Work @ Rakuten Tech in Covid Times

Photo of abstract art.

I haven't worked from the office since 20th of February, that's a little over 2 months. The one time I stopped by at the end of March to pickup a testing device and a big monitor I met about 4 people out of ca. 70 in my department. The office is a ghost town, with tumbleweeds and all. We've all adjusted our lives significantly, we learned to cope as organization and as individuals. Now that we have somewhat adjusted and the memories of the before times are fading I think it's time to take inventory. How did we do? What did we learn? If we don't write it down now we won't remember.

These are some observations I made about myself, my team and hearsay within the company – as always anecdotal evidence.

All of these were true before the pandemic.

Being Effective & Efficient

Let's have 3 hours of brainstorming meetings, every day, with the whole team!

said no one ever

Creative work does not happen in meeting rooms 1.

Well, some of it does, sometimes getting together in front of a whiteboard is magical. Recreating these moments in a remote work environment is really difficult, even with iPad, Apple Pencil and ZOOM.

However that moment of grand ideas and stroke of genius, that happens once every quarter, at best. The rest of the time is spent on… you know, actually executing on the grand ideas. Creative execution work happens in bursts of individual work (→ flow), interwoven with feedback cycles. This work happens outside of meetings, it is deep work, it requires quite & focus. This type of work fits the home office better than Rakuten Crimson House (Rakuten HQ in Tokyo) of the before times - if have a home office. Do you have a desk, a monitor and protection from children?

I do a lot of deep work, I am lucky to have no kids around, a decent sized apartment with a desk and big monitor. I'm also more on the introvert end of the spectrum, which helps a lot. From my perspective this is the most productive and efficient time I spent working at Rakuten.

Moreover I see no significant reduction in output in the teams that I work with. I hear the same from managers in other departments as well as from executives. However I only spoke with people in technical departments, I wonder how this affects the business-y work (which is the majority of the company).

In the last 2 months I have seen several projects make significant progress, all crowned by the release of a waterfall project we have been working on for over a year now. In terms of delivery covid didn't matter, work from home didn't stop us. We had some new infrastructure problems (it's hard to restart the mac mini CI machine remotely), but no show stoppers.

The 9-to-5

Rakuten believes in the strict business hours. At least at the start of the day.

In the before times several departments had morning meetings (朝礼), with the whole department standing up and starting the day together. Others have morning stand-ups in their teams at 9am. And some are less anal about it. However, the general rule is: be at your desk at 9 am. Be there until (at least) 5:30 pm.

Now that everyone working remotely people don't actually need to be at their desk at 9 am, or finish work at 5:30 for that matter. If you have no meetings in the morning, who will notice if you start work by noon and work until 8:30 pm instead? I have a strong suspicion that many people are taking advantage of this flexibility that came as a side effect of working from home. I also suspect that nobody really notices and nobody is affected negatively by this.

Will Rakuten Leadership remember this after covid is “over”?

I've got so many meeting hair toss

In some circles having a lot of meeting is a status symbol. More meetings = more better.

In the before times most meeting made me feel…

Man in a meeting, gets up, jumps out of window.

…and for good reason 2. There's very few good reasons to have meetings: Strategic decision making. Sharing Information with immediate feedback (e.g. HR changes). Maybe sprint ceremonies like grooming, review and retrospectives. I'm not convinced that these need to be synchronous meetings… but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. So that leaves us with a short list of (potentially) good meetings:

On the other hand I can think of countless types of collaborative work that doesn't require a meeting, some example off the top of my head:

Thankfully I don't have to restrain myself in this time of 100% ZOOM meetings. When I find myself in a pointless, time-wasting meeting, I can blatantly face-palm without insulting others - thanks to the “turn off video” button 🖤. That's great for me, because I like to face palm, there's something liberating about the act of reenacting a meme, it is a little performance, just for yourself.

I have this new face-palm-power at my disposal, yet I don't use it as much. It's almost like we have gotten better at scheduling & conducting meetings. At least better than in the before times. In particular the preparation & information sharing before & after the meeting has improved - I don't recall the last meeting without an agenda. I do recall many in the before times.

Working on by yourself, at home is hard

Working from home is becoming increasingly tough. I think I’m going to have to invest in a proper desk chair, a new desk and another apartment. The kids are driving me crazy.

some guy I work with

We all expected problems.

First we went through the honeymoon period of remote work: giddily enjoying no-pants-meetings, getting more sleep instead of commuting and feeling guilty-happy about skipping shower/grooming yet another day (“It's still ok-ish for another day. Tomorrow, I promise…” - lies we tell ourselves).

Now some very real and unexpected problems have caught up with us. How's your back today? At the end of every day my lumbar spine feels like a dried up earthworm, scorched by the mid-summer sun. Barely anybody has a desk, chair and monitor setup that is meant for a full day of work (avid video gamers are a rare exception). It's an easy problem we can solve with money - but only in some cases. Many live in an apartment or houses that my mom would classify as “walk-in closet” - that's just a reality of Tokyo real estate. If I had to chose between a living room sofa and a desk I'd go for the sofa 9 out of 8 times.

If you are a manager: how are the March, April & May timesheets of your reports? I've heard from several managers, some throw up their hands in despair “How did this guy work 20 hours in a single day?!". People work more hours at home than in the office, or at least they log more hours. The first answer on Quora to “Do remote workers work longer hours?": When people start with remote work they often do, a lack of structure allows work hours to expand. The 2019 State of Remote Work survey supports this, “unplugging after work” was the biggest struggle for remote workers.

