In a post-pandemic world, individuals and businesses are constantly seeking new ways to “unlock” the power of a distributed workforce. Some leaders are hoping to find some new super-app (“no-Code Slack meets SaaS Uber for enterprise”) that will instantly solve the problems their companies are facing due to the unprecedented transition to remote work.
While some such tools and services are emerging, they can’t help you if you don’t address some more foundational elements of your business first: setting clear goals, documenting everything obsessively, and fostering trust.
One tool pioneered by remote-first teams checks boxes in all three of these key areas: the user guide. A user guide is simply an instruction manual for working with you. It includes general stuff about you as a person, such as your birthday, the names of your family, and the kind of music you like (or hate). Also, critically, it provides clear instructions for how to work most effectively with you–when to email, when to call, and when to text. More importantly, it should include the tricky stuff: how best to communicate difficult feedback to you, how you make difficult decisions, and what brings out the best (and worst) in you.
Think about it. Would you set up a new iPhone or dare assemble a flat-packed chest of drawers without following the instructions? So how can we expect to have successful relationships with our business colleagues, clients, and the teams we lead if they lack a deep, intentional understanding of how we operate–or if we don’t understand how to enable them to be successful?
By clearly documenting how we work best, we can hack the system and give our colleagues shortcuts to successful collaboration to fulfill our individual potential and reach team goals much more quickly. Conversely, if our colleagues fail to learn these lessons, we are doomed to frequent misunderstandings, mountains growing from molehills, poor communication, missed opportunities, and eventual failure.
Distributed work only magnifies and exacerbates these positives and negatives. The positives are enhanced because of the increase in productivity and fulfillment we experience in remote work. The negatives are compounded because we lack the physical communication cues we’ve spent eons evolving as human beings to rely on. The good can become great, and the bad can become terminal.
With this in mind, when I founded wrkfrce and began building our team, each member of our team created a user guide that documented everything about our professional personalities. As new members join our team, we give them access to all of our user guides and ask them to create one for themselves. We’ve found it to be almost as powerful an onboarding hack as Neo learning kung fu. Here’s my user guide.
For wrkfrce, creating and sharing user guides has proven to be a simple yet powerful exercise in self-reflection which yields outsized benefits for our team, especially since we are fully remote. These benefits can extend beyond your own organization to clients, partners, investors, and even prospective employees.
One of the most powerful examples I have seen of another leader implementing the user guide model is Sid Sijbrandij, the founder and CEO of Gitlab. Not only has he open-sourced his user guide to the whole world, but he has also been painstakingly transparent: He has a Flaws section that’s 418 words, whereas his Strengths section is only 48 words.
My own lightbulb moment for the positive potential for user guides was a seemingly small insight into a colleague I had worked with for nearly a decade. Stacy Lambatos and I were leaders in different departments at a large media company and collaborated closely on numerous client and event activations over the years, with budgets in the multiple millions of dollars. We both founded our own businesses around the same time, and I hired Stacy’s business, CAYA Studios, to help facilitate the first wrkfrce leadership retreat, in early 2020. Stacy helped me craft the wrkfrce user guide template and guide my team through the process of creating their own.
One simple fact in Stacy’s own user guide really opened my eyes. In the Communication Norms section on phone calls, Stacy wrote, “Call anytime, just don’t leave a voicemail—I don’t check them. Text me if I don’t answer.” I had known Stacy well for many years, but all along I’d been leaving her voicemails she’d never hear. Thanks to this enlightening exercise, I was suddenly able to optimize my communication with her on her terms–and in ways that would be most effective for both of us. It was like finding the right wrench I needed to assemble that flat-packed chest of drawers.
In the long term, the benefits of user guides have proven out for our team. Whether we’re bringing on a new team member or one of us is experiencing a challenge with a team member and needs to reference the best way to communicate difficult feedback to them, it is a small investment of time that pays tremendous returns.
Like anything else, in order to be successful, leaders need to, well, lead. If you think deploying user guides would benefit your team, start with yourself. Create your user guide and share it with your team.
You don’t have to be the CEO to write a user guide–you don’t even have to be a manager–but you must be rigorously honest. When you distribute it to your team, ask them (anonymously, if possible) to validate what you’ve created, and check your assumptions about yourself against their experience working with you. This will be deeply enlightening.
When your team members tell you how much of a benefit it is to have this new, deeper understanding of how to work with you (and they will), offer them a template to build their own, and the virtuous cycle will begin.
You don’t need some newly released, no-code, hybrid-work super-app to lead by example. All you need is some good old-fashioned introspection and the guts to be a little vulnerable and very transparent. You can do it.