How to “Face the Blank Page” at Work

Lee Isreal was a successful writer in the 60’s and 70’s. By 1993, her career was in shambles, she began forging letters by deceased actors and writers to pay rent. She sold more than 400 letters before being caught by the FBI. 

Moral judgement aside, how was she able to fool so many scholars and literary savants? And why did she write, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”?

Because her byline wasn’t on the letters. She was removed from criticism.

The fear of criticism, failure and rejection is what prevents us from facing the blank page at work. Every email we send, document we type and report we create has our name attached to it. Everyone knows feedback is a good thing, but few are eager to sign up for it.   

Here’s how you can overcome fear and write better at work. 

Fact vs. Fiction: Writer’s Block

Many people find themselves unable to begin when they set out to write an email, a document, a presentation or even a lengthy chat message. Some attribute this to, “writer’s block.” 

Writing isn’t the only task that requires perseverance. Yet we don’t throw around terms such as Coder’s Clog or Designer’s Deterrence. The idea of writer’s block has been around since the 1940's. But if you look up how to overcome writer’s block, the internet will tell you: you’re lazy and stop making excuses!

Novelist Philipp Meyer put it best.

He said writer’s block is your internal critic being turned up too high when it’s time to write, it must be turned down to zero when it’s time to write or create. This applies to the workplace as well. Fear is one of the main factors when it comes to the inability to write, along with several other influences.

Fear - The fear of failure impacts many at work. Perhaps your boss has distressing, unfair standards and they impede your work. Fear could mean imposter syndrome where people don’t feel qualified for a position. It could be a fear driven by perfectionism, and not being able to start because you’re already thinking about potential mistakes. 

Exhaustion - There’s a long list of things that the tired brain struggles with, one of those being cutting out distractions and staying focused on a task. Studies show our brain cells have a harder time communicating when we’re tired, which leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

Time & Preparation - Many consider stress and anxiety the biggest contributors to their writing problems, but time and preparation should not be overlooked. Traditional writing preparation requires gobs of research, even for fiction writers. In a work setting, this could mean talking the situation out with colleagues, reviewing similar items (past emails, reports, etc), and other internal resources. 

The main takeaway for overcoming writer’s block is if you sit there and wallow in your perceived failure, you’re unlikely to get a literary epiphany. Take a lap around the building, find a creative outlet or grab some snacks instead. Return to the task when you have the first sentence or note in mind. 

DocOps in Action: The DocOps methodology applies a strategy to help you prepare for any form of writing. The creation of a Preparation Document before you begin writing allows authors to gather five necessary components for clear and powerful writing. 

  1. Write down a description of the intended audience: Is this content for a manager, a team or the whole company? Thinking about this first will impact everything else.  

  2. Write down your intended goal for the reader: Listing the goal of an email before you write it takes seconds but might prevent an entire thread of confusing replies and follow up questions. 

  3. Briefly outline your strategy and constraints: Decide how you’ll go about delivering your message and list out any constraints, such as who else needs to approve it, deadlines or maximum length. 

  4. Create a set of writing prompts to reinforce the strategy: Creating a set of linear writing prompts provides a head start so you can jump into writing without fear of veering off track. 

  5. Gather relevant source material: Gather screenshots or media assets that you’ll need. If nothing else, it’s a good way to make sure you don’t forget the attachment! 

Make Writing Skills a Priority

Don’t overlook how important it is to face the blank page. Each effort made is a step toward better writing skills. And writing skills matter across all professions and industries. Clear writing demonstrates clear thinking. Every boss, co-worker and customer appreciates when writing is easy to and takeaways are immediately known. And the benefits go beyond that. 

Creativity & Persuasion: A Linkedin analysis of their data which has up 50,000 skills said the two most important soft skills for professionals were creativity and persuasion. Writing is a great way to improve both. 

Protect Your Career: We already have bots who can write basic news stories or post-game reports, but creative writing that drives human interest is another story. Writing skills are good to have as automation becomes more prevalent. 

