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Remote Work Q&A, Part 1

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Earlier this week, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson held a live Q&A about remote work. We’re splitting the session into two episodes. Part 1 covers questions about video calls, brainstorming, setting priorities, and good management during a time of stressful transition. If you’d like to watch the Q&A session in its entirety, you can do that on Periscope. You can also check out Basecamp’s Guide to Internal Communication.

  • Jason and David's book, REMOTE: Office Not Required - 00:55
  • The full session on Periscope - 1:00
  • Question 1: In a workplace with a mix of local and remote workers, what are some good strategies for making the remote workers feel more connected and not left out of office events? - 8:12
  • Basecamp's Automatic Check-ins feature - 9:25
  • Question 2: How do you qualify employees and gain trust if you don’t meet in person? - 14:14
  • Question 3: How do you handle the transition in a company that hasn't been very remote until now and can't make a quick switch to writing more? - 18:30
  • A Guide to Managing Remote Teams by Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team - 19:40
  • Question 4: How do you handle video meetings with more than 20 people? - 23:44
  • "Is group chat making you sweat?" (Signal v. Noise) - 30:00
  • Question 5: How do you prioritize tasks? What's your productivity system or non-system? - 30:14
  • Shape Up, Basecamp's book about product development - 30:50
  • Question 6: Do you believe any developer/designer/product manager can work remotely? - 36:09
  • Question 7: How would you host a brainstorming meeting? - 38:17
  • Question 8: How do you properly handle large layoffs of more than 10 people? - 40:51
  • "Stanley's Abruptly Closes After 52 Years of Selling Affordable Produce, Longtime Workers Caught Off Guard" (Block Club Chicago) - 44:30
  • Question 9: What are the key things I can do as a manager of a small team to make remote working a great experience within my team, even if our company culture is still catching up after being forced to go full remote? - 46:02

The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] Okay, this is Shaun Hildner reporting from the cupboard under the stairs, it’s cozy.

Wailin: [00:00:08] Wailin Wong reporting from the cupboard under the stairs with Shaun and 20 spiders.

Shaun: [00:00:14] Hi, spiders. Welcome to Rework. I think that’s good.

Wailin: [00:00:17] Okay.

[00:00:18] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:20] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:24] And I’m Wailin Wong. Earlier this week we released an episode saying we were putting the show on hiatus for a couple weeks. We were going to take some time off to get organized, take a breather and set up our home recording studios.

Shaun: [00:00:37] But, life comes at you fast as we’re all learning over and over again these days. A lot of people very abruptly became remote workers as offices closed and we all started practicing social distancing. Here at Basecamp, we’ve been promoting remote work for a long time. We even wrote a book about it. This week, our founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson did a two hour live stream Q&A all about remote work.

Wailin: [00:01:01] Obviously, these are terrible conditions for starting work from home routines. We’re stressed and anxious and things are scary, and a lot of us, including myself, are taking care of kids all day at home, too. We all need to give ourselves, and the people around us, especially employees and coworkers, a lot of grace. With that in mind, there are still strategies you can use to ease this transition into working from home.

Shaun: [00:01:24] We’re bringing you Jason and David’s Q&A in two parts. The second part will run on Wednesday of next week, so make sure you’re subscribed to Rework so you don’t miss it. Now, here’s part one of the Q&A.

Jason: [00:01:41] Welcome to this. We’re going to go for an hour or more, or however long it takes, at least an hour, to go through all these questions and talk about these things. So, over the past week, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about remote working. People are starting to explore this for the first time. Companies are scrambling to figure out what to do. And we’ve been doing this for 20 years so we thought it would be good for us to be here to offer up some advice and help people out with this because people are struggling.

[00:02:09] The thing I wanted to start out with, and we’re going to get into questions in a second, but I thought I would start by talking a little bit about the opportunity here, actually. As companies struggle to go remote, what ends up happening is companies begin to try to simulate the office remotely. Which is not really the right way to do things, although it’s the natural way to do things. It’s kind of like… it reminds me a little bit of back in the mid-‘90s when the graphical web browser first hit, most websites started to look like CD-ROM interfaces and DVD interfaces because it was basically a direct port. It’s like, we don’t know what this new medium is, so we’re just going to port this design over from the way we interact with DVDs or CDs onto this other medium.

[00:02:52] And I feel like that’s kind of what’s happening now, what people are struggling with. They don’t know how to work remotely so they’re trying to simulate what it was like to work in the office which means people are having the same number of meetings, they’re just doing this by video instead. Or, they’re even turning on, I was talking to a journalist yesterday who was telling me about, she’s hearing a bunch of companies are turning on these perpetual video streams in everyone’s computer where people are able to look at each other all day long while they’re working. Or taking a picture of people every 10 seconds and whatever.

[00:03:23] This idea that you want to try to simulate what it’s like being in an office where you can see everybody so why not see everybody at home. But this is the wrong approach, but, again, I understand why people do it. It’s comfort.

[00:03:32] The real opportunity here with remote work is to embrace the advantages of remote work. There’s some disadvantages, certainly, and for people who are unfamiliar with this way of working, a lot of things are going to look like disadvantages at the start. No different than if you threw me a trombone and said go play something. I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I would suck at it. And a lot of people are going to suck at remote working for a while.

[00:03:57] But there are huge advantages to remote working and one of these is that there’s a mindset shift. It’s not just about working remotely and trying to simulate what it’s like to work locally. It’s about actually giving people more time and attention to themselves. It’s about being more asynchronous, so not turning everything into a real time situation. It’s really easy to pull people into an office or a conference room at the office, which is why people have meetings all day long. When you’re remote, don’t just throw people in a video chat all day long, either. How about having fewer of these things and writing things up instead and disseminating information so people can absorb this information on their own schedule.

[00:04:35] These are some of the ways you can begin to shift the way you work. This is actually an opportunity to rethink the way you work. It’s actually like being thrown off course a little bit and having to look around and go, where should we go next? These are these moments that we don’t often have, because most companies are—they’re pushed by momentum. They’re going to keep working the way they’ve always worked and they never have a chance, because everyone’s always so super busy, to reconsider the way they work and this is one of those unlucky lucky moments when we get a chance to rethink the way we’re working.

