[ Parent Question — LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda ]

How does one run an organization remotely, effectively?

by Raemon1 min read20th Mar 202010 comments

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Having good answers to this seems really important both to the rationalsphere-in-particular, and the world in general over the coming months.

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Elizabeth had previously written some notes on a Lit Review of how effective distributed teams were, which may be relevant to re-review.

Highlights and embellishments:

  • Distribution decreases bandwidth and trust (although you can make up for a surprising amount of this with well timed visits).
  • Semi-distributed teams are worse than fully remote or fully co-located teams on basically every metric. The politics are worse because geography becomes a fault line for factions, and information is lost because people incorrectly count on proximity to distribute information.
  • You can get co-location benefits for about as many people as you can fit in a hallway: after that you’re paying the costs of co-location while benefits decrease.
  • No paper even attempted to examine the increase in worker quality/fit you can get from fully remote teams.

Sources of difficulty:

  • Business science research is generally crap.
  • Much of the research was quite old, and I expect technology to improve results from distribution every year.
  • Numerical rigor trades off against nuance. This was especially detrimental when it comes to forming a model of how co-location affects politics, where much that happens is subtle and unseen. The most largest studies are generally survey data, which can only use crude correlations. The most interesting studies involved researchers reading all of a team’s correspondence over months and conducting in-depth interviews, which can only be done for a handful of teams per paper.

I would follow Manager Tools guidance. They have a whole section called Remote/Virtual Teams and a new cast on Managing During a Pandemic - The COVID-19 Cast.

I don't have any experience as a manager. But I've been following their guidance in many other areas with success. And they usually give a detailed justification of their guidance within each cast.

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3Answer by Tristan Burgess2yThis answer will be addressing the use of software for social life. Recently my extended family has been making use of Zoom to celebrate birthdays, while my friends have been primarily using Discord. Overall, I've found Discord provides a better user experience. Of the two, Zoom has been comparatively easier to set up and run, however, the audio and visual quality seemed variable while we were using it. Also of note is the multiple security issues that have been raised with Zoom recently. Another advantage of Zoom that I've found is that it seems better able to handle large numbers of participants, as Discord generally starts to slow down and cause connection issues above ~10 people, though your mileage with that may vary as internet speeds are not great in Australia. Zoom also seems to be easier (though not easy) for people less familiar with digital technology to navigate. The main benefits of Discord are better quality audio and video with under ten users, and the ability to create servers and chats that last for more than one call. From using Discord fairly regularly since before the pandemic began for keeping on contact with friends I haven't seen recently, their servers are fairly stable and the audio quality does not suffer significantly from slow internet connections. The ability to create servers and chats is also very useful for keeping in contact with friends and family, as it means you can organise meetings and chat outside of them in the same place. As a result of sharing a server, I have been able to keep significantly closer to my friends due to the low level of effort required to send a message and ask them about their day or share an interesting video. To summerise, Zoom seems more appropriate for large meetings, where low-quality audio and visuals is not a game-breaker, and where people who may struggle with navigating user interfaces will be present, whereas Discord is better suited to smaller groups who wish to keep in regular contact easily.
3ChristianKl2yWhat do you think Discord does that provides higher quality audio and video? Both depend a lot on the hardware setup and if you just compare your family to your friends, those groups might have different hardware. As a company, Zoom invested much more into getting high quality video then Discord.
3Tristan Burgess2yThat's a reasonable point, I hadn't considered differences in hardware, and I think controlling for that would probably explain a lot of the difference in my experience performance wise between the two. Thank you for the input, after that I'd update my conclusion to the main benefit of Zoom being ease of use, and the main benefit of Discord being the functionality provided in addition to calling, with significantly less confidence in any diffferences in performance.
2Answer by Raemon2yI ended up writing an extensive post [https://www.lessestwrong.com/posts/hswzBzHSMGxz8rcXg/the-best-virtual-worlds-for-hanging-out] about what virtual worlds are best (if you're aiming for something more immersive than a videocall). The tl;dr is: 1. Town Siempre is best if you want a simple app you can easily invite people to for an informal party. You walk around a teeny pixelated world, able to videochat with people nearby. 2. Minecraft is best if you want a fully featured virtual world to "live" in, and (potentially) if you want to go on "online hikes". 3. Mozilla Hubs is similar to Town Siempre, but 3D instead of 2D. It has more features, but I found it a bit overwhelming to use. 4. AltspaceVR is like Mozilla Hubs, but requires either VR or Windows. It's a bit more polished and smooth, but higher barrier to entry.
1gilch2yI learned that RingCentral is a kind of rebranding of Zoom. Having not tried Zoom, I'm not exactly sure how similar the clients are, but some of my review of RingCentral may apply to Zoom as well.
2gilch8moHaving tried both now, I can say they're basically the same thing.
1gilch2yI have not tried Zoom yet.
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Can you say more about which things from that you've personally tried, or validated in some way?

