Why remote works

I’ve been at Chalkbeat for more than 15 months now, working remotely on a permanent basis for the first time, after two six-month stretches at the beginning of my gigs with GateHouse and Publish2 way back in late aughts.

In those early, somewhat forced “work from home for six months and then move to our office please” situations, I had no idea what I was doing.

In Santa Cruz, employed by Rochester-based GateHouse, I worked at East Coast schedule in a West Coast time zone, working from around 6am to 3pm, and then showering and taking our infant daughter off my wife’s hands for a few hours so she could make some progress on her Ph.D. thesis in progress.

Ancient, pre-Slack tools like GChat and AIM were my tools for staying in close contact with our team, but in truth I spent most of my time on phone calls with staff at our community newspapers in the Central and Mountain time zones, so it sort of worked. It was kinda exhausting.

Also, I recommend showering before starting your workday.

Then, in Rochester, working for Virginia-based-but-mostly-distributed Publish2, it’s kind of a blur. I remember spending a lot of time in coffee shops, which can get expensive. I had a desk in the spare bedroom that must have doubled as our office. There was a lot of Skype, both text from group chat and long group calls where we worked out product requirements and outreach plans. It was pretty intense.

Cut to the last year or so, and I’ve been fortunate to stand on the shoulders of remote giants — well, maybe “build out my home office in the basement of remote office dwellers” might be more accurate.

Of all the advice I fielded about remote work over the years, having a an office with a door that closes was one of the keys, personally. And I have one. In the basement of our exurban townhome, at the far end of a hallway, out of the way, through the laundry room. Before this, we had been using it for storage / a spare bedroom that hadn’t hosted too many visitors lately. And before that, when we moved in? It had been set up as a home office. Of course.

When I took the job, I painted the wall I would be staring at all day in a grid pattern with blue paint samples salvaged from a drawn-out dining room accent wall color selection project. And I built my own standing desk (after much googling) with a relatively inexpensive hunk of butcher block countertop and some giant shelving supports. There are also some cute little lantern light strings and some borderline kitschy geek art, Mars travel posters, Star Wars stuff, a World War I poster urging action, a bunch of artwork by my kids, rotating new stuff in over time, and, just because it’s giant and framed and I had never hung it before, my NYU diploma.

The dog works with me all day.

Those are just the basics. Like, how to set up your own work environment so you don’t go insane alone in a windowless basement room all day.

Working with a mostly remote team? That’s a whole different barrel of wax. How to build remote culture, how to maintain lines of communication (oxygen!), how to make sure your distributed team has all the tools and time and support they need to feel connected?

Start here:

Kavya Sukumar writes from Seattle about working with the East Coast Vox team. Among her awesome advice? Find a way to whiteboard together without, well, pointing a webcam at a whiteboard:

“Sketching can be a valuable tool for collaboration, but it does not always have to happen on a whiteboard or on the same paper. On the Studio, we have everyone draw on individual pieces of paper that are later scanned and added to a project’s documentation. Not only is this more participatory, it also improves documentation.”

Laura Bosco at Range (a design firm we work with at Chalkbeat) gets at a truly critical piece of remote work that I happen to think gets overlooked: If you’re running a diverse, distributed team communicating primarily over text, signals are easily crossed. Here’s one way to deal with that:

“Listen to your teammates and encourage them to share information on their backgrounds, their previous team experiences and how they prefer to communicate most days. Does a teammate’s culture influence how they approach conflict? What about how they make decisions? Identifying these subtleties, and knowing how to manage them, can be very beneficial during conflict.”

Over at the Trello blog, Stella Garber is, of course, recommending Trello among a suite of tools to use to track work across distributed teams, but putting that aside for the moment (Trello is great, so is Asana, so is JIRA, so is Basecamp, so are Google Docs, so is a big wall of post-its, your mileage may vary based on the size of your team and your needs), think about planning how you use these tools. Standardize your approach to reduce confusion!

“Design a plan together about how you want to use each tool, and then write down these guidelines in a document that the team can access anytime. The bonus is that it also creates a training resource for new people joining the team.”

From the oldie-but-goodie file, Stack Overflow’s 2013 post about remote work is canonical, especially the bits about making sure the in-office pieces of your team act like they’re remote, too:

“There’s no halfsies in a distributed team. If even one person on the team is remote, every single person has to start communicating online. The locus of control and decision making must be outside of the office: no more dropping in to someone’s office to chat, no more rounding people up to make a decision. All of that has to be done online even if the remote person isn’t around. Otherwise you’ll slowly choke off the remote person from any real input on decisions.”

And in 2014, Sara Rosso at Automattic wrote about having a daily routine that imposes a steady rhythm of work/life balance:

“Finally I got into a routine which always helps me get into work mode no matter where I find myself: I get up every morning, get dressed & presentable (brush teeth & hair!) and leave where I’m staying to get a coffee, ideally an espresso. My ‘commute’ is self-enforced and is as far as the nearest coffee shop. When I step back inside, I’m ready to work.”

