Working Remotely and the Virtue of Aggressive Transparency
One of the things that it has taken me quite a long time to figure out, when it comes to this remote work gig, is this idea I’ve taken to calling aggressive transparency.
I’ve been chewing on this idea quite a lot, and in chatting with my team and other folks whose opinions I respect, I think I’m starting to feel like it’s something I should articulate in greater detail.
Communication is deeply important in a distributed company. You can see it in places like Buffer’s default to transparency. At Automattic we say that communication is oxygen. When you’re working in this environment, the responsibility for full communication of your work and your personal value falls entirely on your shoulders.
There are mechanisms and processes in place to surface it on some level — number of commits, number of live chats, words posted on internal boards, etc etc — this is true. At the end of the day, however, to succeed, to truly thrive in a distributed environment, you have to do more than that. If you rely solely upon automated data collection mechanisms to tell the story of your value, you’re underselling yourself, and you will struggle to feel impactful or valuable.
Here is a comment I posted recently that helps to indicate what I’m thinking — a P2 is an internal site that we use for communication:
Toiling in silence without posting to P2s about your progress, your thoughts, and your approach to getting better is, in my view, possibly the worst way to approach working in our fully distributed environment.
Your default must be aggressive transparency — I say aggressive because even if you are killing it chats / tickets wise, if you aren’t sharing your expertise, if you aren’t distributing that excellence in a way that is useful for all of us, you’re only doing half of your job.
Be a Force Multiplier
I believe in a remote work environment, internalizing the need for aggressive transparency is the best way to go from individual contributor to force multiplier. Force multiplication is a term I’m stealing here from the US Military, generally used to describe technology or tactics that can multiply the effectiveness of a fighting unit. Classic examples are things like air superiority or outstanding morale.
Force multiplication can apply in business, too — especially in fully distributed businesses. Not every employee is created equal: folks who come to work to do the work and go home are creating some value, but folks who come to work willing and able to do not only their own work but to create processes and tactics that improve the work of others — they represent force multiplication, and they are far and away the most valuable folks you can have, because their contributions multiply across everyone they come in contact with.
You can think of someone like this, I bet. Someone who is able to spread value in a way that is infectious — maybe it’s in building educational systems to improve new employee retention and confidence. Maybe it’s effectively facilitating meetings. Maybe it’s outstanding mentorship.
If you want to be a force multiplier, and you work remotely, you need to be aggressively transparent to find success. In pursuit of a definition, I would say that there are three ingredients you have to balance when it comes to aggressive transparency: peer education, public reflection, and self promotion.
It’s unlikely that any particular thing you do will fall entirely within one of these buckets — far more likely is that you’ll find that your communication blends two or three of them at any given time.
You’re working. Your peers are working. In a remote environment, it is very, very easy to unintentionally silo yourself, and assume that your own pains and advantages are not applicable to your team mates and colleagues. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: you’re all working the same code base, for the same customers, in the same environment.
It is absolutely critical to share your experiences in an intentional and educational way. Your colleagues need you to share what’s working and what’s not working, so they can pick up tips and tactics from you, or avoid the pitfalls that you’re experiencing. With that information distributed, it becomes more valuable — a 1% gain for you, shared with 20 people, suddenly represents a much bigger win for the whole company.
Nothing is too small to share. Any win can be iterated upon and adjusted for others’ work flows or approaches. If it’s stored in searchable perpetuity (which it should be!), it also represents an evergreen resource for new hires.
If you’re lucky enough to work remotely, you’re likely able to largely build your own schedule. Testing schedule changes and seeing what works best is a great example of an N=1 experiment. You should be running experiments on yourself and your work style as often as possible. It’s the only way you’re going to learn how you work best, and how you function best.
Those experiments, especially if they are failures, should be shared with the rest of your team. You can see how this bleeds into peer education, right? When you try 4 x 10 hour days and can’t seem to get into the groove, you likely have a colleague who can offer some insight. At the very least, your experience will add value and help inspire others into experiments of their own. Encourage them to post their results publicly, too!
Where I come from, self promotion feels dirty. It’s scammy, it’s something a used car salesman would do. The fact is, if you want to create as much value as you possibly can, especially in a distributed environment, you absolutely must make that value as easy to find as possible.
Any hidden talents or secret skills will not be discovered by chance — you have to use them, and tell folks about them, and ensure that it is visible and easy to understand. Everyone is busy, and the only person who is truly invested in your success is you. Make your wins obvious. Make it very easy for folks to know what you’re good at, what rings your bell, and how you can add value to their project, to their vision.
At the end of the day, all three buckets really boil down to the same thing: being aggressively transparent means not only being honest with wins and failures, but doing so in a way that is visible to others, and adds value to others. In that way, your personal experiences can translate in a force multiplying way, rippling across others in a way that creates more value than nearly anything else you can do.
If you’re working remotely, if you want to create impact, inspire value, and be a force multiplier, you must be aggressively transparent.