[00:05:08] So a lot of the things we’re going to be talking about today are probably going to seem counter-intuitive to many. Some of the answers we’re going to give are going to seem strange because people are going say, how do you know what people are doing? And the answer is you don’t need to know what people are doing all the time. How do you know if people are working? You don’t need to know if people are working. And we’ll get into this, I’m sure, as we get into questions, but this is really, truly an opportunity to rethink the way you work and do some things in a new way that we think are actually going to pan out in a big way for you over the long term.

[00:05:36] So I wanted to start with that. I’m sure David has some thoughts additionally, and then we’ll jump into some questions.

David: [00:05:39] Yeah, I think one of the opportunities here, too, is to realize that when you switch into this new mode where it’s not about getting everyone together at the same time, this is also exactly what we need right now. There’s going to be all these other demands on people’s time. They’re going to need to be, if they have a family, help their family during the day. They’re going to need to help their friends. They’re going to need to do all these other things where gathering five people together at 10:30. Do you know what? Don’t do that as much. Do less of that and take the opportunity, as Jason says, to do these status meeting, not as a meeting, but as a write up. Do the pitch of something you want to do right now, again, not as a meeting, as a write up. There’s so many things that people call meetings for or they force people to be at the same place at the same time for, it just doesn’t need to be like that.

[00:06:30] Now, at the same time, as Jason’s saying, video chat is good, right? Why are we doing this right now? Why aren’t we just writing this up as a bunch of answers? Because this creates a connection. There are definitely times where that’s exactly what you want. You just don’t need to do that all the time. Sort of rationing that out and doing it when it matters, is the switch to make.

[00:06:52] I think we can jump into the questions.

Jason: [00:06:53] Yeah, the other thing I want to add to that is I was talking to someone this morning about this. One of the questions, this hasn’t been asked yet, but one of the questions that comes up is, the social component is lost for people who are used to being in an office. So one of the suggestions I had was, this is, again, to reiterate the fact that this is a time to do things a little bit differently. If you always have a Monday morning stand up, where everyone’s around a room, or whatever. Substitute that for a Monday morning social. Cut out that Monday morning stand up business meeting and instead just allow people to talk about what they did last weekend or what they’re planning to do this week. So substitute some of that work for some life. Don’t try to go business as usual and then also fit that in. Make some sacrifices on the business side, because that meeting that you probably have Monday morning, you probably don’t need to actually have that meeting. What’s probably more valuable is the social component right now and then instead of having that meeting, write those things up and disseminate those things so people have the information on their own schedule.

[00:07:52] So anyway, I’m sure we’ll talk about plenty of that, but I think that’s another way to think about some of these things is to swap and to shift.

[00:08:00] By the way, Andy, who you can’t see on screen is sort of managing this live stream, so he’ll be popping questions up, and we’ll just go ahead and answer those as they come in. So, Andy, if you want to throw the first question up, we’ll take that.

[00:08:11] All right, Joe asks, in a work place with a mix of local and remote workers, what are some good strategies for making remote workers feel more connected and not left out of office events?

[00:08:22] Well, events, it depends on what you would call an event. Lunch? Can’t really do that. After work drinks or get together, can’t do that sort of thing. But as far as, like—

David: [00:08:33] But also, pause, shouldn’t be doing any of those things right now.

Jason: [00:08:36] Right.

David: [00:08:36] Even if you have to go to an office, don’t go out for drinks, don’t do any of these things, right? The whole reason we’re doing this right now is social distancing. So, but I think there’s more to this than just that.

Jason: [00:08:48] Certainly, absolutely true right now. But let’s say six months from now, hopefully. Nine. Whatever it is when we can finally, maybe… I think what happens is there’s going to be a hybrid shift now where people are going to be… some people are going to be working at home even after this because people find out that it works pretty well. So then, what do you do? I think the key is first of all recognizing that it’s not the same everywhere. Some people who work locally are just going to have more physical interactions. They’re going to be together more. They’re going to do some things that you can’t do remotely. That’s going to happen. However, there are some techniques that we use at Basecamp to sort of help level that.

[00:09:20] One of the things we do, so Basecamp has a feature called Automatic Check-ins. And this is a feature that automatically asks people questions on a given schedule automatically. So, for example, every Monday morning, Basecamp asks our entire company automatically, what did you do this weekend? Now this is a totally optional question, okay? Completely optional. You’re free to share or not. But the point is, is that, what it does is it prompts people to share some of what they’ve been doing outside of work with everybody else.

[00:09:52] So we have employees who live all over the world, so it’s really cool to see someone in Spain doing something, and someone in Brazil doing something, and someone in Canada doing something and someone in the US doing something. So we’re not all together physically, but this is a way to share those moments with one another so we get to see a little bit of each other’s humanity essentially, and to see what people are doing. And this is a way where these are… events are spread out around the world but they’re shared in the same manner in Basecamp by writing them down, by sharing pictures. Sometimes people share video. That’s a way to encourage people to share physical things that are happening in their lives that are not happening at work, not happening around other people but that inform other people of what’s going on.

David: [00:10:32] And also, bring up when it comes to the actual work part. Leveling the playing field is the way to go. Don’t have five people sitting around a conference desk and then one person dialing in from the outside. That is a such a shitty experience. The lag between who’s dialing in from the outside and the people who sit around the desk is just insufferable, and I think actually, this is how people get a bad impression of what it is to work remotely. Because they get this experience where there’s five people around the desk and they’re all there, in person. There’s no lag. And then someone is calling in from the outside and seems like they’re just on another planet. It doesn’t work.

[00:11:10] So even if you have the set up where some people are at the office and some people are remote, level the playing field. When you do a call that requires remote workers, do it all remotely. Get into your own offices, sit at your own desks or whatever, and use a video chat system instead. The absolute worst way is these conference phones where people dial in. The lag is horrendous, the quality’s terrible, and when you mix it with people who are in the office, it just feels really shitty.

