The Year Without Pants and How to Replace Email

Year Without PantsThe Year Without Pants and the future of work is Scott Berkun’s account of his year working for Automattic, Inc. the company behind WordPress, the online, open source website creation software that many consider the easiest and most powerful blogging and website content management system (CMS) available today.

According to Amazon:

50 million websites, or twenty percent of the entire web, use WordPress software. The force behind WordPress.com is a convention-defying company called Automattic, Inc., whose 120 employees work from anywhere in the world they wish, barely use email, and launch improvements to their products dozens of times a day.

WordPress is mostly free to use for anything from a personal blog to a Fortune 500 corporate web site. WordPress was used to create the blog that you’re reading right now.

I picked up this book because it’s about working remotely, or running a “distributed company” as they call it at Automattic, Inc. The story of WordPress is interesting and Berkun has some profound yet simple observations about people and how we communicate at work.

Like many companies in the digital economy, Verto Solutions is struggling a bit with remote work. Most members of the Verto team are passionate and self-sufficient, but when professionals aren’t in the same office it takes extra effort to collaborate and keep projects moving. The Year Without Pants is about the team that is maintaining and continuously improving the WordPress software, while rarely working in their offices in San Francisco.

Commuting, kids, and travel create legitimate reasons for wanting to work remotely. There’s clearly a trend toward adoption of remote or distributed work. Some believe that any organization that works primarily in the digital world can work remotely, but it’s more complicated than that.

Working remotely comes with compromises. Compromises that impact the company, the clients, and the advancement of individual professional careers.  The reason many people want to work remotely is to help manage kids and the household. My wife and I find that the logistical challenges of raising children make it very difficult to work from home.

Working from home probably hurts the employee as much as the company and the clients. But working remotely, or “distributed work” as Berkun calls it, is a fact of life as a result of computers. The average Verto Solutions employee works on a half dozen projects or issues each day. All of these involve using a computer, but they also require collaboration with other members of the Verto team and of course, our clients. Collaboration is how we move things forward and get answers to the tough questions.

So how can we work remotely while maintaining high levels of collaboration and productivity? The book gave me some ideas, such as teams should increase connectivity by using chat and Skype as opposed to email.  In fact, the book helped me find the answer to a question that’s been on my mind lately:  How will we communicate after we stop using email?
shutterstock_132990344Email as we use it today is broken. The volume of email that most professionals receive is unreasonable. One of my new year’s resolutions is to unsubscribe to all the junk mail that makes it through the spam filter. Now that I’m consciously unsubscribing, I’m amazed at how much junk email I was receiving.

Berkun calls it email madness, “where people are so overwhelmed by the waves of email they receive that they protect their psyche by never reading any of it. Instead they skim emails quickly and write and send replies even quicker…What they don’t realize is if they send waves of bad email out, they’re guaranteed to get waves of bad email back…”

Email is a horrible tool for many of the things it’s used for. It puts too much power in the hands of the sender; they can put anything they want in your in-box. Email is also a closed channel, unless you’re one of the addressees you can’t see the conversation. And email goes away, it’s really hard to search and be reminded of previous conversations. All of these problems are solved when a group uses a blog.

Blogs are the collaboration and information sharing tool to replace email. Blogs, the web-based logs enabled by WordPress and many other software products, are an easy way for groups of any size to collaborate and share information. If you haven’t created one they might seem complicated, but fundamentally a blog is just a place where a small or large group of people can see and share information and comment on it. It’s a web page, but thanks to software like WordPress they’re really flexible and easy to create one.

All of the associations managed by Verto Solutions have boards, committees, and task forces. These groups meet in person just a few times per year (just like the teams at Automattic) but they are constantly sharing technical information and collaborating on documents. We all have strategies for dealing with the flood of information, I use folders and project management sheets, others hang on to all of their messages and rely on search to find what they need when they need it. Wouldn’t it be better if you always knew that to get the latest info and all the info on a particular subject you simply go to the blog page for that board, committee or project?

We’ve already created web pages for some of the boards and committees of Verto-managed associations. What I’m talking about is creating blogs for any group or project of any duration that will involve sharing information. Blogs are just less formal web pages that allow everyone to see everything and eliminate the annoying group emails.

Using blogs isn’t a silver bullet and email is part of how blogs work (assuming you sign up to be notified when something’s been posted). Some conversations need to be real time, and in-person conversations convey so much more information when you factor in the eye contact and body language. Email is not going away completely, but we need to stop using it for brainstorming and routine information sharing.

The Year Without Pants doesn’t provide a model of remote work that we could apply at Verto Solutions.  Scott Berkun’s team is made up of young people that work in shorts and don’t appear to have any children or spouses.  They’re young programmers traveling around the world, while remaining productive by living on-line.

But the story did open my eyes to the power of blogs as association management platforms. I wonder which Verto Solutions-managed association will be the first to experiment with using a blog to manage a project?

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One Response to The Year Without Pants and How to Replace Email

  1. piermontkuiper says:

    I’m happy to see that working remotely has spread to Verto but I have to say that whether or not it is a good idea is a much more complex question than is conveniently answered by any one question. Considerations need to be not only whether the job itself can be done remotely (at least part of the time) but also whether being remote works for the individual and whether the individual has been prepared properly. I have to disagree with the blanket statement that the company and the client much less the employee suffers a detriment to remote working. If this is the case then the situation has been approached incorrectly. As Forbes Magazine discussed in the May 2014 article “Working Remotely: Does The Research Prove It Won’t Work For You?” working remotely can actually increase performance as well as satisfaction for many employees. Oversimplification is typically the Achilles heal for any remote working arrangement. Employees interested in working from home need to understand that they need to structure their workspace and their schedule at home just as they would in the office or suffer loss of productivity as well as feel dissatisfied. Occasionally having a child relying on you for care while working from home (instead of using a sick day) may be fine, but there must be regular child care for the child other than the employee who is working remotely. FYI older children make for distractions too…different but still requiring parental attention. Planning to take your dog or child for a walk or going for a workout as part of your lunch hour can be a great way to recharge batteries but boundaries must be clear both for the employee and their families. Mindset of an employee going into a remote office situation is critical and when done properly can be a benefit to the company and it’s clients as well as the employee (see article above). As for the use of blogs…I can see the possible benefits, independent of the work from home issue, to using them for communication but there may be times when all project information should not be openly documented to all involved. I see the use of Google Docs and Google Sheets as an excellent project/data sharing tool as well without the setup requirement of a blog. Of course Skype is a great tool that allows conferencing easier and faster than possible before. I see my high school age sons working on their projects at home…4 students each on their own computer in their own home all adding and editing a Google Doc as they are each working on their portion and discussing over Skype what they are finding during research and listening to music while simultaneously creating the draft of a 25 page research paper and accompanying presentation in the span of a single evening. The next generation clearly has this, and the tools to do it well, down to a science.

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