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Covid19 has forced us to think about building a remote working culture
We are all working from home now. Whether we like it or not, this will be the new normal. Emergencies have a unique ability to fast-forward culture. Until last year, experts believed that within a decade, 90 percent of companies will be remote-first and globally distributed. The coronavirus crisis is likely to shrink that timeline.
WordPress CEO Matt Mullenweg is a pioneer in building a remote-first, distributed work company. His hypothesis was that talent is equally distributed around the world but opportunities are not. To bridge the talent-opportunity gap, he made a conscious choice to hire the first 20 employees without meeting them. Essentially anyone could apply if they could get the work done. It was designed keeping millennials and digital nomads in mind. Today, Automattic, WordPress’s parent company, has close to 1000 employees in 67 countries.
Despite the success of WordPress and a few other distributed work companies, there is a huge debate about the merits and shortcomings of remote work. In 2014, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom co-authored a paper ‘Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment,’ which suggested that remote workers are 13 percent more productive than their office-going counterparts. But work entails more than just being productive. We need cross-pollination of ideas, lateral thinking and creativity in working groups.
Thoughtfully designed workspaces propel serendipitous meetings. Steve Jobs designed the office of Pixar Animation Studios to have a massive open atrium where people who do not usually work together would bump into one another and strike up conversations. Such conversations produced some of the most pathbreaking products, first at Pixar and then at Apple. Remote workers tend to have a slight disadvantage when it comes to collaboration, creativity and building on others’ ideas. Their productivity gains may even be neutralised by their collaboration disadvantage. That is why an ideal distributed work culture combines elements of both.
Building productive remote workspaces
How can organisations build such a culture? Through five steps, some of which could also help you work more effectively during the ongoing lockdown.
First, communicate goals clearly. There is a huge difference between goals and tasks. While we should set a few clear goals that can be tracked, we tend to fritter our day away conducting tasks that give us the illusion of being busy. To build a remote-first culture, we need to have clear goals and ensure that everyone understands their unique contribution towards shaping them.
Second, document everything. When people work remotely, there is no hallway conversation and water-cooler chatter. We need to communicate our thought processes and ideas succinctly so that people in different time zones can build on our work. Mullenwag explains that this process of documentation also helps as organisations scale and new people join.
Third, learn to write effectively. Internet humour has been off the charts during this coronavirus crisis. A recent favourite of mine was the New Yorker cartoon “Those meetings really could have been emails.” Learning to write clearly and creating a culture where people share fully formed thoughts will go a long way towards optimising everyone’s time. Abusing instant messaging by interrupting someone else’s work must be avoided as companies adopt a remote-first outlook.
Fourth, schedule unstructured social time. The office is not just a place where work gets done. It offers a platform for social connections and friendships. Distributed work companies need to figure out a way to replicate this online. Mullenweg’s WordPress accomplishes this by creating short bursts of offline experiences, followed by a series of agenda-free online hangouts with peers.
Fifth, incentivise working remotely. Renting an office is far more expensive than paying employees to work where they like. That said, cost is not the only motivator. Incentivising remote work is also a way of expressing trust in employees.
Making remote work meaningful
Autonomy, mastery and purpose are three integral components of intrinsic motivation and meaningful work.
Autonomy is our innate desire to be self-directed, but the extent of autonomy depends upon the kind of person we are. Some of us thrive in anarchy and some need direction to function. Thinking about where you stand on the spectrum is critical. Remote work will augment autonomy at an individual level. How we use that autonomy is up to us.
The second component is mastery. Typically we get better with deliberate feedback from peers and coaches. While offline settings are typically considered more conducive for feedback and personal development, evidence suggests that with the right incentives we can replicate it in the online world.
The last factor is purpose. We all want our work to contribute to something larger than us. Voltaire was right when he said that work spares us from three evils—boredom, vice, and need. But he did not live in the age of AI. In the digital era, if work doesn’t add meaning to our lives, it will cease to exist.
The Covid-19 crisis is a great opportunity to evaluate what matters to us and why. Once we are clear about the larger impact of our work, we will figure out how to make the most out of any scenario, remote or otherwise.
Utkarsh Amitabh (ORF)
12 May 2020