One of our colleagues on the Basecamp customer support team, Jayne Ogilvie, wanted to find out how other tech companies with remote staffs handle issues like communication, career development, and hiring. Jayne sent out a survey and got back a wealth of information and ideas about how other teams work together. In this episode of Rework, we hear more from two participating companies: Sarah Park of MeetEdgar talks about how their staff gathers internal feedback on important decisions, and Patrick Filler and Anitra St. Hilaire of Harvest talk about taking on the challenge of making their company more diverse and inclusive.
Next week, we’ll release a bonus conversation with Sarah Park about MeetEdgar’s culture of transparency and open meetings. Make sure you’re subscribed via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, RadioPublic, or the app of your choice so you don’t miss it!
This week I celebrated my fifth year around the sun at Basecamp. For a lot of people that’s probably not a big deal, but for me it kind of is — it’s by far the longest I’ve ever been at any one job (my previous record was ~3 years).
That got me wondering — what’s so different this time around that made it stick? I eventually realized it basically came down to this:
I’m happy at Basecamp because every day I’m in a position to ship the best work that I can.
I admit that’s a rather generic statement, and pretty much every company in the world tries (or claims) to do the same. So what does Basecamp do that works so well for me?
Now before we get into the specifics, let me just say that this post isn’t meant to be a humble brag of how amazing Basecamp is. It’s simply an examination of how one company among many thousands operates, and why that meshes so well with someone like me.
So, as I was saying — what’s so special about Basecamp that it suits me so well? Well, it’s a bunch of things that all interleave together…
🚢 Shipping meaningful work is what matters
I’ve been at companies where I did a lot of “work”, but it often felt like I was just shuffling widgets around. I’d go to meetings, send emails, and make some stuff, but in the end, it’d be hard to tell if my work meant anything to the final product.
Other times we’d have so many pointless “stakeholder perspectives” that by the time we shipped, the final product was so watered down that it didn’t matter to anyone.
And yet other times, after months or years, some things would just never ship at all.
Basecamp is the exact opposite. As a small company working in small teams, we don’t have the luxury of spending any time on stuff that isn’t essential to shipping. And because we have to be choosy about what we work on, it’s usually the case that what we ship will be meaningful to our customers.
So we discuss ideas thoroughly, but don’t paralyze ourselves with analysis. We don’t pretend to know everything or try to predict the future, we ship and see what happens. We don’t have soul-sucking multi-hour meetings, we focus on the real work of designing, programming, and supporting our customers.
In the end, shipping meaningful work is what matters most to me, and that’s what keeps me motivated day in and day out.
😌 Calm is critically important
While shipping meaningful work is a great goal and motivator, even the best employees in the world can’t do their best work if they’re stressed, tired, rushed, or distracted. The folks at Basecamp know this, and that’s why calm and focus are cornerstones of everything we do.
One of the main ways we maintain calm is by not wasting time and energy on unnecessary bullshit and distractions. This is incredibly important to me — when I’ve got plenty of focused time to get my work done, I don’t rush. And when I don’t rush, I don’t feel stressed.
And while that may sound obvious and easy to avoid, I’ve worked at enough companies to know that wasting time is extraordinarily common. Opportunities to waste time present themselves in a lot of different ways, so here are just a few things we do to combat them:
We have very few (if any) meetings during a normal week. If there are any, they have the fewest people possible involved, usually a max of 2–3 folks. And we definitely don’t have recurring meetings.
We don’t commute. We all work remotely. Why spend 30–60 minutes traveling to some random building in a busy area to work when we can do the same work at home? This easily saves me 10 hours a week.
We don’t chat all day. There’s zero expectation of keeping on top of every chat or responding to an IM immediately. In fact, if anything we’re encouraged to close everything communications-related (including Basecamp!) so that we can focus on the actual work on hand. I regularly do this for hours on end, every day.
We don’t all work 9 to 5. We work hours that fit our life and brains. If, for example, you’re sharpest at 6 am, why the hell would you wait until “normal business hours” to start working? That’s a waste of your best brainpower! As long as we overlap a few hours with our team, we work when it makes sense, not by some arbitrary clock time.
Another major component of maintaining calm is to be very, very serious about not overworking and recognizing life’s priorities. In other words, when the work day is over, it’s over. And if something happens that’s clearly more important than work, we go take care of that . We work to serve our lives, not the other way around.
That means I don’t work some bullshit 60 hour work week.
That means that I don’t get notifications from the Basecamp app after 5 pm.
That means I don’t have meetings early in the morning or late in the evening that interrupts time with my family.
That means if I’m sick, I actually take the day off to get better, not partially stumble through the day trying to work.
That means if something comes up at home that’s way more important than work, I go take care of it and my co-worker’s don’t even blink at it.
That means I get a good night’s sleep because I’m enthusiastic about the next day’s work, not dreading it.
“Work-life balance” is an overused, rarely accurate term, but I think we’re doing it pretty damn well.
🙏 Autonomy and trust
A big part of Basecamp’s culture is the autonomy that we’re afforded. There are no managers, no daily stand-ups, and no playbook on how to do our daily work. It’s up to us to figure things out and own the calls we make.
