Determined to leave the house, the neighborhood, and the state, we planned a short road trip last week. North or South? West? (There isn’t much East of here.) We considered a “waterfalls of West Virginia” trip. We abandoned a camping plan earlier in the summer. We stepped back from other long-drive plans.
We decided to go North. To Amish Country, Watkins Glen, and the Corning Museum of Glass. Oh, and to stay in a tiny house.
We left the dog and the house and the garden behind, told them all to be good, and took off up Route 15, across the Potomac, retracing our usual path past Cunningham Falls, into the territory in Central Pennsylvania we first drove through on our pre-move trips from Rochester to check out Loudoun County, nine years ago this summer.
Google things like “Amish tour Lancaster” and you end up finding some relatively commercial (I mean, commercial for the Amish is not that much) villages, and some nice farm tour options. The Old Windmill Farm site had pictures of people feeding cows and there were pigs that looked like fun, so that’s where we headed.
The farm tour was so much fun. Yes, we fed the calves from bottles. Yes, the pigs went down a slide. Yes, we held baby chicks, and then their mother gathered them under her wings, just like the song we used to sing the kids when they were babies themselves. Yes, we pet Tim the giant mule. Yes, we fed goats and chickens from our hands. Yes, we held baby bunnies, and yes, the barn cat came when we called and soaked up all the scratches.
The farmer talked about how they had wound down their dairy operation from a 50-cow spot in a co-op to just what they needed for their family and a little casual raw milk sale here and there. He talked about how his grandfather used to grow tobacco, and now they grow corn and soy, mostly for feed. We learned about how and why they ferment some hay and alfalfa, too.
And then through the craft shack (allllllmost a gift shop, tbqh) and the garden, where the kids helped harvest some potatoes, and we talked about the dry weather and the bugs and all the challenges of Growing Vegetables.
And then we shared a whoopie pie. When in Rome. Er, Pennsylvania.
We passed through downtown Strasburg, not to be confused with Stroudsburg, which I did! (Ask me about the time I was stranded in the latter for a few hours after working on a student film all night.)
We spent the night in a tiny house.
Literally! Like, you’ve heard of Tiny Houses™? We took this from Pinterest to real life, staying at a place that looks like it transitioned from trailer park to Tiny Estates not too long ago. (Thanks to Certifikid!) The kids had fun going up and down the precarious “stairs” to the loft bed, and we enjoyed a few rounds of cornhole and ladder toss and giant jenga in the common area. (It was really nice.)
Expecting rain in the morning, we decided to head for Corning and spend the afternoon at the glass museum. We crossed the Susquehanna a dozen or so times, ate our tiny-house-toasted sandwiches in a fast food parking lot, and the sun came out for the final miles into Corning. Which is… nicer than I remember?
Maybe it doesn’t help my memory that my previous time in Corning was in the absolute dead of Central New York winter, and it wasn’t my all-time favorite newsroom visit. Because, reasons.
But. But! Not only did Corning look lovely in the summer sun, the Corning Museum of Glass was a complete revelation.
Huge, bright, airy, and the first place they send you is a contemporary art wing which was more relatable and timely and evocative and aesthetically comprehensible than anything I’ve seen at the MOCA in Chicago or (uh, a long time ago) at the Whitney in New York.
Also, glass breaking demonstrations. And glass blowing. And fire. So much fire! And glass. So much glass.
After a few hours, the kids were glassed out, so we mounted up the Prius and headed north to Watkins Glen. After discovering our upstairs-from-a-deli Airbnb was almost as goth as that one chandelier with the crows, we decided a walk and some fresh air was in order. TO THE LAKE!
A short prelude to our day in Watkins Glen State Park: In July 2008 (not a typo), while living in Rochester, New York, we brought our toddler down to Watkins Glen to hike the gorge and camp for the night. Here’s how it went: We all got wet on the hike, then it rained at dinnertime and I cooked our boil-in-bag rice and Indian food on our single burner camp stove in the rain, then I did laps around the campground loop getting the toddler to sleep, then she coughed once and woke up crying, and we packed up the tent and drove the two hours home with our sick kid to sleep in our own bed.
