Remote work is poorly understood and for good reason. What most people have experienced is merely being “allowed” to work remotely on occasion, having to stay home with someone sick in the family, logging in while traveling or waiting for the cable guy to install internet.

While I am a fan of remote working I am not sure that most companies realize that experimenting with remote work until the end of the covid-19 crisis is a free strategy option. I’ll detail more of what I mean at the end, but first its worth helping you reframe how you think about remote work.

Over the last ten years many “remote-first” companies have been rethinking how work should get done and have discovered that to truly thrive as a distributed, remote organization there is an inevitable learning curve that one must progress.

Matt Mullenweg has been one of the biggest proponents of this way of working and is the CEO of Automattic, which employs more than 1,000 people “in 75 countries speaking 93 different language.”

In a podcast with Sam Harris he outlined his “five levels of remote work” which I thought was the best explanation of some of the subtle differences of remote work I’ve head.

Five levels of remote work by Matt Mullenweg and Automattic

Remote Work 101

Most people are familiar with the experience of level 1 or level 2 remote work. During the covid-19 crisis many employees are finding themselves in a “copy the office” experience of remote work still being available during the same hours they would in an office.

Level 1 – Emergency

Working from home is not easy, but possible. If you have to.

  • Basics: Have internet, cell phone, some way to access email
  • Work if possible: Usually can put things off until back in office because that’s how most people work
  • Mindset: “we don’t know what employees are doing” therefore you want to minimize the ability for people to work remotely or flexibly as much as possible

Level 2 – Copy The Office

In level two, companies have better tools and access to working remotely, but it is still mostly for people who have an excuse. In this scenario, the company is still designed to operate around an in-person dynamic and people who are working remotely are expected to follow similar hours and procedures as everyone else. At this level if someone starts working remotely full-time it is often with the understanding that the person will be harming their long-term career prospects.

  • Language: outdated terms like “telecommute”
  • Requirements: Need to be able to access things from the office
  • Default mode: synchronous; Copying “office hours” 8am-5pm; factory model for knowledge work
  • Pitfalls: More tracking, screenshots of screens
  • Challenges for workers: removing some freedom & agency, may end up being even less productive

Transition

The Covid-19 crisis forced many companies to adopt remote work quickly.

While many companies are “level-three ready” they have not spent much time operating in a truly remote fashion. However, the last three years saw many companies adopt a new stack of tools such as slack, teams, gsuite, zoom, and other live collaboration tools that have made it much easier to work remotely and in new ways.

Despite this, most companies that decide to start working remotely will do an awkward dance between levels 2 and 3, using new tools but making them morph into the office-first company culture.

Level 3 – Virtual Tools

In this phase people start adjusting to working remotely for more than a couple days. They typically upgrade their equipment, create a space at home for working, have a basic familiarity with the video and collaboration apps, but still mostly work in similar ways as if they are in the office.

This is copy the office with a bit more experimentation:

  • Technology: Share screens quickly (desktop & mobile). People start to invest in better equipment: microphones, lighting, screens, ergonomics
  • Unlocked modes: Collaborative work via video calls; live note taking for shared understanding
  • New SkillsCompanies start to realize that writing is vital. They start investing and recruiting for written communication – clarity, quality & skill becomes more and more valuable

This transition stage also surfaces a lot of challenges. People who are used to working in the “old way” reject many of the new approaches and declare remote working a failure. They may push for abandoning the experiment because its easier than than feeling uncomfortable.

Teams also find that doing things the “old way” just doesn’t work. The more capable teams start working in new ways, rethinking meeting, using video when appropriate and defaulting to longform over quick IMs.

Real Remote Work

Once companies get use to working remotely and the kinks are worked out they can start shifting to unleashing the power of remote work.

This is when things start getting interesting. As Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Doist, has said:

“Remote first isn’t the same as remote friendly or ability to work from home. Remote first is a whole new way to organize companies.

Level 4 – “Asynch”

This means new ways of decision making, communicating, developing trust, leadership, and recruiting and to do this with 4,000 people during an economic crisis carries a certain amount of risk. However, I think the alternative is more certain and caps any possibility. This is why I think going-remote will remain a “free strategy move” for the coming months.

This is why people are so excited about remote work. If companies are going to stay at level 3 there is not a ton of value in long-term remote working other than flexibility.

  • Realization: You can’t track when people work so you shift to judging on what they produce. This makes people assess meetings and realize that “most meetings are terrible.” Eliminate many status updates meetings.
  • Requirements: Need to develop capacity for handoffs, especially between time zones. Quality of handoffs should be valued over speed.
  • Unlocked: Can start hiring & operating globally and do work at all hours
  • Challenges: Use of writing and multiple time zones makes decision making harder and longer, but often results in better decisions.
  • Space for New Types Of Workers: Introverted and non-neuroptypical types become more valuable for remote companies and they can hire great people that in-office companies don’t value. space for introverts, people that like space for thinking

Letting People Design Their Lives

The real magic of remote work is when you can start working asynchronously and give more autonomy to workers to let them decide when to work and how to operate within their teams. This takes a tremendous amount of trust but often creates a better relationship with work for not only junior level employees, but the senior level employees as well.

Level 5 – Nirvana

This is more of a “true north” than day-to-day reality, but Mullenwieg sees this as one of the great things about working remotely – its ability to unlock more freedom for employees

  • Employees can design day around health, wellness, well-being. Able to operate around peak creativity, daycare, parenting, health, gym etc..
  • Challenges: People often struggle with unlimited freedom and often end up overworking
  • Goals: Striving for an “idea meritocracy,” where best ideas, projects and contributions are elevated throughout the company

As Gumroad’s Sahil Lavingia has discovered in his own company:

People build their work around their life, not the other way around. This is especially great for new parents, but everyone benefits from being able to structure their days to maximize their happiness and productivity.

Developing A Capacity For Remote Work Is The Greatest Strategic Advantage

Right now there is a huge opportunity for forward-looking companies. Because most companies are struggling, making bold bets doesn’t carry the potential downsides it might in regular times.

Going remote is a strong strategic play because it removes the guaranteed uncertainty of navigating the ever-changing guidelines and information on “returning to work.” Companies have two options:

  • Option A: Follow everyone else and have guaranteed uncertainty of “returning to work”
  • Option B: Go remote, remove the guaranteed uncertainty of “returning to work” and build a capability that will enable you to attract new talent and build a gap between you and your competitors. This move is inherently uncertain, but in the positive direction.

We’ve been operating companies for the past ten years as if the internet does not exist. 

In the last five years the tools we have are more than good enough and there are no good excuses for using remote work to build more agile and adaptive capacity within your organization. Business leaders are often worried about their own careers and getting fired if things go wrong. Right now, that may happen anyway, and going remote in the next six months is a lot more fun from a business challenge standpoint than navigating the guaranteed uncertainty of this pandemic.

If six months down the road, it looks like it won’t work with your company? You can get back in the same boat with everyone else.



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