Build Confidence: According to Susan K. Perry, Ph.D, depression and anxiety tend to cause rumination, repetitive dreary thoughts. When you’re in the flow of writing (whether personal or at work) you become deeply involved. Frustrations are pushed aside and confidence builds gradually. 

Tackle writer’s block. Write without fear at work, and do it often. Your career, brain and mental state will benefit.

3 Overlooked Keys to Employee Onboarding

I’ve had quite a few jobs. The shortest tenure of my career was a single six-hour shift at a famous pizza chain. I was offered a job as a delivery driver. But when I arrived, I was immediately thrown on the phone and asked to take orders. The system was easy enough, so I decided to stick it out with the hopes of realizing my delivery driver dream another day. Next, I was tasked with making pizza with no training, just by following a big poster on the wall. To top it off, I didn’t know how to estimate pizza delivery time. I confidently told every customer that their pizza would be prepared, cooked and delivered in a blistering 20-30 minutes.

Looking back, if they onboarded me properly, I would have stuck it out. I hate quitting. I love pizza. But the intense lack of context was too much - even for a naive teenager. 

It’s not just pizza joints that struggle with onboarding. In fact, only 20% of organizations have a comprehensive onboarding plan according to SHRM Foundation research

Here are three overlooked aspects of onboarding (and how DocOps can help). 

Importance of Day One

First day the job. The schedule usually consists of locating the bathroom and HR forms. Or the agenda consists of “drinking from the fire hose” where employees are pummeled with an ungodly amount of information. This stems from a traditional approach from decades ago when there was less competition and no LinkedIn. Workers weren’t likely to leave a job within the first months, or even years. 

Today, experts say 20% of employee turnover occurs within the first 45 days. First impressions aren’t everything, but they matter. A first day experience will stick in someone’s mind, good or bad. There are several methods for improving the initial experience. 

  • Day 0 - Too many new hires are told they’re expected to hit the ground running during an interview, then handed a stack of HR paperwork on their first day. There’s a better time for such tasks - after the offer letter is signed, and before the first day. This way employees can take their time, avoid typos and actually think about their tax and retirement options. Meanwhile, employers boost productivity by shortening ramp up time. 

  • Focus on the Individual - Research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found an onboarding process that focused on the individual instead of the company reduced turnover by 32%. Some employers conduct an “entrance interview” or do team bonding exercises such as a “two truths, one lie” panel. These are low-cost, low-effort actions that could increase the lifetime value of employees. 

  • Team Socialization - Research in the Oxford University Press showed those who form social networks at work learn faster and perform better. There’s unlimited options for accomplishing this. Marketing agency Percolate uses a “buddy system” where new employees are paired with a seasoned team member who can guide them through the mundane while providing a window for honest dialogue. Other companies facilitate social connections with a team happy hour or employee scavenger hunts. 

  • Community Involvement - Cornell researchers studied 230 software firms and concluded that social involvement in the community (and with coworkers) is crucial for employee onboarding. Do this by coordinating volunteer events with charities, and making the event schedule public.

DocOps in Action: Socialization and team culture improvements is a major benefit of discussion through document reviews. The roundtable setting provides a platform for everyone to contribute in a natural way. For new employees, reviewing a document with new team members is valuable exercise. Learn more about DocOps.

Documentation > Training 

For employers, training and onboarding are often grouped together. While it’s certainly part of it, this rationale overlooks something that resonates with every type of manager - self-learning. Employees should be able to learn on their own, at any time. New employees are often left to peruse around without clear direction of how to get better or at least more informed. 

You can have the best training system money can buy, with leading software and well-paid curriculum experts - but one thing you can’t control is how a given individual learns. That goes for the speed in which they learn and the preferred format. That’s why enabling self-learning is so important. An available database of documentation allows new employees to learn about their job, and the company culture. Studies on which form of learning is most effective have mixed results - it depends on the individual. 

Of course, just reading documents alone isn’t going to be that effective over time. 

The DocOps review workflow is designed so everyone is encouraged to read, write and share. Document reviews provide a diverse learning environment, and eliminate something that is proven to slow down learning - multitasking and distraction. 

