Back to Insights
Damien Szwarc

Remote Work: Setting Your Business Up For Long-Term Success

Distributed working as a vital part of business is one of the most profound changes the corporate world has seen.

Remote Work: Setting Your Business Up For Long-Term Success

In this rapidly shifting period, the emergence of remote and distributed working as a vital part of business continuity is arguably one of the most profound changes the corporate world has ever seen - one that is likely to stay to survive the post-pandemic world.

On a global scale, COVID-19 has impacted ways of working for nearly all industries. For most, the changes are significant and will endure past the pandemic. We have observed, in a short time, that those corporates who are willing to ‘swim’ (or at least learn to) by adapting their ways of working will be far more likely to survive. Those that ‘sink’ and refuse to accept the emerging new norms, will undoubtedly find themselves at greater risk. Yes, this metaphor may sound ominous, but has never been so true for organisations wishing to survive (or even thrive) at this time. This is why we have synthesised a number of best practices and created the Four Level Remote Working Scale - to protect your business now, and see it adapt for the future.

The Four Level Remote Working Scale

The Remote Working Scale is designed to help you determine whether your organisation is likely to sink, swim or ride the wave to shore when it comes to thriving in remote or distributed working. Using this model you can determine where your team stands, what your ambition level for distributed work could be, and the ways to propel your team successfully into more productive and collaborative ways of working.

To be clear, we distinguish between “remote” working and “distributed” working. Remote working can be defined as office-centric practices, policies and guides that allow for employees to complete their work ad hoc outside of the office (perhaps an employee is remote working from time to time). Distributed working however is a concept where, by default, the team is spread out beyond the office; distributed perhaps around the globe. With distributed working culture, organisations expect teams to work as collaboratively (or more so) when their choice of location rather than in the central office.

The model takes into account 4 key areas that we have seen to be necessary to move to the most effective distributed work:

  • Organisational policies
  • Guides on remote ways of working
  • Tools and applications
  • Day-to-day processes

For most, this article might just scrape the tip of the iceberg by opening up your world to the possibilities distributed working at scale. For those teams who are more experienced in this space, you might gather a tip or two to improve your team’s current productivity and culture state. Ultimately, it’s up to you how appropriate each stage of the scale is for your company.

Where do you sit?
Where do you sit?

(*Note that the scale is made up of 4 levels; however, there is a “level 0” which alludes to an organisation that is purely office-centric. To keep this article shorter and simpler, let’s assume that your corporate is already beyond being purely office-based and at least beginning to dabble into the remote working world.)

This model has evolved from our work with some of Australia’s most forward-thinking companies and has also been inspired by the works of Mary Meeker (Bond Capital) and Matt Mullenweg (Automattic, founding developer of Wordpress), both of whom are close to trends and best practices in leading tech companies.

Where should I start?

If you operate in an office-centric organisation, you have probably attempted to source and implement a number of tools and tech to help enable your team to replicate the office environment from home. Perhaps your organisation has already been working semi-remotely for a while, and you feel that the current measures you have in place are good enough for effective collaboration and general workplace operations.

Regardless of how sophisticated (or not) your current remote ways of working are, it’s nevertheless useful to identify where you sit within the Four Level Remote Working Scale as a way of identifying opportunities for improving your future ways of working.

Level 1 - Reluctant Flex

Most established corporate businesses including traditional banks, utilities, airlines and customer service organisations would identify as Level 1. At Level 1 we find that ‘being seen’ in the office is still a key driver of perceived productivity. Meetings are in person by default, most employees have their own office desk (with family photos and all that fun stuff) and there are some early tolerances that an employee is “working from home today”.

For those who are able to work remotely at these organisations, it’s usually through a pre-determined arrangement with management that allows for one or maximum two days remote a week; underpinned by a ‘genuine’ reason to need to not be in the office (e.g. I have a young child that my partner can’t look after that day).

The office usually has fixed opening hours and if you’re not in the office it can be “hard to believe” that you’re working.

Risk of operating at level 1

  1. At this level, we observe an innate lack of trust between employees and employers. This is often disempowering for employees and can inhibit productivity through stress caused by peer judgement; “I’m scared of what my boss and others would think of me if i had to leave early to pick-up my kids”.
  2. Everyone works differently. Given that the office is default, there is a need for everyone to have their own desk, space and variable working areas. Businesses are trying to embrace this by providing standing desks, couches, comfier chairs and more inviting environments within the space of the office. In reality, there is never really a  perfect working environment for everyone.
  3. When an external event causes a business to become completely remote, it requires significant effort and change amongst leaders as they try to enable and trust their employees to work outside of the office. The problem for leaders stems from a lack of physical visibility of their staff which has often been a ‘proof-point’ supporting ‘productivity’; “if I can see them at their desk, then they must be working”. To counter this, we’ve seen some Level 1 organisations install measures such as spyware technology in an attempt to oversee their employee’s hours when they are not physically at work. At this level, the trust issues between an individual contributor and management aren’t yet developed, and instead are just temporarily managed, often through classic micromanagement practices.