But the pictures from the gorge hike in 2008 are still fun. So we decided to recreate one of our favorites along the path.
If you’ve never been, it’s worth the trip. I hesitate to even call it a “hike” because it’s pretty easy.
The hike was so easy, in fact, that we were pretty much done by the middle of the day, and needed something else to do, lest we get sucked into the orbit of the goth Airbnb. (In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad, and the crooked floors became sort of charming after a few hours of sleep.)
After a break to pick up some sfogliatelle and cannoli at a neighborhood Italian bakery, we decided to check one more town off our list and took a quick ride over the hill to Ithaca, where we had spotted a science-themed mini golf option at a hands-on museum.
It was just about perfect. Back to Watkins Glen, one more walk to the lake, and we called it a night.
The day you drive all the way home isn’t supposed to be too adventurous, but we had seen enough of some parts of Route 15, and had eaten enough soggy sandwiches in fast food parking lots, so we decided to take a quick side trip about an hour our of our way to Hershey. Yes, that Hershey.
If you’re a parent, you’ll understand what I mean when I say one of the highlights was the moment we executed a perfect tag team puke cleanup / potty run in the parking lot of the Chipotle across Chocolate Avenue (not a metaphor) from Hershey Park (also not a metaphor). [SHUDDER]
So we ate Chipotle instead of sandwiches, took a different route, and realized we were down the street from Tröegs brewery, so I made a quick run into the shop there. (Um, this place is huge? And nice? The only brewery I’ve been at this scale is Surly in Minneapolis.
And then we drove home, picked up the dog, and…
Just kidding, there’s no fifth day of the road trip, except that we took the kids to Arcade Fire, their first real rock concert. Did I mention we took them to Hamilton at the Kennedy Center a few days before this road trip? Hello, we are exhausted.
In 2014, apparently I was so out of touch with this blog that I wrote nothing the entire calendar year. I guess I was tweeting? Anyway, I certainly was crushed after the #USMNT’s loss to Belgium in the Round of 16, and I kept up with soccer, and both the American men and women’s teams in a big way, but didn’t leave any instructions here.
So we come to 2018.
The men’s World Cup is over. The United States failed to qualify, our family’s second team, Italy, also failed to qualify — bit of a rarity, there — and yet I’ve just spent four weeks with soccer on in the background of most of the parts of my daily life, at least two or three games a day, and of course on that one glorious first weekend of the tournament, the magical four-game day!
Why was it so much fun? Honestly, it felt like anyone could win every single game, maybe with the exception of England-Panama. Parity is real, and even though we didn’t get a new World Cup winner out of this tournament, I would take this French team (a.k.a Diaspora FC) over just about anyone else who came to play, maybe excepting Peru.
There are some easy answers. Here are five.
Keep watching soccer. MLS and the NWSL are in full swing. Your local teams are probably easy to find, and there are games on FOX, ESPN, NBC Sports, and there are streaming options, too. Is the quality as high as Brazil-Belgium? Every now and then, sure! For a few minutes. Either way, it’s professional soccer, with stars like Zlatan and Marta and Alex Morgan and (sigh) Wayne Rooney and lots of fun. Honestly, if you live somewhere like Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, Orlando (!), Kansas City, or Columbus, you might be shocked to find amazing groups of supporters standing and singing for 90 minutes, complete with tifo and drums and all that comes with it.
Keep watching soccer. The English Premier League starts in a few weeks. If you don’t have a favorite team, now is the time to pick one. In 2010, I picked Everton. Now, yes, I know, true Evertonians born in Merseyside will chuckle and say real Evertonians are born, they don’t just pick a favorite team, and I get that, but really, you’ll be fine. Pick an English team. It’s easy to find their games on television every Saturday morning between mid-August and mid-May. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is especially fun. Here’s a slightly outdated guide to… picking a guide… to picking an EPL team to support.
Play soccer. My year or so playing in a co-ed indoor league on Wednesday nights was the most sports glory I have ever achieved (we won the league championship two sessions in a row, little thanks to me, the big slow guy in the back). For real, you can do it. If you’re my age, just make sure you have good health insurance and know when to say when. I played in an all-ages league where I was routinely smoked by kids half my age, but rumor has it the old man leagues are substantially more physical. Your mileage may vary.
