Office Based Osmosis

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Recently my collegue Chris Sheldon posted an article titled “Under Pressure”. It’s excellent so please take a few minutes to have a read of it.

Ok, are you back? Great. Chris talks in part about feeling like he misses absorbing knowledge through osmosis in an office.

Osmosis, in case you’ve forgotten your biology lessons, is the spontaneous passage of something through a semipermeable membrane. In this case, we’re talking about knowledge entering your head without you needing to consciously do anything about it.

Working from home can indeed be an isolating time. In my experience, short term productivity and intra-team relationships are (in general) not affected by working from home. The biggest impact is on inter-team relationships and a lot of that is down to the osmotic acquisition of knowledge that Chris was talking about.

Back in the distant past (e.g. 2019) when you were sat near another team you would overhear discussions about what they were working on. Whether consciously or not, this would lead to you instinctively knowing when there was overlap, or when there were opportunities for collaboration. It would also lead to a feeling of working for a larger group than just your team, and this would result in a closer connection to those in other teams.

If you miss out on this knowledge then it can result in duplicated work or conflicting solutions to the same problem.

So, what can you do to improve things?

If you aren’t going to acquire knowledge spontaneously, then you need to be more intentional about both obtaining and sharing knowledge. The key point here is that you must be more deliberate about acquiring knowledge, but it’s also important to be deliberate about sharing knowledge so others can benefit too.

In the office, you might have a network of people that you bump into and then go for coffee or a lunch with. These conversations are goldmines of unintentional knowledge transfer. When working remotely, whether that’s full time or even part-time, these networks take more effort to maintain and build, but it’s effort that’s well worth spending.

Schedule regular catch-ups with people, just half an hour is plenty of time to keep the relationship alive and gain a nugget of useful information. As well as catching up with people you already know, ask them explicitly who else they think you should talk to? You’re not going to bump into people randomly in a Zoom call, so be more intentional about expanding your network.

If you have information that might be useful to others, then share it. Similar to what I was talking about above, look for others that you can catch up with and give them information. Also in a world full of cross-continent collaboration and multiple timezones written sharing of information is more valuable than ever. If you’re feeling fancy then putting together a newsletter for your department is a great way to spread the word about what you’re working on.

I’m a big fan of the 5/15 update, which is probably a topic for a future post. The summary however is that each week you spend 15 minutes writing a summary of what you’ve been working on, aiming for it to take five minutes for someone to read. I post mine in a slack channel, but you could share it over email or wherever fits with your company culture. This has benefits to me as it lets me look back over what I’ve achieved in the last year, it helps me organise my thoughts on what’s happened in the last week, and I try to commit myself to goals for the following week. It is also useful to others because they can see what I’m working on, what I’m thinking about and generally what is going on in my world - exactly what you might get from a chat over coffee or sitting near me in an office.

Of course, you could argue that intentionality comes with a cost (usually time), and if the pandemic is over why don’t we all just go back to the office where we get this for free?

At the time of writing the pandemic is very much not over, and the Omicron variant is rearing its ugly head, so returning to the office is not desirable for everyone. But probably more importantly, it’s pretty clear that hybrid or even fully remote, teams are going to the default in the future, rather than the exception. Whether it’s just someone who works in another country or the whole team who are remote there is likely to be some degree of remote working, and for a hybrid team, the lack of office-based osmosis is more of a risk than for fully remote teams.

With a fully remote team, everyone is in the same boat. No one is getting the in-person benefits, so everyone needs to make an effort to compensate. With a hybrid team, some people will be benefiting so it’s easy for them to forget that remote workers are missing out. In a hybrid team, it’s crucial that everyone makes an effort to include all team members in discussions and knowledge sharing. While the team lead can share information, that should be a last resort and it’s the whole team’s responsibility to ensure that everyone is included.

Despite some of the challenges of remote working, and remote leadership, this is now my preferred way of working. It’s certainly been a steep learning curve, but with some focus and effort I feel it’s possible to get the best of both worlds. Do you have any tips for sharing knowledge while working remotely? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo Water drops on leaves by Andrew Wilkinson.

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