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Remote work: this is what the future holds.

Covid currently has a huge impact on the way we design our work. At the moment remote work is the norm and the big question is what work will look like post-Covid. Will we return to the old normal? Or is remote work here to stay as the default? The future will tell, but a hybrid way of working, in which we combine the best of online and physical collaboration seems to be the most likely scenario.

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

My personal interest lies in the way companies will shape hybrid work, where some participants are in the office while others are working from home. This search led me to an interesting model that I want to share with you.

The future of remote work in 1 minute

When it comes to remote work, there are 6 levels an organization can achieve:

  1. Level 0 – Physical presence required. Remote work is not an option due to the nature of the work.
  2. Level 1 – No deliberate effort to facilitate remote work. In emergency situations remote work is possible.
  3. Level 2 – Playing online office. Work takes place remotely, but no improvements have been made compared to working together in the office.
  4. Level 3 – Utilize technical possibilities. Written communication becomes increasingly important.
  5. Level 4 – Asynchronous collaboration. Everyone can work when and where it best suits them.
  6. Level 5 – Nirwana. Remote work is better than would be possible physically.

Covid-19 has made it painfully clear for many organizations that remote work was not so much a matter of not being able but more of not wanting to facilitate it. When climbing the pyramid, it is important to ensure:

  1. Another way of alignment besides meetings.
  2. Another way of managing people.
  3. Focus on personal connection and developing and maintaining your company culture.

Ensure the preconditions are met

Let me be brief about this, as there is another article that fully focuses on this subject. The 3 most important elements of that article are:

  • Take care of the (technical) preconditions, starting with a suitable home office and extending to the right software and training.
  • Prepare even better for online presentations.
  • Make clear agreements. In a remote work setting this is even more important than in a face-to-face situation. Discuss what you can expect from each other.

The 6 levels of remote work

Meeting the requirements mentioned above isn’t rocket science. After all, by now we are all experts at working from home, right? The challenging question is what you are moving towards as an organization. What is the goal you strive for regarding remote work?

Some time ago I came across a model of Matt Mullenberg, the founder of Automattic, the company known among other things for its WordPress service. Automattic has over 1300 employees in over 79 countries and the organization has no office. The model described in the article has thus emerged from the practical implementation of remote work by a real-life company. It’s not just a theoretical model.

The model describes the 6 levels of remote work. In the figure below this model is shown, for which I was inspired by Jitske Kramer’s book Werk heeft het gebouw verlaten (work has left the building).

The 6 levels of remote work

Level 0 – Physical presence required

At the bottom of the pyramid are the professions in which remote work simply is not an option. As a firefighter or plasterer, you work where you’re needed. Don’t be too quick to think that working from home is not an option for you though. Covid-19 made it clear that it was often unwillingness instead of inability that resulted in not facilitating remote work. Take teaching for example, which eventually turned out to be possible remotely. It is true that working from home sometimes requires creative solutions, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

When you want you look opportunities, when you don’t you look for a reason.

Level 1 – No deliberate effort to facilitate remote work

Sure you can access your work e-mail from home, but it is far from optimal. You might have to connect via a slow VPN first or you may not be able to access all the necessary applications to do your work. In short, remote work is not encouraged, but if the need is high, it is possible.

It might be that your organization has other priorities than enabling remote work for its employees. My impression, however, is that this usually has to do with a lack of trust by the company in its employees.

Level 2 – Playing online office

At level 2, the technical preconditions for working from home are in place. It is a pity though that the available software and facilities are only used to replicate the physical office online. What I mean by that is that co-workers still invade your workplace when it suits them. The only difference is that it no longer happens face-to-face. Instead, they have a full arsenal of tools to try and get your attention: Teams or Slack, e-mail, a call, Whatsapp and so on. Apart from the huge decline in productivity as a result of these distractions, it also has a negative effect on general employee satisfaction.

