated you to write your book?

John [00:01:14] One of the things in hindsight, which I, of course, didn’t realize at the beginning, but in hindsight is that I’ve been working in physically distributed teams for most of my career. Actually, the first company, a part of preparing for this podcast, I was trying to remember what was the first company. I think it was 1991. And most teams I’ve been in and most companies I’ve been in, I’ve just been all over the place because we’re doing weird, interesting engineering projects and all the people that were just the right person for that role didn’t all live near each other. So, I thought that was normal. That was the way all companies worked. 

And I discovered, and of course, I’ve made mistakes over the years, but I remember discovering at one point that I had somebody who was very, very upset about something that was going on in a company. And they, in a big rant, told me like, “Well, it’s not fair. I don’t know what’s going on because I’m remote. You and your team are all in headquarters. You all know what’s going on because you’re in headquarters.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m not in headquarters and no one on my team is anywhere near me. Like, what’s going on here?” So, of course, engineer brain kicks in and tries to figure out what’s the problem. And it’s the same companies, the same product, it’s the same teams. And we all we’re working on different management structures. And how we coordinate with each other’s work was totally different. And that’s I was like, wait a second, there’s something going on here. That’s why I started to pay attention to it, that, you know, the book is basically twenty seven years of here’s what I tried and here’s what did and didn’t work either as an engineer in the team or as a leader of teams or doing consulting for companies and incubators. As I jokingly tell people, is like, at least if you’re going to do this. Learn from my mistakes and if you’re going to make mistakes, make new ones. So that’s what the book is, very hands on how to get stuff done book.

Jamie [00:03:18] And I love it. It’s an incredibly tactical book. And I think that, you know, the timing of it is just impeccable because, you know, we’re seeing a real boom in the growth of this distributed workforce. And so I think that, you know, it’s now more than ever it’s important that we all can do this well. So, in your view, who is this book for?

John [00:03:42] If you can reach out and touch everyone on the shoulder, physically, of everyone you work with, then you probably are OK without this. Well, you will need it as soon as your company grows to the point where you cannot reach out and touch everyone on the shoulder. And I haven’t, you know, apart from a couple of four person startups, one of which was in the same garage. Another was four people in four garages. Like if you cannot reach out and touch everyone on the shoulder, you need to know how to organize how you work. And some of that is technology. And of course, as techies, we jump to – “Do you use this product versus that product for tracking work or for communicating?” And of course, you have to get that right. But a lot of it is around the human business management of how you work. And that’s, I think, everyone should do that.

Jamie [00:04:34] So in the book, you talk not only about a lot of the tactical kind of tips and tricks that will get into a minute. But what are some of the other key benefits to corporations and government moving more towards distributed teams. 

John [00:04:53] The benefits would be…well, obviously, a lot of people will focus on and I think it’s interesting people talking about the benefits for the individual because that’s their perspective. They are the individual who wants to be able to work from home or wants to be able to work from a neighborhood coworking space. I think the piece that is interesting, and it’s easy to find data for (and it’s all over the place and there are supporting links in the book and the research) was why this is good for business. So, companies that are physically distributed have a much higher workforce diversity, both in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of age, in terms of physical abilities. Which, when you stop and look at it in hindsight is it’s kind of self-evident and obvious.

Like if someone is a caregiver, they cannot take a job that is more than 10 to 15 minutes away from wherever the child or the elderly parent is. No matter what their qualifications are, no matter how much the employer wants to hire them, they cannot take the job because of the commute. And that’s got nothing to do with their technical skills, it’s got nothing to do with your recruitment policy, and it impacts your diversity hiring. Proven. Right. That’s easy. 

Same for people who have physical limitations, I’ve worked with people who are blind and in wheelchairs. One of them actually used to commute every now and then, which was because, you know, the particular human wanted social interaction, which I think is great and important. Requiring the person to commute five times a week, like every morning and every evening, was actually hard. And you know, anyone who wants to try a little experiment for themselves, put on a bandage over your eyes and try and take public transit to your office if you have one. I know in my case, I would find the sheer idea too terrifying and I would just be delighted if I got to the right building. Never mind actually do any work once I got there. So that commute is actually a provable barrier to hiring. 

