What ideas can Basecamp teach us about thriving remotely

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Jul 18, 2020

Take advantage of the remote work, which means distance, time, attention, autonomy, and trust and invest in those as they will pay off.

Basecamp, as a company, has always been somewhat divisive on the internet. A big reason for that is their firm opinion on how companies should be working. They often share those views in public, but they also live with them and take action in the company and their product. This division recently got magnified with the launch of their very opinionated emails service, Hey. This launch resulted in them going head to head with Apple on its App Store policy.

That spat did put them even more in the public eye where their opinions divided the public; one camp saying we should listen to them and the other saying they were just contrarian for its sake. I see them as contrarian but not for the sake of it. They’re contrarian to lead the charge in getting us all better working conditions, workspace, and less stress in the workplace. But you can’t lead changes by being quiet and flexible on your belief; you need to shut loud and strong while sharing your reasons.

No matter which camp your fall under, one thing stays true they’ve been around for 20 years, fully remote and thriving. That put them at a very nice place to help other companies who now are planning to go remote temporarily or full time, and that is what I’ll look over here. Let’s see what we can learn about some of those unique ideas they are doing to thrive and succeed as a fully remote company.

Writing everything

Doing things in writing makes it easier for everyone to get informed in their own time, place, office, or home.

Basecamp is very much a writing first company and writing everything in text-form as a lot of interesting side effects, some of them I already touched in Literate Doing, Write everything you do. A big plus for a remote company is that texts scale very well across time. That makes it powerful in replacing meetings for most instances and who wouldn’t want less two-hour-long meetings that could have been a thousand-word email.

Using text instead of meeting or chat also allows you to bypass timezone problems that can arise from having employees working remotely from all over the world. You don’t need to have people wake up in the middle of the night for company announcements, and you don’t have to compromise because of lousy time overlap with other people. That effectively levels the playing field across the company and doesn’t prioritize some employees above others because they are in the same timezone.

Writing also leaves a permanent and easy to find a record of whatever you shared. You can come back in 3-4 years and get the same text with the same context, comments, and ideas. That is very useful for long term projects that last multiple years. That deals with the usual problem of “who’s brilliants idea was this?” that often happens in projects. Now you can go back and see the context of that decision and why it got chosen. Just be aware that, in some instances, the “who” might have been you.

A writing culture also allows you to have a central place of truth where everyone, on their own time, can go and read the information. That takes care of information dissemination and forgetting some part of it in between sharing or the usual weird warping that happens, the more you share something. Written texts will be there in the same fashion for everyone and with the same details, no forgetting or warping. To help with that, they even designed the Basecamp app to match that vision; everything can get comments in the application. That allows employees to see each other’s comments and ideas and discuss them together on just about everything. This writing culture is also very much an asynchronous system, which leads to more deep work.

Deep Work

You need to respect everyone’s time and attention. It’s one of the most precious things. you also shouldn’t be “aligned” all the time, you need to be able to slide past one or the other, and you should never have an expectation of immediate response

One of the ideas of deep work is to be able to focus uninterrupted on a single complicated problem for an extended period. How long the session lasts usually depends on how complicated the problem is and how much focus the person can achieve, but generally one to two hours. To accomplish that, you do not need to move in the middle of the wood with no internet or become a monk. You do need some system in place to help you, and if they are company-wide, it’s even more useful.

If you want someone else’s time, you simply ask for it to them. That makes it into a negotiation, which makes it harder to schedule, but that also means overall, you take less of people’s time because of the friction.

So how would that work in a work environment? First off, we just touched on how writing everything down instead of talking allows you to let it wait until you have some time to read it. It will still be the same information even if you let it wait an hour or two. That means you can be free to focus for multiple hours on a big problem without fear of missing out. You can come back and “catch up” by reading the new posts since your last check-in. That works the same way for other attention-grabbing things like I touched in There’s a war on for your attention. Fight back with centralized hubs

Another difference is how Basecamp handles calendar or more the lack of handling calendar. There’s no shared calendar in the company that would allow people to take other people’s time. Everyone needs to ask the others for their schedule and negotiate the “best time” for them. That creates friction by design, which means people are less likely to take each other time for unimportant things. You also probably become better at negotiation in general, but that’s just an unintended side effect. The real power comes from being in control of your calendar; you can then block time off for deep work and protect it in the negotiations.

… there’s scheduled office hours 1 day per week from X to Y where people can schedule the expert’s time to answer their question for 30 minutes.

Another thing they did to help is “office hours” each week. When a team or a person is an expert in a needed field or has a lot of requests, they can put up office hours for themselves. In those hours each week, they will answer people’s questions for a set amount of time and only in those hours. That rule prevents the usual problem of having ten people with an easy 10-minute issue each, and then you can say goodbye to 2 hours in your day. Instead, people who have questions can register for a time slot during office hours. During that time, you have full access to an expert who only wants to help you and answer your question. That is a win-win situation since you get a better answer, and the experts are not constantly distracted by problems and have to juggle their work with people’s questions.

Managing with empathy as a human

It’s important as a manager to be able to assess in a correct fashion the work that’s being done on your behalf by your team. You need to be able to know if it’s good work and in a reasonable fashion if you can’t, you need to learn it.

This one should be self-evident; we’re all humans, and we all need empathy and a good workplace. Yet, when it comes down to it, especially in a crisis, people seem to forget that fact. For example, Basecamp recently had to publicly block tools that companies were using to spy on employees from their API. The idea that you need spying software to “know” people are working and not “stealing” company time is a weird concept to them and me. Remote work should mean I can go out 30 minutes in the park to help with solitude as long as I tell my team, and I work that 30 minutes later, no penalty is needed here.

Basecamp’s central idea of management is that managers should be able to assess in a correct fashion work made by their teams. Evaluating the resulting final product from the work should be enough to know if they worked well. To do that, a manager should have a good idea of how long something will take and what it will look like. If you have a reasonable estimate of how long something should take, what it looks like, and people check-in with problem or delay, there’s no need to know what happens every minute of the day. The other side of this is that I can look and know you’ve been at your desk typing away all day, but it doesn’t tell me you moved things forward unless I know what that looks like.

Most deadlines (other than a contract or special case) are made up and can be unmade up the same way, it’s the same for goals. You should not have to kill yourself to reach it.

Another significant point is deadlines, goals, and crunch. Basecamp reminds us that peoples create deadlines, and so peoples can also change them at any time. You shouldn’t change them all the time for no reason, but if reality changes, so should they. Reality change can happen for many reasons, often outside the company’s control, situations like the loss of a significant customer, political shift, and natural disaster. When something like that happens, the deadline should be changed to reflect the new current reality. You shouldn’t keep the same tight deadline and force people to overwork to reach it, that’s how burnout happens. In some instances, that might not be possible because of contract agreements or particular reasons, but those should be the exception, not the rules. They should also be reviewed carefully and explained to employees instead of just pushing them into crunches; no one likes crunches, they’re like squats.

Are you up for it?

As I hinted before, some of those things can be pretty controversial. Some of those ideas might even feel impossible unless you’re Basecamp. In general, I do think most of those points should at least be looked into by everyone and especially remote companies. Those ideas are great at leveling the company playing field and making sure peoples are happy and working to their full potential. Happy employees who work to the best of their abilities does mean a better product and often faster release.

Many of those can also be partially implemented with minimal efforts as an experiment and adjusted as you go. Writing out company announcements and meeting ideas or letting people control their calendar comes to mind. Whether you agree or disagree with them; hopefully, this got you thinking about some of those issues and how Basecamp tackled them.

Just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.