The Remote Revolution: Are We Reaching The Tipping Point?
In the last few weeks, companies have begun to embrace the new workplace reality. The likes of Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Upwork, and Coinbase have all communicated lasting changes as a result of COVID-19. But most companies are still new to distributed teams and working from home. Let's look at those using these practices before the pandemic hit. Let's learn - once again - from the pioneers.
During our visits to >100 of the world's most progressive companies, we learned a lot about workplace flexibility and remote work. It was common to see work environments based on freedom and trust. They had replaced the 9-to-5 hours, time clocks and obligatory office presence with higher engagement, productivity and…more fun.
However shitty the coronavirus pandemic, one positive side effect is that more companies see the chance to transform. And a well-needed reform, I say. For many, working from home was never an option before. Research by Eurostat shows that “5.4% of employed persons in the European Union aged 15-64, usually worked from home. This has been constant around 5% for a decade.” And those working from home occasionally has risen slowly, from “6.0% in 2009 to 9.0% in 2019.”
The early adopters
Jack Dorsey, CEO of both Twitter and Square, announced recently that employees can now work from home indefinitely. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke announced working from home as the new normal. On Twitter he wrote: “As of today, Shopify is a digital-by-default company. We will keep our offices closed until 2021 so that we can rework them for this new reality. And after that, most will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.”
Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke: "As of today, Shopify is a digital-by-default company. We will keep our offices closed until 2021 so that we can rework them for this new reality. [...] Office centricity is over."
Hayden Brown, CEO of freelancing platform Upwork, announced a similar change. She tweeted: “Building on our 20 years of experience as a remote work company, we are now permanently embracing a ‘remote-first’ model. Going forward, working remotely will be the default for everyone, while teams will be able to come together, once it's safe, for intentional collaboration and socialization. The #futureofwork is here.”
It’s great companies are using the crisis to reinvent their way of working.
“Told you so”
For more progressive companies this might feel like an “I told you so” moment. Companies like Patagonia, Wilding Shoes, BvdV, Basecamp, Automattic, Buffer, Versa and the Belgian Ministry of Social Security have for years stressed how flexible, distributed work arrangements help them create more engaging, productive and healthy workplaces.
Many more will follow. To support the recent adopters of the new reality, let’s see what progressive firms learned about distributed work.
Adjusting communication practices is a priority. Don’t take all the bad stuff from office work (like endless meetings, continuous interruptions) and move them online! Instead, reinvent the way you communicate.
Adjusting communication practices is a priority. Don’t take all the bad stuff from office work (like endless meetings, continuous interruptions) and move them online!
A must-read is how Basecamp does internal communication: The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication.
Here’s a few of their sparks of wisdom:
- Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.
- Meetings are the last resort, not the first option.
- Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.
- If your words can be perceived in different ways, they'll be understood in the way which does the most harm.
- Never expect or require someone to get back to you immediately unless it’s a true emergency. The expectation of immediate response is toxic.
- Write at the right time. Sharing something at 5pm may keep someone at work longer. You may have some spare time on a Sunday afternoon to write something, but putting it out there on Sunday may pull people back into work on the weekends. Early Monday morning communication may be buried by other things. There may not be a perfect time, but there's certainly a wrong time. Keep that in mind when you hit send.
Overhaul the office
In many companies, the physical office will continue to play an important role. Most likely, though, it will look very different. Instead of open office plans that continue to frustrate employees, progressive companies overhaul the office. It becomes a meeting place for occasional collaboration and creative sessions—a welcome change from the loneliness and, for some, lack of social connection in the home office.
Take for example the Belgian Ministry of Social Security. 1,000 civil servants work whenever and wherever they want. The office has become a meeting place and boasts features of activity-based working. It has focus areas, collaboration rooms, phone booths and social spaces. There’s no need for fixed desks.
On average, ~10% of staff are in the office in non-corona times. Former director Frank van Massenhove told us: “Of the 92 percent of civil servants who can ‘roam’ freely, around 69 percent prefer to work mainly from home. The remainder come to the office as usual. […] Many come because it is a nice place to work and to meet up.” The change has not only contributed to more diversity and higher engagement, it also saves millions a year in office rent.
In short: overhaul the office and reinvent the use of office space.
Give heaps of freedom AND responsibility
I’ve saved the best for last. This one is vital to almost all types of work, and especially remote work. Let go of traditional control mechanisms. Ditch the timeclock, stop spying on staff, and give up the 9-to-5 workday.
But be aware, it’s not only about giving loads of freedom. It’s also about handing over responsibility. It’s a combination that works wonders.
Be aware, it’s not only about giving employees loads of freedom. It’s also about handing over responsibility. It’s a combination that works wonders.