For me that means I get to make a lot of decisions that have a direct impact on the outcome of my work — I choose what I want to work on, I make the final call on how any particular batch of code is shipped, and I’m ultimately responsible for how it performs.
Maybe this all doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to me.
To me having freedom and autonomy is a vote of confidence. When the people around me give me plenty of space to do my thing, it isn’t negligence or disinterest — it’s trust. It means an awful lot to me that people I genuinely respect have such trust and confidence in me. Maybe that makes me weird or lacking self-confidence or sappy, but it’s true.
Whatever the reason, it’s been an important, formative element of my five years at Basecamp.
🎩 It starts at the top
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned in my nearly 20 year career is that for me to have any kind of longevity at a company, it’s critically important to believe in the people at the top. I’ve worked for all sorts of companies before Basecamp, and I’ve never exactly felt super connected to those folks running the show.
Why is this important? Because at the end of the day, there are going to be a handful of people in a company that make the big decisions. And those big decisions in some way, big or small, have a direct impact on me and my work. These people are the ones deciding what’s important at the company, what isn’t, and what my work life is going to be like as long as I’m there.
And so the question becomes, do I believe in those folks? Am I more or less aligned with their principals — their professional beliefs, ethics, values, strategies, and overall ideals? Or do I have fundamental disagreements with a lot of what they believe in.
For me, Basecamp is the first place where I really do believe and trust in our leaders, Jason and David. Most everything they’ve done to build, grow, and sustain Basecamp agrees with me. And that makes it a hell of a lot easier to stick around and stay motivated than it would be working at a company where I’m constantly wondering “WTF are these clowns thinking?”
Now does that mean I agree with everything Jason and David do or say? No, of course not, I’m not some mindless drone. But generally speaking I do believe in the direction they provide and the choices they make. And perhaps more importantly, even if I do disagree, I respect their position, the thought they put into making a call, and the honesty and decency they treat everyone with.
Sorry, it’s a tired trope but I have to say it — I work with really wonderful people. They’re so open-minded, friendly, welcoming, and damn smart. We’ve worked on so many great things together and I’ve learned so much from them. It’s an easy choice to stick around when you’re around folks like this. And beyond all that, they’re just great human beings.
Thank you Adam, Andrea, Ann, Ashley, Blake, Chase, Chris, Colin, Conor, David, Dylan, Elizabeth, Eron, Flora, George, Jabari, James, Jamie, Janice, Jason, JZ, Javan, Jay, Jayne, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Joan, John, Jonas, Justin, Kristin, Lexi, Matt, Matthew, Merissa, Michael, Nathan, Noah, Pratik, Rosa, Ryan, Sam, Scott, Shanae, Shaun, Sylvia, Tara, Taylor, Tom, Tony, Wailin, Zach, and all our beloved alums for making this a fantastic five years!
Thanks for reading — if you enjoyed it, please do mash the 👏 button so we can show Medium that they really nailed that 50 clap idea! 😏
We have another Mailbag episode, where Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson answer listener questions. In this installment, they tackle questions about workplace communication and remote working. Alison Green of Ask A Manager, whom we featured in our previous episode, gives her advice on a couple of questions too.
You can listen to previous Mailbag installments here and here. If you’d like a question answered on a future episode, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email us at email@example.com.
The roots of Basecamp are in Chicago. It’s where the business started, it’s where our only office is located, it’s where we do all our meet-ups. But more than just a geographical connection, there’s a spiritual one too: Chicago is the city that works.
So it made sense when we decided to get serious about setting pay in a fair, transparent, and systematic way to use the Chicago rates as a base. They were already higher than just about any other location we employed people from. And as a remote company, we employ people from all over the place.
Yet when we were doing our pay studies this year, we started to question that decision. If we’re already paying people from Tampa or Chattanooga the much higher Chicago rates, why is the rate based on Chicago at all?
It started to increasingly seem like an arbitrary choice, and if we were going to make one such, why not go for the best and the top?
That’s what we did. Starting 2018, Basecamp is paying everyone as though they live in San Francisco and work for a software company that pays in the top 10% of that market (compared to base pay + bonus, but not options).
We don’t actually have anyone who lives in San Francisco, but now everyone is being paid as though they did. Whatever an employee pockets in the difference in cost of living between where they are and the sky-high prices in San Francisco is theirs to keep.
This is not how companies normally do their thing. I’ve been listening to Adam Smith’s 1776 classic on the Wealth of Nations, and just passed through the chapter on how the market is set by masters trying to get away with paying the least possible, and workers trying to press for the maximum possible. An antagonistic struggle, surely.
It doesn’t need to be like that. Especially in software, which is a profitable business when run with restraint and sold to businesses.
Jason and I surely could get away with paying people in Chattanooga the rates of that market. Or people in Tampa that. Or those in Portland that. It’s how most companies do it.
But in what other part of the business do we look at what we can merely get away with? Are we trying to make the bare minimum of a product we can get away selling to customers? Are we looking to do the bare minimum of a job marketing our business? No.
