The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0019

Rework Mailbag 2

Like what we've got to say about business? You'll love Basecamp >

Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson answer listener questions about workplace communication and remote working. Alison Green of Ask A Manager, whom we featured in our previous episode, gives her advice on a couple of questions too. If you’d like to submit a question for Jason and David to answer on a future mailbag episode, call us at (708) 628-7850 or email us at hello@rework.fm.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:07] And I’m Shaun Hildner. This week we bring you our second mailbag episode where Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, here at Basecamp, will be answering your questions. On last episode, we featured an interview with Alison Green who writes a workplace advice column called Ask A Manager, so as a special bonus we’re also going to have her answer a couple of your questions.

[00:00:34] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:39] Here’s question one. What are the imperatives of a leader, particularly managing a remote workforce when it comes to culture? And really around when there are changes to be made, are there elements of that culture that needs to be reinforced? I think what this person is asking is how do you communicate changes in a company culture when the workforce is remote?

Jason: [00:01:01] The way we do it is the same way we would do it even if they’re local, which is we’d write it up. We’d think it through, talk it over, write it up and publish it. And one of the reasons I think that’s really important—and publish I should say, what does that mean? So, in some organizations that might mean emailing it, in our organization, it means posting on Basecamp.

[00:01:16] The reason that’s important, I think, is because it’s historical then. So, if you have a new employee who comes in… First of all it’s important because everyone can read it and they can absorb it at once. And if someone wasn’t there one day, they don’t miss it. And if someone new comes in, they can read that too. Because sometimes, you know, cultural changes might be a moment in time, but, if you want new people to understand why you made a change or what happened, they need to be able to refer to that. And if it just happened in this moment where you say it out loud, it’s kind of lost at that point. So, I think the other thing is that writing it up forces you to really have to explain it well so people can understand it without having to ask questions about it. They’re always free to, but the goal is to like write it up in a way where people are like, I get it. I understand what this is all about and I’m clear.

David: [00:01:57] And I think the follow up to that is then you have to put it into practice, right? Like there’s so many cultural shifts or memos put out that just end there that this is just something a leader or manager wrote up because they would like to see that happen and then they don’t follow through either on their own accord and actions or enforcing that with others. So, I think that before it actually can be called culture, it has to be something that you do, not just something that you say. And, that is not an immediate thing. Right? So you can have this idea, you want to make a change, and you considered change and you write it up and that’s great. But that’s really just the first tiny step before you can really say that you have changed the culture, or impacted the culture, that’s a retrospective thing.

[00:02:49] You look back at it like six months from now, a year from now, and say, oh actually, we did change things. I mean, we’ve certainly had ideas at Basecamp or whatever that we put out there. And then, for whatever reason it doesn’t actually up changing the culture. Perhaps because the idea wasn’t considered enough, or we didn’t follow through on it. Or in other cases we impart something on the culture that we actually didn’t consider that well, didn’t write up. It just became part of the culture because it was something that we did. Right. So, I think that that’s, you always have to look at it and like, what are we actually doing? For me that is what culture is.

Wailin: [00:03:20] Okay. Next question. There’s like a scenario I’ll describe and then there’s a question. My former coworker and I were recently let go from the design agency we worked for. The client work had disappeared in the last year and bonuses were cut for the first time. So, this made sense to us. But we found out the week, from other coworkers, that the decision to let us go was portrayed as having nothing to do with the company’s financial health. Instead, it was characterized as being related to “misalignments with the company culture”. I speculate that management was just worried that announcing budget-related layoffs could create concern detrimental to the business, both among employees and clients. My question is this, as business owners, when it comes to communicating change that is unequivocally negative, do you feel there are exceptions where you may have more to lose by being open and transparent about why decisions are being made?

Alison: [00:04:19] Yeah, that’s pretty crappy for them to have done. They chose messaging that reflects poorly on you, and that could potentially cause real damage to your reputation if this is a small field, or if you cross paths with those clients in the future. It really wasn’t right for them to do that.