And then, of course, there’s other aspects, too, like if you require everyone to be in the office to work, you tend to not think about how your company operates if the office is suddenly closed or you can’t get to the office. So I point to research around Hurricane Sandy in New York, where offices and homes were fine, mostly after that. But a lot of people could not travel to the office because the subway was flooded. And the company just didn’t know how to operate. And the same was true for the California state government in the 1989 earthquake that hit during the middle of a giant telework experiment. The people who are already used to working from home and knew how to work from home were able to quickly get back to work. Whereas the people who didn’t know how to work from home were unable to learn how to work from home while trapped at home. So they had to, it took them a lot longer to get back online and start working again, and basically to wait for the roads to be repaired and the office to be opened. And like there’s every one of the people who runs real estate for large corporations. They can tell you the dollar cost per minute of it of a site closure. And they just all go away if you all work from anywhere. 

Jamie [00:08:11] That’s incredible. So in terms of, you know, in terms of diversity and hiring, in terms of retention, in terms of resilience, companies that can really work well in a distributed fashion are going to be and have been much more successful. Are there…?

John [00:08:29] ..Yeah, they are literally out hiring and out competing and, you know, if your competitor is able to hire faster and hire better and retain longer. You know, you’ve set yourself up for a corporate disadvantage. Right from the get go.

Jamie [00:08:48] What do you think – is there a main reason why you think a lot of organizations aren’t doing this more? I mean, do you think it’s just that they just don’t know how and hopefully they just need your book?

John [00:09:01] Well, that is certainly a factor behind writing the book. Yes. I mean, tooling, obviously, what tools you use, like how do you handle group chat? How do you handle email and video calls and all that kind of stuff? You have to get that right. And so that’s why that’s a third of the book. 

But actually, business management is and how you lead teams, and how do you foster trust and how do you foster… like, how do you do interviewing? How do you deal with conflict if you’re in a physically distributed team and conflict avoidance is easy? These are all hard management leadership things. And if you don’t do them right…If you walk around the office to see who’s working hardest because you see who’s sitting at a chair, then you give promotions to the people who talk the loudest. You make all sorts of invalid business decisions based on invalid signals. Whereas some research just came out where women are more likely, to take one example, women are more likely to get promoted if they work in physically distributed teams. Because, in my opinion, from reading that research paper, that’s only one research. So we’ll see. But from that one, I believe it to be that in physically distribute teams, you really have to have people clearly showing what they’re working on and how they’re working. So very much a kind of results oriented work environment. If you all go with some of the business language that people use. And in those environments, you can more clearly see who really is working and who’s just talking big talk. And I think that’s actually a real factor in people then enjoying their work because they actually get recognized for it. And so they stay longer. And then that company out competes because the people are doing good work. 

So, just to add on a lot of the incubators I’ve been working with, the founders are actually scared about how do they start getting an office. And it’s like, you know, if you’re committing to an office committing to a five or ten year lease somewhere, you’re also going to start only hiring people who live near that office. And then… Do you want to start excluding people who want to apply for jobs? Can you predict how many people are going to be working in your company in five years time? Because that’s how many desks you’re gonna have to start renting now as part of the lease agreement. So people are not. They are just like starting to do the coworking space angle where they’re like hire anybody and build a distributed team from the start. So I think it’s a real, it’s a seriously big trend. We’re going through the tipping point right now.

Jamie [00:11:47] And I think we absolutely need to. I mean, I love something that I’ve heard you say a lot is that companies should look to be hiring the best person for the job, not the best person that’s willing to commute to their office. And working on a distributed team, as you know, is a big part of that. 

One fun kind of anecdote. The Allwork team actually has an editorial meeting every week that is through Zoom and after you know, after I introduced the team to your book…one of my favorite tips is, you know, when you’re on a call like this to make sure that not only is everyone present via microphone, but also via camera. Actually having the ability to see everybody’s faces. And this was something that the Allwork team wasn’t doing all the time. And so just last week, everyone turned cameras on. And I got a great comment that, you know, two of the writers have been working together for several years and it was really like maybe the second time they’d seen each other’s faces. The result of just that one little experiment, being a tip from your book, was incredible. And I think that human connection really does add to building trust and effectiveness on a remote team.