Do better than what you can get away with. Do more than the bare minimum. Don’t wait for the pressure to build. Don’t wait for the requests to mount. The best time to take a step forward is right now.
(And before you ask, sorry, we’re actually not hiring. That’s part of the restraint bit. We have a team of fifty five of the most kind, wonderful, and capable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That’s all we need at the moment to do what we want to do.)
If you’re thinking of going remote, here’s what successful remote leaders do…
Earlier this month, I spoke with a CEO who’s looking to transition her company to become remote in the upcoming year. I could tell she was hesitant — perhaps even nervous about it. She’d never run a remote company before.
She asked me:
“Claire, what do CEOs of remote companies have to do differently?”
“Do I need to shift some of my attitudes or behaviors?” she elaborated. “What do I need to do as a remote leader to make sure we’re as successful as when we were co-located?”
I had to pause and think about her questions for a minute.
Even though I’ve been a CEO of a remote company for the past almost four years, I’d never explicitly thought about the difference between what a remote CEO requires vs. what a co-located CEO requires. But when posed the question, I realized there are certain things I deliberately focus on as a remote leader. And, I’ve noticed other CEOs of remote companies focusing on similar things, too.
This isn’t to say that co-located CEOs are a world apart from remote CEOs — it’s just to say as a remote CEO, you cannot survive without doing certain things. You have to do things a little differently.
Based on what I personally strive to practice and what I’ve observed from other CEOs who lead remote companies, here are 8 things that remote leaders do differently…
Write it, don’t say it.
As a remote CEO, I spend 90% of my day writing. Sure, I’m writing blog posts, notes to prospects and customers etc… But I write a lot to our team. I’ll write up our strategy around business development, how we’re doing financially, or a new experiment we should try with marketing. I’ll riff on a new product concept or critique a customer service approach with a co-worker — all in writing. If we were a co-located company, most of this stuff would happen in the form of meetings or chatting someone up by their desk. Or maybe I’d pick up the phone if the person was on a different floor. But in a remote company? You write it out.
Jason and David, the co-founders of Basecamp, espouse this in their best-selling book, Remote. But being a good writer is not just an essential part of being a good remote worker — it’s required for being a good remote leader as well.
I’ve observed this firsthand in the way that Jason and David both lead Basecamp, as a company. I’m looped into their all-company Basecamp HQ Project, and I remember being floored when I first saw how Jason wrote up a new idea he was introducing. His written message was crystal clear, well thought-out, and succinct. In other companies, I imagine the same message might get communicated at an in-person meeting — more off-the-cuff, haphazardly, a little all over the place. Here, I saw the power of clear writing as a means to get everyone on the same page, articulate a complex thought, and not waste a bunch of people’s time. Great remote leaders understand this, and utilize writing as a tool.
Commit, don’t dip a toe in.
You can’t half-ass running a remote company. I’ve noticed this in watching other CEOs try to transition their company into becoming a remote company… They only let a select few people work remotely, or they don’t make writing things up a priority, or they don’t make what’s going on in the company accessible to their remote team members. That doesn’t cut it. The remote folks get treated like second-class citizens. Over at Help Scout (a Know Your Team customer, no less!), their CEO Nick Francis says exactly this when talking about their remote culture of 60+ employees world-wide:
“A friend and investor in our company, David Cancel, once told me that you have to choose remote culture or office culture and stick to it, because there is no in between… Trying to optimize for both will likely result in remote employees feeling like second-class citizens.” – Nick Francis, CEO of Help Scout
Similarly, Help Scout’s Head of People Ops Becca Van Nederynenshared that, “You can’t dip your toe into remote work, it requires 100% commitment.”
At Know Your Team, there’s no way we’d be successful as a remote company if it was just something we tried out part-of-the-time, or only allowed some employees to partake in. Someone, at some point, would have been left hanging. I’ve found being 100% committed to remote work from the get-go has been an advantageous choice to make as a CEO.
Respect the quiet.
Effective remote CEOs understand how quality work happens: People need quiet, uninterrupted time to get things done. That’s how people get into a state of “flow,” which is crucial to thinking creatively or building something from scratch. Remote CEOs recognize this, respect this, and encourage this. Paul Farnell, Co-Founder of Litmus (also a wonderful Know Your Team customer), embodied this when he wrote:
This sacred “quiet time” that remote work enables is possibly the biggest reason I personally love being at a remote company, myself. I can’t imagine Know Your Team being co-located and getting even half the amount of stuff we get done today. I attribute the uninterrupted periods of “quiet” time as to why we can be so small as a team (just 2 people!) supporting over 15,000 employees in 25 countries. As a remote CEO, you must embrace and respect the quiet.
Communicate well, communicate often.
Communicating as a remote CEO isn’t just about writing — it’s also about how well and how often you’re communicating. While communication is critical for CEOs who have co-located companies, the importance of communicating well is amplified in a remote company. As Jeff Robbins, founder of Lullabot (another fantastic Know Your Team customer), has said:
In other words, if you don’t say or explicitly communicate something as a remote CEO, your team has absolutely no idea what you’re thinking. Unlike co-located CEOs who might rely on small talk or one-off conversations to gage the pulse of an employee or relay an idea to, remote CEOs must be much more intentional about communicating.