[00:04:37] It’s true that businesses are often very reluctant to reveal to clients that they’re having financial problems, but there’s still a way to talk about your departure without getting into that. For example, they could have said that they were doing some restructuring, which is a thing that happens without meaning that the company is in dire straits, or they could have simply said that you’d moved on and left it at that. I mean, people leave companies all the time without there being drama connected to it. They could have just said that you’d taken another job and that would have been fine.

[00:05:10] Frankly, if you wanted to pursue this, you probably could. You could contact them and ask them not to misrepresent the terms of your departure and explain that their messaging is reflecting poorly on you. But if it’s not a small field and you don’t expect this to come up for you with people in the future, it might be better to just move on. But, do know it was not the right thing for them to do and they should have handled it differently.

David: [00:05:35] It’s so easy to communicate things, as we were talking about with culture, when everything is going well, when things aren’t going well, people start making poor decisions. Because you’re under stress and you, I think in most cases, you want to be kind and you want to do well and you don’t want to spread fear and you don’t want to spread panic about things. But I think, I’d like to that at least our default is that it’s better to rip off the bandage. Like, if something is not going well.

[00:06:04] For example, us. Yesterday, or on Monday when we had the meetup here, we had a profit growth plan in place that we had announced prior and it didn’t pay out. Right? Like there’s, that’s just sort of what happens. Everything in business isn’t just up and to the right, right? There’s things that happened or you didn’t grow as much as you thought you were going to do or, or growth goes negative and you start shrinking.

[00:06:31] I think it’s, it’s better to be a sort of upfront about that and just take the heat in the moment. That’s of course a lot easier said than done, and there’s a lot of particulars on when someone’s job is on the line. Which is also you don’t ever have to full information, or you rarely do when you look at it from the outside. In many cases, managers are trying to spare the feelings, the emotions, the ego of someone being let go and saying like, oh, it is for budget reasons or it’s for other reasons because they don’t want to tell the person like, I’m letting you go because I don’t want to work with you or you’re not right in this role or whatever. Which comes from a place of kindness you’d hope, right? Not a place of deceit, but still, even in that case, I think it’s a very fine balance that if you try to cocoon it too much and wrap it up too much and be too protective, you end up just being false.

[00:07:28] And in some cases it’s, it’s inevitable that someone being let go is not going to have warm fuzzy feelings about that. It’s just a very hard transition to go through that and come out on the other side as like best buddies. That’s not gonna happen. And, in fact, perhaps there is some healing function to it. Like, oh, my boss was a jerk because they told me I wasn’t good at my job or whatever. Right? And then you can just go like, well, fuck that guy. I’m going to go off and do something better and I’m going to be motivated to get another job and dadadadada. Right? I think there’s sometimes too much of an emphasis on, oh, let’s make sure everyone comes out on the other side, smiley, happy about it and like it was really no one’s fault. And, I don’t know if that actually helps people.

Jason: [00:08:15] The thing I would add to that is that if you don’t tell people why something happened, they’ll tell themselves why it happened and it will almost always be worse. The rumor will be worse than the truth and you can only get away with sort of fudging things for so long. And, once people stop trusting you, then you’re really screwed.

[00:08:35] So, if you’re a business owner and there’s going to be bad news occasionally, if you just try to either just gloss it over, nothing really happened, people are going to go, I don’t believe you. And they’re going to make up their own story and that’s going to be worse. Then, you’re going to be putting out fires, which is even harder, and then burns trust even more. I do think sometimes… it’s truth even has a spectrum because you have to be careful. Sometimes there’s personal reasons you can’t tell the truth. You know, that someone did something or something happened and you really can’t talk about it. I think the thing, though, then, is to say we can’t talk about it because it’s personal versus saying it’s something else and then not actually explaining why. So, I think that’s the key. If something happens you can’t talk about, just say you can’t talk about it versus, making up some other reason that you hope people will just kind of forget.