Possible onboarding documents include: 

  • Team (or Company) Charter - A new employee would benefit from reviewing a team charter document which includes background & context, roles & responsibilities, team operations, budget & resources and more. A smaller company or startup could use a company charter document in the same capacity. 

  • Role Description - What better way to establish accountability and transparency for a new employee, his team and manager than to review a document which defines all components of the job. 

  • Software Usage Guide - Many new employees must use an unfamiliar SaaS product. Reviewing the how-to’s, settings and standards is much more effective than learning on their own. 

Ongoing Onboarding 

If 80% of companies don’t invest in a formal onboarding program, it’s likely an even higher percentage don’t think about onboarding after the first six months of an employee’s tenure. This oversight can lead to confusion or even resentment over time. 

Situations such as promotions, lateral transfers, when someone takes on a bigger team or when the company experiences a merger, downsizing, technology changes and more all require a fresh introduction. This can’t happen with just an assigned trainer and training material. 

The DocOps workflow solves this issue by leveraging a living database of information. There’s still a need for the initial creation of the document, but instead burying within a storage system, it’s owned by the whole team. Thinking about onboarding as an ongoing initiative instead a one-time task helps with employee engagement which impacts employee retention. Similar to above, ongoing document reviews could include role description and team charter documents for employees who switch roles or teams. 

6 Core Components of a Team Charter Document

From Chernobyl to Fyre Festival, every man-made disaster of human history begins with poor teamwork and a lack of communication. Failing to establish objectives, poor leadership, twisted priorities - there are countless origins for epic failure, but there’s a common denominator. At some point, any semblance of teamwork is extinguished.

A team charter document is the best tool for fending off potential collapse of a team. This document can be applied for multiple scenarios: 

  • The framework for an organization, such as a startup or team within a corporation. 

  • Team project for college students

  • Opening a second location (small business or restaurant)

  • Military operation

  • New client kickoff 

  • New project kickoff 

  • Engineering projects (such as breakout sprint within a larger organization)

Team charters will differ based on the situation. There will always be unique elements but the core elements remain the same. 

Core Components of a Team Charter

Background & Context - Actionable guidance is impossible without background and context. This section establishes the purpose of the specific team charter you’re working on. It answers the question of, “What?” It could include simple outline the document contents. 

Objective - This section answers the question of, “Why?” Some prefer to use, “Mission & Vision” or some variation. Use this to explain why the team should care about this document. The main goal of the project or team should be included. It’s also appropriate to list the success metrics for the project, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), a financial target or audience-related goal. Another benefit of the objective section is to eliminate the possibility of scope creep, when a team begins working on deliverables outside of the project guidelines. Scope creep is a surefire way to miss deadlines and increase team confusion. 

Roles & Responsibilities - The next question to answer is, “Who?” Many teams and businesses operate with a misunderstanding of who does what. This section presents direction that is more useful than titles for LinkedIn profiles. For instance, team members with the title of “Sr. Engineer” are more effective within the team dynamic by focusing on different tasks. For instance, one group handles ops work (supporting the system, bugs, downtime) while the other focuses on development work (new features). The roles and responsibilities section provides clear direction for the team and the role of management. Will they be present in daily standups or weekly meetings? Is someone authorized to make managerial decisions if they’re away? These answers should be clarified with a series of FAQ’s and hypothetical but realistic scenarios. 

Team Operations - The next two sections answer the question of, “How?” Team operations might be  referred to as Checks, Balances, and Reviews, Team Member Authority, or Team Assessment and Evaluations. Whatever name you decide, this section explains how the team will conduct their business. This could include a meeting schedule, sprint schedules, deadlines, milestones, service-level agreements (SLAs), collaboration expectations, etc. 

Everything about what the team creates should be explained. This included processes for how and when artifacts are created, and where they are stored. For example, a sales team might produce meeting notes after sales calls that are stored in Salesforce. The next associate reaching out to that customer would review notes prior to the call.

It’s important to separate this section from roles and responsibilities to demonstrate the importance of teamwork and team unity. It serves as an accountability tool for teams and management.  