Relatedly, communicating your company’s values becomes even more significant in a remote company. As a remote CEO, you can’t rely on your body language, tone of voice, or physical office relics to communicate values. You have to explicitly state them over, and over, and over. Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier has highlighted this, saying: “You really need to set the values of what your company is going to look like. The high-level things that you care about.”
This sometimes means over-communicating. In her research, Mandy Brown, co-founder and CEO of Editorially and an editor of STET, found that, “Perhaps the most persistent bit of advice I gathered — and in some ways the most counterintuitive — is the need for remote teams to over-communicate.”
As a remote CEO, I definitely default to over-communication. If I’m unsure of something, I ask questions about it. If I’m wondering if a team member understands what I mean, I share greater detail and context. This isn’t to belabor the point or to create extra work for myself or others. Rather, communication is the oil of the machine in a remote company. Without it, things simply won’t run.
Know exactly who to hire: Self-directed, highly-empathetic people.
Jason and David of Basecamp have famously talked about hiring “managers of one.” Other leaders of remote companies advocate for the importance of self-driven folks. Becca of Help Scout has made clear that remote leaders should hire people who are “are mature enough to work well without a ton of structure.” Jeff of Lullabot echoes this in saying, “We need people who capable of thinking about the big picture and self-managing to some extent.”
Here at Know Your Team, we not only seek out self-directed people when we hire — we look for folks with high degree of empathy. People who don’t take things personally, genuinely care about others, and have a deep, intrinsic desire to help. Wade of Zapier describes this necessary empathy well:
“We like folks who have a lot of empathy and are really good, just helpful people because you’re working in Slack and in text all day. You need to be able to empathize when maybe a sentence doesn’t come off quite right, or whatever, you’d be like, oh, I trust that they had good intentions here, this wasn’t meant to be, you know, harsh to me or whatever right. Those are important values that we have that lend themselves well to remote environments.” — Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier
While c0-located companies may value self-direction and empathy in new hires, at remote companies they are an absolute must. As a remote CEO, it’s imperative to discern for these two characteristics while hiring.
Trust your employees… for real.
As a remote CEO, I couldn’t operate day-to-day if I didn’t trust my employees. If someone goes out and runs to the grocery store in the middle of the day… so what? If someone takes the afternoon off to go watch their kid’s school play… so what? In fact, it’s great that they get to do those things, live their life, and get work done too. It doesn’t matter how many hours are being put into the work or when the work is being put in. All that matters are the results — and I trust our employees find a way to make the results happen.
Leon Barnard, a UX Designer and Writer at Balsamiq (another Know Your Team customer we are proud to serve), talked about how their CEO trusts their employees:
“Our founder and CEO, Peldi Guilizzoni, shows a lot of confidence and trust in us. I would guess that we all actually work more effectively than we did in previous jobs where the most important thing was “looking busy” for the boss… Being so distributed, we couldn’t function without valuing trust and autonomy. Peldi doesn’t micromanage. At this point he couldn’t, even if he wanted to.” — Leon Barnard, UX Designer and Writer at Balsamiq
Paul of Litmus put it succinctly: “Trust your team… Work only gets done when you allow people to make mistakes.”
Have a strong, hands-on onboarding process.
Remote CEOs readily acknowledge a key challenge when hiring folks who aren’t all in the same physical place: Getting up to speed as a new employee is key. This means giving new hires the exposure, resources and support they need to be successful. To do this, remote CEOs often focus on having a strong, hands-on onboarding process that’s often partially in-person. Wade of Zapier, explains how they onboard new hires:
“AirBnOnboarding, which when we hire folks within the first month, we actually do like to have them spend a week in person out here in the Bay Area. So we’ll rent an Airbnb, we’ll bring their manager out here, them out here and then spend a week working alongside them.” — Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier
At Help Scout, they give the new hire a buddy — or a new “work best friend” as they like to call it. You can read a wonderful in-depth write up of how they onboard folks here.
Find ways for people to interact who usually don’t interact.
Fostering a sense of connection across the company is a vital part of your role as a CEO — whether you are remote or not. There is literally no one else whose job it is in the company to unite people and ensure they feel they’re heading in the same direction. Doing this in a remote company is admittedly more challenging than in a co-located company where everyone is physically in the same place, bumping into each other, or at the very least, seeing each others’ faces.
Paul of Litmus emphasizes the importance of finding ways to “make time for socialization.” He describes at Litmus how “a few times a year, we have company get-togethers and smaller teams meet in-person more often. Week to week, we get Coworker Coffees, drink beers on Skype, and play video games online. And we invite local employees to the office every Thursday.”
Most remote companies host some sort of yearly or a few-times-a-year meet-up. At Know Your Team, we try to get together at least twice a year in-person. Balsamiq is known for their all-team retreats that focus getting everyone together to have a good time. In addition to in-person meet-ups, Buffer has helped people get to know each other through personality tests, and Help Scout organizes 15–30 minute coffee breaks between randomly assigned team members called Fikas.