[00:11:37] I’d also say shifting most of this stuff to an asynchronous format, it’s not just substituting all these meetings, right? Writing it up instead. When you write it up, everyone is on the same page. Whether people read it in the office or they read it at home, there’s no disadvantage. So becoming better writers, becoming more frequent writers and making that the default and then occasionally leveling up to having a call when you actually need to debate something.

[00:12:01] I think that’s the other thing that sometimes people have a hard time figuring out. When should I use a call? What is the format I should use a call for? Should I use it for status calls? No. Status calls are great written up, they’re communicating information, facts in that regard. It works great when it’s written up. People can read it whenever. When you need to debate things, when you know there’s disagreement about something, that’s when we level up. Usually when we jump on a call is we try it writing first. We try just having that debate there and then when it kind of hits the dead end where we go, you know what? Now we’re just arguing back and forth and writing doesn’t feel right for that. Level it up.

[00:12:39] So leveling the playing field, I think, is a good mantra. Even if there’s just one person, and that’s actually the hard one, right? This is why a lot of companies have a hard time starting with remote. Because if you have 40 people in the office and you have two remote workers, it feels like such a drag when you are doing a special concession for just one person. But that’s the way to do it right.

Jason: [00:12:59] The other thing I would say is just, as a practical example, we do have an office in Chicago. No one’s there right now, but, let’s just go back three months. Office in Chicago, handful of people there. If we ever have to make an announcement company-wide, I don’t stand up in the Chicago office and make the announcement to the local and then write it up for everybody else. I write it up for everybody and that’s all I do. So that’s about leveling the playing field as well. There are not different announcements made differently locally as well as remotely. There’s one announcement made. It’s posted to our Basecamp, what’s called our Basecamp HQ, which is the project that everybody in the company has access to.

[00:13:33] But anyway, leveling the playing field’s important. That makes everyone feel the same. It also helps reduce complexity, because if you give one message to one group one way and another message to another group another way, inevitably the messages are going to be slightly different and you might leave out some information in one or add something to the other. And you’re going to wonder why didn’t those people know about this, I thought I told everybody. Well, you told two different things. So by writing things up, and posting them in one place, there’s a central source of truth. And this is something that we’re probably going to come back to over and over. You want one central source of truth for everything that you say. You don’t want to say things in multiple places in different ways. That’s a recipe for complexity. So, anyway. Let’s get to the next question here.

[00:14:14] Marijan, I’m sorry if I’m pronouncing that wrong, asks, “How do you qualify employees and gain trust if you don’t meet in person?”

[00:14:22] That’s—part of that is the hiring process. So it starts before you hire someone. You don’t hire someone you don’t trust and then wonder how to trust them. We’re very careful about the hiring process. We spend months and months hiring an individual person. We go through many rounds of interviews, have many people involved, and we press people in this way. Do we feel like we can trust them? Trust is a feeling, by the way. It’s not a fact. Trust is something you feel about somebody and you get there by asking different kinds of questions and seeing how responsive they are and seeing how good they are at giving feedback. And talking to people who they’ve worked with in the past. Those are the kinds of things that you do.

[00:14:58] But once you hire someone, you must trust them. You can’t figure that out later. So I think that it’s hard to give you step by step things, like, how to decide to trust someone or not? But my bigger point here is that you’ve got to suss that out during the hiring process. And then, once you have someone on board, you must trust them. If you don’t trust them, you’re already in too deep. You’re already in too deep, and that’s what happens with a lot of managers where they go, well, how do I know if someone’s working if I can’t see them? Well, what does seeing somebody have to do with judging the work? Looking at somebody pound away at a keyboard tells you nothing. All it tells you is someone’s pounding away at a keyboard. Looking at someone playing with Photoshop or Sketch or whatever they’re using doesn’t tell you that they’re designing anything, it just tells you that they’re using a tool. You have to look at the work itself.

[00:15:46] And the work itself can be looked at from 6,000 miles away, it doesn’t really matter where you are. So this idea of trust being a physical quality is also not true. You don’t trust someone more because you can see them, than someone who you can’t see. So I just want to make sure that that’s clear, as well, up front.

David: [00:16:05] It’s funny because when I read the question, and we get this question all the time. There’s just so many assumptions built into that question. Like, the assumption essentially being that most people are untrustworthy, that trust is this sort of rare quality that most employees are not worthy of and you need to do these special hoops to get to that point. I don’t believe that. And maybe that’s because I’ve had different life experiences, maybe we’ve been lucky at Basecamp, we’ve done all these other things. I think most people are trustworthy. When you go through even just a regular hiring process, by the time someone is hired, if you extend trust to them, they’ll give trust back to you. But if you start out essentially not trusting them, the natural response from them is not to return the trust in kind. So you get what you receive and what you should be giving is you should be giving that trust.

[00:16:57] And I think unfortunately, as Jason said, this idea that you can trust someone and you can see how they work because they’re pounding at a keyboard is where a lot of it lies. The lack of trust is a projection of someone’s own insecurities as a manager. That you’re incapable of evaluating the work on the basis of the quality of the work, because maybe you don’t know the work. Maybe you just don’t have the capacity or the insight to assess whether the work is good or not or it’s done in a reasonable time or not, and you know what? If those things are true, you’re unqualified to be manager. If you cannot assess the quality of the work that’s being done on your behalf or under your direction, you’re unqualified to be a manager.

[00:17:41] And I think the hard truth is there are a lot of unqualified managers and they help breed this idea of trust. And some of that qualification, again, is not a character flaw. It’s a skill. You can learn it. If you are working in a company where you have people reporting to you where you can’t assess the quality of their work? Figure it out. Learn it. People learn things all the time. You can learn to develop an eye for what works or not. I mean, we work in software and there are plenty of very good project managers in software who don’t know how to program who still know how to assess reasonable degrees of quality. And that is simply, perhaps, the key skill you have to learn as a manager. The key qualification is to be able to assess the quality of the work that comes out.

