Distributed Work – Distributed work describes a workforce that reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is dispersed, this could be in different buildings in the same city or geographically spread out over a country or internationally. 

With the lock-down and social distancing causing people to work remotely, you would expect productivity to slow down. However, many organisations are experiencing an increase in efficiency, as staff no longer have the stress, time, cost or need to commute. In addition, they don’t have the distractions of office life with an opportunity to create a workday that suits them and their family and factoring in their productivity peaks. This could be the start 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 and Salesforce, to name three.

In a recent podcast, Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic talked about his theory of the five different levels of distributed teams. What gives some credence to Matt’s views is that Automattic is a distributed company

Automattic is the company behind WordPress, the software that powers 35% of all websites. The company is worth $3bn and has 1,170 employees in 75 countries and has no office. All employees collaborate remotely. 

Firstly, why “Distributed” and not “Remote”? Matt’s view is that ‘Remote’ indicates that there is still a central office or hub where people work. In Matt’s model, work is not a place.

Let’s look at the five levels;-

Level 1 – Non-Deliberate Action

For level 1 organisations, any remote working was ad-hoc. Staff left ‘Out of Office’ messages on their email if they left the office for more than a couple of hours, apologising for not being able to respond quickly.  Staff had a Smartphone and a laptop and could access email via RAS and VPN and join conference calls by telephone. Employees would postpone actions until they were back in the office.

This state was where the majority of organisations were before the Covid-19 lockdown.

Level 2 – Recreating the Office On-Line

Level 2 is where most organisations are now, post Covid lock-down.

Level 2 organisations replicate offices, but don’t take advantage of the new medium. Instead of meetings in a room, they have videoconferences on Zoom or Teams. They may well have instant messaging like Jabber, Skype or Slack, but they follow most of the bad behaviours from a traditional office.  Examples would be a Zoom conference with 10 people attending when 2 would suffice. Staff continue to check for emails every few minutes, racing to be the first to respond to emails that are usually cc’d into as many people as they can think of.

The other tell-tale sign of a Level 2 organisation is the expectation that employees will be on-line from 9:00 to 5:00. Some organisations will even resort to monitoring when staff log on and log off, or Instant Messaging availability monitoring. 

Mullenweg considers this level as similar to the way that radio drama moved to the new radio industry in the 1930s. Adapting the content to the new medium consisted of acting out plays around a microphone as if it replaced the theatre audience. They did not consider how they could use the new radio medium, how they could create a whole world through sound. It took a new generation without the traditional preconceptions to create the kind of entertainment that drew in millions for each show.

Fast forward to the 1980’s. The start of the Digital Transformation project era began. Instead of designing new processes that could take advantage of the technology, they copied the paper-based systems with all their faults and redundancies. After spending millions without the expected benefits, there were many heated boardroom discussions.

If you’re at Level 2, you still have a long way to go.

Level 3: Adapting to the medium

Organisations at Level 3 are starting to take advantage of Distribute Teams and adapt. Typically, organisations at this level will start to use shared documents, like Google Docs which are visible to all and updated in real-time during a discussion. This provides staff with a shared understanding of the discussion and decisions eliminating any misunderstandings of actions and time wasted in the communications latency or miss-direction.

At level 3, users and organisations start to invest in better microphones, better lighting and training for users to improve the quality of the communications. Organisations at this level will not have staff shouting at their laptops during calls or conducting video calls with a backdrop of a sunny window making the caller a very dark shadow on the screen. The improvement in communications quality makes the engagement between users more ‘real’. 

A level 3 organisation will discourage ‘jumping on calls’ or rapid ad-hoc meetings and encourage more written communications. This means that staff may need to improve their  effective written communication as it becomes more and more critical. Interestingly, as most of Automattic’s communications is text-based, demonstrating that articulate and timely articulation becomes key, most of the company’s employee hiring is performed via text as opposed to phone or video calls.

Level 3 organisations , tend to have the following meeting rules:

  • Meetings should only be held if it is absolutely necessary. Meetings should only be held if a quick ad-hoc conversation, phone call, email, text or instant message cannot achieve the same result.
  • All meetings should be 15 minutes long by default. Longer meetings should be discouraged. The shorter the meeting, the more succinct you will have to be and the less time there will be for small talk and rambling.
  • All meetings must have an agenda and goal before the meeting commences.
  • Only attendees who must be there, should be invited. Avoid inviting anyone just for information or who could be optional. Most meetings will tend to consist of two people with the occasional meeting having three attendees.
  • The meeting should set the actions from the meeting, responsibility for completion of those actions and dates for completion.
  • Meetings should never be used for information dissemination. This is the role of email.

Level 4: Asynchronous Communication

Level 4 organisations understand that most communications do not require an immediate response. This is asynchronous communication. Responses should be made when appropriate from the point of view of the responder.

There is an old story of a farmer in the Dales leaning on his gate taking in the air as two walkers came near. As they approached, the farmer’s telephone started to ring, he didn’t move. The city dwellers asked if he could hear the phone ringing. He responded that yes, he could hear it ringing, but he paid for the phone installation for his benefit, not the person calling and he’s answer it when he felt like it.  The walkers, like most people, jump to answer the ringing phone like a Paplov’s dog reaction. A Level 4 organisation will discourage this behaviour.

If something is really urgent, then the mode of communication should reflect that. Pick up the phone, give the person an electronic nudge, or try multiple communication methods, but only if it is truly urgent.