Now, there are plenty of CEOs who are not remote that do many of the things above…which is great! However, when you’re a remote CEO, these 8 things become do-or-die. Don’t do them, and it’s likely your company won’t last as a remote one.
When you’re a remote CEO, you can’t afford to not be a good writer. You can’t afford to not know exactly who to hire. You can’t afford to not trust your employees.
If anything, being a remote leader tests you as a leader in all the right ways: It forces you to respect the quiet, uninterrupted periods of time, communicate well, and have a strong onboarding process in your company.
If you’re are considering the leap to become a remote company, keep these 8 things in mind as a leader. I know I’ll be sending this post over to the CEO who’s thinking about going remote, myself 😊
For the last month I’ve been a nomad — working a remote job, for a remote based company, in a very remote way. Living out of a suitcase, sleeping in hotels and working from coworking spaces. Flying between Berlin, Germany — Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon — working to train two new teammates who have joined us on the support team at Basecamp. Since we are a dispersed company, we do our training a bit differently and fly our teams out to the same location to work together when someone is initially hired.
I can’t complain. I love that I get the opportunity to help onboard new employees and I jumped at the chance to be involved. I’m a traveler at heart and it’s something I’ve always loved, but while I know that to be true, this has been different than traveling for myself or traveling for vacation — this has been purely work related and is a different experience entirely.
I’ve learned a few things:
1) How to embrace differences and become a bit more flexible
Learning how to adapt and how to be flexible in new situations has been something I’ve dealt with a lot over the last few weeks and years. Living abroad in Germany for the last 6 years has prepared me to be a bit more flexible when it comes to how I process differences in culture, how I deal with the ways things are done in a new place and how I interact with the overall feeling of groundlessness that change can foster.
Instead of fighting against those feelings of otherness (being an outsider in a new place), feeling uneasy about not knowing everything about a place and an overall feeling of clashing with the differences that are around me — I embrace them. Embracing otherness and being an outsider is not easy or natural for me — I’d love to fit in easily and feel a sense of belonging — I think a lot of people can relate to that. But, I’ve learned that’s it’s okay not to know everything or all the answers. It’s okay to ask questions and it’s okay to learn from others.
This leads me to the second thing I’ve learned –
2) How to listen and ask questions to learn
Learning how to really listen and to ask questions has helped me a lot when it comes to adapting to a new environment. Listening to learn and to understand the people I’m interacting with in a new place has helped open my mind up to new perspectives. Instead of fighting those differences, being judgmental and, assuming I know everything I need to know about a person or a place without interacting with them — once I start to understand something a bit more by learning from the source directly, I soften to the differences around me.
3) Letting go of control
Working from a hotel room and traveling for work purposes has allowed me to practice letting go of control. Something I struggle with is my need to control situations and I am a chronic worrier. I worry about things I can’t control and how they will affect me and my comfort. Working from home allows me to control my work environment: what I wear, when I work, when I eat lunch, when I talk out loud, what music I listen to or don’t, the noise level around me and so on. It’s pretty ideal for me and I know I work best in an isolated, quiet environment. But when you are working at a coworking space or from a hotel with other humans, all that control goes out the window! I’ve had to adapt and think about others needs and wants and let go of that control I usually have working from my own comfort zone.
4) Recognizing the importance of knowing what I need
I’ve also recognized that it’s important for me to be aware of what I need and that knowing myself is crucial in order to navigate through different environmental changes. The first week I lived and worked nomadically with others, I was miserable. I was tired, dehydrated, burned out and exhausted. I was doing my job excellently, but I was entirely outwardly focused! I thought I was there for our new employees who I was helping to train — giving them my attention and focus, but I was not showing up for myself and it was debilitating.
In order to take care of others without resentment, guilt, exhaustion and all those other things that come along with helping others, I realized that I need to take care of myself first. I wrote a list of everything that I need in order to show up for myself. For me that includes: working out, drinking a lot of water, eating good food, getting some alone time and getting adequate sleep. In the second week of training, I focused on all those things — making sure to show up for myself. When I needed time alone, I was communicative about that to the people I was working with and used those small moments to their fullest — recharging. It made a dramatic difference in regards to how I handled working remotely with others and the quality of my work improved. I still was not in control of the situation (because working with others includes “others” who have agency over themselves), but I was in control of my behavior in a situation.
4) Recognizing the impermanence of the situation
I think the most important thing I learned is that things are not always the same — they change. This has been incredibly helpful in times when I would take a look at the 3 weeks of my unnatural hotel dwelling, coworking life and feel uneasy about my decision to go so far outside my comfort zone. I recognized that this way of life is impermanent — it has a beginning and an end. Knowing this has helped me to enjoy the moments I’ve had with my wonderful teammates while in the same place (something that does not happen often), without feeling stuck to the idea that this is not my ideal way to live.
I’m not perfect at this — there have been hard times. There have been many moments where I’ve just wanted to be on my couch in Berlin, cuddling my dog. Recognizing the impermanence of the situation does not shield me from those difficult moments or the loneliness that can come from being far from home. Instead, it allows me space to acknowledge the difficult parts of a situation and let them go — not getting too closely stuck to them, because I know things will change. This has also helped me cultivate a bit more resilience and learn how to deal and process through moments of isolation. I like the mantra of “it’s not okay, but it will be” — which involves acknowledging hard things, but knowing they are not forever.