Jason: [00:18:25] All right, David, you want to take this one first?

David: [00:18:27] Sure. I think this is a handle here, neerjax. “Thank you for hosting this. How do you suggest we handle the situation where we haven’t been a very remote firm till now and suddenly transitioning to writing more and not going to work immediately. How can we help teams transition through this? What training, best practices, can we provide?”

[00:18:48] Yeah, I think this is… I mean, this is why we’re doing this, for example. This is one example of just trying to share our experiences working remotely. Because you’re dropped into a bit of a new world and you have to learn some new habits and you have to learn some new skills. But note that it’s not that different. People often, I hear a lot of people talk about it, well, there’s certain people who are just really good at remote work, and you have to find those people if you want to work remotely. Bullshit, everyone can work remotely. It’s not rocket science in that sense. There is a new set of skills and there are a new set of habits you have to develop, but everyone is totally capable of learning those things. Can’t expect that it’s all going to happen now. We wrote a whole book about it called Remote: Office Not Required, published seven years ago where we tried to lay out a bunch of things that we’ve seen, doing some of that, good.

[00:19:38] I know Claire from has released a big guide about managers new to remote work. So, I think, I mean there is a lot of information out there. I think for having someone at the company, taking a little bit of a charge, to get a survey of all the guides and the write ups that are out there and help others. Send some tips, like, hey, we’re going to read this. We’re going to have a little book club here at the office and we’re going to read this guide today, and we’re going to discuss it tomorrow. What fits in with our culture, how do we do it? That’s really what it is.

[00:20:14] There’s this set of skills here, you’ve just got to try doing it, and you’re going to kind of suck. The first couple of write ups, the first pitches you do in writing when you’re used to just doing them in person, maybe they’re going to be kind of a little bad. But sort of the good and the bad thing here is we’re going to be here a while. This isn’t over the next week. It’s not over the week after that over. It may very well be months before things return to “normal,” right? So better start learning now and just get better at it, and at the end of it, you’re going to be pretty good.

Jason: [00:20:44] And, related to that is leadership needs to have a certain degree of empathy here and recognize that people are going to suck at this for a while. Yeah, it’s not rocket science but it’s new, right? Like I said at the beginning, if you throw a new musical instrument in my hands and ask me to play it, no one would expect me to be able to play anything that makes sense. Luckily with work, we have a head start here, so it’s not about not understanding the mechanics of musical instruments. It’s like, writing instead of talking.

[00:21:13] First of all, one thing I would encourage you to do is to simply write like you talk. Sometimes, not even sometimes, most of the times, business writing is so banal and terrible because it’s stripped of any conversational tone and people try so hard to make their point when they can make their point just fine if they’re speaking. But they can’t make their point when they’re writing because they’re trying too hard. I would just relax a little bit here, and just write how you speak. And if you’re not even good at that, just transcribe yourself speaking and give yourself a 90% head start there. Be easy on yourself.

[00:21:45] The other thing is, and I was hoping to get to this in some other question, but businesses need to curb their ambition a little bit right now. And recognize that time is going to have to be dedicated to adjustment right now. People have to adjust. They have to adjust at home. They have to adjust at work. There’s a lot of adjustment that’s going to happen and you can’t pile that in and have the same expectations of work getting done as you did three weeks ago. So, maybe 20% of the time right now is spent on learning how to work remotely. And like David said, this is going to be going on for a while. And by the way, even when this is over, I think this is going to be a sea change shift in working from home. A lot of companies are going to allow people to continue to work from home. And so this is a new skill to develop and a new opportunity here. This is not… it’s clearly a scary time, but it’s ultimately an opportunity to improve in a lot of different ways and actually make your company far more resilient.

[00:22:35] Imagine what would happen if everybody became a better writer over the next three months? That would be a good thing. But again, companies need to allow time for that to happen. So, anyway, that’s generally—

David: [00:22:45] And I think it’s also important to take note here that even when this is over there’s going to be some long and deep-seated resistance to working remotely and some people are going to try to use the fact that this is a scary time where people are not going to be able to work at 100% as sort of a ding against remote work. Oh, look at this, we did all this from remote and productivity dropped. Yes, you know what, if you crammed everyone into the damn office right now, productivity would have dropped, too. A lot of people are worried about this, as they should be. So make a little mental note about that, that if at the end of this when we’re settling the score on whether this remote thing worked for us or not, if you’re not calculating in the fact that there’s no way we’re giving this a full fair shake in the sense of an A/B comparison between working remotely or working from the office. Someone probably has an agenda on how to tilt the boards there, and just get around that.

Jason: [00:23:41] Brigitte asks, “How to handle video meetings with more than 20 people? What are good rules in how to moderate this?”

[00:23:47] This is a good point here. This gets back to the point about simulation that I don’t like. Now, I don’t know if this is exactly your question. I’ll try to answer it my way first, then we’ll come around and only you will know if it’s the appropriate answer. But one of the reasons people have a lot of people involved in meetings at businesses is because they have large conference rooms and large conference tables. And around those large conference tables are a lot of chairs. And empty chairs aren’t a good look, so you fill up rooms with more people than need to be there. 12 chairs, 12 butts in seats. That’s how meetings often go. This is an opportunity not to have to do that. We don’t have to have 12 empty talking head boxes in your video chat thing. If there’s only three people or four people that are required to jump in a meeting then that’s all you need. You don’t need to fill up boxes on the screen.

[00:24:39] This is a great opportunity the number of people that need to be involved in meetings and give that time back to those other 15 people. So, if you only need four, or let’s say you only need five and you have 20 before. 15 people just got freed up to do some other things that are really important. And given the fact that right now, everyone’s going to be a little bit thin on time and a little bit high on anxiety, it’d be wonderful to be able to give people more time back.

