Authentic F&F started the year with a fairly large change. The last day in 2014 was also the last day for our previous (and first) employee, Ian, who decided it was time for him to move on from Authentic and venture on his own path.
Ian became a great colleague and friend to both Chris and I, and seeing him leave disrupted the idealist picture of what we wanted our business to be, questioning many decisions we’ve made about how to build our business.
This change, while hard to digest at first, forced us to take a hard look our company’s remote-oriented vision. Not only how to retain talented remote employees, but ensuring all members of the team felt fulfilled; in the work they are doing individually, and in business we are creating together.
Before I dive into Authentic’s concept of remote work, I should preface what work itself means to me, and the role it plays in my life.
For me, work is my passion. In my early twenties I had the realization: if I’m going to be doing something 8–10 hours per day, for the next 40-ish years of my life, better make sure whatever it is I choose to do, I enjoy it. Better yet, that I’m passionate about it.
Finding a career I was deeply passionate about seemed like a major piece to living a happy and fulfilled life. The phrase “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” is something I immediately resonated with, and to this day, advocate often.
As I started diving into the world of design and technology, I quickly found an abundance of others who felt the same way. People passionate about what they do; passionate about building, about collaborating, and about creating lives facilitated by the love of their craft. They come to work every day, not necessarily enthralled with the tasks immediately in front of them, but passionate about the intrinsic value creating provides, able to experiment and hone their unique talents day after day.
These people, and the dedication they apply to their craft, is what I define as work. My goal is to embody this concept of work, building a life that is purposeful, enriched by creating and enabled by collaboration.
Freedom, Not Mandates
In 2010, I had the opportunity to travel to Austin, TX, attending my first SXSW conference. I was fortunate enough to attend a small presentation by Carli Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, a book detailing the concept of Results Oriented Work Environments (ROWE).
If you’re not familiar, ROWE is a management strategy where employee performance is judged solely on the results of their output, removing any restricting mandates a company typically imposes on their employees, e.g. 9 to 5 schedules, strict vacation policies, in-office vs. work from home guidelines, etc.
In ROWE, these mandates are not just removed, but shunned, advocating if employees are given the freedom to choose how and when they work, they will find greater joy in the work itself. That they will become more loyal and appreciative towards their employer, creating a stronger, more productive culture for the business, and in general, happier human beings.
Furthermore, the dramatic lifestyle for employees, enabled by the freedom and autonomy ROWE provides, motivates employees to do better work, feeling appreciated by the company they work for, and the value they are adding with their contribution.
To me, the concepts I heard Ressler and Thompson detail were monumental, aligning closely with my own definition of work. If people are passionate about the work they do, and are empowered to produce the best results they know how, why would they need to be stifled by old restrictive paradigms of how and when to work?
Give people freedom and autonomy, not rigid schedules and mandates, allowing them to work (and live) on their own terms, producing the best results possible.
The Origins of “Remote”
As I was learning about ROWE, I began hearing a stronger voice behind the concept of remote work. 37Signals, the company who has since released the book Remote, was beginning to evangelize how this style of work is ingrained in their company’s culture.
37Signals (now Basecamp) advocated for the flexibility and autonomy a remote environment created, noting how it helped keep their employees happy, and the output of their team at the highest caliber. Remote had many parallels to ROWE, and was a method of working which almost inherently created this type of environment.
Remote work advocated many of the principles established in ROWE, and articulated a way to manage the day to day process of working with others, and also in the style you’re able to organize your life, taking advantage of the freedom provided by remote work.
As they mention:
Your life no longer needs to be divided into arbitrary phases of work and retirement. You can blend the two for fun and profit — design a better lifestyle that makes work enjoyable because it’s not the only thing on the menu.
Remote work allows people to make choices in their life without worrying about the negative ramifications they might face at work. These choices can be anything from wanting to go beach-side for the winter, enjoying surf and warm weather; to needing to relocate to a new city when your spouse lands a dream job.
Again, if you’re passionate and dedicated about the work you’re doing, why does it matter where you’re physically performing it? With the capabilities of technology, find the optimal environment for you to do great work, and do just that.
Let’s Do This
In mid-2012, I had the opportunity to collaborate with my current business partner Chris, assisting with the development of a project for one of his clients. As our working relationship progressed, we discussed the trials and tribulations of working as a solo-freelancer, and the gripes we had with the traditional digital agency operating model.
Through the course of these discussions, we discussed ROWE, remote work, and how we both wanted to create a business that broke mold of how a traditional agency operates, creating a business that puts the lifestyle of its employees first and foremost, letting this freedom inspire great work.
In the spring of 2013 we incorporated Authentic Form & Function, and got to work building our business, creating a vision embodying these concepts:
Authentic Form & Function was born out of the desire to collaborate with like-minded creative people, working on projects fulfilling our innate passion for building on the web. Our company is the vehicle that facilitates this collaboration, while also allowing us to live life on our own terms; escaping the shackles of bland corporate bureaucracy.
We aim to work on exciting projects, experiment and learn while broadening our collective skill sets; all the while building a company that encourages growth on both a personal and professional level.
