What this tectonic change in the way we work means for organizations and the principles foundational to success
Over the past years, a fundamental change has happened in the way we work. What started as a "thing" for startups working remotely is now the hard reality any organization faces: the workforce is distributed. In this article, we will discuss this change to distributed work, why we need to rethink the way we organize work, and what principles are forming the fundament for success in this new environment.
Remote work is not a new phenomenon. The idea of not needing to be physically in the office to get one's work done is old. IBM started to experiment with telework all the way back in 1979. The rise of the internet over the past decades, however, has been the factor making the reality of remote work more broadly accessible. And many successful startups and corporations alike have adopted remote work as part of their mode of work for years. Some successful examples are Buffer, Zapier, and Github which have built their entire companies following a remote-first model. Despite the early starts of this change, it has largely remained to be a small phenomenon reserved for a few pioneering organizations open to adopting this new mode of work.
Since the Covid outbreak in early 2020, things have changed drastically. Companies that were used to operating physically were forced to move to a remote-first model overnight. And we have seen organizations cope with this new reality in different ways. Zoom, Slack, Teams, and all sorts of new digital collaboration tools have quickly been the daily reality for most knowledge workers.
After countries and organizations slowly coped with the new reality Covid has brought, new problems emerged. Some of the workers have become accustomed to working from home and no longer want to miss the perks of not commuting, as well as the increased flexibility. The common struggle many organizations and leaders now face is how to get employees back to the office. Despite some companies claiming that productivity of the workforce has increased when moving to work from home, others refute this strongly. Generally, it is clear that the way we collaborate and lead needs to adapt to this reality.
So is the remote-first or physical-only model here to stay? I believe it will be a mix. Neither remote-first nor physical only will be the answer. The consensus seems to be that hybrid models are here to stay where workers can flexibly decide how many days they want to come to the office. Further, because digital collaboration across locations and time zones has become more widely accepted, we will see organizations that have a distributed workforce with talent from different locations and time zones trying to work together effectively. This is what we believe the distributed era of work to be - a mix of physical and virtual work that poses challenges of its own. The biggest of which is orchestrating the contributions across individuals that collaborate across locations - connecting the dots in a disconnected world.
With any change, there is a range of implications we need to watch out for. In a world where the only constant is change, the only response is unquestionably to adjust to the new realities of our environment. Let's consider two key arguments for why we should care about adjusting.
The hard reality is that despite economic conditions changing, talent remains to be the primary factor that drives success in any business. As Millennials and Gen Z arguably value meaning, flexibility and autonomy more than traditional incentives, organizations need to create an environment that attracts that upcoming wave of talent. Inaction will lead to negative long-term consequences.
Next to the argument of attracting talent, distributed work allows for an additional cost argument. If you can now effectively work together with people all over the world, you can better grade talent for less financial resources if you expand the geographic scope of the option pool for talent. This means that you can work with the best people not only in your town or country but all over the world.
If we accept the reality that organizations need to shift towards a distributed work culture, the natural question of its implications arises. From our experience tat TeamTap, there are three principles that need to be mastered to succeed in the distributed era of work.
The first reality is that in a distributed world, the setup of organizations needs to enable a seamless integration of synchronous and asynchronous work. Instruments used for synchronous work are primarily (virtual) meetings as well as fast-paced direct messaging with colleagues. The fairly new component, however, is asynchronous work. Instruments to this are project management tools, and the software powering writing cultures. Despite existing tools like email offering the possibility to be tweaked in ways that allow for this merger, it's important that the culture and mindset of leaders evolve with that change. No longer do the hours spent in the office count as a measure of performance and effort. It is as much true today as it has always been, ultimately, results are the only thing that matter.
In a distributed world of work, things that were once natural to the interactions at work no longer happen. There are no occasional chats at the coffee machine in the office, no casual work banter, or quick chats with colleagues. Despite the nature of these interactions being casual, it has been an important component of keeping individuals aligned to ensure everyone is working towards a common goal. As this no longer happens, it is more important than ever to ensure that the work across individuals is streamlined. The natural response to this is frequently communicating. Despite communication being costly and having meetings frequently to ensure everyone is on the same page not feasible, there are other ways that leaders need to explore to streamline all efforts in the same direction.
Thirdly, managing employees, when they are not in the office every day, is tremendously difficult because many of the accountability mechanisms once worked no longer apply. Despite micromanaging never being a fertile response to ensure accountability, a close connection with managers is important to secure productivity. To embed this inside the new rulebook of distributed work, radical transparency seems to be the key. This means holding your employees accountable on a daily or weekly basis for the things they are doing. Some practices from agile software development have already found their way into the work modes of other teams. But this is likely only the start and not the best response yet. What remains true nonetheless is that transparency fosters accountability so organizations need to find ways to enable higher levels of transparency.
It is no secret to make the prediction that distributed work is here to stay and will shape the next decade of how organizations operate. Being resistant to this change is not the answer. Instead, we need to learn to build our organizations around this new reality we face and ensure that we find ways to integrate the right principles into our work habits. Keys to this are the merger of synchronous and asynchronous work, streamlining contributions across individuals, and enforcing radical transparency yielding greater levels of accountability.
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