It is why progressive companies focus on evaluating results based on outcomes, not hours in the office. They no longer micromanage.
It’s a vital ingredient in an engaging workplace. It takes getting used to. But once it works, it’s like Asterix’s magic potion.
Revolution is coming
The remote work revolution is coming. Pioneers have paved the way. Early adopters are making bold and powerful adjustments. The question is: When will the early majority catch up? It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
Will the pandemic trigger remote work as the new normal? Will it push more companies to change? Will this movement finally ‘cross the chasm’?
Will the pandemic trigger remote work as the new normal? Will it push more companies to change? Will this movement ‘cross the chasm’?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your predictions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
'Flexibility and responsibility'... Yes, absolutely. Therefore, I would be curious to know how those pioneers companies have been supporting their employees dealing with for instance overengagement and overtime. For some, the routine of the office life helped maintain high productivity and sanity. I guess, there is no one size fits all. How can companies help all find their best ways of engaging and contributing?
Here's a good example of dealing with 'overengagement': https://corporate-rebels.com/why-we-have-to-tell-our-people-to-stop-working/
What does it do for the power in the organisation that we work from home?. When the leader is not able to see the team and go talk to the team, how does the leader then lead?, some of the newer cases of companies with low / no hierarchy have replaced this with a story telling of "who we are" and "what values we live by" and in this way converting the structural power (the hierarchy) in to a discursive power. How does companies that want to go "true digital / remote" handle the issue of power and leadership? - any good cases?
Food for thought. Remote revolution will go deeper. Now company are just doing baby steps on how to use digital technology . Next it will be around how do we use smart collaboration to hack the culture, how our processes will become more effective and last but not least where we should rely on ecosystems. Failing to embrace permanent working will only increase admin costs - sites, utlities, management layers... more to come for the new smart enterprise
Thanks for this article.
About 2 months ago, when I had been sent home, together with many of my co-workers, to work on remote du to Covid-19 crisis, I wrote this article about Remote Work, Crossing the Chasm and the Sense of Urgency: https://itsyourturnblog.com/a-sense-of-urgency-to-cross-the-chasm-75ebef60bc12
At this time, I was pretty sure Remote Work had crossed the Chasm in several weeks only.
Two months later, I am not so sure anymore and I fully agree with your post. It is gaining traction. And the way we will work in the future is still to be defined. Right now, it seems that the main victim will be the travels. We will come back into the building but will potentially replace travely by conference calls. let's see what will happen.
I am convinced there are many benefits to working remotely and preferring outcomes over spent office-time would be testimony of a grown-up mind-set of the employer. However, I somewhat miss the critical reflection in this article: we cannot assume that everybody has the proper space to work from home (a separate room that can be used as office would be the minimum, but is that available to every employee, especially in cramped cities where housing costs can be gigantic). As employer, how do you deal with that? And what if remote-working-as-policy is mainly an excuse for the company to cut costs? It means they are not doing it for the right reasons, which is bound to be problematic.
And for me, personally, a combination of remote and live meetings is the best. There's advantages sure, I`ll be the last one to deny that having worked at an international level and at a distance for many many years already, but the screen in the end also poses a barrier to feeling the dynamic and emotional mindset of the others in the meeting, which remains an important element of building a relationship with them (which in turn is important for work to get done and, not to forget, it contributes to the pleasure I have in my work).
All around me I see people's front gardens and paid-for parking spaces taken up with the company van. I always wonder if they charge rent for that space?
It seems to me there is a similar challenge in re-locating workstations to home.
How do the firms you mention help remote-working colleagues to work well from home? Its all very well saving $$$ on office rent, but that desk, the computer screens etc need to go somewhere - they go home. In other words, is the employee paying the rent instead?
Don't get me wrong, I'm by no means against remote working. I just think we should remember that there may be costs as well as gains, and they should be shared fairly.
It's interesting to mull over this right now. What's been missing from the speedy rush to work from home is the infrastructure to back it up. With schools and nurseries closed, the childcare and working from home has fallen majorly onto women (see the Fawcett Society's latest report on this). For those people who don't earn enough to have great wifi and equipment, a spare room to work in, work stress has piled up. Without the support and infrastructure to work from home, things may not change for many people for quite some time post-lockdown. My hope is that a lot of companies will have 'seen the light' during this time so that they understand more that happy workers equals profits for them so more understanding and support is needed, even if it's just the option to work from home two days a week as well as a lot less meetings.
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More and more is being written about self-managing and decentralised ways of working, with organisations like Haier and Buurtzorg capturing the attention of management and business thinkers the world over. However, most (if not all) of the focus in these case studies tends to be on structures and processes. Don’t get me wrong, structures and processes are extremely important. But they are not enough if we truly want our organisations to shift.