Working in the open: Techniques for tech companies

 |  25 June 2020

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When people talk about transitioning to remote working, they usually think about the individual: how will this person work from home, what will they do, how will they stay connected to their colleagues, who will they hang out with?

These things are important, but what’s even more crucial is how a company transitions to working remote-first as a whole. Doing this well means a culture and mindset shift for everyone involved, at all levels. The easiest way to successfully shift to working remotely is to work in the open. Let’s look at what that means for a tech company like Flux.

What is ‘working in the open’?

Working in the open does what it says on the tin: it means everyone’s work should be visible to almost everyone else. The principles of working in the open are:

Make work visible
Use Kanban boards, documentation wiki, shared folders, dashboards, and process documentation. Don’t forget to include instructions on where to find and store information.

Share work early and often
The goal is to have as much information as possible stored in a shared, easily searchable space. This means you need to resist the urge to start work in a private space, then move it into the public space when it’s ‘done’. Make sure everyone feels comfortable sharing ‘unfinished’ work.

Hold conversations where the work is
Using tools with good commenting and notification features means you can track conversations in a format that is connected to the location of the work.

Treat documentation like an internal product
Documentation is like any other company resource; it needs product and design thinking, along with regular maintenance, to stay relevant and valuable.
Give status updates in writing or record a Loom video
These updates can be as simple as a comment on an Epic in Jira, or an update to a brief on Confluence. If status updates aren’t visible, it could lead to interruptions or productivity loss.
Default to public Slack channels
Private Slack channels can slow down collaboration and create knowledge silos. Keeping them open means teams can search through a conversation without joining a channel. 
Limit side-chats
Document decisions in the same place as the work. For example, if a design decision needs to be made, that decision is best documented where the solution is being prepared.

Companies need to have a Working in the Open practice that’s understood across the board. Documentation may be shared within teams, the whole company, or publicly.

What’s so good about working in the open?

In the short term, it might seem easier to just have a meeting or a call to access knowledge held in someone’s head than to spend time making that information accessible. But what happens if you’re working in different time zones, or when that domain expert leaves the company?

The benefits of working in the open include:

  • Less time in meetings
  • More shared knowledge (less dependence on a single person)
  • Faster staff onboarding and training
  • Improved agile governance and risk reduction
  • Increase in productivity

“I feel weird about sharing my work before it’s finished. Is this just another way of micromanaging?”

Having a culture of working in the open makes the what, the how, and the who visible, but it’s not a method to micromanage staff. Keep in mind that your team is made up of incredibly smart people who all want to make progress, have some sense of autonomy, and have a sense of belonging. Making work visible helps to increase asynchronous communication and accountability; working in the open is not a tool to remove a person’s autonomy over their work. 

In distributed teams, each person is ultimately more accountable for their output of work than they would be in an office. Outside of working in an office, showing up for work is not enough to show the value that you bring to the company. Working in the open helps to make someone’s contribution more visible and easier to share.

Want to know how to implement these techniques at your business? Next we’ll look at how we’re making these changes at Flux explains the practicalities of making the change.

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