[00:25:02] The tactical answer is how to handle video meetings with more than 20 people, like. You don’t have meetings with more than 20 people. You don’t have meetings with more than a few people. But if you have to, you have to find some video software and people come up with a system where they raise their hand or whatever. Put a question in the chat. But the point is, is like, that is not actually addressing the root problem here, which is that meetings probably don’t need as many people. So that’s where I would begin to solve for this versus just trying to figure out how to simulate what it was like in person to have a meeting with 20 people. So, anyway, that’s my take.

David: [00:25:36] Yeah, I think that this goes back to what are you calling the meeting for? What is the purpose of this meeting? Is it to disseminate information? Unless that information is of truly high emotional stakes and it must be given sort of face to face, it shouldn’t be a meeting, it should be something else. And if you’re trying to address more than 20 people, the one thing, again, that these video chats and these meetings work very well for is debate. Can you have a reasonable debate with 20 people? Are 20 people going to go back and forth? Not that commonly, right? If you need to have a debate with 20 people, maybe you can have a debate with maybe five times four people. You have five different groups that have four people talking together. I’ve found at Basecamp, whenever we have more than four or five people on a call, they’re not great. The video chat formats, the debates that really work well are when you’re less than five people on a call. Usually even less than four. I love three. So for us three is kind of the magic number.

[00:26:34] I’d also say that this is one of those things where this is already happening. People are already, when they work in an office, are calling meetings for 20 people where 15 of them do not need to be there. This is why we get all these stories about people checking their phones under the desk and otherwise trying to reclaim some productive time they’re just zoning out, they’re not chiming in or these other things.

[00:26:57] This is something to embrace. I saw a write up from, I think it was The Wall Street Journal, essentially coming with all these mandates about, oh well, now we have to work from home, just when you’re being called into a meeting, make sure your video chat is on so I can essentially monitor that you’re not zoning out. If someone is not interested in the content of the meeting, the kindest thing you can do is release them from that meeting. Why should they be in that meeting if they don’t feel like they’re getting value out of that, right? Free them up to use that time for work or for something else and you’re much better off.

Jason: [00:27:29] One other thing I want to add is, look, some organizations are enormous and need to have 20 department heads from 20 departments. I get that that can be a scenario occasionally where that needs to happen, but most cases having 20 people and having 20 people’s opinions present, it doesn’t lead anywhere good, actually. It actually leads to indecision. If you want to be even less sure about something, all you need to do is ask one more person what their take is. And that’s a great way to be less sure.

[00:27:57] I know the answer that you want, which is which system should I use and what techniques should I use, but really our answer is too many people, and it actually is far worse via video than it would be in person. People speak up over each other, it’s impossible. There’s lag, you can’t see what—someone coughs and then the picture changes to them. It’s like, too many people, too many problems and I would just encourage you to really tone back and dial back and see if you can get by, and I’ll bet you can. And those other people that weren’t there, initially they might be like, why wasn’t I included but pretty soon they’ll be like thankfully I wasn’t included because now I have other things I need to do that I can get done.

David: [00:28:35] I’d say, one caveat to this is if you have an emergency where every second counts. This is true at Basecamp when our servers are down, every second counts. We’re measuring this on a per second basis and we roll the whole thing out. We have used video chat systems in the past. And the way we use it is, everyone is on, but a very small number of people are actually interacting, and everyone else kind of gets just to see that. It’s almost like a theater based operating room. You have sort of a surgical team of perhaps five, six people doing the bulk of the work. They’re talking, and then you have a spectator group of perhaps another 20 or in some of our cases, we’ve had 40 people who watch that surgical group do the remediation on the problem right now. And then they’re taking that information and maybe some of them work support, they take what they learned live and communicate that to customers or something else like that. That can work. There, the mute button is certainly your friend. But I’d say that’s the only scenario at Basecamp where we have huge video calls like that. And they’re not even—they could be something else, they could almost just be streamed. Like, there’s five people who need to see and talk to each other and then there’s another 40 who just needs to spectate.

[00:29:46] And I mean, this is also one of those cases where if you do need something live, there are a bunch of spectators. Chat is, again, not a bad tool for that. I’m sure we’ll get other questions about chat and we have a lot of opinions about when to use chat and most of those opinions about when not to use chat. But in an emergency with a lot of people, we do need to keep everyone informed and every second counts. It can work, as well. So that can be a substitute, too.

Jason: [00:30:10] David, do you want to take this one and I’ll take the next one?

David: [00:30:12] Yes. Jermaine asks, “How do you prioritize your tasks that need to be done, or in general what is your productivity system or non-system?”

[00:30:23] Great question. How do you figure out what to do, right? This is one of those things where, at the broad level, at the top level, this is what managers should be doing, right? They should be figuring out what should we be working on, when should we be working on it and what is a reasonable amount of time to spend to this?

[00:30:40] Now, a lot of this information, I think, is particular to the industry that you’re in. We’re in software. We wrote an entire ebook called Shape Up, it’s at that details how we prioritize work at Basecamp as a software company, and I’ll just cherry pick out a few ideas from that that we use in the software world.

[00:31:01] One of the key ideas from Shape Up is the idea of not using estimates. A lot of companies think accountability means asking someone to guess about the future and then if that guess is wrong, then they’re bad people. That’s sort of a summary of accountability that a lot of firms seem to run on. It’s a really poor version of accountability. A lot of, especially creative, endeavors cannot be estimated to any reasonable extent because you don’t know really what you’re building, you don’t know how to build it. So we’re just all making guesses and humans are just terrible at that. So inevitably what happens is that the estimate is wrong and then someone gets sucked in to working overtime or doing other things because now they’re accountable to this estimate they gave on something they didn’t know how long it’s going to be.

[00:31:49] What we do at Basecamp is we instead do budgets. So we say, this general concept, let’s say we’re working on a new feature. It’s worth three weeks. Make the best version of what you can of this general fuzzy concept that’s just outline sketched in three weeks and we will trust you to come up with the best version within that time. If it’s going to take six weeks, it’s not worth it, right? A lot of the contention around estimates comes in when you’ve blown the estimate and then now people feel like, sheesh, this is taking six weeks, it was never worth that. If I had known in the beginning that it was going to take six weeks we would never have started on this project. Bake that in right from the get-go. Set up a budget and say, this is worth three weeks, make the best damn version within that and then that’ll ship.