How to move to the next level

  • Changing the culture around remote working begins with trust. Having faith that your employees will achieve successful business outcomes from home will, in turn, motivate individuals to produce better quality outcomes. If employees can't be trusted to be productive at home, perhaps that is a performance management issue not a remote working issue.
  • Construct a policy articulating that “it is ok” to work at your preferred location, supported by some boundaries around attending important meetings and being contactable via phone, email, text etc.
  • As trust is developed, begin to introduce collaboration tools such as Google Docs, MIcrosoft Teams or Slack and JIRA to give employees line of sight and real-time feedback of current program of work. This measure will also help to ensure that a current POW doesn’t fall apart when employees leave.

Level 2 - Remote Possibilities

At Level 2, many businesses (especially smaller technology and consulting firms) are leading the shift of remote working culture. Whilst not yet implementing distributed working practices, these businesses pride themselves on allowing controlled flexibility. Examples might be; allowing parents to come into work after school drop-off, with meetings still occurring without everyone in the room, or on ‘off days’, employees can freely announce that they are “working from home today” with no questions asked. At this level, employers understand that occasionally people will be working slightly differing hours, whilst only being seen at their office desk occasionally. However, even with this added flexibility, it is still expected that everyone is contactable during business hours and will respond to queries promptly.

Even though organisations are proud to offer ‘flexible working’, at Level 2 the office is still very much the default space for work. The best way to understand the processes and culture instilled in Level 2 is through the notion that the office environment is replicated through remote working. In other words; meetings are still occurring at specific times for specific durations (usually minimum 30 minutes), email is often the primary means of communication, culture-enhancing activities are still conducted on-site and client/customer meetings still occur in person. Essential activities around onboarding, recruitment and operations are also still mandatory to be conducted in the office.

As a means to foster future ways of working, these corporates tend to have ‘hot desking’ or individual seating to accommodate for employees who are mostly in the office. Of course, when an event such as a pandemic occurs, there tends to be scrambling in ‘cleaning out of desks and taking everything home’ this is understandably chaotic for most employees and employers.

Culture and policies supporting ‘remote possibilities’ have begun to open recruitment and retention doors for these organisations. Despite remote possibilities being table stakes (especially as a key driver of recruitment), we also find that these organisations have begun to embrace collaboration tools such as Google Docs (for real-time collaboration), Slack (for communication) Figma (for product design), JIRA (for product management) and more cloud based operational systems such as Aussie Pay, Culture Amp and Xero. As a result, these corporates are beginning to reap the benefits of wider recruitment channels, transparent documentation, communications and cost savings associated with day-to-day manual operations of a full-time office.

Risk of operating at level 2

  1. Replicating the office environment doesn’t really account for employees who do not necessarily do their best work between the hours of 9-5.
  2. Because the office is still the default, employees often feel more ‘seen’ and therefore trusted if they are present in the office. There is still some guilt and uneasiness surrounding the frequency of working remotely.
  3. We start to see some pain-points caused by ambiguous communication and the continuation of ‘unnecessarily long’ meetings as a means to hash out ideas.
  4. There are still many clunky experiences for remote workers - presentations for meetings not sent through in advance, poor collaborative discussions and limited opportunities for “virtual water cooler” conversations that often foster new ideas and relationships.

How to move to the next level

  • Asynchronous communication promotes messaging without the expectation of an immediate response. Begin creating guides and policies supporting asynchronous communication channels and meetings.
  • This means that meetings do not necessarily need to be attended by everyone at a specific time. Rather, have discussions on collaboration channels such as Slack, Miro, Figma, Google Docs to allow for night owls’ and the multitasker to respond when it aligns with their work schedule.
  • The importance of clear communication can be seen as a given, but in reality fails to be executed. Highlight the importance of effective written communication. Perhaps even administer training around building this skill. Precise and condensed written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work.
  • Start embracing more cloud-based operational software.
  • Encourage leadership to champion a culture of trust through empowering remote working employees. Encourage individuals to work autonomously. Have leaders be role models of this behaviour.
  • With greater remote working numbers, there is increased vulnerability of misplaced data and knowledge of employee’s whereabouts, amongst other risks. As Meeker (Bond Capital) explains; “start to consider your current technology and security infrastructures (physical and cyber) to ensure you have the measures in place to protect your people and your data”

