Part I: How emergency WFH during a pandemic is vastly different from intentionally building a remote team
The covid-19 pandemic has rolled over us in March 2020 and everyone who could potentially work remotely quickly transitioned to doing so. But as some of us knew, and many of us learned over the last year, emergency work from home during a pandemic is hugely different from building a sustainable remote team setup.
And the key question here is: why would we choose to strategically build a setup like that, and continue it even after the pandemic is over?
To keep things brief, some of the many advantages are:
- diversity & inclusion: all of a sudden, working for your company becomes available (and attractive) to a way wider range of people
- access to a wider pool of talent (for companies) and a wider pool of opportunities (for candidates)
- less micromanagement (it wasn’t working in the office, and it definitely doesn’t work remotely)
- lower overheads
- higher retention if done right
What do you give up when you build such a setup?
A few of the ‘downsides’ could be:
- a slower-paced work environment, especially when working with different time zones and mostly async (more on that further)
- a loss of “control”
- isolation & lack of human connection – if not tackled correctly
All these challenges have been successfully addressed by remote-first companies, some of which have built remote teams and functioned fully remotely for 10+ years.
For example, Automattic, the company behind WordPress (which powers a third of the websites on internet), valued at USD 3 billion, which employs 1,100+ people in 75 countries speaking 93 different languages and does not have an office/headquarters.
Matt Mullengweg, the CEO, recently spoke on Making Sense about the 5 levels of remote work. Let’s have a quick look at them.
Level 1 – Emergency.
The mantra here is: “We can’t know what they’ll do at home”.
At this level, no deliberate action is taken by the company, and the team is only remote because/if needed. The company does not provide much more than access to phone & email, and the possibility to dial into (some of the) meetings. When working remotely, team members tend to postpone things for when they are back to the office.
Most companies who transitioned to remote work during the pandemic are (still) here.
Level 2: Copy the Office
“Everyone must be online these 8 hours of the day.”
At this remote work level, teams usually have access to Zoom, Slack, email but recreate online how they used to work in the office. They experience lots of interruptions, attend heaps of unnecessary meetings, and one could easily observe an “always on” or hyperresponsiveness culture, where everyone is checking emails every 5-20 min or so. Team members are usually subjected to centralized time tracking/surveillance and are expected to be online 9 to 5 or similar.
Level 3: Tools & Collaboration
“Let’s collaborate live on Google Docs.”
At this stage, the company starts to invest in better equipment and tools (e.g. headsets, microphones), to collaborate on shared documents and effective written communication becomes more and more important.
Meetings become shorter (e.g. 20-30 min by default) and the team only holds them with specific agenda and desired outcomes, if actually necessary and the same outcomes can’t be reached via quick conversation, email or instant messaging. After meetings, teams are encouraged to always agree on next steps, due dates and accountabilities (who’s going to do what and when).
To invoke a popular meme, at this level you no longer have meetings if “they could’ve been an email” or a status update.
Level 4: Async
“Do great work.”
As teams make their way up the pyramid of remote work, they come to realize two things: 1. a vast majority of messages/communication doesn’t actually require an immediate response; in fact, it’s only in exceptional cases that an instant response is needed; and 2. Most valuable work we do these days (e.g. writing code, solving problems creatively, writing high-quality content, creating a new concept) requires long stretches of uninterrupted, quiet, deep work. Urgency has been baked into our work environment for so long that we can no longer intuitively apply Eisenhower’s matrix and differentiate between urgent and important. And that comes with a huge productivity loss, as entering “flow” states has been proven to guarantee 5 times the productivity.
Not to mention asynchronous communication (where one is not pressed to provide an answer right away) equals better judgment and decisions.
Another aspect we tend to forget is that studies demonstrate that 30-40% of the population are naturally night owls, which means that the modern 9-to-5 workday is sabotaging the creative and intellectual efforts of more than a third of the workforce.
At this level, teams are stepping out of the industrial revolution where presence = productivity, hours (input) = output, result and they are simply required to do great work.
Level 5: Nirvana
“Design your work around your life.”
This last level overlaps with the idealized future of work where one designs their work around their lives and where going remote-first becomes the biggest competitive advantage for a modern company. Where people are empowered to make their own choices about where they work from, when they work from and how they work.
Now that we’ve seen how an intentional remote work setup is vastly different from emergency remote work, we’ll look at what are the steps you need to take to transition to one, and build a solid distributed team – in part 2 and 3 of this series.