The things I’ve learned over the last few weeks — living in a hotel and coworking have been incredibly valuable. My mind has opened up to how I can work when I’m not in control of an environment and how I can when I am. I’ve realized there’s more than one way to work that works for me if I’m willing to stretch my perspective a bit. I hope to keep stretching.
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In June, I went on a 5 week sabbatical from work — I ventured out into the woods with my boyfriend and we hiked. We climbed mountains, slept in a tent and got dirty — we took showers infrequently and we had a hell of a time. We went all over Oregon and then onto the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. It was hiking heaven and the 5 weeks went by slowly — I felt fully rested and reenergized, daily.
During that time, I noticed things — small things; details. Slowly and then all at once. I noticed how my boyfriend’s beard seemed to grow more quickly in the wilderness — not kidding, beards grow more freely in the wild — they can’t be stopped. I noticed my legs and how they felt stronger after each day of climbing rocks and scrambling up mountain ridges. My attention and focus were sharpened — I felt a clarity after so many months of distraction and information overload. My mind in fact, became saturated with all the things I had failed to notice previously.
Out in the woods and on mountaintops, I was learning how to be quiet again and listen. I noticed so much more when I slowed down. The first week, it felt like coming off a drug — the drug of distraction. I could not sit still. I was jittery — I felt left out — I wanted to be connected. Then, it got easier to sit down and read — it got easier to avoid Facebook and Twitter and put down my phone and pick up a pen or my camera. The days felt longer — the hours stretched endlessly — I felt truly immersed in every bit of it and when it was time to sleep, I felt completely ready for rest. I felt incredibly fulfilled.
Over the last year and a half, my personal life has blossomed — I’ve learned new things — roller derby, I ran a 10K, started training for a half marathon and I hit the books daily — reading up a storm. I failed a lot too, but learned that failing does not make you a failure (I’m still working on believing that). I was challenging myself and it was invigorating. I learned how to say “no” more and build more healthy boundaries. I stopped asking “can I do it” and flipped the script to “how can I do it” — I was less afraid and more empowered to try new things. My mindset was changing from being okay with inner life complacency, to a more growth mindset.
As my personal life flourished, it sadly left my work life in the dust. I noticed a huge contrast in how I lived my life (weekends, evenings, vacations) versus how I felt and lived my work life every Monday through Friday 9am -6pm. I just assumed, “well this is how it’s gonna be — you can either thrive in work or life, but not both”.
But, something had been stirring for a while in me and having a break to really think, made me wonder if there was a way to apply the new ways of living that I was learning in my “off hours” life — to my work life as well. It was a whisper of a thought, but it intrigued me. Was there a way to integrate the two? Did they need to be separate? Was it possible to bring in more critical thinking, more self compassion, more growth, more vulnerability, a space for challenge and more mindfulness and use all those things to enhance my performance at work?
Then, I came back to work.
After 5 weeks of quiet and solitude and space to think, I tripped and fell headfirst into my old habits. Habits that left me feeling stuck to my computer, glued to my smartphone, email, Twitter & Facebook.
Falling into my old habits made me feel uncomfortable — like putting on clothes that are a few sizes too small. They didn’t fit anymore. The things that felt so normal before (rushing through emails, checking into work off hours to squeeze in more work, multitasking 5 things at once, distracted to the point of numbing, stressing, not taking time to respond to coworkers or talk to them because it was busy..etc), suddenly felt so wrong.
I had been doing an objectively “good job” every day, but looking back — I was in “low power or energy saving mode”— not really using my strengths or challenging myself to my full potential; saving my energy for something else — I’m not sure what. This is not in anyways the fault of my employer — my job is wonderful and we have amazing employee benefits — I am very lucky and privileged to work where I do. I recognize that daily. I am in the best work environment that I could hope for. I just did not have a very flexible mindset when it came to what kind of person I could be at “work”.
I was ready for a real change.
There are a few things that I think can help in the process of cultivating a healthy work / life integration. Consider this a guideline and not the only set of rules to follow:
Mindfulness is defined as “a sustained awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment.” This is the definition I identify with the most and what author Ellen Langer speaks about in her book by the same name. So, what does it mean? It means thinking more about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Langer expands upon how to bring mindfulness into work below:
“You can come to mindfulness in one of two ways. First, you can engage in noticing new things. It can be new things about a product you’re working with, your supervisor, your manager, about your family, whatever it is; you’ll come to see that by noticing them, they’re different. And when something is different it becomes naturally engaging. By having people notice new things it leads people to become mindful.
The second way to become mindful is by learning the importance of uncertainty and understanding the power in uncertainty. When you approach things with the mindset that you no longer think you know everything about it, you bring a different kind of attention to it. This respect and understanding for uncertainty leads people to become more mindful. “— Ellen Langer
For me, a way to bring mindfulness into work is by recognizing why I feel the way I do — when I’m angry, sad, frustrated, happy or any one of the many emotions humans have — I like to think about the “why” behind it all. Yes, I’m a person who likes talking and thinking about feelings and I’ve embraced that. For example, during the day, if I feel overwhelmed (if it’s a really busy day or I am doing a lot of things) I slow down and make sure to breathe and consider why I am stressed out. I know if I’m feeling flustered that I need to ‘put on the brakes,’ take a walk or just stop for a moment to recover a bit.