Last, watch out for some of the remote work anti-patterns pointed out by Mak Arnautovic:

“Darth Overwork means well deep down. He knows there’s work to do, and he uses his once-Jedi powers to trick your brain into forgetting how to measure time and effort so you can do more work faster. Some may consider that a desirable skill. But the reason Darth Overwork is so scary, is because you usually can’t see him. You don’t know when your brain is being manipulated by him and when it’s not.”

Don’t be Darth Overwork. Be like Gillian, who works hard sitting in this chair all day, but also knows when it’s time to get up, go for a walk, and clear her head.

Gillian working hard in the home office.

P E R S O N A L   N E W S

Seriously, when did we start calling new job news “personal news” and why? It’s professional news. It’s just me, getting a new job. Personal news is “we adopted a dog” (we did!) or “we’re having another kid” (we’re not!) or maybe “we’re moving to New York” (also not happening!).

But other things *are* happening.

Personal News
I am excited to tell you that I have a new job starting next week.

I’m joining Chalkbeat to lead product and growth. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization that’s reimagining local news with a focus on issues of inequity in education. I’m grateful to be stepping into an amazing team in four cities, and I’m eager to help them grow and continue to build a sustainable model for nonprofit education news.

Screenshot 2015-12-01 13.24.28

In years past, I’ve said young people don’t care about local news until they buy a house and send their kids to public schools. Guess what? I care about local news these days! And I’m a two-issue local news consumer: 1) Full-day kindergarten, and 2) are we ever going to build the stadium for that NASL team we were promised? The first issue is more important. And it’s tied to issues of managing housing development in Loudoun County a little more consistently. This might be a first world educational issue in my corner of the county, for now, but I’m an engaged local news consumer.

When the opportunity came up to get involved with an organization dedicated to covering high-poverty schools across the country, I jumped at it.

Onward.

I’m grateful to everyone at Gannett for the opportunities I’ve had there over the past five years. It’s been a privilege to work with local journalists and technologists on the biggest challenges facing the news business. My mission in journalism has always been to make a difference at scale, and Gannett was the perfect place to do so.

But now it’s time to move on, and I can’t wait for everything that comes next.

Any questions? I’ll start.

Q: Chartbeat? Cool, real-time analytics are totally addictive!
A: They sure are. Love that stuff. Not working for them, though. It’s Chalkbeat, like the chalkboard beat, like education news. If there’s one thing I know about education, it’s that repetition can be important. Chalkbeat. Education news. In context. Chalkbeat. Dot-Org.

Q: It looks like Chalkbeat is in New York. Are you moving to New York?
A: Chalkbeat’s leadership team is in New York, but there are also teams covering the Denver area, Indianapolis, and Memphis, too. It’s a distributed organization, like many nonprofits and startup news orgs these days, and I’m not moving anywhere. Ask me about my new home office, and the standing desk I’ve been building. And the walls I’ve been painting. And the bed and dresser I have up for sale on Craigslist. Please, ask me about the furniture. Bring a truck to ask me about it.

Q: So… [whispers] …are you hiring?
A: SO GLAD YOU ASKED! As a matter of fact, Chalkbeat is hiring a Full-Stack Engineer. This person will work directly with me on product development. WordPress is the core of the proverbial technology stack right now, but there’s amazing work to be done on measuring impact (read about Chalkbeat’s MORI here), as well as other big ideas around audience analytics. We’re going to be supercharging Chalkbeat’s already strong remote culture with inspiration from Vox Product, 18F, Fusion, and others, so although New York or DC-based candidates would be cool, remote would work for the right candidate, too. You should ask me more about this role. You’re probably right for it. Yes, you.

Q: What can I say, I’m inspired! How can I help?
A: First of all, if you have kids or family who teach in New York, Denver, Indianapolis, or Memphis, head directly to your local Chalkbeat and start reading today. Subscribe to an email newsletter. Follow Chalkbeat on Twitter. Like Chalkbeat on Facebook. You can do all of these things.

But also, you can make a donation today to support one of the few nonprofit news organizations in this space doing local reporting on some of the most critical issues facing schools in America’s poorest communities. Want to help tell this story? Help fund the important work they’re doing today.

Q: We know you’ve been listening to Hamilton a lot lately. Does this have anything to do with Hamilton?
A: I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, you forget yourself.

Q: Is there one more thing?
A: You know there is. It’s about finding a new job you love. You don’t find a job by obsessively refreshing LinkedIn, or Glassdoor, or searching Idealist and Media Bistro and Journalism Jobs multiple times a day. Nope. Doesn’t work. Good luck!

You find your new job on Twitter. Seriously. I should know better than to use any other method, but I first heard about this job listing in a tweet during ONA. I wasn’t even at ONA. I guess I was following the hashtag in Tweetdeck and happened to look up at the screen? Maybe? Or someone retweeted this. This:

Screenshot 2015-12-01 13.20.10Thanks, Twitter. Thanks, Sarah!

