Remote @ Microsoft, Digital Sherpas & Reads | #155

September 25th, 2021: Greetings from Taichung. I’m excited to announce that my wife got approved for her green card after hundreds of forms and paperwork over the past year. It’s pretty exciting and we’re planning on coming back to the US at the end of October. It’s also an end to the chapter of living abroad over the last three years. I’ll have to write a reflection on this experience at some point.

📑 This week, I handed over a final draft of The Pathless Path, coming in at 62k words, to an editor and will hopefully be finishing it in October. I’m still figuring out the details of the launch, including cover design and launch details. If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them and if you are interested in reading an early draft and providing feedback, I’ll be doing this with 5-6 people in October. Reply and let me know!.

🏝 Next week we are traveling to a couple of indigenous islands off the coast of Taiwan and its also our second“sabbatical” week, which we are taking every 8th week, so there won’t be an issue next week.

This week’s issue is a review of Microsoft’s Remote Work research, a backlog of GoodReads, half-baked thoughts, some thoughts on connecting people within the Boundless network.


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#1 Remote Work Research From Microsoft

Microsoft released one of the most comprehensive studies I’ve seen on remote work. This follows an article they shared a couple of months ago and I wanted to break down some of the takeaways from the research.

One problem is that the period they looked at was December 2019 to July 2020. I would call this “pandemic remote” rather than “real” remote work but I think the data is still worth looking at.

#1 Overall shrinking of network size and focus around core team for people that shifted from in-office to remote work

People engaged less with “weak ties” and “bridging ties” and also stopped adding new connections on average.

Looking at these by month, we can see a noticeable drop in the share of time with bridging ties, cross-group ties, and added ties. According to the report, "individuals added and deleted fewer ties from month to month and spent less time with newly added ties."

This means the interconnectedness of groups shifted much less after shifting to remote. This does seem to be increasing a bit in June so it will be interesting to see if there are any learning effects over time if they release more data.

The interesting thing about this was that the drop in connections was much more pronounced among people that shifted to remote work rather than those who were already doing so:

From this I’d likely have a few hypotheses:

  • “Pandemic remote” was a much rougher adjustment for those who built their lives around working in the office

  • People that already opted into remote work prefer building networks online at higher rates than people who were working in an office

  • Building connections and relationships online is a learned skill that takes time to develop

#2 Remote drives an increase in unscheduled communications like calls, IMs, and e-mails.

While scheduled meetings shrank, a lot more communication happened synchronously via IM, e-mail, and unscheduled calls.

Surprisingly, e-mails did not increase that much. This means that people are used Microsoft Teams instead. It would be interesting to see what happens to an organization that doesn’t have a social chat app like Teams or Slack.

Looking at the total workweek, it looks like hours increased slightly, but not much. If you consider commutes, people likely ended up working less.

#3 People Followed Similar Work Hours

While Microsoft cites a 10% increase in lunchtime IMs compared to the previous setup and a slight uptick in night-time work, it appears most people followed the same work hours.

#4 More Meetings, Shorter Meetings

One surprising finding was that meeting times shrank: “We had 22 percent more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11 percent fewer meetings of more than one hour.”

So people spent more time in meetings, but they took less time, on average.

It seems people are relying much more on unscheduled shorter interactions over zoom and other tools. I’m not sure “meeting” does these interactions justice. Maybe we need to come up with a new term.

#5 Managers Drive A Lot Of The Increased Communications

Where is all the increased communication coming from?

If you look at the following chart, it seems that engineers and managers are driving the an increase in unscheduled calls and IM communication. If I was in charge of remote work at a company, I’d be looking at these as leverage points for influencing behavior and seeing what happens when you try to change these behaviors.

#6 These New Behaviors Might Be Sticky

Microsoft saw that many of the remote work behaviors stuck when their Chinese teams returned to the office.

our colleagues in China, who have already moved large parts of their workforces back to the office, are seeing that some of the habits that emerged during remote work, such as more reliance on instant messaging and longer workweeks, have continued even after the return.

Open questions I'd want to explore more:

I love that Microsoft is sharing this work and I hope they continue to publish data. There are so many interesting things I’m curious about. Here are some open questions for me:

  1. What was the effect of having a spouse, kids, private office on all these factors

  2. Effect of previous experience of making friends online vs. remote work networking

  3. The impact of age or technological competence on network size

  4. The effect of in-person schooling and daycare on remote work behavior


#2 Things Worth Reading / Listening To

🏫 Cedric Chin’s blog is fantastic. Just started digging into his work on accelerated learning, tacit learning, and expertise. One of his articles had an interesting assessment of business leaders. He argues that almost all good business people have the same model of business, which consists of a deep understanding of:

  1. factors involved in effective operations

  2. forces influencing the markets

  3. those driving business finance and economic climates

Seems obvious but the way he explained it so simply was powerful.