Define healthy boundaries
Defining healthy boundaries at work is really important. So what does it mean and look like? People who have developed healthy boundaries are described as:
“People who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on.” — Brené Brown
Brené goes more in depth into this in the video below:
I like defining boundaries. When I’m going on vacation, I communicate clearly what my boundaries are while I’m out. I communicate that I’ll be out and define who can help in my absence. I politely say “no” if someone requests that I take on a new project the day before my vacation and I maintain consistency while “out of office” — by not checking emails or work stuff — so then, my colleagues know my words line up with my actions. Work can wait and being tired is not a badge of honor, but sometimes you’ve got to remind yourself and others of that — even when you work at Basecamp.
Care less and let go of control
Care less about situations that you cannot control — it might sound like not caring, but it’s not. It can be a much needed shield when working in emotionally draining jobs/environments. Chris Gallo from Highrise wrote about caring less in customer support:
“When I care too much, I’m putting the other person in control of a relationship I shouldn’t even be in.
You have to have thick skin working in customer support. You have to let some things go. One person being upset isn’t a reflection of you or the majority of people that use the product.
It sounds backwards, but you’ve have to care less. Not more.”
I agree with Chris. I also work in customer support and I used to get really stressed worrying about people’s replies. Something that’s helped me a lot is to know that I can’t change how someone reacts to a situation. I can do my best and be my best in an interaction, but it’s not a guarantee that an interaction will go well. Even if I reply and you can practically hear a smile or the aura of a rainbow colored mini goat dancing the tango, shining through an email. It does not matter sometimes. I can’t control how someone reacts to me. It’s not the end of the world and I can move on more easily.
Communicate openly and directly
Having the space for open lines of communication and the ability to directly communicate without fear of retribution is very important at work.
“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.” — Joseph Grenny
A safe space for open communication is key. This is given and I believe cultivated from the top. If team leads/managers, senior employees and CEO’s aren’t demonstrating that it’s okay to disagree or give constructive feedback without getting publicly snubbed, it’s hard to to believe it’s really okay. This can lead to silence and silence is a noxious gas. Claire Lew from Know Your Company, offers her perspective on how to create a space for more open communication:
“If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place — they simply want action to be taken.
Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent work environment, you can’t just talk about being open and transparent. You have to act in an open and transparent way.” — Claire Lew (source)
Having open communication channels and being able to directly communicate, helps me to feel more connected with my teammates and bosses. If there’s a misunderstanding or miscommunication between myself and another teammate, I bring that up and prefer to talk through that — rather than leaving things unsaid. It’s uncomfortable — it does not feel great while it’s happening and it can be scary, but afterwards I’m always glad to have had those tough conversations.
My sabbatical is long over, but the lessons I’ve learned during it are still fresh in my mind. I don’t claim to know all the best practices surrounding how to integrate work and life and I’m learning as I go. My “real life” is something I’m more happy with now and it combines all parts of my life (work and life and everything in between). It’s nowhere near perfect — but, I don’t think “perfect” is a state that can be reached. My “out in the woods & on mountaintops” experience has continued to grow at my work desk, inside my apartment, on a busy street in Berlin. I now find comfort in the belief that I don’t need to be thousands of miles away to experience a fulfilling life — it starts at home — wherever that might be.
How do you maintain a work/life integration or balance? Is it important to you and how do you achieve that? Tell me in the comments below or tweet me here.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, communicating more openly, setting healthy boundaries, self preservation and more, I recommend the books and blog posts below:
My husband [the venture capital investor Zachary Bogue] runs a co-working office in San Francisco…And if you go in on a Saturday afternoon, I can tell you which startups will succeed, without even knowing what they do.Being there on the weekend is a huge indicator of success, mostly because these companies just don’t happen. They happen because of really hard work.
I read my fair share about the tech world. I haven’t encountered statements this utterly arrogant and silly in a while.
As technology evolves, and companies wake up to the possibility of remote collaboration, more and more people are trying out coworking. Progressive as ever, we at Basecamp have written about “working alone in a crowd”, in an office you aren’t responsible for. And we’ve put our pennies where our pens are, offering our staff a stipend to help with renting a desk somewhere.
I came to this realisation during a recent trip to Manchester, England, where I helped train the new support person who’ll soon take over my weekend shifts. Rather than making Jayne, who lives near London, fly halfway around the world to our Chicago base and learn new names, new systems and new stupid in-jokes while struggling with time-zone delirium, we thought it would be more humane to pop her on a train instead — which, in the UK, is sometimes quicker and less stressful than a transatlantic flight. Instead, we got team lead Kristin to fly in from Oregon and meet us in our temporary home, a shared office called Workplace.
