Covid-19 suddenly increased attention on remote work, and many employers and local governments are strongly encouraging it. But because remote work is still uncomfortable for some managers, I wanted to share a few thoughts we learned in the past 18 years.
Since our founding in 2002, we have never maintained a physical office. Your work is likely different than mine, but after 18 years, I cannot fathom why I would ever want to go somewhere else to do our kind of work. Whether you call our approach “100% virtual” or a “fully distributed model,” it requires a different approach to collaboration and project management than working in an office setting. (But I think you will find that these same principles could be just as effective in most office settings.)
Admittedly, a sudden switch to telework is jarring for employees who may not have the right technology or a quiet workspace at home. Our team was hired with that expectation, so I’m sorry to say that I have no advice for you there. Of course a little bit of remote work or telework is not unusual. Most of our clients allow people to work from home one or two days a week (telework), and some of our clients allow a few key employees to always work remotely (remote work), but very few of our clients have switched to a fully distributed model, closed their physical office and allowed everyone to work remotely all the time. The ones who did had plenty of time to plan, and it worked quite well. Many employees love the idea. (Back in 2013, Scott Berkun wrote a marvelous book about the company behind WordPress, and their choice to allow employees to work from anywhere in the world. At that time, he could not find very many other companies making the same choice; it would be easier now.)
Three Lessons We Learned from 18 Years of Having No Office
1. Transparency is Systemic, not Personal
Transparency makes remote work effective, but to achieve it, your internal processes need to create the transparency you want; you should not place the burden on your employees to “communicate more.” In our work, we use a Team of Experts approach, so almost everyone in our company is involved with every client project at some point. The work of each of our teams is quite differentiated, and no two projects ever proceed quite the same way (no cookie cutters here). That’s a recipe for chaos without the right process. But even though we are all working remotely, we have far more productivity and transparency with far less chaos than most organizations who maintain an office.
The way we use our technology allows for real time information sharing, while eliminating the need for most status update meetings. (Our spreadsheets are color coded so we can see which team “owns” the task and whether it is on schedule; our key project dates are shared and transparent; and everyone can see what they need to know at a glance. The documents do most of the project management, so we never need to prepare internal status update emails, and rarely need to send reminders to others.)
Although we spend quite a bit of time meeting with clients and collaborating on projects, most of us spend less than 3 hours in routine internal meetings each week, and we rarely interrupt each other with chats, emails and phone calls. Instead, we hold “huddle time” open on our shared calendars for the inevitable last minute project meetings, so scheduling them is quick and easy. As a result, projects move quickly, everyone has ample time to think, and nobody ever stops by our office unannounced to say, “Do you have a minute?” only to take half an hour. Our experience is that we have few impromptu meetings with no agenda, and even our last minute meetings are planned, on our calendars, and have agendas. Whenever the goal of the meeting is unclear, one of us will invariably ask, “What is our goal in this conversation?” or “What documents should I be looking at right now?”
2. Find the Right Tools For the Right Jobs
The key to our effective remote collaboration was finding nearly perfect technology tools, and then adapting our workflows to wisely use the capabilities of the tools. We don’t create custom software to fit our workflows, and we don’t force our teams to use software tools that don’t fit their natural workflow. (This requires lots of experimentation.)
We try hard to standardize on tools, but are flexible. Some of our teams prefer the functionality of Google G Suite, and others prefer the Microsoft Office 365 functionality. So we tried to pick one, but after careful scrutiny and experimentation, we decided to pay for both (collaboration in Google Sheets is straight up amazing.) We love the marvelous functionality of Microsoft Office 365 and in particular Microsoft Teams, but we also adjusted our internal expectations and practices to avoid making the chat feature so distracting. As a result, we eliminated 90% of our internal email traffic, and we can work uninterrupted for long stretches.
When we do introduce new tools to our team, we first think deeply about our information architecture (who needs what information and documents when, who else will collaborate on it, what would the file naming conventions look like, etc.). Admittedly, this is grindingly, in-the-weeds-difficult up front, but that investment pays back enormously over time. The wrong tools and clunky workflows are sand in the gears; we work hard to eliminate that everyday kind of irritation.
The end result of all this attention to workflow is time. Time to think, time to make decisions. Time to “get it right the first time.” (And yes, no time wasted sitting in traffic.) If employees have a quiet place to work at home, their ability to focus on complex tasks can skyrocket – no noisy colleagues talking over the cubicle walls, calling an impromptu meeting to kick around ideas, or stopping at your desk to interrupt you when you’re 5 steps into a complex 8 step process.
For the right person, in the right home environment, the productivity gains can be enormous. Similarly, the flexibility you can offer employees helps people balance work and life. Your people can get errands done when the stores are empty, and jump back online to complete their work later in the day. Many people on our team get the equivalent of 8 hours worth of work completed in the 6 hours between when they put their kids on the school bus and when they get them off the bus. (For a more in-depth perspective on this kind of approach, read “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” by Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.)
3. Managers Will Get More Information, not Less
Some managers feel like they would “lose control” of the work if everyone was remote. In fact, the opposite is far more likely. With the proper tools, managers can see (and measure) almost every aspect of performance, and may need to temper their desire to micro-manage. With some collaboration tools, it can feel like Big Brother and Little Sister are all watching. Employees who are more familiar with a regular office environment can find the increased transparency intimidating, but, with a bit of thought and preparation, you can, quite literally, get everyone on the same page and virtually eliminate the routine employee complaint about “not knowing what is going on.” You can put the right information at everyone’s fingertips, allowing them to learn as much as they’d like to know, without requiring a long memo or an all-hands meeting.
What I love best about not having an office is how productive our meetings have become. When remote employees have meetings, everyone is still “at their desk.” Most of our internal collaborations (huddles and meetings) are “time boxed.” We put time on the calendar, share the same background material and documents, collaborate on the task, make our edits, decide on our next steps, document our decisions, store information about next steps, and when the meeting is concluded, the action items are complete for most of the meeting participants. They can stop thinking about that task, and go focus on something else. When there are action items, it’s quite clear who is responsible for it, when it’s due, and what activity will trigger the next action. Compare that to a typical office, when most people leave their desks, walk to a conference room, talk about work, everyone in the room gathers an ever-growing list to-do items, then they all return to their desk after a lengthy day of 6 or 8 meetings, only to try to remember it all and begin to take action. We’ve eliminated the “trying to remember things” component of work, eliminated the delay getting started, eliminated the back and forth email threads trying to reconfirm the exact commitments, eliminated the need for most reminders and status updates, and avoided the delays caused by forgetfulness and partial communications. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we prefer to operate like, “All’s well that ends.” When the meeting is over, the task is complete.
I’m sorry if your journey into remote work was not of your choosing, but if you look around, you might just find it quite pleasant. I know I do.