For many years now, we have been talking about the importance of "Working Out Loud" in remote or virtual teams, the practice of making your work visible in a way that is of use to you and/or others.
Over the last few months, however, I have been falling out of love with the term, when referring to teamwork in the online space.
Can you guess why?
(Go on, think again before reading on...)
It’s the 'out loud' part that jars with me.
The Origins of the Term
'Working out Loud' was popularised by John Stepper as a way of using the online space (both within and outside of organisations) to make our work as individuals visible, gain exposure beyond our networks and improve our craft through sharing work in progress.
In the “virtual team space”, we have adopted this concept, as the need to deliberately and regularly communicate about the progress and process of our work has become apparent.
As more and more information gets pushed out, the online space is getting crowded. So a phrase that includes the words “out loud”, can give the feeling that we're expected to generate even more noise. (And indeed, the term has given way to titles of great blog posts like “Working Out Loud does not mean being noisy”.)
Plus, a key part of successful “working out loud” practices is listening. If you work out loud in a vacuum, then your work is of no use to anyone. And if you, as team member, don't pay attention to what others are doing or thinking, then teamwork falls apart. The phrase can suggest one-way broadcast communication, rather than the interactive, give-and-take communications where listening plays an important part.
I'd already been falling out of love for a while with the phrase and then I had THE conversation that said, "Pilar, you need to find a different term."
I was wrapping up a pilot to introduce digital collaboration practices in an organisation. Central to this was introducing an online ecosystem, where people would be able to "work out loud". A few weeks after we ran a session introducing the concept, a manager said to me, "We've been talking about this in my team and one of our team members said 'Hey, don't we need to listen first before we start to work out loud?'”
That's when it hit me.
By using that term when referring to teamwork, the message received was "talk a lot" rather than "converse often about the work and show the work and/or the progress of your work".
All this time, what I've been referring to when talking about working out loud in teams, is increasing visibility.
Visibility of yourself (mood, context, availability),
Visibility of your tasks (your progress, your work, the conversations you have about-and around-your work),
And finally, making your team's work visible within your organisation, or in the broader world of work.
“Visibility” is the first component of the VIRTUAL model for a reason, but on its own, the term does not hit all the spots.
Visible Teamwork does.
What is Teamwork?
Central to our teamwork is our workflow: the progress of our tasks, the cadence of our task interactions, our dependence on each other to complete our work. All this can be made visible online.
Our thinking process is also central to teamwork. The decisions we make as individuals affect our outputs. At a personal level, the choices we make and the way in which we approach our work reveal much about ourselves. If we want team members to work closely together, regardless of where they are based, we need to surface this information deliberately, regularly.
Our own context: our mood, our surroundings, what's going on in our life. That affects how we "show up at work". Our availability, our "distraction-free" slots - there is value in making those visible as well. All those things that make us a fully-rounded human, rather than simply an avatar we interact with at work.
The information about you that others pick up by osmosis in the physical space needs to be communicated with intention in the online world.
What Does Visible Teamwork consist of then?
Mood, context, availability, everything that you experience as a person that affects how you work day to day.
Conversations in the open, workflow visibility, even cloud-based work that other team members can easily access
Communicating that you're ok with being interrupted, organised social time and an ecosystem that allows you to “bump into each other" online as you're carrying out the work.
Making your team visible in the organisation by regularly talking about your team's work, brokering relationships between team members and others in the organisation, and sharing not just your work, but how you work.
Does it sound easy?
That's because it's not.
And that's because going “office optional” is not just about “digitalisation” and learning to use new online tools.
It's about shifting how we think about our interactions , and how we can use technology to bring us closer together, not drive us apart.
It requires changing behaviours. And that’s hard.
But if you have the courage to tackle it and embed the necessary behavioural changes by modelling their effectiveness, the rewards can be exceptionally worthwhile.