Idée fixe 1.2: Remote Work in 2020: Beyond the Concept

Part two: Creating Habits, not Goals

🤗Thank you for being here, when really you could be a thousand other places. If you are new to Idée Fixe, welcome.

This is part two of a four-part segment on Remote Work, so if you haven’t read part one yet, why not catch up here first. 🖐Heads up part two is 3,800 words and will take you approximately 19 minutes to read. ☕️So grab your beverage of choice and settle in.

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Part two: Creating Habits, not Goals

What you will learn from this segment:

  1. habits vs. goals

  2. what culture is and is not

  3. 5x more process

  4. day-to-day best practices

  5. the tools necessary for remote work

Don’t set Goals. Build Habits

If you take away anything from this guide let it be this: focus on building long-lasting habits. This lesson changed my life and made me a better employee, leader, and human.

⏳A few years ago, I wrote about trying to master a new skill every month. I gradually discovered that the key to this exercise was the importance of building lasting habits, instead of setting goals. There is no way to be successful right from the get-go when trying out something new. Every new challenge started with setting out small milestones and creating a new set of habits with a daily or weekly routine.

  • The small milestones kept me excited as I was tracking my progress, and there almost always is actual progress to track. 🧠Your brain’s primary function is to protect you from harm and discomfort. You need to convince your brain that you will not only be safe if you change, but you will also be better off.

  • The habits help build up the necessary muscle memory to accomplish each milestone. To convince your brain, compose easily attainable habits that you will repeat for a period of time until they easily fit into your routine.

Remote work is very much a new skill that needs mastering. You can’t declare that you will be remote-first/friendly (the goal) without creating the small milestones and habits that will support this shift.

🤩 It’s easier to focus on habits than goals

James Clear, a NYT best selling author, talks about this in Atomic Habits. He mentions that a lot of the time is spent on setting ambitious goals or resolutions when instead we should focus on more simplistic habits.

In doing so, you are also focusing on “what type of person you want to be” vs. focusing on the outcomes you are expecting - which in most cases take a while to manifest and discourage most of us from further progress.

What is a goal: Goals are the desired results toward which your effort is directed. Goals can be completed and have a definite outcome. 

What is a habit: Habits are actions or behaviors that are regularly done so that they become almost involuntary. Creating a habit takes time, patience and consistency and is not something that you really ever finish. 🏃‍♀️Ask any athlete and they will tell you they are never done practising.

🤩 Daily habits get easier with time

Shonda Rhimes and Arron Sorkin both talk about this. For Rhimes, writing for was a lot like running. The more you do it, the more you get into the habit of doing it every day, and the easier it becomes.

🤩 Habits create self-discipline

“Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline,” wrote Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”

You often hear people talk about “how distracting it must be to work from home or work remotely”. But here is what I learned; remote work took so much effort from me as I was constantly learning new skills, using new tools and creating new habits that I didn’t have time to be distracted. I also didn’t have time for office politics or gossip which meant that I was extraordinarily efficient.

What has this got to do with remote work?

Because a lot of what is expected of us as remote workers won’t yet feel natural or come naturally, we need to build up that muscle memory, set those small milestones and focus on the small changes/progressions that happen over time. You should be creating the necessary habits that allow you to be better every day at remote work.

I recently spoke to a previous colleague of mine, who now works at Upwork. Dana mentioned how she was “encouraged to hire contractors for projects where they can get it done faster, with higher quality at a lower cost to the company” (basically Upwork’s business model).

This is a fascinating example of making the most of remote work (getting talent from everywhere), but also how she had to create new habit of seeking external talent to get internal things done.

The five dysfunctions of a team

It’s worth first spending some time thinking about the team(s) you are building (consciously or unconsciously). The moment you have more than two people working together, you start to have the beginnings of a team. Treat it as such — because a great and efficient team is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Whether we like it or not, all teams are dysfunctional (because they are made of imperfect humans). Ensuring that your teams are functional and a cohesive whole requires “levels of courage and discipline that many groups cannot seem to muster.” A great place to start is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni and how to overcome them.

There are many arguments to be made as to why you should spend time creating functional teams, in case you need further convincing:

“Functional teams avoid wasting time talking about the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics over and over again because of lack of buy-in. Functional teams also make higher quality decisions and accomplish more in less time and with less distraction and frustration. Additionally, “A” players rarely leave organizations where they are part of a cohesive team.”