Budget, Resources and Available Support - A misunderstanding of budget and resources is an easy way to crush team morale. At this point, team members understand what they have to do and how, but need to understand what they’ll be working with. For instance, will a marketing team get a budget for design work or will they have to use free resources? This section is useful for providing support avenues if team members are absent or fall behind. Clearly stating the budget provides accountability for managers. They are tasked with keeping the budget consistent instead of pulling resources during the course of a project to serve a wider-scale budget need. 

Final Consensus - No team charter is complete without a final section of unified approval and team consensus. The word ‘team’ is a crucial aspect of a team charter that should not be overlooked. This document is not a delegation of duties. It’s meant to bring a team together before they begin a project or start working at a new company. Many teams include a period of “negotiation” during this section, which allows team members to share their feedback and request any changes up front. The final step of any team charter is to have everyone involved sign off to confirm consensus. This could be with written or digital signatures. Whatever the method, every team member must confirm their unconditional approval. With that said, there’s no reason for this to be a rigid process. The information and procedures will naturally evolve over time, but this must be done in an organized and transparent fashion. 

Team Charter: Principles in Action

A team charter isn’t limited to any industry or purpose. The same or similar has been applied throughout history when communication and teamwork is paramount. Consider these examples from an elite military unit and a software behemoth. 

United States Navy SEALs

Communication and teamwork is a life and death matter for military personnel. Yet commanders face similar circumstances as business leaders when they prepare for a mission. Each commander creates a presentation of how his team will operate, and presents it to senior officers.

This was largely done with flashy PowerPoint presentations filled with buzzwords. Leif Babin and Jocko Willink met in the mid 2000’s and debuted a new strategy. They focused on directions that are easy to follow and easy to understand, opposed to being impressive for senior officers. They developed a comprehensive checklist which resembles the team charter core components. 

  • Analyze the mission. Understand the intent of everyone involved, and the endstate (the goal). State your own intent and endstate for the specific mission.

  • Identify personnel, assets, resources, and time available.

  • Decentralize the planning process. Empower leaders within the team. 

  • Determine a specific course of action (prioritizing simplicity). 

  • Plan for likely contingencies throughout the operation.

  • Mitigate controllable risks (as much as possible).

  • Demonstrate leadership by delegating portions of the plan and brief to key junior leaders. 

  • Constantly check and question the plan as information emerges.

  • Ask questions, encourage discussion and team interaction to promote comprehension. 

  • Conduct a post-operational debrief after execution. Implement lessons learned going forward. 

This strategy was shared by Babin and Willink in their #1 New York Times bestseller, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.” The pair launched their consulting firm, Echelon Front, in 2011. They provide workshops, training and presentations for business leaders looking to improve team operations. 

Google 

Google’s People Operations Team conducted interviews and analyzed data to identify the five keys to a successful Google team. The results pair well with team charter ideals, and provide further insights for team charter creation.

After 200+ interviews, and analysis of 250 attributes within 180+ active Google teams - they came up with the following:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

All of these elements demonstrate the importance of team buy-in and cohesion, another reason why the negotiation and consensus aspect of a team charter is so important. The data created a new routine at Google, where teams conduct a daily 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics to ensure good standing. 

A team charter is one of dozens of documents that can fortify the effectiveness and morale of your team. Here’s inspiration for your next leg of document creation. 

The Importance of Building a Writing Culture

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear, understandable language in government communication so the public can understand and act accordingly.

Imagine creating writing legislation for your business...

It would be against the law for Vicki from accounting to send that typo-ridden email on a Saturday morning. John from sales would be legally required to not disregard the meeting agenda by bombarding everyone with weekend escapades. 

That reality isn’t possible. Suing co-workers would get ugly. 

But it is possible to create a strong writing culture that extends to every nook and cranny of the company. A focus on excellent and thoughtful writing improves company culture, productivity and efficiency. 

Here’s more on this issue, why it matters and how you can implement an effective writing culture. 

