Distributed Workforce: Time to Rethink the way you work

After 5 weeks of New Zealand being in lockdown and forced to work remotely, I’m seeing companies and employees surprised at how much better it is; not only from a productivity but also a work-life balance standpoint. With many company executives considering what hybrid remote working might look like longer-term, I wanted to share the most commonly asked questions raised during my executive health and performance sessions and expand upon why this work style has more to offer.

Discussed:

  1. What is distributed work?
  2. What motivates people?
  3. Matt Mullenweg 5 levels of adaptation to distributed work
  4. Will distributed work be appropriate for your organisation?
  5. Why you should consider the distributed work model
  6. How to track and measure work
  7. Important considerations around distributed work in this current climate

Although many use the term “remote work” we prefer to use the lesser-known alternative “distributed work” as we believe it defines the model more comprehensively.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work describes a workforce that reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is dispersed geographically over a wide area – domestically or internationally.

In this challenging time where you’d expect things to slow down, many businesses are experiencing an increase in productivity, as staff no longer have the stress or need to commute, plus they are removed from the distracting environment of the office with the opportunity to design a workday that suits them and their productivity peaks. This is only the beginning of unlocking the potential of distributed work.

Distributed work is nothing new and there are many great examples across small and large multinational companies eg. Dell, IBM, Salesforce, General Electric, Jet Blue, and even Sears.

In our opinion, one of the thought leaders in this space would be Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress (open-source software which runs 31% of the internet) with 1,172 employees working in 75 countries. Let’s unpack some of the principles behind WordPress’ success and how that can be harnessed by other organisations.

What motivates people?

A motivated worker is a productive worker.

Daniel Pink outlines in his book Drive that there are three things that truly matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Additionally, Matt Mullenweg, argues the physical work structure allows the first two to flourish, but too often fails to offer sufficient autonomy.

What is Autonomy?

“Our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment.”

What better way to ignite this than distributed work.

Let’s now breakdown Matt Mullenweg 5 levels of organisation autonomy

  1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine a construction worker, barista, massage therapist, firefighter. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it has turned out they really did.
  2. Level One is where most businesses sit. There’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, but in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency. More often than not, they’ll likely put things off until they’re back in the office. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. You don’t have any special equipment and may have to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often have people in the same building or campus dialling into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.
  3. Level Two is where many companies have found themselves in the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they’ve simply re-creating what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting. Marshall McLuhan talked about new digital mechanisms initially copying the activities from the previous generation media before. You’re probably able to access information from afar. You’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been cancelled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity. That’s the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also: Don’t stop at level two!
  4. At Level Three, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people invest in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success, and you start looking for great writers in your hiring. When you are on a Zoom, you often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so you can take and check real-time notes together. Your company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world, you plan meetups so teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.
  5. Level Four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. 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. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.
  6. Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an idea that’s not wholly attainable — and that’s level five, Nirvana! This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun.

Matt Mullenweg, 2020

Will distributed work actually work for my organisation?

You may have previously said that distributed work would not work for your organisation, but what if I said you were most likely working remotely prior to COVID without realising it. Yup, you are working remotely effectively and you may have no idea. If you don’t have a Marketing, Accounting or Legal department inhouse, no doubt you are outsourcing eg. working remotely. Yet we don’t think twice about this. On the flip side, when we lose the oversight of a staff member we feel uneasy.

Why do we trust external organisations or contractors over our own staff? 

What do you think happens to company culture when employees don’t feel trusted to do their jobs?

Is this a healthy business model? So, how can we expand upon this?

How does your organisation track performance?

  1. Time in the office looking busy?
  2. Work output?

You don’t lose oversight within a distributed organisation, in fact, it shifts to a more productive measurable model – away from intangible (time in office) to tangible (work output).

The sad truth is the physical structure of work allows people to fall under the radar because if we see them at work looking busy, we wouldn’t necessarily question productivity or output. They may even escape being identified for months just doing the bare minimum.

However, when thrown into a distributed working environment it becomes quickly evident when someone is not pulling their weight.

For example when they don’t deliver on what was agreed upon.

On top of this from a management standpoint, staff are less likely to be micromanaged and continuously interrupted with pointless inefficiencies.

With a distributed workforce it is no longer a short walk to a desk for a casual chat. The managers now have to schedule a chat which should ensure they have a true purpose for touching base (with possibly an outlined agenda) vs a casual conversation pulling you away from the flow of productivity.

Cost Saving

A distributed workforce is not just an advantage from a productivity perspective, but also a financial cost-saving one. Companies no longer have to accept the massive capex and opex burden for large commercial spaces, fitting out costs, maintenance and monthly bills (e.g power, supplies etc). Just imagine what that reallocated budget could do in profit centres such as sales or R&D? This is not to say the office space, in general, is fully redundant. But it will no longer be a business necessity. I will discuss the future of workspaces in another blog post because this is an exciting topic 😉

Win-Win

A distributed workforce is truly a win-win situation as it also offers the staff the autonomy or flexibility to optimise their work-life balance which is one of the biggest contributors to stress and poor mental health.

An organisation is formed from individuals coming together, with no one member of the staff being the same. By forcing everyone to conform themselves to one workplace model while expecting high levels of productivity, you will naturally see organisational culture and engagement negatively affected.

Let’s look at this from another perspective. All of us have lived in a shared space with others at one point, whether with family members, friends or a partner. A successful situation requires a certain amount of compromise within the relationship to find a happy balance for communal living. This is tough enough within one household, but trying to find mutual ground for 50,100, 1000 staff members all with different roles, demands and preferences, GOOD LUCK!!

From the AC (too hot to too cold) to overhead lights (too bright or not bright enough); from the variance in alertness and productivity windows (Early bird vs Night owl) and workspace layout (open floor through to the private office). On a daily basis, we risk falling into the time-wasting, challenging conversations around who is the lucky one with the corner office or the desk with a view, best airflow, best temperature, location…. you get the point. This list seems endless.

Wouldn’t it be better to avoid these difficult awkward conversations altogether, while allowing people to maximise their own environments and attain higher productivity and happiness?

Next Step’s

You’re no doubt thinking this sounds too good to be true, but it is not. If executed correctly, this is as drastic a change as it gets for an organisation. With COVID-19, we have all been forced to take the plunge into the deep end without a systematic approach and while some of this change management process has been thrust upon us, why not take it for an extended test run?

Yes, it will involve some inevitable fires to be put out as we scramble to figure out this new digital business landscape of distributed work, video calls, collaborative software.

However, with no choice at the moment there is no better time for you and your staff to work through all the kinks with flipping the paradigm.

Keep in mind this. For most organisations, you’ll be functioning at Mullenweg’s Level 1 and 2 of a distributed workforce due to the nature of New Zealand’s COVID-19 response. But the longer you work though these kinks and view it as an opportunity, you will progress into level 3 and above. This is where the true magic begins while removing any shackles that may be holding your business back from rapid recovery and growth.

As I discuss with all my executive clients, it will not be easy. However, Taylored and the team is here to help guide you throughout this challenging situation. If you need support in adaption or just want to run something by us, please get in touch.

In the meantime, we will keep blog posts coming highlighting important considerations to help guide you through this transformative time.