Achieving functional teams in a distributed environment is a lot harder. The challengers will be somewhat different if the team is brand new or if they are moving to remote by default together, but the challenges are there so spend some time here.

Build a strong team culture

One of the habits to build is your company culture. In Ben Horowitz's latest book What You Do is Who You Are, he talks about culture as a set of actions (not beliefs).

Because culture is something you work at every day and is comprised of small actions and behaviors, it is to me just another habit you need to create.

Anytime you have a group of humans that come together to form a team, you are (consciously or unconsciously) building a culture. But creating a culture of success needs to be intentional.

“If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.” says Horowitz in What You Do Is Who You Are.

A good culture is important in any environment and can be challenging at best. Add 'remote' and 'distributed' teams to the mix and it gets exponentially more complicated.

What culture is and isn’t:

👍Culture is:

  • In the small details or the micro behaviors that happen daily. In a company context, it's more often than not the small and subtle things that showcase to others (and your team) who you are as a leader and a company.

  • How employees and teams behave when no one is looking. It’s always far simpler to be the best version of ourselves when all eyes are on us. But your culture is mostly built on the actions that you do that no one knows about - in reality people do notice.

  • Shifting and malleable. When as a business you decide to pivot or grow into new areas, you have to be open to the fact that your culture will evolve to.

    When I started working at NationBuilder, we were primarily selling non-enterprise software packages. As a company, we saw an opportunity to sell in the enterprise market, which meant bigger and longer contracts, more complex customers but it also meant building an enterprise sales team.

    Sales teams are notorious for having their own specific culture and in this case, it was very much at odds with the existing company culture. A few stark differences come to mind: the dress code was completely different; sales reps dress the part and you should want them to. They are highly competitive, focused on the numbers, motivated by big wins and big numbers, and by nature are more mercenaries than missionaries.

    Over time, we ended up having two distinct cultures and the two often came up against each other. This left team members wondering which one was the actual company culture. It took time, effort and understanding from everyone to agree on the common culture of the company.

👎Culture is not:

  • A mission statement. It’s not because it’s printed on the walls of the office, on the website or even on your business cards that it’s true.

  • Perks. As Wiener explains in much detail in Uncanny Valley, her “remote coworkers had wants.” And as the company grew, “they often spoke of feeling like a second-class citizen.” However, the wants that are mentioned seem less tied to things that would create a culture balance, and more tied to perks. Such as a snack budget, allowance for housekeepers, yearly budget for home office improvements, even home gym equipment… were mentioned.

  • (Team building) activities. Office parties, catered lunches, dogs at the office, massages… might be great for team morale but this alone will not help build a robust culture.

  • The benefits you get from working remote. All the benefits are great and worth putting forward but they don’t constitute your remote culture.

Five times more process

In a remote environment, you leave very little to luck. You will soon discover that a lot of what you do is intentionally orchestrated and heavily facilitated. Meaning that there will be a lot more process than what you may be used to.

“As a remote team, you have roughly 5x the process needs as you would in a co-located team.” says Andreas Klinger

  1. Explicit agreements and expectations. The more specific, the better. As Klinger puts it, “explicit agreements allow other people to expect those actions to happen and avoid unnecessary communication loops”. This is the perfect example of the need to start building habits, not just goals.

  2. Write it all down. The most successful remote companies seem to operate in a “what if I was hit by a bus tomorrow” mindset. Everything is documented, filled and easily searchable.

  3. Set the default and stick to it. This is not to say you shouldn’t adapt and be malleable, you absolutely should. But there needs to be some level of consistency so that employees know what to expect. If the rules and expectations change daily, it becomes hard to know how to do the job at hand.

  4. When exceptions are made, explain why. Being able to explain why certain exceptions (or even decisions) are made is going to be crucial. For example, most don’t disagree with a decision but do disagree with the decision-making process, and how a decision was made.

Day-to-day best practices

As a remote company you should easily be able to layout what the default is, what tools are being used and for what and what the company’s best practices are. If you can’t do this then it’s fair to say that your remote guidelines are not yet clear. Here are some of my favourite best practices:

Communications 📝

Asynchronous communication and collaboration are going to be key in any remote work environment. Effective communication with a distributed team is hard, but then again it always has been.