Communication Culture vs. Writing Culture 

“The importance of communication.” We see it everywhere. On annual reviews, emails from bosses, inspirational memes and posters. When teams or businesses fail, we often assume it’s due to a communication breakdown. Too much information was withheld while frivolous details ran rampant. In actuality, the culprit of failure might be too much communication. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos immortalized this line of thinking more than a decade ago. During an offsite retreat, a group of Amazon executives presented their ideas on how to connect distant teams. Bezos famously retorted, 

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

Of course, the statement was meant to help employees improve and innovate on their communication, not eliminate it. Bezos installed this into the culture at Amazon. He addressed it with the two-pizza rule. Teams and meetings should not require more than two pizzas for everyone to be fed. This rule was a philosophy and didn’t mandate an exact number. Large teams mean more bureaucracy, more confusion and less effectiveness. 

This communication paradox doesn’t apply to just internal communication. Ryan Fuller, co-founder of analytics firm VoloMetrix (acquired by Microsoft), shared a productivity analysis case study of a billion dollar tech firm. The firm worked with a large network of outside partners (vendors, manufacturers, etc), and estimated 700 employees managed this partner-facing side of the business. They wanted to analyze the value of this communication. VoloMetrix discovered that in reality, 7,000 (not 700) employees spent at least one hour per week interacting with outside partners. The review concluded that 50 percent of time spent on this form of communication was unnecessary did not translate to real value. That’s equivalent to 500 full-time workers and one million annual work hours. 

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF -  https://withoutbullshit.com/

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF - https://withoutbullshit.com/

It’s not just that we communicate too much or in a disorganized fashion - we can also be bad at it. Author Josh Bernoff conducted a survey with 547 business people who read and write for work more than 2 hours per week (excluding email). The survey inquired about the quality of writing they review. The research identified telling figures, 

  • 65 percent of respondents said that what they read is poorly organized

  • More than 65 percent of respondents say that what they read is too long 

  • 54 percent of all readers thought jargon was a frequent problem

  • 44 percent of supervisors, managers, and directors think their writing is not direct enough; it’s their top issue

Also, the majority of the respondents say their own writing is not poorly organized or too long. This shows the problems are not due to individual limitations but the failure to institute a system that encourages and incentivizes quality writing. 

The Workplace Disruptor 

The data above shows many businesses (even successful ones) have widespread communication problems. And many smart people are bad writers or think they read bad writing all day. 

How did we get here? There’s more availability of data and information sharing. But there’s also been a transformation in how we work. Email, project management software, wikis and the most divisive addition, Slack (workplace chat). 

Slack was originally thought to be a replacement for internal email. Faster, easier and more fun. But the increase of messages doesn’t always mean more clarity. Time Is Ltd. is a research firm working with 10 large companies who have more than 500 employees. They estimate it would be physically impossible for workers at those firms to check every Slack message every day. Remote employees feel the pressure to hover around Slack to show they’re working. This decreases the amount of time we spend on ‘deep work’ or concentrated periods of high productivity. 

Back in 2012, McKinsey predicted new communication software (such as Slack) would increase productivity. Their data showed an estimated 28 percent of the workweek was managing email and 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues for help. However we now have information in more places than ever. Chat and email, project management software, internal wikis or file servers, etc. Despite powerful search functions and detailed organization of information - it’s still a grind to find exactly what you need. 

Solution: Guides & Guidelines 

Talk to any leader in company culture and you’ll hear about the importance of writing culture down. Define the values, mission statement, goals and other important aspects of company culture that all employees see and hopefully follow. This usually includes a branding guide with typography, brand colors, logo treatment and company info. This is important, especially for startups looking to build cohesiveness. 

But to build a great writing culture, consider creating a company style guide with guidance for all writing that occurs in the organization. 

Here are the basics for your company style guide: 

Voice, tone & personality: Oftentimes, a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will communicate in emails and chats with an upbeat and enthusiastic tone, while a sales director communicates in a completely different way (or vice versa). This seems frivolous but you’re missing an opportunity to instill a sense of belonging and togetherness. Of course, we’re not robots and should not be forced into a box. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage all employees to use a similar voice and tone, and the same acronyms and abbreviations. This will impact daily mood, productivity and can be extended from chat conversations to the company blog and email blasts, even the holiday party. A defined company personality can be a competitive edge in recruiting. 