[00:32:33] So that is basically the idea of keeping the scope flexible. You fix the number of people who are working on something. You fix the amount of time they’re going to spend working on it, but you leave the scope of the thing flexible, so let’s just leave it at that. That’s—

Jason: [00:32:50] Yeah, and real quick, on a personal level, my general feeling is that if you need to make a long to-do list of things you need to do today, you have too many things to do. You should really be focused on a couple things. A few things. And you should know what those things are, and if they’re broken down at such a level that you have dozens of them, then you’re probably getting too granular to begin with and now you’re struggling to come up with a system to manage your own work that probably doesn’t need to be managed in the first place that way. I don’t have a personal to-do list in the morning. I don’t make a list of the things I need to do today. I kind of know what I need to do today because I either didn’t get those things—I’m working on a project that continues today because I was doing it yesterday, or something’s coming up today that I need to deal with and I’ll do that. But I don’t over-detail the work I need to do.

[00:33:42] And I know that’s not how everyone’s going to be able to work given whatever their work is, but for example, here at Basecamp when there’s projects going on, we have shared to-do lists for the work that needs to get done and some people make individual to-do lists as well, but most of that work is shared in Basecamp project so everyone can see the work that needs to get done versus having separate lists of all the detailed work that needs to get done personally and that sort of thing. So it’s a different way of looking at things but I would not over-organize your time. Let me put it to you that way. I think that that’s kind of a—and you end up then, it becomes a chore, you end up being frustrated if you don’t get through everything in that day, and you probably spend too much time jotting things down that you can keep in your head and if you forget them they probably weren’t that important anyway and that’s sort of the truth as far as I see it. So, anyway, that’s my take.

David: [00:34:31] And then I’ll also say that it’s easy to get lost in these individual to-dos and rather than thinking what am I trying to get done this week? What sort of major project do I need to move forward because I think a lot of people they end up perhaps trying to track things in to-do lists or otherwise, and then at the end of the week, they’re like, wait, what did I get done again? Like, what did I actually move forward? So being a little more coarsely grained in how you try to set this up, I think, can help you moving this forward.

Jason: [00:35:02] Another way to look at that would be, like, instead of, by the end of the week feeling like you can look back and you checked off 120 to-dos, I’d much rather you have 12. 12 big picture things that you’re trying to move forward, and that’s enough. That’s more than enough, geez. In fact, every Monday morning, we ask everybody at Basecamp, Automatic Check-Ins the feature in Basecamp asks everybody at Basecamp, what do you plan on working on this week? And people write up what they plan on working on. And usually it’s a few bullet points. Four, five or six bullet points, some big-picture ideas. Some big-picture things, and some of those things, all of them get done. Other times a few of them get done. Other things come up and those don’t get done. That’s enough to kind of set it up in general and then when your head’s in the work itself, you kind of know what you’re doing. You know what you need to be working on when your head’s in the work.

[00:35:52] So I wouldn’t keep pulling your head up and looking over here, figuring out what the next thing is, and looking over here. You kind of know what needs to be done, and if you don’t, I would say get closer to the work itself and you probably will. So, anyway, we can go on and on on that and I know it’s a little bit abstract so it’s maybe not that helpful, but that’s just how we look at it so we’re kind of sharing that.

[00:36:08] Egor asks, “My understanding is that not everyone can do remote, this being not job-related, but person-related. Am I right? Do you believe any developer, designer, project manager, whatever can?”

[00:36:18] I believe everybody can work remotely, of course. Not if you work in the retail industry and you need to be on the floor or you work in a restaurant or front of the house. Of course, those things are not. But if you do information work, and the examples here, developer, designer, project manager / whatever. These are all informational work. This is all work done at a computer. If work can be done at a computer, it can be done anywhere you can put a computer. Everything I do lives on a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I can do that in person, sitting next to someone. I can do it 4,000 miles away. The work is happening in the computer so it doesn’t matter where I am or what desk I’m sitting at, what city I’m in right now. Absolutely.

[00:36:57] Now, there’s introverts and extroverts and there’s certain people who feel like they need to thrive around other people, and I understand that especially during this time it’s going to be harder for some of those people to not have the human connections that they’re used to having. But can they do the work? Absolutely they can do the work and everybody has to make some sacrifices. You know, there’s a lot of people who are introverted who are forced to work at offices every day for years. They don’t want to be there, but they have to put up with it and they deal with it. So now it’s time for everyone else who feels like they can only work in an office, now that they can’t, they’re going to have to put up and deal with it as well and adjust. And I think that’s the reality on the ground at the moment.

David: [00:37:35] Yeah, I mean, where we’re at right now is not, like, what would you prefer? What would be best for you right now? Absolutely fucking not. Get home. Get out of the office. We’re not going to have people sitting next to each other on god-damned computers that they could sit on 4,000 miles apart as Jason and I right are 4,000 miles apart. That’s a question you ask, perhaps, like, once all this is done. Once everyone has had a chance to try remote for a long period of time, then you decide, what would you prefer? Would you prefer to work in an office? That’s fine, there’s plenty of people who want to work around other people. That’s great. Now is not the time to have that debate. Now is the time to get the fuck home.

Jason: [00:38:14] “How would you host a brainstorming meeting? I’m used to, in real life, service design type.”

[00:38:21] Well, again, just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean that that’s the way it has to be. I think that’s the first thing to think about here, is like, we’ve done this in person, therefore how do we do that same thing remotely. I wouldn’t try to simulate that thing. So what you might, instead, ask people to do is to, I don’t know how you do it, but to go away and present some ideas. To come with some ideas presented. Come with some ideas pre-thought about. Write them up, sketch them out and bring those things to each other. You can either do it via writing in a tool like Basecamp or whatever you might use, or maybe you have a video chat. You share the screen here and there and go around and talk about the work or whatever.