Level 3 - Distributed Default

At Level 3, we observe the paradigm changing from remote working policies to distributed working practices. Very few companies are executing successfully at Level 3. Mullenweg’s team at Automattic (creators of WordPress) are a great example. At this level we start to see businesses that are ready for any unplanned environmental, economic and physical changes. Distributed work and asynchronous communication is now the core of the organisational culture, whereby individuals have the freedom to engage from they choose. The distributed working culture emphasises the notion of ‘not coming into the office unless you have to’. Naturally, at this level we start to see huge cost savings on corporations no longer requiring a large centralised office space; including savings on equipment and general expenses (food, alcohol, cleaning etc).  But more importantly, at this level, employees and leaders are fully empowered and trusted to do what it takes to just ‘get the job done’, no matter the location or time it takes to complete the work.

When executed well, at Level 3 we see great employee motivational benefits coming from culture-supporting tools such as Culture Amp, and seamless travel enablers such as Uber Corporate. Real time culture pulse tools will emerge. These sorts of innovative solutions help to support work-related activities and bring people together.

Transparent communication promotes the minimisation of emails. Instead, All-Company meetings become vital for keeping employees informed and connected. These sessions should be short, but should occur often (at least weekly). Importantly, these ‘gatherings’ should not be attended in person; rather they should be delivered and recorded via video (Zoom, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts). For those who choose not to attend live sessions via video, they can watch them in their own time via the company’s internal website, or another easily accessible internal channel.

Speaking of the company’s internal website; we’ve seen this space become imperative for keeping employees up-to-date on culture related activities, company news, hirings, events, meeting recordings and more. These platforms are a worthy investment and can be delivered quite cheaply. But should be a collaborative space where news is shared, not a one way broadcast media tool.

Lastly, for companies to operate successfully at Level 3, there must be open communication channels (email is not considered an open communication channel). With distributed working, all communication should strive to be unambiguous, succinct and clear. Organisations operating at this level will boast that much of their productivity success revolves around beautifully simple communication:

  • What specifically needs to get done?
  • By when is it to be completed?
  • Who needs to review the work when it is done?

Risk of operating at level 3

  1. Given nearly all communication is ‘asynchronous’, employees may often experience a “tennis game” style backwards and forwards of their communication. This will cause an obvious duplication of effort. Imagine: Joe needs a report completed, and requires Lucy’s help to collate it. He directly messages Lucy on Slack asking for her assistance; “Can you please assist me with this report due tomorrow?” Lucy only reads this Slack message later that evening (at a time that suits her) and begins working on the report. In the meantime, after waiting some time for a response from Lucy, Joe, in his angst, decides to complete the report himself. In this case, for urgent tasks, we have observed some wastage.
  2. Given that remote working is default, there is risk that some employees may be left out of meetings/communications that are attended in separate breakout channels (Slack, Skype, phone calls, emails). Not only can this be perceived as exclusionary; leaving employees out of communication channels can also impact motivation and productivity. Transparent communication and open channels begins to be key to productivity maximisation at Level 3.

How to move to the next level

Although both are distributed working cultures, moving to Level 4 is a big jump from Level 3. Level 4 facilitates seamless “globalness” - to operate globally all operational processes need to align and work in harmony.’

  • To solve some of the communication problems, there needs to be policies supporting ‘urgent tasks’, whereby employees have a channel to reach each other if need be.  Urgent task channels must only be used for emergencies or extremely important timely information, and should never be abused.
  • Guides and training modules should exist supporting effective and inclusive communication. Ideally all communication channels should transition to being fully open and transparent. The less ‘breakout conversations’ amongst leaders without the attendance of the wider organisation, the more empowered distributed workers will feel.
  • As we will discuss, Level 4 (also known as the “Distributed Working Nirvana”), completely breaks the shackles of emails and meetings. To operate beyond Level 3, you need to start really questioning meeting formats, policies, trust, standard working hours and recruitment processes.

Level 4 - Distributed Only

At Level 4, distributed working practices are allowing for productivity output beyond anything that could have been realised within the confines of the office.

Motivational speaker, Brian Tracy, says it well; “Perfection is not a destination; it is a continuous journey that never ends”. At Level 4 your team is well on their journey to hit productivity perfection. Like all of the Levels in the Four Level Remote Working Scale, Level 4 is a work-in-progress with customisable tweaks to improve ways of working.

Ultimately however, the true essence of Level 4 is simple and clear.

