The year 2020 marks the global breakthrough of remote working, or rather: distributive working. With the COVID-19 crisis pushing aside the normality of office work, working remotely is gaining momentum. It has been growing in popularity among businesses and workers over the past few years, yet remote working always revolved around a central entity: the main office.
However, this centrality is pushed aside as we are collectively forced into a massive experiment of working distributively following the coronavirus measures. Each individual home is now an office in itself, operating as a node in the web of the distributed business.
Quick and unplanned changes
Most companies had little to none experience with managing remote teams until March of this year. It may have been an objective to explore in coming years, but it never made the priority list. Simply because there was no need for immediate change. Working at the office, during office hours, having office meetings was thought to be the most effective way to shape work. The coronavirus measures, however, forced these same businesses to switch into sixth gear in a matter of hours. Not months, not weeks, sometimes not even days — but hours.
Under time pressure and faced with towering obstacles, the world of work showed guts. Bosses and employees alike demonstrated agility, collectively reinforcing this new work reality at hyperspeed.
But now that we have slowly grown accustomed to what it means to live in a ‘six feet society’, in which close contact at the office will probably not return for a long time, businesses have to think long-term. Will you strive to go back to ‘normal’? Will the main office again function as the central node in the web? Or will your company expand on the changes that have been forced upon it in order to elevate the business? Whichever way you choose to go, now’s the time to start thinking about the future.
For plenty of companies, this experiment with remote working will probably bring about disadvantages as well as unexpected advantages. The advantages of working from home have been explored in numerous academic researches, however, putting this into practice as a company requires trust. Trust in your business, your employees, the economy and your industry. It’s a risk, yes. But now that your entire company is forced to work from home, you might as well turn this experiment into a durable alternative to the norm. And start with perceiving this change in working dynamics as distributively, not remotely.
Aiming to achieve remote working often results in a select group of employees working from home a few days a month, hovering around the centrality of the office. However, distributed working allows for autonomy of employees in contributing to a business that has no or merely a small central office. Working distributively therefore means that a collection of people work separately from each other, within the confines of their own homes, and only meet in person a couple of times a year. This may sound odd and inefficient, but this approach has been proven successful and since been adopted by a handful of brave businesses, one of which is software company Automattic (the company behind a.o. WordPress and Tumblr). Founder Matt Mullenweg has been experimenting with distributed working and explains the pitfalls and benefits of this novel approach to business in what he calls the ‘five levels of autonomy’.
Five levels of autonomy
Providing employees with the autonomy to take responsibility for their work requires a solid foundation. The five levels of autonomy defined by Mullenweg illustrate how different degrees of autonomy affect the efficiency of working distributively.
Of course, there are jobs that can’t be done from home. Think of construction workers, cleaners or bus drivers. Such professions depend on location and can therefore not be practiced outside the respective work environment.
Level 1 - Crisis management
Mullenweg suspects that many businesses that explored working remotely before the crisis were operating at level 1. “The first level is where most colocated businesses are: there’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency,” Mullenweg argues. Little effort is made to design remote-friendly work spaces and employees often run into problems with accessing company systems.
Businesses operating at this level of autonomy are most concerned with returning to the office as soon as possible.
Level 2 - Recreating the office
Many companies find themselves at this level by now. They have adopted the new reality and corresponding consequences. Every team member is now somewhat used to Zoom, Google Meet or any other online communication platform, and online team meetings happen on a regular basis. However, Mullenweg states, “they’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a ‘remote’ setting.” Recreating synchronous office processes is tempting when your business is suddenly forced into doing things differently, but will probably not suffice in the long run.
Level 2 remote management predominantly revolves around productivity. Your business may struggle with this new-found autonomy for employees and this may be reflected in dropping performance. But make sure you don’t accept this cause-effect scenario all too quickly. Your staff might indeed be performing at lower levels but keep in mind that there are several other factors that contribute to the change in productivity.
Level 3 - Remote-first
“At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed,” Mullenweg says. In this stage, your company is getting used to working asynchronously and communicating quite effectively. Documentation is key in this level of autonomy; aside from the daily video calls, make sure to have a shared document open to make real-time notes. You can always fall back on these documents and when face-to-face contact is not possible, any documentation is valuable.
Managing at level 3 means you don’t expect employees to recreate office practices. Instead, you encourage them to find their ideal schedule and test this new approach against several KPI’s. If it doesn’t work, try something else, but keep in mind that asynchronous yet effective collaboration needs practicing.
Level 4 - Asynchronous efficiency
The fourth level is all about the quality of work that is produced by distributed workers. Not how they work, nor when — but what. “You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations,” Mullenweg argues. This reinforces trust throughout the company. Each employee is now valued for what they do best and encouraged to keep sharing and developing their unique talents.
Another benefit of this level of autonomy: you are no longer limited to the talent pool within a reachable distance from your office. You have access to top-tier talent anywhere in the world, because you don’t require them to physically roam the office floors. Ideally, this would mean you’ll run a business resembling Charlemagne’s empire — one in which the sun never sets.
This level, however, does require some major investments regarding home office budgets. Investing in people’s home office allows them to furnish a work space that (unconsciously) stimulates them to perform even better.
Level 5 - Nirvana
Level five is probably unattainable, yet “it’s always useful to have an ideal,” Mullenweg argues. This scenario draws on happiness, most of all. A business where people celebrate autonomy and thrive on having responsibility over their own work, all the while being connected online. Where there’s time for mental and physical health, consequently improving the work that’s delivered. A level 5 company would thus operate better than any location-bound business ever could, given the elimination of physical limitations.
Even though this level is probably impossible to reach, you might be inspired by the autonomous and asynchronous character it celebrates.
The future world of work
Given the benefits of increasing autonomy levels as a consequence of the corona crisis, the future of work may be in the making right now. We’re in the middle of a global work-from-home experiment, and whatever the outcome may be, things will be different.
Whether your company decides to get back to its old ways or adopt some aspects of how it’s been operating the past few weeks, or even make a complete turn to distributed working, make sure you make conscious decisions. Again, now is the time.