When someone asks an Atom their favorite thing about working at Atomic, the answer is almost always the same: “It’s the people. It’s a great team, and I really like working with this group of people.” This is probably what everybody everywhere is supposed to say, but at Atomic, people genuinely mean it. Try asking an Atom yourself! Many factors have contributed to Atomic’s success over the years. But, I believe that the deep relationships we share with our colleagues deserve as much of the credit as any other factor. Our focus over the years has been to incentivize success through collaboration, rather than through individual achievement.
With a nod to Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, I’ve recently been referring to our approach as “Deep Collaboration.” I’d like to briefly describe what I mean by deep collaboration and then discuss some of the benefits we get from working this way. Finally, I’ll express my concern about what our teams are losing by working in a remote context.
We value deep collaboration at Atomic.
So what does this model look like at Atomic? Before the pandemic, our expectation was that everyone works together, in person. And I mean really close together, to the point where we share large, two-person desks. Teams sit side-by-side in a cluster (no cubes!). A team meeting requires swiveling in our chairs.
We also generally “pair” on programming or other teamwork. That means two people per task, rather than assigning each person a separate problem. Most team decisions are made by consensus. Everybody “owns” the whole project — a problem anywhere is everyone’s responsibility. A team forms for a particular project, and then folks move on to other teams. Consequently, most folks eventually work shoulder-to-shoulder with most other folks in the office.
What Does this Buy Us?
Of course, plenty of folks write software with very different models. So, what does this approach actually get us? I think it buys us a long list of things, but since we’re a consultancy, some items really stand out:
We bill by the hour, so every delay to progress is an expensive delay. When we’re all together, we know immediately when someone has a question. We can see with a glance if teammates are available, rather than wait for the next meeting.
Atoms quickly notice when a colleague is stuck. With in-person work, we can jump in to help rather than waiting for frustration to build to the point that a teammate reaches out. We can often keep up-to-date within a team simply by overhearing each other’s conversations.
Likewise, when conversations are happening within earshot, we often avoid costly mistakes. Say my colleagues are discussing an approach that I know to be problematic. With in-person work, I find out in the early stages, rather than a day later when they’ve submitted the changes for review. Again, lost time is expensive for us and for our clients.
What about the mistakes that we do encounter? Strong relationships help us to reach out more quickly when we sense a problem. We can get to work finding a solution rather than figuring out who to blame. We can discuss issues openly rather than filtering to protect our reputations. And, we can tell managers what’s going on without worrying how it’s going to affect our next performance review.
Quick and Effective Learning
Atomic works on a huge variety of problems, and we’re open to working with any language or framework. We are often asked to learn complex business domains and to navigate a client’s process. We’re able to do this effectively because we learn together.
A more experienced team member will work side-by-side with someone new to the team to get them up to speed. It’s easy to ask other team members to help when we hit obstacles. We can even ask folks on the next team over, or the team beyond that. We’ve all worked together on previous projects, and so we know who to reach out to on a different floor or even in a different office.
Finally, it’s just really important for people to feel connected. There’s good research to show this is not fluff. It’s really important. Too many Americans are asked to work as “colleagues” rather than as human beings who care about each other. It leads to competition instead of collaboration and reduces loyalty to the team or the organization. Atomic has experienced consultants because our consultants stick around. If you ask Atoms, you’ll hear many reasons for this, but connectedness is a primary factor for most.
So what about remote work?
Do Atoms really need to sit so close together so much of the time? And have we lost anything by shifting to remote work this past year? After all, the business results look great, and our clients are happy!
I think we do need to be together as often as we can be, and I think we certainly have lost a lot over the past year. If deep collaboration is a secret of our success, we can’t make the case that we get more of it by being together less. We simply don’t.
Folks fortunately still feel fairly connected to their immediate project teams, but relationships across teams are being starved. We still speak to each other when we need to to get our work done, but the precious spaces “in-between work” are mostly lost.
Folks new to the company feel less connected, and senior folks have mentioned that they don’t know our most recent hires the way they’ve gotten to know new Atoms in the past. Our new Atoms have had a tougher time ramping in, learning, and adjusting to expectations.
Change initiatives seem harder to achieve, and trust between Atoms is feeling a bit more strained than it used to feel. Luckily, we have a plan for returning to working together in person. We can then feed the relationships that are languishing and right the ship.
I don’t want our beloved Atomic to turn into the type of company where folks have mutual respect for colleagues, but less real connection, social capital, and trust. Instead, I hope for a return to connection and deep collaboration.
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