Play fantasy soccer. MLS and EPL both have really fun fantasy league systems. If you’ve ever played fantasy football or baseball or whatever, you know how this works. It’s a great way to suddenly care deeply about the performance of those two inexpensive midfielders from Watford or that one overachieving forward from Bournemouth.
SUPPORT THE WORLD CUP WINNING UNITED STATES WOMEN’S NATIONAL TEAM. It’s always challenging to give this enough emphasis, but the United States is a three-time World Cup winner. Three times. Three!!! Our women’s team has — without exaggeration — driven the spread of soccer around the world at both the highest and lowest levels since their first win in 1999. The 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada (we were lucky enough to see the US-Germany semifinal in Montreal!) was a turning point for parity in women’s soccer. England, Brazil, Japan, Germany, France, Canada — these teams are all powerhouses.
There’s always more you can do. Coach your kids’ soccer teams! Volunteer and get involved, don’t leave it to someone else. Join the American Outlaws. Find your local soccer bars and go to watch the games even when you can’t get there in person! Just as good: Find some other country’s soccer bars in your neighborhood and go get some culture!
These days I have a tall backlog of books in my To Read pile on Goodreads.
They come from the year-end lists, at places like NPR, sure, but also in email newsletters that I don’t remember signing up for.
If you read Robin Sloan’s books, or John Darnielle’s, maybe you signed up for a newsletter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux? I guess I did. Their list of “Favorite Books” of 2017 isn’t just a best-of-the-year list, it includes books they came back to last year, or read for the first time, or just wanted to share again.
It’s a good list. And thorough.
In 2017, according to the stuff I logged on Goodreads, I only finished around 20 books. And a few of those were Daredevil comic anthologies. And one of them was a Star Wars novel. (Canon, though. Or Legends, or whatever it’s called now.)
That’s not enough.
I set a higher goal for 2018, and immediately started the year by reading a cookbook.
That doesn’t sound too intellectual, right? But no, really, the Momofuku cookbook is something else. Yes, recipes. Yes, food from David Chang’s restaurants, but for someone who usually scrolls straight through all the preamble when I’m just looking for a different gluten-free waffles recipe on a tight Saturday morning deadline, I was completely drawn in by all the prose around the recipes, not just explaining the methods and techniques, but also the story of his restaurants (as of a bunch of years ago when this was published, so it’s only the first two or three) and moreso, of his cooking.
You should read it.
Even the section on hams.
So it’s a cookbook, and I’ve been making stuff from it, but the big thing it’s inspiring me to do?
Oh goodness for lack of a better term, to “take it and turn it.”
To improvise more. To change the recipe, or the project plan, or the life goal, by some increment that makes it exponentially more a reflection of me than some objective idea.
Ugh, I already mentioned Robin.
OK, so all his stuff is good, and you should subscribe to his newsletter, too, and you should throw your 89 cents, or whatever, at anything he offers you for 89 cents.
I read Sourdough last fall, mostly in airports on a short trip to Chicago.
It’s… about… bread.
You should read it if you like magic realism. And bread. And San Francisco — well, liking it is optional, but some familiarity with it will help. (I don’t think I like San Francisco anymore.)
Like a sourdough starter, Robin’s book will reflect your own ambitions.
Yes, sourdough starter can do that. Apparently.
Is it cheating to recommend a book wherein you know the author since Kindergarten? No. No, it is not. Roben’s prose in Hotel Scarface is a delight, as it was when we took Dr. Lavin’s AP English class together, senior year of high school.
So it’s a fast, fun, titillating read. About the cocaine business. Extra points if you grew up in or around Miami, as we did. Double extra points if it makes you wonder how much cocaine-related revenue funded Dade County Public Schools.
But the most impressive thing to me? He spent 20 years on this. I won’t spoil the backstory, but Roben has been reporting this out for-flipping-ever.