John [00:13:06] Yeah, I think it’s you know, that’s part of why, to that topic in the book, I mean, having people use their own head and shoulders camera so you can clearly see each other’s faces seems sort of silly and distracting. I can do other stuff while I’m in this meeting. But actually, humans as a species have relied on looking at each other’s faces and interpreting non-verbal cues for a long time. And so if you go into a meeting where you suddenly cut out all the verbal cues so I can’t tell, does wrinkled eyebrows mean Happy-Jamie? Bored-Jamie? Grumpy-Jamie? Frustrated-Jamie who wants to speak? Or is it like, if I lose all that, if I just have silence, I can’t tell. Does the silence equal angry, does the silence equal bored and waiting for me to hurry up? Silence equals eagerly supporting what I’m saying? I can’t. And so then you get miscommunications and then you get lack of trust and then you get arguments over things that people would actually not argue about if they actually couldn’t see each other’s faces and realized that they were saying the same things or agreeing. 

So a lot of these miscommunications just go away by fixing the basic setups. Why people don’t like getting on video calls because they get video cause they say, oh, well, I don’t look good or I feel like I’m being watched or I feel like it’s not flattering to me and say, well, you know, you can move the camera. You do have the physical ability to move the camera and maybe even turn on the lights and suddenly it’s much better. But most people don’t think about it. So that’s why I make a point of going through the mechanics of the details of that in the book and you’re right, it makes a huge difference. All those non-verbal cues, massive, massive difference in terms of trust and communication and just how fast meetings go. You’re not waiting for someone to stop talking and have a couple of seconds silence before the next person starts talking. Or the next person un-mutes and starts talking. You can instead start talking more naturally because you can see each other’s faces and you can use those non-verbal cues.

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Jamie [00:15:15] And I think that’s an incredible benefit that I know I certainly didn’t think of before reading your book. Its just the, you know, not only the accessibility to your team using some of these tools and things like lighting and having the cameras on, but also the efficiency and the productivity increases as a result of these…really, really actionable and pretty simple tricks. If you spend just a little bit getting used to using them, I’ve noticed that my productivity when I’m one on these calls has gone way up and it’s not something that I expected.

John [00:15:55] Yeah, I mean, and they are simple. Each one of them is like simple tricks. But, you know, I could write like several novels of all the things I tried that went wrong, that didn’t make things better. And so I tried to just the book is really just a collection of “This worked!”. Try this simple and minimize down the easiest thing you can try to make an improvement. And so far, I’ve had actually good feedback from people. It seems to be working. So thanks for also saying that, too.

Jamie [00:16:27] You know, we’ve spoken a lot about how much I’ve taken away from this book. As the author, what do you hope that readers will really take away?

John [00:16:38] I think the first one is that it’s actually easy to do and also the usual. The funny thing I get a lot of questions from people is, oh, wait, this is it must be hard. You must be using some special secret new technology product that I don’t have my hands on yet. And what’s the secret tool that you’re using? And I think, you know, we come from engineering backgrounds and we tend to think about engineering tools. And the realization that this is actually a human problem. Of course, the technology has to work, but it’s how humans communicate with each other and how humans organize how they work. I think that’s the one that’s the biggest, biggest thing. If that’s all that people pick up on and they start to change how they behave as humans. Using existing tools, they’ll be really happy with the progress that they see. I also think that it’s something that applies in a lot more organizations than I originally thought of. So I found myself talking to nonprofits where they’re working with people in different locations. I found myself talking to organizations that are dealing with disaster resilience issues where something went down so suddenly they don’t have an office or they don’t have a bridge between two offices and in a physical actual bridge between two offices. And they’re trying to figure out how to work with that. And this is, um, uncovering what was actually preexisting, internal, in-the-office miscommunication problems. You can work on those very easily starting today. 

Jamie [00:18:28] I love how you focus on, again, the technology is not the solution and that it is, it is a human problem. You know, you’re not…you didn’t just write this book and throw it out into the wild. You’re actively working.