Asynchronous communication is when two (or more) people communicate without the requirement that they be “present” at the same exact moment in time.

The best advice I ever read was don't try and mimic the office environment and get comfortable with asynchronous communication. You have most certainly been communicating asynchronously for a while now, you just never called it that - text messages, voice mails, Whatsapp, Facebook, Linkedin Inmail, emails, Slack, Trello, Asana…

  • Over-communicate. What will feel like over-communication in a distributed team, probably feels like good communication if it were happening in a physical office environment. If you can avoid someone asking “where is Jane?” or “was the latest document ever published?” share it.

  • Use the collaborative and chat tools at your disposal such as Slack (@mention people, don't just talk in a void to anyone who will hear you), use the comment section in Gdocs or Box... Allow everyone in the company to view and edit every document written. Be open by default not closed… These small things go a long way in fostering trust, communication, and collaboration.

  • More rather than less. When working asynchronously, your default should also be to document and explain as much as possible. When you are in person and a discussion is happening live, you have the benefit of asking follow-questions immediately and you receiving additional information as a result. To avoid losing time, we all need to think a few steps ahead. What I particularly love about asynchronous collaborations, is that it has forced me to think through problems more thoroughly than I might have previously.

  • Don't expect an answer straight away. When communicating asynchronously, you cannot expect immediate answers. Others may be in meetings, on calls or deep in a work sprint.

  • And whatever you are asking for and no matter what channel you use give a timeline for when you need a reply. Mark something as urgent or not urgent - just knowing the urgency of a request without having to ask is so incredibly useful for prioritizing tasks.

Meetings 💻

  • Remote-first means that when we have a meeting with anyone outside our physical location(s), it should be a “face-to-face” on video conference (Zoom has proven to be the most reliable to date) and from your desk. It seems ridiculous at first, but if we’re all taking meetings this way, we’re all on equal footing. 

    Ensure your calendar invites are easy to use. I know this sounds basic but I have wanted to scratch my eyes out with a fork (graphic I know) one too many times trying to access your conference call links. It’s still necessary to remind people to have a link to a video conference that works and test it before sending it out.

    Not all meetings need an agenda ahead of time. Instead, share what you want the outcomes to be. This will allow for two things to happen:

    1) It creates efficiency as members will know what the expectations are for the meeting and what success looks like.

    2) It creates a sense of ownership for everyone to come prepared, as well as some freedom to add items, suggestions, and ideas as not everything has been decided already. You want more collaboration and ownership from diverse voices as what you are trying to achieve (a successful and efficient distributed team) is still fairly new and you need this level of creativity.

    Have the people who have been awake the longest, start first and work your way back to those who might just be waking up. When doing hybrid (😫if you really really have to) then always start with the people who are remote.

The Tools necessary 🛠

There is a great list that has recently been put together of all the best tools for remote work - 330 of them to be exact. Definitely worth checking out.

The most important thing you can do is twofold: intentionally choose the right tools for your set-up and be clear about how the tools should be used. Then you need to empower everyone to call people out when they are not following the guidelines. If you aren’t calling people out from the beginning or are making exceptions and excuses on an ongoing basis, you will not succeed.

“It’s not enough to have a solid list of tools. What enables us to be productive with these tools is the underlying autonomy, trust, and empowerment that permeates the culture.” says Darren Murph from GitLab

Here are some of the tools that worked for me and their acceptable usage:

  • Email: is mainly for external communication or important announcements. Not used for internal discussion and/or collaboration.

  • Slack(or other chat services): replaces internal email. Used for collaborating on specific projects, topics or teams. Make sure to set-up Slack accordingly and create different channels for specific teams, separate channels for client/partnership projects... If conversations aren't happening in open groups, they are then happening in closed groups or 1:1, or not at all. Slack can give you a pulse on what’s happening across the company.

  • Zoom: is your go-to for any conversation that needs to happen (scheduled and unscheduled). Kick off a Zoom if you see an urgent discussion bubbling up in a Slack channel for example.

  • Phone/texts: is great for 1:1 quick check-ins but counter-productive for wider team discussions and not great for initially fostering trust, transparency and a team dynamic. 

  • Request an IRL meeting: is the cherry on the cake, wonderful when they happen but should not be expected. If you follow the basic principles of being remote-first then you should be able to have extremely efficient and meaningful meetings via Zoom. Again, it will take time but it’s totally possible with the tech available today. It should get to a point where you can't remember if your meetings happened online or IRL because it felt as good as the 'real thing'.