What the benefit, apart from the obvious benefit of giving knowledge workers time to think, create and get into the ‘flow’ state. According to McKinsey, the ‘flow’ state is a psychological state whereby we are up to five times more productive. In addition, asynchronous communication predisposes people to making better decisions. If you want to cut emotion out of the equation, increase your response time. Giving people time to think between question and response, rather than fall victim to blurting out the first thing that comes to mind in a meeting or when tapped on the shoulders, delivers a compound benefit to the organisation over time.

In order to avoid the ping pong of messages and duplication of effort, ensure that you adopt an asynchronous message culture. You should aim to:

  • provide sufficient background detail, where necessary provide clear action item(s) and outcome(s) required.
  • provide a due date/time.
  • if the recipient is unable to meet your requirements, give them a route to resolve.

For example:

Dear Jane,

I have attached the contract for the new video conferencing service.

Please sign the document where requested and send it back to me by 5 pm this Thursday.

If you have any concerns, give me a call on 07557 123456.

Companies that truly practice asynchronous communication have stepped out of the industrial revolution, and no longer equate presence with productivity, or hours with output, as one might on the factory floor. Measurement of success is against outcomes as defined by the management. 

Mullenweg points out that globally distributed teams, who work asynchronously, and master the ‘passing the baton’ method of working, can get three times more done than a local team relying on everybody to be in an office between 9am and 5pm.

Mullenweg argues that they get an order of magnitude more done than a centralised company characterised by real-time and over-communication, as well as consensus-seeking meetings with everybody including the office dog present.

The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health conducted research on people’s effectiveness over the time of day and confirmed that the research sample tended to group individuals into two groups; Night Owls and Larks. Each individual had MRI scans between 6:30 and 23:00 to test how alert they were and their ability to perform mental tasks. Those that were Night Owls had a peak of performance at 20:00. Those that identified at as Larks, were significantly better performers in the morning.  

Asynchronous companies give Night Owls more flexibility to start their day later, or Larks the opportunity to start work earlier, so long as there is a workable overlap between them and their colleague’s day.

Mullenweg says his own company, Automattic, is at Level 4.

Level 5: ‘Nirvana’

This is the ultimate goal. Once you’ve reached level 5, you could (or should!) be doing better work than any in-person organisation. The fun side about level 5, according to Matt, is that you’re able to incorporate things in your day that you wouldn’t usually be able to in the office because they would be socially awkward or impossible.

Think, for instance, of doing 20 squads and push-ups in-between meetings. Or some dancing. Be on a treadmill desk. But also, on a slightly more serious note, things like picking your kids up from school without it feeling uncomfortable (when schools were still open of course). Whatever it is you’re doing during your workday; your colleagues have no idea because you’re still producing.

When an organisation operates at this higher level, people bring their best selves to work, their most creative work, their most productive time of the day, etc. In this phase, you stop indexing on time spent on the desk. Instead, you start focusing on the output which is a very different orientation than in a ‘normal’ office.

This is where your distributed team works better than any in-person team ever could. Mullenweg equates this level with having more emphasis on ‘environment design’, insofar as the organisation’s culture, and the physical environment people work in is concerned.

What are the downsides?

Of course, there are pros and cons with most decisions. Three big issues that face newly dispersed teams, and how to counter them, can be found below:

Team bonding and building

Instead of telling their employees to be at the office 11 months a year, and have 4 weeks off, Automattic flips the script. Employees have 11 months of remote work a year and have to make time to travel for up to 4 weeks a year for team bonding and building events.

They also make use of custom-built apps which keep track of who has met who, and then assign seats, say at a dinner party, so that people sit with people they’ve not yet met before.

Osmotic and office communication

With everybody working online, you miss out on watercooler conversations, overhearing other people say something that you can help with, or just having a general awareness of your team’s activities by virtue of being within earshot of discussions.

To counter this, Automattic use a WordPress plugin called P2, which acts as an internal blog, and a place where an incredible amount of conversation and activity is chronicled and captured.

Security

Mullenweg points to endpoint security —computer networks that are remotely bridged to client devices — and used for BYOD such as laptops and smartphones.

The alternative — being inside the office wall, as Mullenweg says —essentially becomes a single point of failure, and compromises depth in defence. To counter this, a ‘Zero Trust’ architecture can be deployed. Access to company data is based on location, identity and device rather than connectivity to the corporate network. Whilst this can provide access control, greater emphasis is needed to be protecting against malicious behaviours. With over 70% of IT hacks using social engineering to get inside, it is the greater danger.

Summary

The concept of Distributed Working is not new, It was esponsed in the 17th century by the Hudson Bay Company, however this was purely based on Trust and Control as the technology was resticted to paper and post overseas. With the technological advances offered by the internet and computing power, the Trust and Control elements can be downscaled substantially. It means that these elements can be contained within normal business practice. Therefore, we have a business model spanning nearly 400 years with sucessful companies as examples. Why don’t more companies follow the model? Is it because managers dont trust their employees? Do managers feel more empowered with staff around them? Whilst there will be some of this, I doubt if it will be the cause of a significant proportion of managerial styles.

A more significant reason for the lack of distibuted teams is the stong belief in teams. We learn from a young age that a team needs to be physically together, whether that is on the football field, in an army platoon or part of a musical ensemble. The idea of a team being dispersed is alien to a lot of our culture. Perhaps the impact of Covid-19 will change minds, but it is likely that whilst some elements may get adopted, it may take a number of years of lock-downs to impact our culture significantly for distibuted working to become the normal way of working.

Post expires at 11:44pm on Sunday November 29th, 2020

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