Managing Documents In a Hybrid World

April 25, 2023

When teams shifted to remote + hybrid work, they also needed to adopt a much greater emphasis on having a written culture. On our team, this came with an additional problem: we ended up with so many documents it was hard for us to understand which ones were important/unimportant. Shortly after that, we had a new manager joining our team and he gave us a few tools to manage this document explosion.

Tool #1: Clarify The purpose of the Document Via Emojis

The first challenge tackled was that documents take on many purposes. Without any clear signal for “this is what this document is intended to do” it was hard for readers to differentiate “here’s a half-baked idea that I’d love 30% feedback on” from “this is a design document that we’re now implementing”. To fix that, we created a simple emoji-based taxonomy for all of our documents. The system worked as follows.

Taken together, this simple taxonomy helped readers who stumbled across some random document clarify “how should I reason about this”.

Tool #2: Store All Documents of a Particular Type In a Folder

Once we had a taxonomy, we then created a simple system for organizing documents according to their type. We started out by organizing according to type (all 👀 would go into one folder, 🌅 into another, etc.) but we found this to be a little overwhelming as time went on. Instead we moved to a simple format where largeish projects would have their own folder where all documents lived (often with a single “hub” document as an anchor) while other documents (small design documents, unrelated "validate my perspective documents", etc.) would go into the shared folder.

This proved to be very helpful because we found document search in most tools works ~75% of the time. We often found ourselves knowing “oh yeah, I had a gavel document for that somewhere” or “I think someone wrote a vision document for that” but not knowing the exact search incantation to find it. By having a simple folder structure to store documents we were able to save a lot of time hunting for documents. This also played nicely with icons, as we could easily look at any document without a folder, look at its icon, and know where it needed to be moved to.

Tool #3: Clarify Status at the Top of Each Document

After those two changes, we adopted was having a simple “status” box at the top of each document. This status box was a one cell table which contained the author, the date the document was updated, and a status of the document (whether it was early draft, ready for review, or just some rough scribbles on a page). In practice it looked like this.

Author: Maltz
Status: Very early draft. Believed to be directionally correct, but not ready for feedback yet.
Last Updated: Apr 25, 2023

By clarifying when a document was ready for feedback and when it was last updated, readers could understand what level of feedback was appropriate for the current document status. This helped us in a couple of concrete ways:

In both of these cases, the presence of a simple “status” box helped readers contextualize “how much should I care about this” and “how should I engage with this document”.

In practice we didn’t enforce a strict policy on keeping these fields up to date, but documents which tended towards adoption would get the fields updated naturally just through sheer number of eyeballs.

Tool #4: Clarify expected approvers when necessary

Once we had this taxonomy, we encountered one other problem: for documents which were trying to drive towards a “decision” (i.e. Gavel documents or design documents) it would be unclear who was responsible for actually saying “this decision has been made”. We solved that by adding a small section at the top called the “Gavel Block”. This was a simple list of people who needed to approve and could check-off their names or add blocking feedback.

This practice was again simple but very helpful for clarifying the RACI Matrix around a particular document. If your name wasn’t on the gavel block, you didn’t have to review. Similarly, if you came through with feedback and wasn’t on the gavel block, then the author could easily clarify “do you want to be on the gavel block” or “is this non-blocking feedback”.

These tools didn’t solve all of our challenges related to having a heavily written culture, but they did help our team operate substantially more effectively. Plus, they were lightweight and easy to adopt. If your team is struggling to sift through a pile of documents they’re probably worth a try for you as well.

A big thank you to Marc Weil who both reviewed a draft of this and helped us implement these changes!

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