Most importantly, we come to work each day because we love what we do, firmly believing in the notion “if you do what you love, you won’t work an entire day your entire life.”
Standing firmly behind our beliefs, we understand these ideals take effort and hard work to execute. Freedom requires collaboration, and success comes from each member of our team taking ownership of their work.
Our goal is to provide unlimited opportunity for growth, autonomy, and self-management, but this does (at times) require sacrifice — from all team members — to push the ship forward.
Since incorporating Authentic F&F a little over 2 years ago, we’ve had plenty of ups and downs. While remote work still remains a pillar of our company, I can’t say running a remote business is as easy-going and idealist as the concept itself comes across. Building a business culture, with a small number of people on the team, none of which are working in the same room, is challenging. Clients are often times hesitant of the way we work, not understanding how we work the way we do, and why we choose to run our business this way.
These challenges, though, could be said for any small business; even more so if that business is running in a way that goes against the grain of what’s traditional. What’s important to us is keeping our heads down, continuing to do great work, and constantly improving our remote-oriented process for collaboration — all backed up by our company vision and ethos as a team.
While I’m comfortable speaking on the “downs” we’ve experienced, we’re lucky enough to have had even more “ups.” We continue to land projects aligning with our strengths, and challenges us to improve the way in which we collaborate.
From a growth point of view, our sights are set on going from a 3-person shop to a 5–6 person team over the course of the next 12 months. This will get us closer to our goal of having multiple teams within our business working on internal projects as well as client work.
With anticipated growth comes the need to be even more clear on the vision behind our business and the type of organization we’re creating. We’ve always used the term Remote to quickly speak about the ethos we embody, but unfortunately, nowadays the term “remote” has become so en vogue I feel it’s lost clout when using to define the type of business we run.
The notion of Remote work has been embraced by all types of organizations and freelancers alike. On the surface, we think this is great. We love seeing this style of working being embraced and more widely accepted. However, the term itself, and more specifically the way it’s implemented, means many different things depending on who you are talking to.
For some businesses, Remote might mean allowing for telecommuting a few days a month, with no real change in the workings of their business aside from physical location. To other freelancers, it might mean working as an individual, doing contract work for various clients while traveling and enjoying the freedoms of being a one-man-shop.
What we’re realizing is Remote work, to us, isn’t just about being a dispersed team, accommodating to variety in people’s schedules; nor is it all about being completely asynchronous in the way we work, providing complete freedom in when and where you choose to work.
For us, we want to build business embodying many of attributes of Remote work, but one which combines those with great principles of collaboration and purpose. Instead of a group of people contributing on a shared project, with the motivations of each individual being rooted in self interested freedom, creating a cohesive team inspired to work together, on a shared vision for the business.
Looking “Beyond Remote”
As I’ve been alluding to, our company ethos is growing beyond being labeled as just a remote team. These days the term remote stretches from everything from a Digital Nomad to mega-corporations who allow telecommuting.
On one side of the spectrum you have individuals blurring the lines between traveling professionals and professional travelers; and on the other, businesses that impose the same restrictive paradigms most companies do, however they allow for a certain level of “work from home” time.
From the beginning we’ve labeled ourselves as “remote” because it was the closest concept to describe the freedom and lifestyle-oriented business we wanted to run. However, it’s clear the term “remote” describes a way an individual works day to day, but not necessarily the deeper company-wide values driving the entire organization.
Over the past few months I’ve been reading as much as possible, trying and find the deeper concept both ROWE and Remote reach for. I’ve read on the topics of philosophy, organizational management, and spiritual wellness, attempting to find the deeper meaning behind what we’re building, and how to bring those concepts to tangible ways of running a business.
Enter Jon Lay and Hanno.
It might be a faux pas to mention I fan-boyishly look up to another small digital studio, but that is certainly the case here.
A while back Chris sent me over Hanno’s amazingly inciteful Playbook, and after researching the company a bit, I realized Hanno is a company which, like us, fully embraces the notion of being a remote team. Not only do they wear the remote badge proudly, but they firmly speak to how being a remote team positively impacts the work they do for their clients.
After reading as many blog posts as possible, I felt like I was looking into the future. Seeing an 8–9 person studio, built around the idea of remote, but applying it in a way that went far beyond just being a distributed team. It was purposefully ingrained in all aspects of their business.
One series of blog posts Jon had written caught my eye in particular. These posts outlined concepts taken from the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. Jon described several practices Hanno has since started implementing, creating a business inline with the Teal organizational model advocated by the book.
The practices Hanno has started to implement, and which the book details, were in an effort to become a stronger better functioning organization. They were taking steps towards self-management through empowering employees and creating self-managed teams.
It was like someone took the ideas floating around in my head, organized them neatly, and wrote them down for me to better understand. I was in awe. Needless to say, I immediately picked up a copy of Reinventing Organizations and tore through it.
Better Understanding the Problem
The first section of the book details the topic of Human Organizational Development (HOD), and how as humanity has evolved, so have the models we utilize to organize and execute work. It was eye opening to see how these major shifts in human development coincided with shifts in organizational models, and how they immediately set the stage for the evolution taking place in the present time.