In the remote work environment it is a lot harder for managers to protect their team from self-inflicted overwork. It's hard to know if people are taking the time to rest. In a recent ZOOM nomikai (= Japanese drinking party) on a Friday night one of my team members frowned and said “I have to jump into this meeting…” only to get a rebuke from his manager. Rightfully so - the issue was not urgent, most probably not even important. He didn't attend that meeting. Nobody died, no one got hurt, no money was lost. Now how do we protect that person from such self destructive behavior? 🤷‍♀️

Communication = Good Writing

We learned this before. In collaborating with offices in India, USA and France - ad hoc meetings don't cut it. A mind map on a confluence page doesn't communicate requirements. A meeting without follow up communications or documents might as well not have happened at all as far as outcomes are concerned.

So we knew all this all along, we just did not apply it to our work within the Tokyo office. As a result we tried to loosely couple teams in different geographies, along service or activity boundaries. Well defined, documented interfaces always worked better between offices. Integrating a well documented service is reasonable, no matter the geography of the owner team. A team that focuses on QA execution & automation or security audits - that works reasonably well. On the other end of the spectrum: A service that requires multiple meetings just to understand the onboarding process only works if we are in the same office. A service team with developers spread out across 4 different offices - that falls apart real quick without written communication. That's what we knew before the pandemic.

Cut to the now - teams effectively have as many offices as they have team members. Synchronous meetings are possible, but not really effective for most activities. Ad hoc meetings are much less frequent, even though they are easier now that they don't require finding a room or free space anymore. Small teams (say 2 pizzas) still work pretty well, they communicate constantly throughout the day on Slack/Teams/Viber. On bigger teams the ad hoc conversations in the hallway or on the way to get coffee don't happen anymore. Requirements remain unclear, schedule updates are not shared, expectations don't align. The only solution is to write it down.

One “problem” of writing it down is that it is a forcing function. It forces you to commit your thoughts & ideas to “paper”. If you can't write it down you don't understand what you are trying to say - so forcing yourself to write it down will help not just the team, it will help you!

However this is a weak spot in our organizational skillset, it is not part of the culture. Good written communication is necessary and recognized by tech teams and managers. For example it's a key part in how I argued my way into good evaluations on the technical expert career path. With a handful of high quality, highly technical documents that you authored it is easy to argue that you are an expert. Yet we don't foster that skill enough. Large portions of Rakuten Tech are unable to write technical documentation that's usable by other teams, or to write requirements documents that communicate who wants what and why to the developers.

In 2002 Jeff Bezos announced to this his employees that every team will expose their functionality and data as a service. In product quality3.

“Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired. Thank you; have a nice day!”

– Jeff Bezos, 2002

Rakuten would not be able to do this now. Our technical writing literacy is just not there yet (to be fair: Amazon's skills were probably not there in 2002 as well).

With 100% remote work in Rakuten Tech we need to improve this.

Presence != Control

Rakuten is a large company with very diverse teams and cultures. In my time here I have been in 3 different departments (ignoring reorganizations): one more traditionally Japanese, one very much shaped by the cash-cow-e-commerce mindset and one more western and innovation oriented. I saw different management theories/philosophies in action and hear tidbits from coworkers in other departments.

Broadly speaking I see 2 schools of thought: First the scientific management: people who believe that tight control, checking in regularly and physical presence are necessary for high productivity (one might say that they don't trust employees). The theory goes back to the industrial age when production was monotonous & repetitive, humans were really only necessary because we didn't have the technology to automate those tasks. In those days micro-management really improved productivity of a factory. The second is servant leadership which focuses on the empowerment of individuals on the team in order to perform with maximum effectiveness and efficiency. This approach is less about control and more about enablement, managers check in to ask how they can resolve problems for the team, not to constantly get status reports. I have worked under both types, in my experience scientific management is a mismatch for the creative knowledge work we do4. Yet scientific management still seems to have quite the following (unfortunately).

This manifests in some managers requiring their teams be on a ZOOM call all day long - just so the managers can see them. This is so dystopian, it's not even funny anymore. Other companies do similar things5.

This is all very sad. I hear about it less and less, managers seem to come around (or teams don't complain about it anymore…). Most of us already knew that presence is not control and we are getting over that old cognitive illusion, one pandemic at a time.

Where do we go from here?

So we have learned (some of us are maybe still learning) that…

Let's see where this takes us. We still don't know for how long this work-from home situation will last, but I already told my managers and team that I won't be going back to the office. We'll I'll go occasionally, I do miss being with the team too. Just sometimes though 😜.

My intention in writing this down is to look back in 6-12 months and see what stuck around and what changed. I hope Rakuten remembers these lessons and all the other ones I did not mention.

  1. Jason Fried goes even further and says “Work Doesn't Happen at Work” in his TED talk ↩︎

  2. In the words of the ReWork podcast “Meetings Are Toxic” ↩︎

  3. An impactful decree that shaped the company culture for decades, see this blog post ↩︎

  4. Thankfully I work in a pocket of servant leadership these days and I advocate for it in all the teams that I am involved in or support. ↩︎

  5. Bank takes screenshots & logs keystrokes, other companies selling spyware to employers ↩︎