While the pandemic proved that the remote work model can be successful for any size organization – from startup to enterprise – there is one notable drawback: the feeling of being in a dedicated work space that allows for focus and productivity. WeWork found that 64% of employees would pay out of their own pocket for access to an office space, so there is some evidence to suggest that employees want a stronger connection to their workplace. Paul Graham of Y Combinator, was vocally against the concept of remote working arrangements, particularly for startups, for numerous reasons. Perhaps he’d warm up to the idea of hybrid work as a compromise between the needs of employees and those of the startup founders.
Decentralizing teams affords flexibility, lowers overhead costs (which in turn reduces burn-rate and consequently lengthens runway) and enables startups to hire the best talent from wherever they are in the world. In fact, in the same study mentioned above, WeWork also found that 75% of employees would give up at least one workplace benefit or perk for the freedom to choose their work environment. So, giving Mr. Graham his due (as he probably knows a thing or two about the formula for a successful startup), we contend that hybrid-structured work environments can work well for everyone with some careful planning on how collaboration occurs.
Startups are in a race to compile an undiscovered body of knowledge and make sense of what they have learned and convert that into a rapidly scalable business model. A critical part of this is documenting the knowledge so that as the startup scales, they can share that knowledge in an equally scalable way. Unfortunately, hybrid work structures throw a monkey wrench into the remote strategy. When startups are fully remote, it’s more obvious that they need a documentation-centric strategy to reduce the burden of unavoidable frequent interruptions (most commonly in the form of questions in Slack) created by a lack of centralized knowledge. But when partially remote in a hybrid structure, the problem becomes more complex. We will focus on the following aspects of building a knowledge management structure for startups that choose hybrid work arrangements:
- Capturing knowledge in the places where hybrid work happens, like Slack
- Accessing knowledge scalably with less distractions/shoulder-taps to others on the hybrid-located team
- Utilizing Q&A knowledge formats to accelerate work in hybrid environments
- Busting knowledge silos that inevitably arise as startups acquire more SaaS tools to solve problems as they scale in distributed environments
- Avoiding tools that are time-wasters and are designed to be used like social networks
Let’s begin our review of where knowledge can be injected into common workflows with where most startups spend their time – in Slack.
Capturing knowledge in Slack
Slack is the conduit through which knowledge flows for most startups. It’s a crying shame that, in its unaltered form, it is completely unfit to serve as a knowledge base because it is perfectly situated to capture and access documentation. Notwithstanding, many teams continue to rely on Slack as a repository for knowledge, but there are a number of reasons why it’s a poor choice. First and foremost, the information captured in conversations is completely unstructured. Second, Slack’s native search functionality is sorely lacking. Finally, there is no way to verify a message as reliable and trustworthy knowledge. To improve upon this situation, it is possible to acquire a knowledge base that deeply integrates with Slack. Sometimes referred to as a Slack Wiki, they are knowledge management tools that enable capture, search and sharing of knowledge without leaving Slack. Slack Wikis inject knowledge into the most common workflow that hybrid startups utilize.
Accessing knowledge scalably with less shoulder-taps
“Shoulder-taps” are the frequent interruptions that occur in any workplace, but for remote teams, they happen most frequently in virtual channels like Slack. For hybrid teams, they can extend to the places where employees are co-located and disturbances occur in-person. In startups with hybrid structures, some employees have preferential access to internal knowledge and this creates a series of inefficiencies from a sharing perspective. Those that are centralized can ambiently absorb knowledge and rely on that to power their productivity. But this puts those employees that are not centrally located at a disadvantage. Therefore, it is helpful if knowledge sharing becomes public and visible to all team members, remote or centralized. This can be achieved again by connecting knowledge to the places where all employees communicate, like in Slack, and making a commitment to ensuring as much of the available internal knowledge is available without restrictions.
Utilizing Q&A formats for rapid-access knowledge
Answers to FAQs are most often required for immediate resolution of an issue and not for holistic learning. For startups in hybrid work-environments with distributed teams, FAQs should be collated on the fly and documented in an equally consumable bite-sized format. When a hybrid team employee is looking for a simple and direct answer to a question, it helps if you make the path to resolution straightforward. Take for example this situation: A new employee is looking to get a keycard for the company WeWork to join the team at the office for the next few days. So when this type of knowledge is to be stored, it would optimally be stored in a Q&A format as such:
Q: How do I get a keycard for the Austin WeWork?
A: Submit a keycard request by email to austin(at)wework.com or call 1-800-we-work. Give them your name and reference ABC Stealth Startup, Inc.
This format is ideal for both search and consumption. It contains the question just as someone would ask it and a simple direct answer – there is no confusion or unnecessary content and the next steps are actionable. This allows startup employees to remain on task with forward momentum. To further communicate the quality of the knowledge, the tool that is used to author the Q&A should offer to append details about the author and last updated-date to improve confidence with minimal extra noise.
Busting-silos as startups acquire SaaS tools to scale
According to a recent study by Blissfully, SaaS subscriptions can grow into a serious problem. For companies under 100 employees, they average 102 SaaS tools company-wide and each employee uses approximately 17 unique apps each. What does all this mean? It means a lot of knowledge silos and repositories, which in turn means a lot more places for knowledge to get lost and never found. On the surface it sounds like a non-issue, but searching for knowledge across silos is a pervasive problem that even the most sophisticated companies struggle with. The short answer on how to solve the problem is with federated search tools. These tools can scan across multiple silos with a single query. With hybrid teams surely using multiple cloud-based SaaS apps in lieu of locally installed shrink wrapped software searching across silos is certain to be a must have to quickly access the right knowledge required to daily jobs done.
Avoid social networking design patterns in your wiki
If the knowledge base you chose for your hybrid structured startup bears a striking resemblance to common social networking sites like Twitter or Instagram, your team might be at risk for spending too much time consuming information and less time producing results. Products that provide functionality that enables endless scrolling or needless gamification might sound like a good idea because of a familiar interface, but this type of engagement shouldn’t be the goal for knowledge management. Your wiki should be optimized for speed in all of the important aspects – search, capture and sharing.
Having a hybrid team structure in a startup requires a truly thoughtful approach to sharing knowledge through documentation. Without this, the startup will fail to reach its goal of achieving product-market-fit. If your startup believes that hybrid is the path to success, make sure that your strategy deeply integrates knowledge into common workflows with respect to capture, search and sharing. Without an emphasis on a documentation-first culture, the hybrid startup will certainly be slowed by unnecessary hurdles. With a commitment to sharing knowledge, startups can leverage knowledge sharing to pave the path to success.