  • Calendar: have an open-calendar policy by default so that people can schedule meetings without having to ask you if you are free. The moment you do this you will realize how much easier it is to get calls and meetings set-up. For this to work, people need to get in the habit of blocking off their working blocks, lunch breaks, commuting blocks so people can take that into account when scheduling.

  • Collaboration tools: such as Trello, Asana, Mural…. are all crucial. They are useful both on an individual level to help you set those habits and reach those goals but also great in a team setting for creating transparency and accountability among the team as a whole. More on this in part four.

Beyond the day-to-day

Periodic summits ⛰

Make sure that you create time and space to come together as a whole company in real life. At NationBuilder, we had the concept of Winter/Summer summits, later on, we created virtual summits during the other two quarters when it felt important that the company come together. This creates room for your team members to be humans and get to learn from each other, and respect each other, outside of a purely work-context.

All hands/staff meetings ✋

I have seen very successful all-hands meetings done with over 130 people where there was real engagement and active listening. So size is not an excuse here. This is the opportunity for leadership to present key milestones, company-wide OKRs, celebrate wins, get feedback and questions.

To be successful the following is needed:

  • they need to happen systematically every week; same day and time (with a few exceptions).

  • they need to be fully remote with everyone logging in on their laptop. If you have offices you may be tempted to do a hybrid meeting and have the core group of people join physically and have the rest join virtually. Don't be tempted and don't do it. It does not work.

  • they are mandatory, and as such should not be scheduled over.

  • they will start on time (always) and will be recorded.

  • they will be facilitated to ensure they are as efficient as possible.

  • they are followed up with an email that recaps the key points so your employees can keep track of what was discussed from one week to another.

A few last thoughts

💪As teams become more distributed, you will notice how we are all becoming more reliant on interpersonal problem-solving, rather than looking to our hierarchy to solve our problems. Remote working often favours flatter hierarchies.

📝 It's never too soon to start agreeing on all the processes for a successful distributed environment, especially if you are in a high-growth period and planning on scaling fast.

🦺 You cannot rely on a few people to carry the culture of a company, it has to be a company-wide effort. Every employee who joins needs to feel a sense of responsibility for making this a success.

😎 Embrace trial and error. You are going to make mistakes and you are going to discover things that work for you and your team(s)and others that don’t. Don’t be afraid to scrap what doesn’t work. Replace perfection with efficiency any time you can.

Take for example, the evolution of the New York Times’ Making a Hit series (which wasn’t initially a series and is now called, Diary of a Song). When the NYT initially started these videos, they were big-budget projects which included lots of graphics, post-production and design work, and interviews with hard-to-book stars, says Joe Coscarelli, NYT culture reporter.

They proved hard to replicate which led them to rethink how they could do this with more regularity and at lower costs. One of the key things they did was to embrace the tools used by many in remote scenarios - Apple’s FaceTime for example - and lean on the fact that things would be far from perfect - poor connectivity, talking to people on the go, short busts of focus, many collaborators involved… And the result is an absolute masterpiece.

👑 The beauty and gift of learning all this and creating these habits is that you are then able to work from anywhere. You really don’t need much to be successful and productive.

“There is something about having a habit that’s about flipping a switch in your brain.[…] So whatever it is, do it.” says Shonda Rhimes in her Masterclass, Writing for Television

Note: Read part three of this Remote Guide - Intentional Hiring and Onboarding in a Remote Setting.


Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson 
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni 
What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz
The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Atomic Habits by James Clear

Dysfunction model and summary
Asynchronous communication by Friday App
Helping Startups understand salespeople and the sales culture by Mark Suster
You're Not listening. Here's Why by Kate Murphy
Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life 
How The New York Times transformed its “Diary of a Song” series with FaceTime and social media by Julia Hong

🛠️Tools for Remote Work
Remote Stash: 330 tools for remote work
Out of Office App

📔Guides / white paper
The 2020 State of Remote Work by Buffer
The Promise of Platform Work: Understand the Ecosystem by WEF (h/t to Dana Saydak)

In the most simplistic way an idée fixe is any idea that dominates one’s mind for a prolonged period. This includes both the delusional and the pedestrian ideas.