‘All communication is open, and we just get s*** done’.

Ideally, there are no closed inboxes for emails, minimal 1:1 conversations taking place and all feedback is delivered openly, non-judgmentally, in a completely safe environment for sharing.

Imagine a team that has such psychological safety that they can express themselves freely to each-other with the pure goal of ‘getting better’, ‘doing better’ and ‘achieving better’. For one and for all, Level 4 is a free-flowing fully distributed organisation that is made up of passionate individuals who can absorb openly-expressed constructive criticism, deal with minimal politics, and operate all work processes digitally and collaboratively.

If meetings need to happen, they occur via video, with cameras on. However, as with Level 3, attendance is completely optional (unless in extenuating circumstances or during a very occasional team-offsite gathering). The emphasis of Level 4 is to completely eliminate what we know as ‘meetings’ and instead empower individuals to contribute ideas collaboratively when it best suits them. This culture of work encourages deep thinking, true innovation, high collaboration and employee individuality.

At this level, we see a plethora of cutting-edge productivity tools at play, centred around driving individuality through culture, communication, workshopping, fun and mentorship. These technologies are implemented to support teams that are non-hierarchical, cross-functional and fully flexible. A level 4 organisation will be drawing liberally on the huge amount of emerging tech in the Future of Work - more on that here.

Future of work tools (Credit: Pinverrr)
Future of work tools (Credit: Pinverrr)

When it comes to recruitment, the entire globe is fair-game to organisations operating at Level 4. The beauty of global teams allow for fully diversified cultures, skill-sets and backgrounds, promoting deeper idea sharing and innovation.

This is where work meets a holistic balance.

Risk of operating at level 4

  1. As you might have guessed, all these tools, processes and enablers are underpinned by a shared understanding of the way the organisation operates and communicates. Level 4 maximises comfort, minimises barriers and allows for a seamless adaptation to global or local events (pandemics, wars etc). However, as employees are mostly heard rather than seen, this structure can be taken advantage of by employees who are very good at pretending they are productive by strategically timing their communication, whilst not actually achieving tangible outcomes. It’s important that the recruitment process for organisations that operate at Level 4 is exceptionally stringent to ensure the right people who can operate with this level of agency by promoting transparency from trustworthy and diligent individuals. When interviewing employees via video be very meticulous at observing traits of highly motivated individuals who have a clear history of delivering. Avoid individuals whose experiences are more centred around “people skills”, “assisting”, “being involved in”.
  2. Closely aligned to the issue around employee productivity above, with everybody working online, Mullenweg points out that it’s possible to miss out on “watercooler conversations overhearing other people say something that you can help with”. To counter this, Mellenweg recommends using a Wordpress plugin called P2, which acts as an internal blog, and a place where an incredible amount of conversation can take place.

So where do you stand?

With this Four Level Remote Working Scale it’s now possible to self-diagnose your team. With the risk of further unforeseen world events, and the changes in employee expectations and remote-working technology, productivity out-of-the-office at scale is predicted to become an ever-greater part of corporate discussions in 2020 and beyond.

Shifting your team’s remote working habits does not come easy. As Mary Meeker identified, the main questions you should be considering are:

  • How will you ensure creativity is captured and productivity is maintained?
  • How will you maintain engagement and culture; recruit, train, develop, and retain people?
  • How might you organise and utilise office space, if you still intend on having these? and;
  • How will you ensure adequate security of data and employees given the sudden size of the remote working force?

Irrespective of the level your corporate teams’ remote abilities are today, there is always room to improve. Post COVID-19, becoming a more lean and adaptable organisation with a culture centred around trust can only enable better employee engagement, productivity and operations. Improving ‘out-of-office’ capabilities should no longer just be seen as enabling cost savings, rather it is now also about differentiation and perhaps even survival.

Not all organisations should strive to reach Remote Working Nirvana. For many teams, being fully distributed teams is just not a viable way to run their business. Don’t be afraid to begin implementing your improvements slowly by simply introducing a couple of new processes or tools that help fix some neglected or struggling aspects of your business. Ultimately, it’s your choice and strategies will differ per industry, per business, and per country.

If you want to discuss the model further and better understand where your team fits (and where you could be), feel free to get in touch with us.

Looking to solve big problems? Let’s talk.

Partner With Us

Stay in the loop

Get occasional newsletters about IE’s insights. We won’t spam your inbox.
Thank you! You've now been subscribed.
Something went wrong while submitting the form.
IE recognises the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we work, and we acknowledge those communities' continuing connections to their lands, waters, and cultures. We pay our respects to their Elders past and present.