John [00:18:41] Right.

Jamie [00:18:42] Talking to tons of people and governments and all over the place. You’re really promoting this as the movement, like you said, we’re on the tipping point. Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that you’re doing to help implement and apply everything that you’ve written about in the book?

John [00:19:02] Sure. One is just an awareness thing. So, for example, yes the technology’s improved. We have a lot more access to high speed internet. It’s not perfect across the world yet and even within the United States yet, but it’s getting better. But there’s also factors to include there that are non-technical that are important as part of the same conversation. We don’t have the idea of a job for life anymore. We haven’t had that for a couple of decades, which means people change jobs all the time, which means people, if you go to an office, will have a different commute pattern every couple of years. 

This means city planners cannot build trains and reroute bus routes fast enough because humans can change jobs even faster. And so you will always have people saying, “Oh, I’d love to take the bus, except it doesn’t go to where my office is.” Because it did for a year or two and then you changed jobs. Now you’re in a new company with a new office that is not convenient to public transit. So you drive. So our carbon footprint for the state of California is going up. Because more people are driving and more people are driving further distances. Because of this changing jobs. So that’s a social impact from a carbon point of view.

John [00:20:24] The other part of this is other, again, non-technical changes. 2017 was the first year where millennials, or Gen Y, became the largest segment of the US workforce. And they’ve all grown up with no job for life and they’ve seen that they need to be able to live their lives and actually still have meaningful careers. And why bother relocating for a new job? Because you’re gonna be leaving it again in a short time. So migration patterns within the US are dropping drastically. They’re at the lowest they have ever been since they started recording them in 1947. And yeah, that’s Gen Y or millennials. Well sometime either 2020 or 2021, Gen Z, which comes after millennials will be the next largest segment of the workforce. Also, the same economic footprint of what they’re walking into. And for both of these populations of people, they always grew up thinking iPhones always existed, free streaming video, Skype always existed and always had high speed Internet.

Jamie [00:21:35] I totally agree that city planners can’t necessarily plan in the same way that they used to. So what role do you see governments playing in promoting and kind of handling this distributed workforce?

John [00:21:52] Well, the traditional model for government economic development, which is traditional, meaning it’s the way governments started doing this soon after we started inventing factories in the 1880s was the particular jurisdiction would incentivize, or give a bunch of money to, a large corporation to come and set up their premises or their office or their factory in your town. 

There were a few reasons for that. One is that the organization would now be employing the local people and training them up, and they would have people come and get a job in the mail room and work your way up to being, you know, maybe a V.P. of some department at some point over the course of your career. That would give…the organization would then be paying back taxes to the jurisdiction. So the organization would pay taxes to the jurisdiction. So eventually the jurisdiction gets their money back. Also, local people get jobs at the company, which is great, and those local people pay taxes as well. So the jurisdiction gets their money back. 

So it’s an interesting way to like kickstart an economy by bringing in a catalyst to make something work. That changes when you don’t have a job for life. One is that people , employers, tend to only hire people who have the skills that they need, so they won’t…it’s less likely that people will hire someone who’s clearly not proven and then train them up through the ranks. That’s fading away as a thing now. So people are hired for a particular skill. They work for two years is now the industry average in Silicon Valley. And then they leave and go work somewhere else. So why train someone if you know they’re going to leave? It’s only going to cost you money. 

And so you get a lot of companies cutting back on training, workforce training. Career progression is inside the company, which means if a company moves to your jurisdiction, even if you give them incentives and they move, they’re only going to hire pre trained pre-existing people who typically won’t live there. So they’re going to bring in other people to work at their company. They’re not going to hire many of the local existing population. So then you get a group of people who want to live near the new office. So you get this gentrification and displacement game going on where they displace all the people who used to live there. That’s one problem.

And then the other people still have a long commute. So now you get a traffic commute problem. That’s another problem. The other one is that companies are now very, very good at negotiating incentives for this because they know how valuable it is. So they’ll negotiate a lot. And then they will also be very, very good at making sure they don’t pay corporate taxes. And I’m not an accountant, so I can’t not figure out all the hoops, but they make sure that some of these large companies manage to pay less taxes than me as an individual, which is quite amazing. 

