The Remote Revolution: Are We Reaching The Tipping Point?

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- 6 min read

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.

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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.”

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.

Communicate differently

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.

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.

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’?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your predictions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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