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 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.
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.
(*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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.’
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.
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.
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:
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.