[00:39:03] But I generally think that brainstorming should actually be done individually and then you bring those ideas to the group and then you can discuss them, versus coming into a room blank slate. And… what do you think? What do you think? What do you think? I don’t think that that’s actually productive in the first place, and so if, I don’t know how you’re doing it, but if that’s how you’re doing it, I would encourage you not to do it that way. I would encourage people to bring ideas to everybody and then discuss them together versus coming up with ideas on the fly from an empty room. That’s my take on it.

David: [00:39:31] This is one of the things I think we do a lot of at Basecamp. We call it the pitch. So you have an idea for something, or you even just decide that here’s an area we should have ideas on and someone is designated to come up with the pitch. They’ll post it in Basecamp, and we let it sit. We let it marinate for a little bit. The thing about brainstorming, too, is you get a bunch of people together in real time and they start shooting from the hip. And sometimes good things come out of that. It’s not that it can’t ever work, but you know what? I think even better things can come out once you plant a seed, you post a pitch, and you give it a day. Or two days for people to let it marinate in their brain, maybe even sleep on it. And then they’ll either present their own ideas back and if there’s then some sort of debate, it’s not obvious what to do, call the video chat. Like, let’s talk about the ideas that kind of seem to be in conflict, or let’s see where they—a lot of times that’s not even necessary.

[00:40:28] The number of pitches that either me or Jason or someone else at Basecamp will do where the answer is fuck yeah, this is great, let’s do it. No meeting required. Someone sat down, thought about a thing, presented those thoughts and the people went, that’s great. Let’s go. No meeting required. It’s a large share of the number of pitches that we do.

Jason: [00:40:47] Cool. Oof. This is a tough one. Not exactly remote work question, but I think very relevant right now. “How do you properly handle large lay-offs, over 10 people?”

[00:40:58] To be honest, I’m the wrong person to ask, we’ve never had to lay anybody off, so I don’t have that personal experience. The only thing I can say is, God, what can I say about that? If we had to do something, I would be as—you have to be as empathetic as possible but you also have to be as clear as possible with people. And what I would be careful about is false hope. This is one of those things that’s tricky, especially if you have to lay someone off or you have to fire somebody or whatever. Especially with layoffs, people don’t really know how long this is going to go. So a layoff, technically, is that hopefully you’ll be able to come back to work at some point. And I’ve seen some companies already saying like, we’re going to close the office down for two weeks, and then we’ll back. We’ll be opening, you know, March 30th or something. It’s like, probably not. Don’t put false hope out there, because at some point it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re uninformed. So I’d be very careful about that. So if it’s layoffs, I wouldn’t say, we’ll be back in touch in April. I would say, we don’t know how long this is going to last, we’re terribly sorry about this. We’ve tried to do everything we can to prevent this but this is the reality of the situation right now and we hope down the road, if it’s a layoff that we can bring people back, but we just don’t know right now, I think is the most honest way to approach that.

[00:42:13] But I don’t have tactical experience in this so I don’t have much to share. Maybe David has something else to share, but.

David: [00:42:19] Well, I’ve been on the receiving end, or I’ve worked at companies that went through layoffs, and yeah, I’m struggling to find what is the good way to do it. Hopefully someone has thought about this, because every one I went through, they were fucking terrible. Maybe that’s just what they are, they are fucking terrible. I’ve not put enough thought into it to really think about how to do it better. Although, anything related to that we’ve done at Basecamp is that we’ve fired people where for whatever reason we thought it wasn’t going to work out anymore. And in those situations we always tried to do it in person. We tried to have a document ready that spelled out all the details. When someone is getting this information, it’s a huge mental shock. Emotional, mental shock and they’re not going to remember the things that were said necessarily when that happens so they need something to hold onto after the fact.

[00:43:10] And in those situations, it was also not a debate, it was a statement of fact. We’ve already, by the time you’re in that meeting, this has already happened. It’s not a thing for us to sort of go over how it happened or whatever. And I think that’s the other part of this. Keep it mercifully short. People are going to be extremely distraught after this. Being stuck in some conversation with a person going over this, is not that helpful. Again, writing it down.

[00:43:38] But, I think, as Jason says, we’re not the right people to do this. There are specialists, I think, at companies who have gone through this in multiple rounds or whatever who hopefully have better information about it.

Jason: [00:43:48] The one piece I would add, though, is, because I’ve just read some stories about this. And, you never want your employees to find out about this in the news or something like—you have to tell people directly why you’re making this decision. And you, the leadership, or team lead, or manager, whoever’s responsible for this person needs to tell them. You don’t want to send out some blanket statements. You don’t want people to read about it in the news or hear about it in the news.

[00:44:14] You don’t want people to show up—there’s a small grocery store near us. This was a year or two ago, called Stanley’s in Chicago. It’s like a fruit market. It’s a little grocery store, and people have been working there for 10, 15 years. And people came to work one day and there was just a sign on the door saying, we’re closed. We’re done. Or it’s over. And employees had no clue this was coming. They didn’t know. They didn’t hear from anyone. They just showed up. They took public transportation and showed up that day and saw a note on the door saying, “You don’t have a job anymore.”

[00:44:45] There’s no shittier way to do it than that, and you feel terrible for those people and the management, you just want to fucking punch them in the face. Because that is just a heartless way to deal with people. To treat people. And so, that kind of thing, you want to be very careful about.

[00:44:58] So, anyway. Clear communication. Honest communication. If there’s paperwork required, have it ready for people. Don’t say, like, you’re laid off, next week you’ll be hearing from legal. There should be no gap in time here. You have to have everything prepared for people and do your job, as well. So.

David: [00:45:15] I’d say one other thing, the final thing about layoffs. What I’ve seen a lot of times is this sense of, once the layoff is executed there’s zero trust. These are almost like alien intruders and need to be escorted out by security or something like that. If someone is being fired for being abusive or threatening or whatever, totally. That’s a rational thing to do. But as a precautionary measure for everyone that, like, all of a sudden now you’re going to treat them as though they were potentially going to, I don’t know, do something terrible? Just, no. There’s a lot of this, cover your ass, like, well, we’re just taking precautions in case. Well, also take some precautions for just the basic humanity of the situation.