Storify is over. I’m old enough to remember working for a startup that built tools to curate social media posts into news articles before Storify did a much, much better job of it. 😉
I remember hearing about the idea for Storify from Burt Herman at ONA in San Francisco in 2009, which of course seems like a thousand years ago now. I had the chance to congratulate him on the acquisition by Livefyre a few years later, and raised my eyebrows from afar when Adobe picked them up and rolled pieces of it into their own suite of marketing products.
So today, I had to check. Do I have any Storifys (Storifies?) worth saving?
This ended up being the most important book to me on this list. It was wildly ahead of its time on AR/VR, the future of interfaces, fake news (!), self-driving cars, gaming, guilds, and maybe a dozen other things. I. Think. About. It. All. The. Time. Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End.
I’m starting a new job today as an Enterprise Growth Engineer on the WordPress VIP team at Automattic.
I’m a little bit excited.
If you know me at all, you know that no matter the title, my job in news has always been to evangelize for new technology to serve journalism. As a reporter, an editor, a product manager, a team leader — I’ve tried to give journalists the tools and training they need to successfully reach (and move! and impact!) their readers, while growing their audience and building sustainable models for the future.
WordPress has often been a part of that equation for me. I suppose my first of many CMS migrations was the move of my own blog to WordPress from Blogspot, even if it was only a few weeks after I started writing here. Later came a WordPress theme for the blogs at what was then Inside Bay Area (in the 19th iteration since, it’s currently the East Bay Times but has somehow maintained the stories I wrote as an intern in 2006), then a move of all the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s blogs from pMachine (an early Expression Engine product IIRC) to WordPress, plus a couple Joomla (and Mambo?) verticals, too. I used WordPress as a platform for podcasting, for daily video newscasts, for blogs, naturally, and even once drafted plans for a university journalism department website, among other non-news odds and ends.
When I left corporate media for the nonprofit news world in 2015, it felt like I was starting a tour of duty. I had heard the same phrase used by people taking government tech work at places like 18F, and it fit the way I felt at the time. Would I stay in the nonprofit world for good? What would I learn, and how would I use it in the future? Would I look for another nonprofit role when the first one ran its course?
I’m presenting this at a Poynter event called Measuring Journalism on Nov. 10, 2017. My slides are available here, but I needed some blogging exercise, too.
I love it when the numbers jump off the screen
In my dozen-plus years in the news business, whenever I’m asked — often in a job interview — what my favorite part of my work is, I tell a little story about the first time I took a serious look at an analytics report for multiple news sites, back at GateHouse Media. Sure, I had been responsible for paying attention to Omniture (or was it still HitBox?) back at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and we even had a pretty cool heatmap plugin of some sort which let us see how stories on the homepage were doing. (This was years before Chartbeat.) But at GateHouse, I worked with around 125 community newspaper sites.
Months into the rollout of a new content management system — and really, a new way of working, the first time most of these newsrooms were publishing stories in the middle of the day, or breaking any news online at all, and definitely the first time they shot and edited their own video — I took a look at the metrics.
The differences in pageviews and unique visitors jumped off the screen at me. Newsrooms with strong leaders that had some digital experience were succeeding in the new model, as measured by these metrics, at least. It also helped me realize other newsrooms might need more training on the new system!
That experience — that aha moment — is the one I talk about when people ask me what I enjoy most about my work.
I love it when the numbers jump off the screen and answer a question.
Telling the story of metrics
I’m going to talk about three key elements you’ll need to tell a great story about metrics for an internal audience. I’m usually talking about newsrooms, but this should work for most organizations.
How to identify the metrics that matter for your organization. Or at least, how to focus on the metrics that make sense for your organization’s goals.
How to make metrics useful — where useful equals actionable. (I apologize in advance for the business-y paradigm here, and you should feel free to offer improvements on the word “actionable” in the comments, on Twitter, to my face, etc., but I think it’s a good start.)
How to report smarter, not harder.
Ban the scourge of copypastism from your analytics routines.
Which metrics matter?
Look, here’s the thing. There are lots of metrics. Not all of them matter. I mean, they do, sure, to somebody, somewhere, yes. But probably not to you.