Workplace was perfect for our needs. We were given our own meeting room, with a quaint mock front door we could shut when we needed our privacy. We had comfortable chairs, high-speed wifi and other essentials like a steady flow of drip coffee and as many biscuits as we could eat. At first, we enjoyed the buzz of other people getting down to business around us, while we actually had face-to-face conversations and got to know each other IRL. But, by the end of week two, that room started to feel like a carpeted cell.
Why? Because that’s just not how I like to work. Training is one thing, meetups are another, but in my daily working life, I much prefer to be in my own home office. Desk sharing does nothing for my work, the way in which I approach it, or how I wrap my life around it. Since I stopped coworking, I’ve never been happier or more productive. It’s been better for:
Here’s how my day-to-day goes: I listen to loud music and reply to emails. I look for answers, troubleshoot problems and pitch solutions. I teach an online class at the same time every week, and, at random, field requests for phone calls. When it’s quiet, I write. I have my colleagues at hand when I want their help, and complete solitude when I need it. And when I’m done for the day, I’m done. No part of this is enhanced by having other people around, working on their own stuff. Coworking spaces are wonderful places to collaborate, socialise and escape home life — but none of those are things I need.
Almost everyone in my team, maybe even the whole company, falls at the introverted end of the spectrum. We work remotely, connected but alone, and exercise our empathy muscles until they ache. During a busy day, I interact with more than a hundred people over email, Twitter, phone and online chat, most of them complete strangers. After that, I want one of two things: hangs with friends, with whom I can be my true, unfiltered self, or time to myself, cooking, reading or playing records. The last thing I need is more casual acquaintances with which to make small talk or awkward eye contact.
Truth be told, the only company I really need is my wife and “daughter”, a beautiful four-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to a French Bulldog. Zoë is a photographer who sometimes shoots on location, sometimes in our home studio, spending the rest of her days retouching images at the desk next to mine. That means I get time with my favourite person, practising our karaoke jams and squealing at photos of other bullies (don’t tell Olive!), but also time to focus on me. Going to a coworking space would mean being away from my fuzzy family, a trade-off I never want to make.
My weird habits
Everyone knows that you should have regular breaks during your working day, time away from that screen. But not everybody spends that downtime doing pull-ups on their bathroom door. Sure, there are a few “active collaborative workspaces” where such activity would be encouraged, but, outside of those broworking spaces, anyone doing push-ups between the desks will be cause for concern. Other weird habits I’m better off keeping at home: mid-morning showers; preferring to listen to podcasts rather than other people; staring at my dog while she sleeps.
A quick poll of my fellow Basecampers revealed that having no commute is their favourite thing about working from home, and the biggest block against considering coworking. I’m lucky in that the space I ran was down one flight of stairs from our apartment (which brought its own problems!), and any new shared office would be a short bike ride away. But, for me, an office door is enough separation between my work and life, and I’d rather spend my journey time walking the dog. Did I mention I have a dog?
If this doesn’t describe you, by all means — consider coworking. Everyone is different and each person works differently. Maybe your job is isolating and you’re craving human interaction. Perhaps your projects would benefit from an outsider’s ideas or their complementary skills. You might not have space at home to dedicate to an office, or the desire to own a printer-scanner-fax. Or you just want to get out of the house more.
If you’re looking for a new way to work remotely, coworking could be the answer. But you might have to search long and hard for a space that suits you, and you might have to sign-up for some trial months. And when you’ve found the right fit, you’re going to have to make it work for you. Whether you end up in a shared space or your own home office, focus on making each day a healthy, productive time.
With Basecamp 3, remote collaboration has never been easier. We’re spread all over the world, working together across every time zone, and we built this tool to help you do the same.
Spend an afternoon with us and you’ll see it all — how we communicate internally, how we decide what to do, how we divvy up and manage work, how we’re structured, how teams interact, how designers and programmers work together — even how we disagree and resolve conflict. Everything’s on stage, nothing’s off-limits.
For years people have asked us how we work at Basecamp. We’ve shared our business and development philosophies in Getting Real, REWORK, and REMOTE, but we’ve never lifted the veil on our organizational structure and unusual work methods. And unusual they are — we’ve developed an entirely original way to work together.
What does our day-to-day look like? How do we organize and manage work? How do we communicate across the company? What do we tell everyone, vs what do we only tell a few people? How do teams coordinate? How do we gather ideas, consider feedback, break work into digestible chunks, build, and deliver. How do we maintain our culture? How do we work remotely across 30 different cities around the world? How do we make so much progress in a short time with a small team?
On July 7th and we’ll go behind the scenes and share everything. We’ll show you how we use Basecamp 3 to run Basecamp. Everything will be exposed.
After this workshop you’ll have a new perspective on how people can work together, how and when to communicate this way vs that way, and how keeping everything together in one place is the secret to a few small teams making some really big things. You’ll have new insights into how your own organization, group, or team can shift its perspective and work better together.
The workshop will be hosted by Jason Fried (Basecamp co-founder & CEO), David Heinemeier Hansson (co-founder & CTO), and Ryan Singer (strategy). It’s live, interactive, and small-audience intimate with lots of interrupt-anytime Q&A.