After establishing the concept of HOD, the book goes on to describe the Achievement Orange organizational paradigm, the paradigm most of the capitalistic world presently finds themselves in. Achievement Orange has brought massive progress for humanity over the past two centuries, bringing us through industrialization and up to modern times.
However, Laloux states many believe we are increasingly disillusioned by this model, which has found it’s success through material reward structures, believing these methods of incentivization are unsustainable in the long term.
With our most basic needs taken care of, businesses increasingly try to create needs, feeding the illusion that more stuff we don’t really need — more possessions, the latest fashion, a more youthful body — with make us happy and whole. We come to see that much of this economy based on fabricated needs is unsustainable from a financial and ecological perspective. We have reached a stage where we often pursue growth for growth’s sake.
Laloux describes how these illusionary needs are dangled in front of workers residing at the bottom of the organizational pyramid, like a forever distant “reward carrot” they’re never able to grab.
This resentment manifests itself in workers learning to dread their job, and beyond the workplace in phenomenons like the all-to-common mid-life crisis, where someone “realizes they played the game of success and ran the rat race, now realizing they won’t make it to the top, or that the top isn’t all it’s made up to be.”
The constant rat-race towards the top, micromanagement motivated solely by material compensation, and fabricated needs used to justify unsustainable growth are all negative products of Achievement Orange organizations.
While some of these sentiments are (literally) written as anti-values in Authentic’s company vision and values statement, many of which we attempt to remedy with remote work, the depth of these concepts goes far beyond just remote work. This is where the simple application of creating remote work environment starts to reach it’s limits and we start to look at how to organize a business beyond remote.
Where remote work advocates for personal autonomy, freedom, and responsibility, Evolutionary Teal goes deeper. It seeks to understand how those concepts affect us personally, but also collectively, as humans and within organizations.
From the onset of Reinventing Organization, I was amazed by how the Teal organizational model was based on documented stages of human development, and the direction Laloux theorizes we are headed as a modern post-industrialized workforce. A workforce where our basic needs (Maslow, Piaget, Loevinger, etc.) are taken care of, and our consciousness is searching for work that satisfies us on a higher level.
I would extend this definition of the workforce as one where technology enabled communication is at a level where people can collaborate effectively, without the need to be physically located near one another. In Reinventing Organizations, the transitioning to a personal Evolutionary Teal perspective is described as happening when:
We learn to disidentify from our own ego. By looking at our ego from a distance, we can suddenly see how it’s fears, ambitions, and desires often run our life. We can learn to minimize our need to control, to look good, to fit in. We are no longer fused with our ego, and we don’t let it’s fears reflexively control our lives. In the process, we make room to listen to the wisdom of others, and deeper parts of ourselves.
I love this sentiment because it embodies self-reflection and also self-responsibility. Understanding that each one of us struggles with our own sense of non-achievement, but it’s our own responsibility to realize this falsehood, and in doing so, finding comfort working and sharing with others.
In another chapter:
When life is seen as a journey of discovery, then we learn to deal more gracefully with the setbacks, the mistakes, and the roadblocks in our life. We can start to grasp the spiritual insight that there are no mistakes, simply experiences that point us to a deeper truth about ourselves and the world.
This line stuck a cord as well, both because it sounds like it was something written by Marcus Aurelius, but also because of the implications it has on collaboration and culture. It reinforces that we want to work with people we trust, and those along with us for our collective journey. People who will be there to share in our mistakes and successes, and in doing so, will find deeper meaning, together, in the work we do and the world we live in.
Rather than Achievement Orange, which places recognition, success, and wealth, as the measure of good life, Evolutionary Teal flips the understanding, advocating for first living a good life, becoming the most authentic expression of ourselves, being of service to others, and as a product of this, finding material success and wealth.
All of these sentiments: diminishing ego, expressing our authentic selves, and working together to find a deeper meaning in our work, are all very personal; but when applied more generally to organizations, start to show the power and scalability of and Evolutionary Teal organizational model.
As described by Laloux,
Teal Organizations are seen as having a life and sense of direction of their own. Instead of trying to predict and control the future, members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.
A Vision Forward
Remote work — more specifically, the autonomy and freedom it creates — allows us to decide on our own terms for how we want to live our lives. It separates the facade of work, from the results themselves, allowing us to objectively correlate the successes and shortcomings of our output to the work-life balance we choose for ourselves.
While remote work is a fantastic attribute to the way an individual (or small group of individuals) operates, the concepts behind Evolutionary Teal show us how remote work by itself is more of a self-serving way of working day by day, than it is a way to create a scalable and purposeful organization.
The goal for our business should not be to create an organization that solely allows for people to be autonomous, creating as much value together as the sum of what we can each individually contribute. Rather, it should be building a company that utilizes autonomy, empowerment, and self-management to nourish an ecosystem for purposeful collaboration. One that allows each of us to find a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals, using that understanding to add exponential value to the way we work together.
The more we can empower our team, the better the results. Building a business flexible to ebs of flows of an ever-changing business climate, and letting a meaningful vision — held by all members of the team — carry us forward.