The metrics that matter to you, dear reader, are the ones you’ve identified as key performance indicators (KPIs) tied to a particular tactic that ladders up to one of several strategies you’ve set for, say, the fiscal year, which in turn ladder up to your vision for the next several years, which of course you’ve aligned with your mission as an organization.
OK, OK, really, I mean, some of you have done this level of strategic planning. But in a newsroom, plans can change pretty quickly. Maybe an election doesn’t go the way most people expect it to, and the focus of your newsroom turns on a dime. Maybe you end up in a running battle with the executive branch, or Congress, or the state legislature over access to public information. Anything could happen.
But, if you’re the one responsible for answering questions like “How are our stories doing?” or “What’s driving subscriptions these days?” or even “How can we get more people to show up to our events?” you’re going to need to set some basic goals and identify the key metrics that indicate how things are going.
I’m not going to do a whole goal-setting workshop here, but suffice it to say there are plenty of methods, lots of ideas about how to do it right, and you can start small.
For example. If increasing the size of your overall audience is a goal, hey, there are some key metrics that will serve you well. Pageviews, New Users, social referrals, there are a bunch that would be good to track.
Let’s look at a big menu of metrics we could be paying attention to:
So that’s too many things. Don’t try to pay attention to all of this at once.
Let’s take a look at the same list, with some highlighted KPIs that might be relevant to your goals as a news organization.
That’s better, right? If your goal is audience growth, identify the KPIs that will tell you if you’re getting your stories in front of more new users.
If you already have a sizable audience, and you’re trying to get them to come back more often — hey, maybe someday they’ll buy a subscription or make a donation if that’s how you roll — you need to look at a different set of KPIs.
Can you do both at once? Of course, sure, why not. But don’t conflate growth metrics and loyalty metrics if you can help it.
What other goals might your organization have besides audience growth and increasing loyalty? Plenty, sure, including little things like advertising revenue. Use a broader metrics menu like this one as a prop to help talk with the rest of the people in your organization (I’m trying so hard not to say stakeholders) about which metrics matter for which team, right now, based on your current goals.
Making metrics useful
Cool, great, so now you’ve identified the metrics that matter, and you’re tracking them closely (oof, more on that shortly), and all this quantitative data is flowing into your dashboards and spreadsheets and you can do the math to show how the numbers change over time. You’ve got graphs! We love graphs! Data visualization is great. But… why did the numbers change over time? What happened? Where did the new users come from? Which stories brought people back for second and third visits within a 30-day period? Is the language in our email newsletter signup form working?
Questions! So many questions.
Your reports should try to answer some of them. And they should include ideas about what someone (editorial, product, business, leadership, engagement, etc.) should do next as a result. Be brave, be bold, make suggestions, especially when you know from the data these actions lead to results.
But at the start, the narrative of your quantitative report might look something like this if you wrote it out in words:
Pageviews increased by 25% in October 2017 compared to September 2017, but they were down 10% from October 2016.
OK, cool, sure, that’s nice. But we have so many questions. So, instead, let’s dig a little deeper for context and provide actionable insights (sorry, not sorry).
Most of our pageview growth this month came from new users reading our Steph Curry story that went viral on Facebook, with triple our usual shares. A KQED page posted it, too, with a ton of engagement in the comments. (BTW, last year this month, local election coverage was through the roof; we were expecting a YoY dip.)
Aha! Now we’ve identified why we had a bunch of pageviews, what kind of pageviews they were, what story drove the traffic, where the readers came from, and — this is important — how much better than normal this was. And we’ve identified a key partner who helped amplify our story. Context! OK, so let’s make this a-c-t-i-o-n-a-b-l-e with some takeaways for the team.
— Contact the KQED page admins to say thanks, get an email address to send them relevant stories.
— Our reporter should reply to some comments and questions in the thread on the KQED post.
— Follow ups on Steph?
Hard metrics are really important to track in aggregate over time so you can report back to management, the board, your funders, donors, whatever, about how you’ve moved the proverbial needle over time, but they’re not terribly useful on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
Unless you unpack them, figure out where your traffic came from (or where it didn’t come from!), find out what worked and what didn’t, and identify follow-up tasks and takeaways to be assigned to team members.