I haven't been able to personally try or validate much from the book. It's more that the things in the book make a lot of sense to me, and that I have a good amount of trust in the authors.

That said, there are some things that I do have personal experience with and can contribute my data point. I just started an actual remote job three weeks ago, and before that I've spent years as a solo founder of a startup, and autodidacting.

  • The biggest thing (by far?) I've encountered is that it's important to have an off switch. Working from home, it can be tempting to check in and do a few tasks at 10pm. But when I do that, it makes it hard for my mind to properly "shut off" and relax.
  • I've found cabin fever to be a minor issue when I stay home too much, but never a major one.
  • I don't feel like I can get away with slacking off at home. I feel like I'm ultimately just being judged on my output, the same as it is in a physical job. At the end of the day if my output isn't there, I feel like my job would be at risk.
  • At the job I'm currently at we do something called donuts where every two weeks we're paired with someone on the team to have a video chat with to get to know each other, and where talking about work is off-limits. The donut call I had made me feel closer to the people on the call, but I've also started to feel closer with the people I've been interacting with in general. And it's not clear to me that feeling closer to people translates to more productivity at all.
  • Some people on my team aren't native english speakers and have trouble with writing, but despite that, I don't think it actually is much of a barrier. It involves a little bit more back and forth, but soon enough the signal comes through. This goes against one of the chapters in Remote. Perhaps being a clear thinker is what is important versus being a clear writer.

Thanks! 

Fwiw I'd also be interested if you essentially wrote up a mini-book review of REMOTE (maybe editing it into the original answer-comment?)

It's been a while since I read REMOTE, sorry.

I am also interested in hearing any answers people have on this.

I would also think type of organization or nature of the organization's output and its internal relational structure (how do the teams fit together both within teams and across teams) will have a rather strong influence on any best practices one might implement.

Raemon, do you think the audience here has a good idea of what your organization would be or perhaps a small description of the setting might be good.

Ah, I meant this in a more generic sense – I expect "how do I run a remote organization?" to be a highly important question for everyone in the coming months, and I thought it was worth including in the LW Research Agenda. Updated the title to be a little more clear.

Okay. From a practical point, one thing I've found is working remotely from the office introduces two immediate challenges.

First is the loss of the informal information flow -- the remote person just quickly drops out of the loop. When the whole team suddenly becomes becomes remote that informal information flow is just gone. New communication patterns might help mitigate that. I now one of the clients I used to work with had a policy that all emails related to work got sent to everyone. That might not be what you need but they strongly felt that insured the corporate distributed knowledge was preserved and in some cases extended -- sometimes really good insights came from people not directly working on a particular project; sometimes brand new opportunities were seen because multiple teams notices some common threads.

Avoiding the pressure to micromanage will likely be important. Clear goals statements, progress milestones and probably some good mechanism to raise a hand to point up an emerging problem.

When people get moved from the office to working remotely you will likely find that there were all sorts of things taken for granted that made one more productive -- or just made the work easier. Before cutting ties with the office everyone should closely survey their remote work environment to make sure they can do the job remotely as well as in the office from pure procedure steps. Do I really have sufficient desk space or am I trying to work off the kitchen table? With the table work -- is the light right? Too many distractions maybe? What about things like screen space? Access to applications remotely -- does the VPN really kill the connection so you know it will take twice as long to get results back?

If the organization doesn't already have experience with operating on a remote basis it really needs a few dry runs to learn what it doesn't know. So will be the people. Does the organization have time to do that?

Contact lists -- yes, everyone has the office directory but that might not be too helpful when everyone is not remote. Does the phone system support call forwarding -- and does that functionality expose the number the call is then forwarded to. Is that a problem? How well will everyone work if all they have is a cell phone. What's the backup plan there -- online tools (Skype, Zoom, MS Teams or other tools might be good but also might be problematic based on various security setting or bandwidth to the remote location (I am guessing home -- so another twist there is who else is in the house? Does everyone have a work space or will people be trying to work out of their bedrooms in a shared house?)

Most of that is mostly mechanical aspects.

One of the soft aspects is loss of vision -- people cannot monitor each other as they do in the office. That will probably lead to some tension over (not too much) time. It's natural for most of us to see the work we do and see the work not done by others we needed them to do. (I think there have been so posts on LW in that vein of thinking). That's part of a culture shift moving for the co-located office to everyone remote. How best to minimize that type of dynamic should be considered. Maybe some type of group conference call where everyone can share experiences, what's working and what is challenging might help keep everyone feeling they are all in the same boat with one another and not a case of multilateral "me-them" feelings.

These are they types of things I've see or experienced.

If you are thinking about your own organization my suggestion would be some trial runs. The organization was not setup initially for the remote structure so unlikely to have what is needed to support that. There will be a learning curve.

In terms of how to manage the output and make sure the organizational output keeps getting produced you probably already have most of that. They might be a few things you can think about the are directly observed during the normal course of the day. If they are really important from a "run the company" view what is the proxy in the remote setting? What is the impact of generating that proxy measure on just getting the job done?