So organized jurisdictions don’t get their money back from the corporate tax. And that’s what triggered this different approach. I think having coworking spaces in different communities so people can live wherever they want and have a meaningful career, while living in a neighborhood that now has an employed population of people bringing net new revenue in. Like if I work in South Lake Tahoe, to take a hypothetical example, and then I go work in a coworking space there and I get paid by an employer that’s not there. I’m bringing net new cash into South Lake Tahoe. And then I go spend it in a coffee shop or in a restaurant that’s net new revenue going around inside the town. And that’s an important enabler. And also, I’m also normalizing the idea you can work online because my neighbors will see me walking down to the coworking center and having a good job and walking home. And at some point my neighbors who would have never considered working online, will come and ask me, how do you do that? What kind of job do you do? And so then they can see that normal people work online and have meaningful careers. So I think those coworking spaces are really, really important.

Jamie [00:26:18] And I mean, I completely agree. And, you know, I may be somewhat biased, but that’s I mean, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in South Lake Tahoe at Cowork Tahoe. In fact, what we’ve gotten not only as a result of having a physical coworking center that people can walk or ride their bikes to, it’s allowing people to live in a mountain town like ours where they’d like to live. And still be participating in the workforce that they did when they were in New York or Chicago or Silicon Valley. And now we are seeing a pretty big impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the community as a whole, because not only are new people to town participating in these jobs, it is inspiring and allowing the local workforce to also see that its a  possibility to participate in the distributed workforce as well. So, do you think that local governments and policymakers and economic development institutions should really focus on coworking and flexible workspace instead of these incentive packages to large corporations?

John [00:27:27] Yeah, I try and avoid absolutes because there’s always an exception case for something, so I say usually, like not talked about much, but in that Vermont remote worker law that you mentioned, there is a clause about state grants to help create coworking spaces in small towns. Because if you get people moving to Vermont to work remotely from Vermont, then at some point, you need social interaction. You can’t just work from home alone all the time. And so these coworking spaces, again, in the walkable neighborhoods, in these small towns would encourage people who are working online to come down and work out of the coworking space where there is high speed Internet, meet their neighbors, normalise the idea of remote work. To make that easier to start there is a matching grant clause in that law. So if you’re in Vermont and you want to create a coworking space in your neighborhood, the state has a matching grant clause in there to help that. And I think that to me, the reason that I think is important, tied to the longevity of our average tenure in workplace. If you live in a neighborhood and you walk to your coworking space and you work for an employer for two years and you quit and you then start working for a new employer, you still live in the same house, you still walk to the same neighborhood coworking space. And that provides a consistency that means that the local jurisdiction, your town, now has longer term residents who spend more time walking in their main street, who pay taxes. Which means this town actually can start doing better planning for things like schools and roads and all the other things that take multi years or decades to set up. 

So I think that stability of population and stability of revenue and a diversified revenue stream like one person in that coworking space might get laid off because their employer closed down. But it’s not 80 percent of the town population got laid off. Because if your local economy depends on one employer and that one employer shuts down and 80 percent of your population gets laid off, even the 20 percent that don’t work for that employer lose all their customers and the entire town is gutted. And we’ve seen pictures of this all over. It’s topical in the news these days about the United States. But the same is true for other locations outside the United States as well. So having all eggs in one basket to me feels like a risky maneuver for a jurisdiction. It’s certainly a risky maneuver for your savings account and your own retirement plans. You should diversify your income stream. And the same is true for jurisdictions. I think these incentives for remote working coworking spaces helps diversify the income stream for jurisdictions. So I think it’s a really important maneuver. Yes.

Jamie [00:30:37] This is incredible, John, thank you so much. Oh, if you haven’t read the book yet, “Distributed teams: the art and practice of working together while physically apart”, it’s a critical read for the future of work. Check it out. I have learned so much from it. I really do think we are at the tipping point. Thank you so much for tuning in to the Future of Work podcast. My name is Jamie Orr. And can’t wait to have you join us for the next one.

John [00:31:03] Thank you very much, Jamie.

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