Creating a Culture of Collaboration: Q&A with Jason Fried

When he co-founded 37signals, a Chicago-based software firm, in 1999, Jason Fried had no idea he’d become The New York Times bestselling co-author of “Rework,” a book about starting and running a “right-sized” business.” Three years after the book’s release, Fried and his founding partner, David Hansson (who lives in Denmark), co-authored another book, “Remote: Office Not Required” in 2013 about how employers can work collaboratively with remote employees. Still, Fried is probably best known in the business world for creating the project management software known as Basecamp, which helps companies manage projects with virtual employees. The program was created out of necessity for 37signals (now known exclusively as Basecamp, as of February 2014), a company with four employees in Chicago, many who still work remotely, and 28 additional remote employees including two farmers, who work everywhere from Utah to Canada. Collaborate contributor Dawn Reiss talked with Fried about improving teamwork at conferences, conventions and meetings.

Why did you decide to write “Remote: Office Not Required”?

We have 10 years of experience with having people work remotely for us. We started getting comments like, ‘How do you do this? I don’t believe it’s possible.’ As these questions started piling up, and we were answering the same questions over and over, we realized we should put a book together. A lot of people are curious about this.

How can a culture of collaboration improve events, based on your experience?

When people don’t communicate clearly, it all breaks down fast, especially if people just use email to coordinate things back and forth. The problem is things get lost, and no one knows where the latest version of something is. Tools like Basecamp exist to help keep everyone on the same page, which is very important for a big event. You can forget someone or lose a presentation or not have a time slot right.

Your whole philosophy is that working remotely is easy, but in some cases, it hasn’t been. Why not?

A lot of people will try working remotely, and it works. But for others, it doesn’t. I’ll ask them what didn’t work and they’ll say, “We couldn’t tell if someone was working if we couldn’t see them.” That’s not the fault of the remote worker; that’s the fault of the manager. If the manager can only manage by walking around and seeing people, then they don’t trust their folks enough. That’s when things start to break down—when people don’t trust each other to do the work, to do it on time and to do it properly. If both sides don’t trust each other, the working relationship is doomed, regardless of what tools you have. You need to first establish trust and believe that it’s going to work, and that if you try it, people are really going to step up to the challenge.

How do you build that trust?

You have to go on faith. You think: I’m a professional; I’m here to do my job well; they should trust me, so I need to trust them that they are going to be professional. You have to go into it suspending your disbelief that it’s not going to work. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what you have to do.

What are some rules for building successful collaboration?

For an event or a business, it’s the same thing. You can’t have the local culture and everyone else, because then you have two different companies. And that’s kind of a mess. The key is, however you communicate—through Basecamp, Skype or Google Hangouts—you need to communicate that way with everybody, not just people who are working remotely. If you are a thousand miles away or across the table from me, it’s all the same. You must have a central repository, a location or a tool that everybody uses for communication and discussions. If you start spreading discussions out over different tools and different places, people can’t follow along and see what’s happening. You can’t have two cultures.

What are your suggestions to planners who are managing an event team?

There’s no silver bullet. Whoever is coordinating the event has to be the person that leads by example. If that person doesn’t trust anybody, it’s not going to work. You have to have someone up there rallying the troops. There are going to be dark days where things aren’t going to get done, but you don’t want to fall back on blaming it on the fact that you can’t see the person. Even in businesses where you can see everyone, things go wrong all the time, every day. So it’s not about ‘I couldn’t see them.’ It’s that someone didn’t do their job and that happens. Try not to point fingers at the method. Try to understand what actually happened.

How do you handle working with people in multiple time zones?

That’s tough. Let’s say you are working with someone in Dubai. That might be a full 12 hours apart, and then it’s very difficult. Everything slows down, because if you ask a question, it takes 12 hours for them to get back to you. So it’s good to have at least three to four hours of overlap at some point during the day where everyone is up together. You can get quick, easier responses. Then during the time you’re not up together, no one is bothering you, so you have time to actually do work for hours on end. You get more done. When you are with each other eight hours a day, it’s very easy to interrupt each other all day long, and you don’t get much work done.

How do you manage common issues?

How would you manage it if everyone is around? I don’t think it’s any different. Someone has to take the lead on discussing it. Just do what you have to do. People often think there are different methods of dealing with problems if they are local or if they are remote, but it’s the same. You’ve got a problem; you have to figure out what happened.

What kind of tools do you use?

We use Basecamp, Google Hangouts, Skype, WebEx and GoToMeeting. You’re talking about less than 100 bucks a month total for all these tools, and you can get so close to being in person. You can see their faces, see their desks, hear their voices and talk in real time. And you have phone and airplanes. If you really need to fly someone in, you can.

How do you manage Google Hangouts?

We try to keep them to eight people or less, because at a certain point, it becomes a little chaotic. It’s good to delegate one person as the leader or moderator. As the moderator, you can ask, ‘Does anyone else have a question?’ and they can raise their hands. Or you can do a free-for-all if you’ve been working together a while, because everyone knows when to jump in and when not to. But if it’s a new group, it’s good to have a moderator and some basic etiquette guidelines.

What are some of the advantages of hiring remote workers?

You have access to the best people in the world in a time where it’s hard to find good people, because they are in super high demand. If you are only setting your sights on people who live in a 10- or 20-mile radius of your physical office, it’s so hard. They exist, but you are competing with everyone else in your local area. If you can expand that radius, you have a much better opportunity for a bigger talent pool. You can find people you’d normally never find.

What’s your biggest concern when it comes to remote workers?

Contrary to what some people think, it’s not that they slack off. It’s that remote workers work too much, because they often work out of their homes. It’s very easy for them to get back to work, because their work and their life are on the computer. So you have to remind them not to work too much. That’s actually your job as a manager to check in on them—not to see what they’re doing, because you know they are doing good work—but to make sure they aren’t doing too much work. We’ve had to tell people to take a week off because they are overworked. If a person gets burned out, you’ve lost them, and it’s really hard to recover from burnout. And it affects everyone on the team.

What kind of language do you use as a manager to promote collaboration?

I’m still learning to do this, but it comes down to asking a lot of questions instead of telling someone what to do. Telling someone what to do is the easy way out, and people don’t want to hear that. You want to help people come to their own conclusions, maybe the same one or maybe a different conclusion. But help them get there themselves so they have more ownership and don’t feel like they’re just implementers, but thinkers and part of the process, too. I’m reading a good book, “Turn the Ship Around” [by David Marquet], about this guy who ran a nuclear sub in the Navy. He was given a modern sub that had the worst crew and the worst morale. The military is very much a command-and-control philosophy. When you are telling people to do things, they aren’t thinking, they are just doing. So the captain said, ‘There are 900 people on the ship; why is there only one brain working? That doesn’t make sense. My brain isn’t better than everyone else’s brain is together.’ So he turned it around and didn’t give orders anymore. He said, ‘I want people to come to me and tell me what they intend to do, and then I’ll I say do it, or think about that.’ Instead of telling people what to do, he would confirm their intention. It’s a very different way of thinking, and the ship totally turned around in a year or two and became the best ship in the Navy. People know when they are being implementers instead of thinkers, and it’s hard to get fired up about that.

Photo credit: Marc Garret