Wailin: [00:09:28] How do you manage risk communication at Basecamp? And is there a system of escalation that supports risk resolution and other issues that need more senior intervention? I think risk maybe means conflict in this case. That’s what it sounds like to me. Is there a system of escalation that supports conflict resolution?

Jason: [00:09:46] In some regards? I think we just kind of hopefully put one in a little bit—a few days ago—or, yesterday. Typically, the way you’d hope it would happen… And, by the way, the way you’d hope it’d happen is not usually how it happens. But, the way you’d hope it would happen is people would either, you know, solve things themselves, which isn’t usually going to happen, or they’ll take it to their superior team leader or something like that. And then, if they can’t resolve what they would continue to go up the stream. The problem is, for us at least, was that, from team lead—we’re a very flat organization. So, we have team leaders for some teams. But, then there’s a gap. It’s team leaders to ownership, and a lot of things don’t ever make it up to ownership for a variety of different reasons. Understandable.

[00:10:31] Like, there’s power dynamics. People don’t want to talk about things. What if it’s the owner’s thing? Like, what if the is with the owners? Like, where do you go? So, if you don’t have the proper channels for it to escalate, and I mean that in a positive sense, then things either spill out and boil over and get worse or people hold it inside and gets really bad.

[00:10:50] So, I do think it’s important to have a pretty clear channel and something we just added, or, someone we just added yesterday—we promoted somebody—is sort of what we’re calling Head of People Ops, which is not a new idea. It’s basically HR at other companies. So, there is now a place or a person to go to if there’s interpersonal relationship issues. If there’s tension around an idea or a decision or someone doesn’t understand why something happened or why they were told not to do something, they now have somewhere to go.

[00:11:18] Uh, I think it’s pretty important. Otherwise, things just boil over and once things boil over, it’s kind of like a blood infection, basically. Like, sometimes there can be an infection it’s kind of isolated and then it gets in your blood and he goes all over your body. And, that’s kinda what happens if it boils over. Like, we’ve had this happen internally where there’s been a little bit of disagreements and people haven’t been feeling great about each other. And then it’s posted in a thread that goes out to 54 people and across the company, and all of a sudden everyone is now pulled into this, debate and discussion and disagreement and everyone’s now subjected to tone, which probably wasn’t appropriate. And, then you’re really in trouble because it spreads and it infects other people in a sense.

[00:11:53] So, yes, there should be channels. Figure out what they are, make sure people know what they are, and see how it’s flowing. And if it doesn’t flow well, you might need more channels or might need to explain where people should go if they have a problem, that sort of thing.

Wailin: [00:12:06] And then, last question. I’ll read it and then I think we’ll play Alison’s answer and then you can riff off what she said. Okay. I have experience working completely remote for some months and the sense of freedom is nice, but, I could not help but feeling lonely and isolated quite often. When I had to go to the office, I was commuting with public transport, I live in Europe and it was nice to be among other people for a while. Also, being in the office itself at the others made me feel a part of something. Seeing the faces and Skype calls and talking via emails did not give me these feelings. At this point in my life, I really enjoy working in the office since working remote from home would result in me moving less and seeing people less often and feeling isolated. So, what advice do you have for a remote employee who’s feeling isolated and lonely? And we’re going to hear what Allison had to say.

Alison: [00:12:58] Working from home definitely isn’t right for everyone and it might be that it just isn’t really right for you. But, before you decide that there is a couple of things I would look at. One is, do you live in an area that has any coworking spaces? If you do, it might be worth trying those like just like a couple days a week and see if that helps you feel less isolated, and your company might even pay for it. If that’s not an option, though, even working in another type of public space like a coffee shop or a library or a park might help. You know, working from home doesn’t necessarily need to mean from your actual home. So, you could think creatively about that. And also look to see if there’s any way that you can get some interactions structured into your days, you know, if it makes sense for the type of work that you do.