When playing online office, meetings are scheduled with even more carelessness and fewer breaks in between them. Working from home is so great, it gets rid of those ineffective minutes you used to have in between meetings. When making the shift from working in the office to remote work, no meetings got cancelled. That made sense in the short run because there was just so much to take care of. By now, however, the time has come to take a hard look at your agenda and the necessity of every meeting on it. A day filled with meetings nowadays means that employees sit behind their screens all day, while at the same time feeling the need to respond immediately to every sound or flashing icon. This is not sustainable in the long run.

Meetings, they can fill up your day!

The mentality at this level is still from 9 to 5, with some organizations going as far as installing tracking software on laptops or phones to monitor the activities of their employees. Needless to say that this is an absolute no go.

Level 3 – Utilize technical possibilities

Not only are different means of communication available, but they are also actually applied differently. This implies that you respond faster to an instant message on Teams than you do to an e-mail message. You answer phone calls immediately and view messages on Yammer when it suits you. These are just a few examples and the most important thing is to make clear agreements with your co-workers regarding communication.

At the third level, there is a significant change in collaboration. Existing meetings are thoroughly evaluated and people are actively looking for new means of communication. Written communication start taking on a bigger role in the organization, partly due to the decreased tolerance for real-time meetings. These changes often involve more intensive and simultaneous collaboration via tools such as Google docs or Office 365.

Remote work is no longer viewed as a pure necessity, but as a valuable option on the menu of choices. The home office reflects this. In the transition from level 2 to level 3, investments are made in, for example, a decent office chair, an extra monitor or a (noise cancelling) headset.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

Level 4 – Asynchronous collaboration

At level 4 things become very interesting, as many prevailing opinions are let go of. Working asynchronously means that everyone can work at the time that works best for them. That does not mean something like “I work from 8 to 4 today”. No, it means you can truly work at the time when you perform best. Do you feel like working at night? Be my guest.

If you find a way to apply this way of thinking effectively within your organization, it offers a range of new possibilities. Just think of the labour market that opens up to you: time zones are no longer an issue, so you can attract talent from all over the world (this of course doesn’t apply to companies that only focus on their domestic market with its native language). When you are truly working globally it also makes it easier to keep the business running 24/7 without having colleagues working at undesirable times.

When you are working asynchronously there is still a need to coordinate things, so how do you deal with that? After all, everyone can work whenever they want and that might include various time zones as well. One option would be to agree on a specific time of day on which everyone is available for the coordination and transfer of work. By keeping these meetings short, employees gain so much flexibility for shaping their workday. It would be even better though to find other means of communication so that synchronous meetings are required even less. This sounds great, however, at the moment I would not know exactly what that should look like.

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.

Maya Angelou

Level 5 – Nirwana

This level is unattainable in practice; it is that spot on the horizon that you work towards. Nirwana – a fundamental concept in Buddhism that describes the highest state a person can achieve – means that your remote work is better than would ever be physically possible.

You rarely receive e-mails, maybe a few times a month. Instead, other communication channels are used. A lot of attention goes out to the health and wellbeing of employees. The biggest pitfall – and this may come as a surprise – is that people are working too much overtime. Many of us are not used to getting a lot of (or even unlimited) freedom. As a result, they experience a certain amount of pressure and therefore compensate by working more hours.

The 6 levels of remote work summarized

Before going into depth on the 6 levels of the pyramid, let me give a short overview of the levels:

  • Level 0 – Physical presence required
    Working from home is not an option, as your work is location dependent.
  • Level 1 – No deliberate effort to facilitate remote work
    When there is a need for remote work you can, but its very cumbersome.
  • Level 2 – Playing online office
    Work takes place remotely, but no improvements have been made.
  • Level 3 – Utilize technical possibilities
    There are different ways to communicate, each with its own communication channel. Asynchronous work becomes a possibility as written communication plays an increasingly important role.
  • Level 4 – Asynchronous collaboration
    The classic 9 to 5 no longer applies as everyone works in the timeframe that’s best suited for them. There are still plenty of moments for synchronous coordination of work.
  • Level 5 – Nirwana
    It’s the dot on the horizon, where you achieve more remotely than you even deemed possible physically.