Communication etiquette: If one manager sends out a daily goals through Slack while another uses email - it may seem trivial but these issues snowball as a company grows. Set standards for chat, email and meetings. Maybe you enforce quiet hours or a quiet day of the week where deep work is the focus and chat communication is reserved only for emergencies or epic gifs. To Slack’s credit, they’ve built a series of tools to help users manage their notifications. These features should be explained during the employee onboarding process. 

Meeting laws: Meetings might not come to mind when you think of writing culture but how many times have you heard the quip, “this meeting could have been an email.” This painful truth is unavoidable without clear guidelines on why meetings should take place, and it doesn’t require micromanagement. For instance, some CEOs require employees to develop a clear agenda via a shared document before a meeting can take place. Bezos created a “memo culture” at Amazon where PowerPoints were replaced by 6-page documents and meetings began with a study hall (more on this below). 

Writing guidelines: A comprehensive style guide for writing is important, but to build a strong writing culture you need to inspire employees to improve their writing or at least feel confident enough to write out their ideas. 

Ann Handley, founder to marketingprofs.com and author of the relevant best seller, “Everybody Writes” has 10 rules to follow to create a culture of writing. 

  1. Reframe who’s a “writer”

  2. Schedule time each day to write

  3. Outlaw self-slander

  4. Write badly. Then, fix it

  5. Don’t sweat the grammar

  6. Create your own style guide

  7. Hire a dedicated editor

  8. Create a collaborative writing environment

  9. Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise

  10. Invest in training

There's an unlimited amount of ways to format your style guide. It should be concise and easy to digest to be effective. While a branding guide will be updated sparingly, this document should be shared early in the hiring process and routinely updated. 

Writing Culture: Real World Use Cases

All this theory and advice is great but seeing how these ideas are put into practice is more powerful. Take a look at a few examples that stretch across industries and sectors. 

Amazon - Memo Culture: As mentioned, Amazon may be the best example of a writing culture focus. Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations for all meetings. Instead, team members develop a written document that outlines the issue, such as a roadmap for a new feature or a public relations issue. Everyone in the meeting reads the document together before any discussion begins. These memos force employees to think deeply about an issue. They can take weeks to write. Oftentimes when the memos fall short, it’s because of a wrong expectation of scope, not bad writing. In a traditional meeting-presentation environment, this conclusion might not be discovered until much later.  

Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia - Writing Center: This group of 250 Philadelphia bankers, regulators and supervisors spend a great deal of their time writing. Detailed reports (up to 40 pages long) are required to explain to bankers in the region how to comply with always-changing regulations and laws. A consultant was hired to improve the organization's writing. She implemented an unconventional idea - a writing center. The program was voluntary, delivered feedback in-person or over the phone and directly to the “student.” A post-mortem analysis showed a 20-56% improvement in overall quality, organization, clarity, grammar, support and analysis. This concept can be easily applied to a business environment. 

Ogilvy - Pre-Digital Writing Culture: David Ogilvy built one of the largest creative agencies in the world. It was well known that upper level executives at Ogilvy & Mather had to be masterful writers. He demanded concise and clear language and wrote, “the better you write, the higher you go at Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.” This shows the importance of a strong writing culture precedes the digital age. Many people who worked at Ogilvy spent decades at the firm which was known for a strong corporate culture. 

Evernote - Elevate Writing: It makes sense that a note taking app would have a strong focus on writing culture. Andrew Sinkov, employee #6 at Evernote, explained how the company built a positive writing environment. Most of his rules have been discussed above: 

  • Be intentional

  • Build a playground

  • Find your voice

  • Create cadence

  • Hire talented writers

  • Critique often

  • Apply your voice to everything

Regardless of your politics, we can all agree government literature should be clear and easy to understand. The Plain Writing Act attempted to accomplish that. If your business has yet to think about this issue, now is the time. Whether you’re creating an all-hands communication guide or just getting everyone on the same page with email and chat, any investment toward your organization's writing culture is a smart investment.