Distributed working: Working, from <insert location>

Chris George
Feb 26 · 4 min read

Think back to the time when we used to go in to an office to work. In the office, my day would consist of some desk time, going to meetings (in actual meeting rooms and wrestling with the AV), wandering down to the coffee machines, discussions (and chatting!) with my colleagues, being called over to a team to help them out. All quite physical things.

Today, as we mostly work from home, the need for doing those things has not diminished, but the methods by which they happen has changed significantly. Two camps have emerged, those who favour synchronous communication, meetings, to get the job done; and those who shun meetings, favouring asynchronous approaches such as slack, documents, mural canvas’.

This article will explore these approaches and suggest that actually neither approach is right, and in fact a blend of both is essential!

Where the conflict comes from…

Transitioning to a distributed working model (where work is done across multiple locations, not a central office) is known to go through 5 stages and many companies found themselves at Level 2 last year. They try to recreate the office environment online, continuing to hold meeting but now over tools such as Zoom. Some have started to progress through the stages, embracing other ways of working, such as asynchronous working which simply means that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone.

But for many, back-to-back meetings makes it difficult to find the time to do this leading to early onset ‘zoom fatigue’; while for others there is a belief that meetings are the only way to achieve collaboration, or there’s a reluctance to move away from what they know.

Blending sync and async

We’re finding working effectively from home, for a company who was recently 100% office based, is about striking that balance between synchronous and asynchronous working and embracing a blended approach.

In truth, it isn’t whether asynchronous working is better than synchronous. It’s about looking at what is the most effective tool to achieve the task at hand; what will produce the outcome you desire. It also goes beyond that. Sometimes it is just nice to talk to an actual human being!

Having two children home-schooling led me to read about live lessons, and I came across this which felt particularly relevant:

This classroom analogy really struck home as a great example of what we should be doing. It certainly echoes thoughts about all meetings whether in-person or virtual. Considering a piece of work that needs to be done; what can be done asynchronously, by those concerned, in their own time? What would really benefit from a face-to-face synchronous meeting? Simply asking those questions is a giant step towards a better approach to working.

This isn’t a new problem by any means but the problem has been exacerbated by the transition to distributed working.

Mindset

Possibly the more important thing in the shift to effective distributed working is a shift in mindset. It’s not about how you work or what tools you use, it’s about what you’re trying to achieve. Figure that out, then fit the various tools/practices/approaches to help you get there!

To that end, and in the spirit of thinking of the work rather than the tooling, stop prefixing words with ‘virtual’ or ‘zoom’. Stop focussing on the remote nature of the activity and start focussing on how to make it great. “Hey, we need to get together “virtually” to discuss this” … almost air-quoting “virtually” adds nothing to that statement, and if anything taints the meeting with a “we’ll use zoom because we have to” brush rather than focussing on the purpose of getting together.

Ultimately, if you feel there is significant value is speaking to someone or a group of people, then it does not matter how that happens. Focus on the value.

Effective Working Tips

My five tips to effective blended working:

1. Make time to evaluate how you’re currently working — what meetings or parts of meetings you have could be done asynchronously?

2. Set expectations for any preparation or async discussions that need to happen before a synchronous meeting.

3. Don’t be afraid to have face to face meetings, but make sure the time is valuable (see point 2)

4. Don’t try to recreate the office environment — consider what you need, what outcome you desire and then think about how you can achieve it.

5. It’s ok to just have a chat — relationship building is important.

The Revelation

Whilst writing this article, and really thinking about the benefits both asynchronous and synchronous approaches bring, we had somewhat of an epiphany.

In divorcing the location/approach from the work, we find ourselves describing how we’d like to work, regardless of where we are.

Preparing for meetings, making the best use of our time, being outcome focussed, maintaining relationships, these are all things we should be doing all the time!

Shifting to working from home has presented many challenges, and it would be remis not to acknowledge that, but it’s also opened a lot of doors to different ways of working. All those ways apply wherever you are.

So, don’t focus on the where; focus on the why, the what, the who, and the how and where will follow.

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