The impact of Covid-19 on the level of remote work

At the start of the pandemic, most companies did everything in their power to quickly get to level 2. Some of these companies struggled greatly with adapting to this new situation, often because they were not at all ready to facilitate remote work. As a result of their efforts did manage to get to level 2, but then they also remained there. As soon as there is only the smallest chance of us returning to the ‘old normal‘ again, these companies will do so. That would be a shame since they would not take advantage of the opportunities offered by the current pandemic.

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.

Sun Tzu

There is another, much smaller, category of organizations that have managed to work at level 3. Maybe they managed to reach this level as they already facilitated remote work prior to Covid-19. These companies will remain at this level for a longer period of time, simply because the steps to get to level 4 require a significant cultural change in the organization. Existing paradigms should be let go of and replaced. Even the organizations that are ahead currently should not count their chickens before they hatch. They also still have a long way to go.

Applying a diverse set of communication channels and collaborating in documents simultaneously are the easy steps to take. With the right software and (technical) support a lot is possible in a relatively short timeframe. Where it gets hard is when meetings have to be replaced with some other form of coordination. This affects the way of working that is deeply embedded in the organization. It requires a fundamentally different way of working and thinking which will require a lot of time, energy and perseverance.

How to achieve level 4?

The higher up the pyramid you get, the lower the tolerance for long and ineffective meetings that prevail in many companies. When discussing level 4 I mentioned that I don’t know what the alternatives to synchronous meetings should be. However, there are some principles that are important to get to level 4.

The biggest pain point: meetings

The main reason why meetings should be replaced with something better is that they are generally ineffective. They do provide an opportunity to get direct feedback, but the quality is questionable due to the mutual influence among participants. On top of that, the more reserved colleagues have a disadvantage compared to the more outgoing ones.

Focusing more on written communication creates a natural pause, which helps filter emotions out of a message. Also, it ensures everyone’s input can be taken into account. This will allow for a better decision making process with better outcomes. Keep in mind though that the decision-making process can take longer to complete.

There’s a way to do it better, find it!

Thomas Edison

If you do schedule a meeting, make sure to send an agenda in advance including any relevant background information. At the end of the meeting, there should be a list of actions. After all, if there are no actions defined, why did you sit together?

Every true decision is followed by an action.

Tony Robbins

Are you ready to take the leap and replace (some of) your meetings with written communication? Awesome! Keep the following 3 points in mind to avoid a back and forth of messages:

  1. Provide sufficient background information and, if necessary, also describe any detailed actions and their expected outcome.
  2. Clearly state deadlines.
  3. Mention the resources available in case someone gets stuck.

A different approach to management

Even if your organization currently doesn’t have a 9 to 5 mentality, letting go of ‘office hours’ is a whole other ballgame. If a team member prefers to work at night, this impacts the whole team as well as the company. So the way people are managed and evaluated has to change as well. Evaluations based on input metrics such as hours worked will no longer be possible (insofar that this is at all possible). A popular belief is that people should then be evaluated based on output. But what does that mean? Should I get more done compared to last week? Or more compared to my colleagues? Or can I get to work and let you know once I am finished? In other words, when is good good enough?

I don’t have the answer. What I do believe is that the foundational principle on which any solution is based should be mutual trust. Your manager must be able to rely on you to deliver your best work and you should be able to count on your manager’s support when the going gets tough.

Focus on personal interactions and building a culture

As an organization moves higher up the pyramid, working on the company culture becomes ever more important. If everyone can work how they want and when they want, then what does your company entail? The logo, products and customers are all elements of your company. Ultimately though, your company is made up of the people that work there.

In a previous article, I elaborated on the importance of informal connections while collaborating virtually. This is one of the foundational elements for maintaining your company culture. At the same time, you also have to keep building that culture. You can put all your time and effort in making that work remotely, but face-to-face interaction just works so much better. So once it is possible again, seize the opportunity to jointly shape your organization’s culture and make lasting memories.

Light a new spark in the Friday afternoon drinks, throw a smashing office party or take a trip with your department or the whole company. Go big. It is these kinds of experiences that change individuals into groups of people that share stories together that will be passed on for many years to come. Remote work is so much better with such memories in mind.

If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it

Johan Huizinga

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