Working Out Loud doesn't mean being noisy

Published 2017-12-23 by Jochen Lillich

“Working out loud” is a funny way to describe how people in distributed teams communicate their work, share where they make progress, where they’re stuck, what they experience. That we’re remote from each other doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of hermits. Working out loud is an important practice to make sure we collaborate effectively.

At freistil IT, we have two main ways to let our team know what’s going on: Daily standups and a dedicated chat channel. We’ve set a few rules for using them effectively that I’ll explain below.

Daily standups

Our new motto at freistil IT is “Stop starting. Start finishing.” That’s why the central purpose of our daily standups is to make sure “started work” turns into “finished work”.

In our case, a daily standup is not a meeting or a call but a written plan that we broadcast via Jell. Every morning, the Jell bot asks us “What are you planning to do today?”. With the purpose outlined above in mind, that’s actually a tad too general and misleading. In order to drive progress, the question could be more focused: “What are you going to do today that brings us forward the most?”. That way, the daily standup doesn’t just list a bunch of tasks but sets the expectations for the day for the whole team.

Within that context, the second question “What challenges stand in your way?” turns into “What challenges might keep you from making the progress you’ve planned?”. And since the answer gets sent to the team, it should be taken as an invitation to help mitigate these challenges.

Daily standups are about what your team can expect from you today and what you can expect from the team.

The daily standup isn’t a todo list.Of course we need to deal with a lot of other stuff that doesn’t move the needle in a significant way. On the other hand, we have trust in everyone on the team that they use their paid hours for company matters. The daily standup isn’t for proving that you’re busy. It’s for making sure that the important things get done. Keep your todo list in a task management app.

The daily standup isn’t a calendar.Yes, on more days than we like, communication takes up a big chunk of our time. On the other hand, you’ve already set expectations by confirming a meeting invitation. You don’t have to repeat that commitment in the daily standup. Circling back to the central purpose, a meeting should only be mentioned if it contributes directly to your work in progress. Manage your other appointments, especially the recurring ones, in a calendar app.

#direct: Our work journal

The daily standup is great for focusing on our main goals, but there’s more to communicate than just that. That’s why we have a special channel on Slack called #direct. As our Company Runbook explains, DIRECT is an acronym for what we share here:

  • *Decisions:Did you make a choice that will affect others on the team?
  • *Insights:Have you learned something new?
  • *Results:Did you reach an important objective?
  • *Emotions:Is there something that’s making you happy? Sad?
  • *Contacts:Did you get in touch with someone who could influence our business?
  • *Troubles:Do you have an issue you could use some help with?

Notice that we don’t ask to share everydecision, everyresult, everycontact. We treat #direct like a shared work diary. In a diary, you don’t keep a running log of your whole day; instead, you focus on entries that will still have meaning when you read them days or years later. Let’s take a fictitious example:

Got up on the wrong foot. I need to make an extra effort to not be grumpy all day.

Went out for a coffee.

I forgot to call dad yesterday. Will make sure I’ll get that sorted today.

Went to the store to buy milk and apples.

I’m halfway finished with scanning my paper inbox.

We’re out of toilet paper. Went to the store again.

Got into a fight with «spouse» about our spending. This has been the third time this month. It’s high time we discuss this and commit to a common understanding.

Took a walk and bought a beer for watching TV later.

You’ve surely noticed how the items seem to differ widely in relevance. Some just don’t make much sense in a diary:

  • *Insignificant:Some items seem to be there only to fill the page because they will have lost all meaning when you’re reading them later. I doubt that Future You will have any interest in today’s shopping list.
  • *Still in progress:So scanning isn’t done yet. Why is this mentioned if there’s no end result yet? Is it just another filler?
  • *Missing conclusion:Or is there some information missing from the scanning item? Maybe it took you three months to get here and you need stop procrastinating; but the entry doesn’t say that. And is there a deeper issue why you missed calling your dad or did you just drop the ball?

Similar thought processes apply to our #direct entries. Not all of these entries are created equal. Here’s an example how being more deliberate in what we write can make a big difference:


Released «artifact» with the new «feature».

Decided to work from Starbucks today.

My favourite burger place shut down last week. :(

Promoted «fix» to production.

Today’s «meeting» call was exhausting. Couldn’t focus anymore afterwards.


Released «artifact» with the new «feature». With this blocker removed, we can finally get «project» finished.

I’ll be working from Starbucks today. If you need me in a call, give me a few minutes advance notice so I can pack my things and go outside first.

Promoted «fix» to production — we should not have issues with «problem» anymore.

I felt exhausted after today’s «meeting» call. We kept interrupting each other and I’d love if we could use the round-robin method more.

The original versions were mostly a work log and brain dump without much context and consequence. The modified entries are clearer, convey their intention better and have a greater chance at continuous improvement.

Loud but not noisy

To keep information levels balanced in a distributed team, we have to share what’s going on, all the while keeping the signal-to-noise ratio high. Here are a few pointers to make the information stand out from the data:

  • *Be as clear and unambiguous as possible.
  • *Don’t make people guess your intention for posting something.
  • *Focus on big-picture information.
  • *Anticipate the question “What does that mean for me and for the team?”

And with that, it’s time for me to post a link to this article to #direct and ask for feedback…