Jason: [00:45:58] Yeah. All right, next one. Coming in from Twitch, I believe. “What do you think are the key things I can do as a manager of a small team to make remote working a great experience within my team, even if our company culture is still catching up after being forced to go full remote?”

[00:46:12] So, again, this is a situation where, I think empathy is required, and also just like, pausing expectations. So, let’s say you’re in the middle of a project last week, and then all of a sudden it’s remote time. There’s an announcement made, everyone can’t work from the office anymore. Starting Monday, we’re remote. The announcement’s made Friday. You cannot expect Monday everything’s going to be normal, it’s just going to be remote. That’s not how it’s going to be. You need to cut back your ambitions a little bit. You need to have some time for people to adjust. You need to let people get used to things. You need to let people get their home office set up. You need to let people get their equipment if they don’t have any. You cannot just assume that business is going to continue as usual. You have to dial back ambitions. You have to put things on pause for a little bit.

[00:46:55] So, to me, that is the most important part here. People will figure it out. You will all figure out how to do this one way or the other. But you can’t figure it out if you’re also being pushed forward to do everything you were doing right before at the same speed in the same way. That’s just unfair. It’s just flat-out unfair and it’s unreasonable.

[00:47:18] So I think it’s incumbent on leadership to slow down, to chill out for a little bit, to relax, give people some space to figure this out amongst themselves, to get the right tools in place, to get the right protocols in place, to let people screw up a bunch of times here and force it to work.

[00:47:32] I always think about the opposite. We’ve been remote for 20 years. We use Basecamp every day to do our work. I don’t have to see anybody, whatever. If we were forced, if we said, you can’t use Basecamp, everyone has to come to the office every day. What would we do? We’d be like—aw, I don’t fucking know what to do. Yeah. It would take us a while to figure out how to adjust to that. The same thing is true on the other side of course, and for most people it’s true right now, which is companies and leadership and management need to create some space for people to have some time to figure it out. Adults will figure it out. It’s not that hard. Like David said, it’s not that challenging, it’s just different.

[00:48:09] And anything that’s different takes some time to break some habits and get used to some new ones. So that’s the advice I would give people is, ask your management if they’re not giving you space to give you a little bit of space. If you are a leader, if you are an owner, if you are a manager, if you have power in an organization, create some space for people, let them ease into this and don’t just throw them at it and assume everything’s going to be the same.

David: [00:48:26] I’d also say, if you’re a manager, now is a good time to be a leader. So, step forward. Make some decisions about how we’re going to work together. There are a billion different tools you could pick, pick some! Or one.

Jason: [00:48:38] One.

David: [00:48:38] And go with that. Right? Pick a tool and say, this is what we’re going to do. Don’t leave it up to, I don’t, I guess maybe we can use a little bit of this or a little bit of that. Now is not the time for sort of the lack of clarity that comes from having everything everywhere. Pick a tool, run with that and then be the example, right? Instead of being, like, the first thing we do Monday morning is we do a video call that’s going to last two hours with 40 people, as someone was talking about. No. You set the good example, by Monday morning, you have a write up ready that’s detailed about how we’re approaching this that’s empathetic as Jason was saying, in writing. Hey, we understand that everyone can’t work at full capacity.

[00:49:19] Jason shared a write up that we had posted at Basecamp earlier this morning. You can find it on Twitter. Just do some of that and then set out the work. The other thing here is when people are under stress and they’re fearful, now is the time to give them guidelines. Some boundaries like, okay, we can’t just freeform, right now, this week, let’s just try to get through these five things. Let’s just try to focus on this right now so that people can kind of almost be a little mechanical in their work as they get going. And then, once there’s momentum and we’re going and we’re posting in this way, things are good.

[00:49:55] But it really is on you, as a manager, to first find the way, and then show the way.

Jason: [00:50:02] The thing I want to add here, this is going to sound like a bit of a pitch for Basecamp, and essentially it kind of is because I believe Basecamp is probably one of the best things you could be using right now for remote work. But here’s why. And I’ve heard from a few people like this. They’re wondering what do we get? We haven’t worked remotely before, so what tools do we need? And people go off and buy four or five, they buy a chat thing and they buy a messaging thing and they buy a file-sharing thing and they buy a scheduling thing and what ends up happening is, in times of stress right now, if you pile four or five different tools in front of people and try to onboard them in four or five different tools and there’s no system in place, people are going to go where do I put information? Do I put it here? Do I put it there? Do I put it? It’s actually going to be far worse and you’re going to be digging yourself a very deep hole right now.

[00:50:46] What you want to find is, I would encourage you to use Basecamp, but you can use whatever tool you want, but I would find a tool that’s more of an all-in-one style tool, or all-in-one style product that has a variety of different tools built into it. So at the very least, if someone puts something in the wrong place, they’re still putting it in one product. When you put something in the wrong place and the wrong product, it’s a total mess and people aren’t going to know where to find things and they’re going to follow the wrong examples. So what you want is a central, single source of truth, and if people put information in the wrong place at least it’s in the right general place.

[00:51:18] So I think that’s something I would encourage you to do. Whatever you want to use is fine with us, of course. But find something that handles many things together and not just something that is a small piece of the overall toolset that you’re going to need, because you’re going to find yourself in a deeper hole than you’re going to want to be in in a week or so when people are completely confused and stuff’s all over. And people say, why didn’t you see that? Well, it was over here. I didn’t know to look over there. I thought I was supposed to be looking over here. This is what’s going to happen when people are scrambling with too many tools at once, so. Pick something, stick with it, and run with that.

[00:51:53] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:51:58] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art. Remember, we’ll bring you part two of Jason and David’s Q&A next week. If you subscribe to Rework, you’ll get the episode as soon as it’s released. You can find our show on Apple Podcast, Overcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

Wailin: [00:52:15] If you have a story about what it’s been like working from home for the first time, we’d love to hear from you. You can record a voice memo and email it to or leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850. Again, that’s (708) 628-7850.