On reflection, it took us probably 12 months to get into the rhythm of things, unlearn old habits, learn new ones and generally get used to working in a completely new way. In general, moving to the distributed model has been the best thing we have done, not least because when covid came along we were already set up and coping with virtual working so had none of the distractions that many others had when the order to “work from home” came down from on high.
But making the move has had its challenges and requires a completely different approach to thinking and leadership, something that we see being tested as we speak through the posts on social media and the press.
I have attempted to capture the key things that I hope will help anyone on the journey to a new virtual, flexible model.
‘COVID working’ isn’t remote working – I think it’s worth remembering that the home working environment we were forced into as a result of COVID is not reflective of how remote working can and should be. It’s home imprisonment. There is no doubt that COVID has challenged the limited beliefs of business and leadership and proven beyond doubt that more flexible working was doable and would deliver better results. And not just for chai tea latte drinking, small tech companies like Headstart!
However, for some it has been a terrible collision between individual personal and work circumstances, especially for those home schooling etc. And to name it the ’new normal’ is also not helping. Once covid passes and we have the ability to be fully flexible, the choice to connect and meet when we choose without the impossible demands of lockdown and home schooling, only then will be be able to see how this really work.
Remote vs flexible – For me, ’remote working’ or ‘home working’ doesn’t really describe what we are talking about here. It is far better to think of it as fully flexible working. Where individuals have the choice to work wherever then want, whenever they want and to interact with others when they choose and at a venue they choose. Too often I hear talk of ‘remote working’ in the context of people only working solely from home and not having the chance to engage with colleagues fact to face or work from somewhere other than home. This is not the case. As usual, especially on social media, the conversations end up being polarised at one extreme or another and this isn’t helpful.
It’s about giving the individual choice and supporting that choice ethically and responsibly.
Real doesn’t translate to virtual – one thing for sure is that simply lifting and shifting an office based model to a virtual one doesn’t work. The shift in where we work demands a new way of working, and indeed, even a re definition of what “work” is. No doubt you will have seen and heard how individuals are feeling under pressure, trying to react and interact with colleagues and bosses remotely but operating through the same principles and processes that were defined in the office based era. This doesn’t work. You need a complete rethink and the best people to design that are the team members themselves.
Forcing an office based cadence of meetings, check ins, work delivery etc is futile and means you are missing a huge opportunity to re frame and re design the work.
So start from scratch would be my advice, let your people design it from the ground up and support them in doing so.
Saving money – one of the most frequent ‘advantages’ of a distributed model that is often discussed are the “savings” the company will make in terms of real estate costs. My immediate response is to say that if this is your key driver, or the most prominent benefit you are focussing on, you will fail. And I would go further and say that you should budget not to save money at all.
Ok, if you are a global enterprise with hugely expensive real estate in the most expensive cities, then maybe, over time. But for most, I would recommend re allocating the budget to invest in people and travel. Specifically, wellness and other initiatives that will help support your employees adapt to a new way of working.
For example, we invested in the wellness solution Insideout25 an ‘on demand mental wellness platform’ in the autumn of 2019 which turned out to be one of the best investments given the subsequent impact of COVID. I would also recommend a significant increase in travel budgets, to allow team members to come together at their leisure and initiative, without the need to ask for permission. Once COVID is has passed of course!
Meetings – We have culled update meetings and massively reduced the number of meetings we were having overall. Everyone can create a ‘heartbeat’ update (thanks basecamp!) and post it on our internal comms platform for folks to read at their leisure. This means that our monthly all hands meetings for example are now totally dedicated to Q&A. So much better.
Reducing the number, structure and length of meetings along with the move to ‘asynchronous’ communication has significantly increased high quality, uninterrupted, focussed work time. This combined with the significant reduction in “chat” – see ‘Communication’ below – has also allowed for more high quality thinking time.
Communication – we have made a full shift to ‘asynchronous’ communication. We have moved away from instant messaging/chat systems so, no, despite being a tech business we are not using slack! Shock Horror! The truth is that chat apps might sound great, but they soon consume hours of your day if you are not careful. As David Heinemeier Hansson articulated in his latest book – It Doesn’t have to be crazy at work, interruptions come thick and fast in this chat/message based age and it can dramatically reduce productivity. So we have moved to a thread based communication platform called Twist, designed by a remote company – see below.
Tools and technology – I’m going to say that I don’t think the technology that will support a fully flexible and distributed team has been created yet. Yes, we have had a flurry of interest in what’s now being called “work tech”, primarily the communication tools that attempt to replicate the office environment and others that manage the people operations of widely dispersed teams. But these are tools that already existed albeit serving a much smaller and embryonic audience and as such, despite being aligned with remote or distributed working, were born out of the office based era.
Hence, a lot of these tools are “presence” focussed – they try to replicate the office in a virtual setting – so office floor plans, virtual rooms and so on. Some even try to replicate the controls, including the insidious practice of “monitoring” employees via webcams or keystrokes etc. (Theres a whole other post on this but that’s not for today!)
Suffice to say we have tried a lot of these tools and they all come up short. As I said at the beginning of this post, successful fully flexible working depends on a complete shift in leadership thinking and the definition of work. Only once we have come to terms with that can we design the tools that will properly support this emerging way of working. As of yet, it’s early days, so expect to see more interesting approaches and technologies emerge over the next couple of years as we pass COVID and settle into a hopefully different, and more liberated pattern of working. See below for the comms tools that we do use:
- Twist is our asynchronous communication tool of choice. All messages, conversations and announcements are on this platform. As I said, we don’t use chat tools like slack or discord.
- Zoom is our meeting and conference platform. It does what it says on the tin and is solid and robust. Many of the ‘remote’ platforms let themselves down badly with their video interface as most of them can’t seem to cope with more than 6 or so people in a meeting without the video failing or being buggy/unreliable
- Loom – some of us are using loom to do our regular ‘heartbeats’ (updates). It’s not mandatory but it adds a bit of variety to slides!
We obviously use a lot of other tools but these are the main ones that support communication. In short, less is more with all tools, otherwise they can just get in the way.
Rethink leadership -The final thing I would say is that tools and processes are important but they are not what will define success in a business that seeks to embrace full flexibility working and location independence. Culture and leadership are the defining factors. Those that know me will know that I have been a fan and a champion of progressive ways of working and readily challenge the notion of “work” and the existing structures of business. But even I have found the journey challenging at times.
Leaders who like to work through hierarchical structures, who see themselves as a gatekeeper or who feel it is a key part of their role to know what their team are doing and how they are doing it will struggle in a more distributed organisation structure.
Success in a distributed environment requires a different set of behaviours and challenges many of the limiting beliefs of leadership. It requires a shift towards peer to peer relationships, focusing on outcomes but more importantly, trusting your team members to do what they do best and to deliver the “why” without worrying about the “how”.
The phrase “surround yourself with people smarter than you and let them get on with it” has never been more relevant for leaders than it is now.
If you want to chat about flexible/remote/distributed working – the good, the bad and the ugly – then please do drop me a line.