Workspace

Workspace: Great notes on a home office setup, including an adjustable desk that isn’t always standing or sitting, plus a “thinking chair” for lean-back time. From Trent Walton.

The Inbox Zero Thing

I really, really, really, dislike “productivity” books. And gurus. And methods. And things that can generally be characterized as dogmatic.

But I like this.

My empty inbox.

I know I’m late to this party, but for years, I thought Inbox Zero was some sort of Getting Things Done-related madness involving a lot of folders and filters and whatnot.

But no, it’s not that complicated. And Merlin Mann does a great job of making it palatable, even digestible, to extend the metaphor a little deeper into the gut.

Start here, and read everything under the “Posts in the Inbox Zero series” heading before you start mashing your mouse. It won’t take you more than an hour or two to get started.

Everything that comes next

Bit of an announcement to make, although if you follow me on Twitter, the first shoe of the pair dropped last night.

I’m joining Gannett Digital today, as Product Manager, Local Sites.

That means I’ll be working with more than 100 newspapers and broadcast news outlets, thousands of journalists, and helping them deliver information to a rather engaged audience of millions.

I like the sound of that.

For me, it’s a return to building and improving news sites on a large scale, but it’s also the same job I’ve always had in this business: Find, track, and develop the best ideas about the future of news, then hand them off to journalists packaged with the tools and training they need to put those ideas into action. And then keep bugging them about it until they do so.

For a variety of reasons, I left my position at Publish2 a few weeks ago. Thanks to all my friends there, plus everyone who made the job easy, especially the brilliant journalists in newsrooms across the country (and yes, around the world) who “got it” from the start, and were excited to try out everything I threw at them.

And now, onward, to everything that comes next.

Don’t do this

Hugh MacLeod is certainly one of my favorite cartoonists around. I’ve bought business cards with one of his drawings on the back before, and I’m happily subscribed to his e-mail newsletter, where he’s gone the way of Jason Calacanis and cut down on blogging while ramping up (well, on and off) an old school broadcast-like e-mail blast.

Love you, Hugh. And my mom bought your book.

But folks, please don’t do this:

Seriously. Whatever you’re working on isn’t worth compromising your mental and physical health over.

Unless, it’s like, world peace or something, and even then, I’d recommend trying all the avenues that don’t lead to martyrdom before you go that route.

As for the rest of you, OK, maybe your mental health can come and go as it pleases, but certainly not the physical part.

That’s my advice to you.

Don’t die trying.

Really.

Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm | I Will Teach You To Be Rich

The whole cult of time and task management actually serves the opposite of its purpose for me, personally: It makes me feel guilty, as if I’m putting off becoming more efficient with my time.

Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm | I Will Teach You To Be Rich

Onward: My new job at Publish2

I am extremely excited to let you know that I’m starting a new job on Monday, as Director of News Innovation at Publish2.  I’ll be working for Scott Karp, who I’ve been following since I started blogging back in 2005, and with a team of top-notch online news thinkers, evangelists, and developers.

What does a Director of News Innovation do?

I’m expecting to work with newsrooms and journalists across the media world to get them the tools they need to bring the best of the Web to their readers, and maybe even to bring the best of their readers to the wider Web.  Sound good?

Well, help me out. Let me know what you think of Publish2, how you’ve used it, and what you’d like to see in the P2 toolkit that isn’t there yet.

Here’s my favorite recent Publish2 story, about how a group of disparate news organizations in Washington state used the service as a tool for collaborative curation during floods this winter.

I can’t wait to get started.  Matter of fact, if you’re at BCNI Philly this weekend, feel free to throw your ideas about Publish2 at me in person.

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To answer an obvious question, yes, I’ve left my job at GateHouse Media, effective today.

I had a great 19-month run with GateHouse, doing my best to give journalists at more than 125 newspapers the tools and training they needed to serve their communities.

Any and every success that I had there belongs to the incredible team of developers, the awesome revenue team, and the online news innovators I worked with, including Howard Owens — who hired me and has since left GateHouse to put his money where his mouth is at The Batavian — and Bill Blevins, the VP who Howard reported to, whose door was always wide open to new ideas and possibilities.  Thank you.

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Onward. I’ll be spending a great deal of my time over the coming days and week wrapping my head around how Publish2 has been used so far and where it’s going.  Let me know what you think of it, here, on Twitter, or wherever you see me.  I’m easy to find.

Thanks, Howard.

As you may or may not have heard by now, my boss at the office, Howard Owens, has moved on.

I just want to take a moment to publicly say thanks to Howard here, and more than obviously, to wish him the best in whatever endeavor other people might call his “job” next.

Personally, I happen to know that what Howard calls his “job” is more of a 24/7 thing than a 9 to 5 thing, and it has everything to do with the transition of journalistic power in small towns and neighborhoods from the press to the community, and very little to do with where his paycheck comes from, or the sign on the door.

So:  Thanks, Howard.  And good luck.

(Of course, I’ll continue to work with Howard on Wired Journalists and other projects across the Web.  This just means I don’t have to do what he says quite as often. 😉 )

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