🆕 I wrote out a longer version of the five principles I use to play the long-game

🏢 The case for working less in the future

As it is, work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity: the right to count in society and enjoy its benefits. It’s how we prove our moral character. And it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms.

🌏 Kevin McGuire on figuring out where to live (and how he picked Barcelona)

Patricia Mou on finding the work that matters to you

🚐 Anne-Helen Peterson pushes back against the idea of the “healthy commute” while arguing that there is some truth in it: “So instead of upholding that myth, we can take salvage the section of the supposition that is true: namely, that parcels of time free from work, particularly dedicated and routinized parcels of that time, are incredibly beneficial. They are beneficial to our work, but they are also just beneficial to us, as people — people whose value should not be defined uniquely by our work.”

🎧 John O’Nolan on the power of constraints and why he grows his business much slower than the competition on purpose

💼 The Rage Of The Career Defenders: Charlie Warzel describes the angry reactions he got when he suggested the default path might not be working

🔗Lyn Alden on Bitcoin’s “move slow and follow smart” strategy compared to Ethereum: “Bitcoin, in my assessment, is the latter. It doesn’t move fast and break things as many altcoins do, but it moves slowly and has a tendency to get things right. The more ideas and innovations that pop up in the broader digital asset industry, the more Bitcoin developers have to work with for their protocol and ecosystem.”

📚 A few recent books:

  • Revolt of the Elite: Good book from Martin Gurri though a bit slow at the end. One interesting idea I took from the book:

    • More power to the public does not always mean more political power. It means more fractured emergent movements that will find each other based on a shared ethos of repudiation rather than shared positive values.

  • Ministry of the Future: Novel about a fictional global group in charge of shaping the future. Didn’t finish it. Might be more interesting for people deep in the climate world.

  • Now Reading: I just started Ethan Strauss’ book about the Golden State Warriors Dynast, Reboot by Jerry Colonna, and The Truth Machine, a book about blockchains. Fun mix for the sabbatical week.


#3 Half-Baked Ideas

An occasional section where I share the half-baked ideas in my head. They may be terrible or they may be the start of something interesting. Challenge them, push them, steal them, or let me know if you want to work together on something.

#1 Digital Sherpas: Every organization should have a freelancer on retainer for 2-3 calls per month just to talk about what is changing with the internet, social media, creator spaces, etc. Any serious business leader or executive does not have the time to spend the necessary time to hang out online long enough to follow what’s happening.

#2 Portfolio Theory of Solopreneurshi[: An emerging idea inspired by Kris from Moontower Meta. He suggested that many people are building “equity” through their writing and creations online and that the value of these businesses will turn out to be much higher than people expect because of the fact that the number of new experiments online has increased as a whole. At a business level, Whole Foods was worth much more to Amazon than they were as a grocery retailer. Similar things may emerge in the creator and internet economy but this will be hard to predict or plan for at an individual level. The elements I want to explore further are ideas from portfolio theory, real options, and other domains. Hopefully will dive in more fully once the book is out.

#3 Too Big To Think: I talked a bit about this in 2020 but the idea is that the career incentives of large corporations undermine the cultivation of the best ideas. Instead, the ideas that optimize for the short-term survival of the organization are prioritized. As the scale of organizations has increased so had their fragility putting more pressure on maintaining the status quo. The opportunities of the internet have also lowered the opportunity cost of leaving your job or hedging your identity with an internet personality and thus, people are not fighting to inject their new ideas into existing organizations. One example is strategy consulting which generated many good ideas from 1960-1980 but stagnated quite a bit in terms of major ideas after that.


#4 Spaces

I’ve had conversations with a number of you and have consistently requested shared spaces where people can connect, and learn from each other on various different paths. I’ve done full-blown slack and discord groups but ultimately they didn’t maintain momentum.

After the book is published I’m going to be leaning into this more. A few ideas I’m thinking about right now (would love to hear any thoughts)

  • Having a light-touch survey where people can share common interests or stages of the journey and I can connect people or announce them anonymously in the newsletter.

  • Creating a Telegram group where people can interact or a one-way channel with comments where I can share what I’m reading and learning (possibly for paid subscribers or for everyone)

  • Launching a group coaching program that might run several months so that we can do something a bit more formal

  • Open threads using the substack comments section

  • And finally, some sort of small meetups in the US after October


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