It’s list time.
Three things you can do to make metrics (more) useful inside your organization:
Include context with quantitative data.
Why did the numbers go up or down, where did the readers come from, what did they read, how is this month/week/day/quarter/hour different from another? Is this unusual? What was different?
Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways How can we learn from this and what can we do today to take the next steps to either try to make the magic happen again, or to figure out what went wrong and try something different tomorrow.
Know your (internal) audience Deliver takeaways to the people who can take action today! Find the right cadence for communicating takeaways. Monthly or weekly may not be often enough, depending on your organization and publishing frequency.
There are two more examples of quantitative data / actionable insights comparisons in my slides, if you’re into this sort of exercise.
Report smarter, not harder
We’ve all been there. It’s time to build the weekly/monthly/quarterly report, and screenshots from Google Analytics aren’t going to cut it. (Sidenote: Maybe that would work fine, though?) So it’s copy/paste time. Surely you won’t make any small errors that will undermine the entire premise of your report… Surely…
And beyond the added risk of introducing errors, building reports this way is a waste of your valuable time. Let’s automate the quantitative stuff and save your wildly flailing frog limbs for the aforementioned actionable insights.
Three principles for smarter metrics reporting
I’m tempted to make you all take a pledge to end copypastism in your news organizations within 30 days.
Automate what you can; make time for developing actionable insights.
So we come to automation. Automated, regularly scheduled metrics reports (of the metrics that matter to the internal audiences you’re serving) require a significant amount of up-front effort. Reader, they are worth it. Whether you’re populating a shared spreadsheet, firing off a scheduled email of a PDF report, or routing key metrics into Slack channels, getting the quantitative data in front of people with as little repeated effort as possible will make your life easier.
The right people get the right data at the right time. Does your revenue team need to know about your top 10 stories of the month? Does your editorial team need to know which email newsletter signup form is working best today? Does your executive team need to know what color subscribe button is winning the A/B test you’re running? (The answer might be “no” to most or all of these questions.) Yes, be transparent enough with metrics so that everyone in the organization can find them if they need them, but don’t present a wall of data to everyone who comes asking. Be selective, and give the right people the right data, as often as it’s — useful! Ask yourself, is this report actionable, for this audience, at this frequency.
Automate it, for the people.
Here are three tools you can start using tomorrow. All of these are Google Analytics-related, but all have analogues in the world of Adobe Analytics (neé Omniture Site Catalyst).
We could have a long discussion about whether you should train everyone how to do everything in GA, or whether you should have them bring you their more complex questions, or whether you should find the right hybrid treatment that works for you — every organization is different, and frankly, every journalist is different. But I’ve seen this work for eliminating a lot of copy/paste duties for things like “what were our top 10 stories last week” and much, much more.
Google Analytics Custom Reports let you ask more complicated questions and route the answers on a regular basis to stakeholder inboxes.A real world example: The homepage editor wants to know which stories perform best from the homepage itself. What are people clicking on when they get to the homepage? Create a custom report using page paths and schedule it to be emailed to her on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
Google Analytics Dashboards can be customized as much as you like and shared with the rest of your organization. Build one for executives, one for editors, and one for the product team.
More automation tools All of these tools are intended to get you, the analyst, out of copypasteland and into a routine of developing the actionable insights your organization needs to grow and succeed. Along with the above, you may already be using some combination of web, social, and other metrics tools such as Chartbeat, Parsely, Sprout, Hootsuite, Buffer, UTM codes for links, IFTTT or Zapier to connect the dots, or even Slack integrations to deliver data to the right team.
Is all of this elementary to you and you’re looking to take things To The Next Level™? Then it’s time to get serious about some sort of full-on business intelligence tool. Looker and Periscope are two of the leaders in that field right now, but we’re talking about a much different cost and level of effort.
In all cases, putting in the hours to set automated systems up to deliver actionable insights to your team is Worth It.
It’s a good joke.
But it’s also your goal: serious journalists publishing stories that make an impact, paying attention to what the metrics can tell them about how their story landed, who is reading it, and learning how they can improve the next story.
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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.