[00:13:48] Can you schedule a regular catch-up call with people you work with or if you have a friend who also works from home, can you spend some time working together at each other’s houses or in a public space.

[00:13:57] But, ultimately, it is possible that working from home just isn’t it for you and that’s okay. You might need a job in an office with coworkers who are physically present and if you do end up deciding that’s what you need, that’s as much of a legitimate thing to look for in your next job as anything else is. So, you shouldn’t feel like you have to make it work at all costs.

David: [00:14:20] I think the important part to stress is there’s no one who can work as a hermit for 365 days a year. It just, they can’t even work for a hermit even three days in a row. I think, when I’m on the road, and either going to a conference, or racing, or anything else like that and I’m by myself for long periods of time. I’m an introvert. I enjoy solitude for some amount of time, but I still go crazy. If am just not interacting with other humans on a regular basis for days on end. And I think there’s a false set of expectations with remote work that it’s just going to be automatically this wonderful thing just because you happen to work from home.

[00:15:05] Now, I have a family, and that gives me all the stimulation and interaction with other human beings that I don’t need that from sitting in an office.

[00:15:15] But you do need it somehow and you need to find it somehow and it doesn’t need to be necessarily around work, but it has to be around something else and there has to be something else in it where you’re getting it from. We have some people at Basecamp, for example, who split up their day so they’ll start working in the morning and then in the middle of the day they’ll go to the gym or something else like that, where they’re interacting with other people. You absolutely need that. I don’t think there’s—even the biggest introvert is going to go stir crazy if they just sit by themselves all day long and you live alone. There’s not enough stimulation that.

[00:15:47] Now, the other thing is that some people just need three, four hours of stimulation with other humans per day and some people need 12 hours. Right? So you need to calibrate that somewhat. For me, and I think for a lot of people at Basecamp, they enjoy the solitude they get at their desk and then they seek the interaction with other humans outside of that.

Jason: [00:16:09] I think there’s degrees, again for… it’s hard to know what she was looking for, or he, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was a—

Wailin: [00:16:18] I think it was a man, actually.

Jason: [00:16:17] Okay, what he was looking for. Was it just human interaction, or was it the type of work that was being done, he required interaction with his coworkers. So, that’s another detail. Is it just like I need personal connection or, is this company that I work for currently set up to primarily advantage people who are nearby. And so that’s another detail, I think, it’s important to look at. I think—the other thing, is, is he one of the only remote workers? If that’s the case, that’s really a hard situation to be in. It’s much better when the majority of the company is remote. So, it’s a matter of tools and methods and proportion and what kind of work is being done, too, not only whether or not you need human contact or not

[00:17:02] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:17:04] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. Special thanks to Alison Green for coming on and helping to answer some questions. You can find her website at AskAManager.org. She’s also on Twitter @AskAManager, and just got a new book out called Ask A Manager, so you should call up your local indie bookstore and ask if they have it in stock.

Shaun: [00:17:27] You can find show notes for this and every episode of Rework at our website, rework.fm. We are also on Twitter at @reworkpodcast. You can shoot us an email, we are hello@rework.fm, and if you have questions for Jason Fried or David Heinemeier Hansson for our next mailbag episode, you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850.

Wailin: [00:17:51] And, we’d like to wish all of our listeners, or rather, I would like to wish all of our listeners… well, I don’t think you care. Do you care?

Shaun: [00:18:00] No.

Wailin: [00:18:01] I, Wailin Wong, would like to wish all of our listeners a very happy royal wedding weekend, May 19th. You find me on Twitter @VelocityWong. I will be watching the wedding.

Shaun: [00:18:17] We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

Wailin: [00:18:32] A few weeks ago, I was on a customer service call and the customer service rep offered to escalate my issue, and I actually talked him out of it because it sounded too scary.

Shaun: [00:18:50] This is along my business philosophy. When people come to me for advice, which no one does. Don’t start no shit, there won’t be no shit.