The future has arrived faster than anybody imagined. Since the mid-20th century, a recurring prediction among technologists has been that the workplace of tomorrow would be characterised by telecommuting. Slowly, over the past decade, advances in cloud computing, video tools and mobile internet have started to turn that vision into a reality – but only for a small section of the workforce.
The coronavirus pandemic changed all that, thrusting vast swathes of companies into a brave new world where they have been forced to adopt the most extreme version of telecommuting: distributed teamwork. This is not the same as “remote work”; that implies there is still a central, functioning office to be remote from. Distributed work is a model where a business’s entire staff works remotely as a geographically dispersed network.
If handled smartly, this offers certain benefits. Adrienne Gormley, head of EMEA at Dropbox, has been considering those advantages for a while. Last year, Dropbox unveiled its latest incarnation: a smart workspace. This single organised place allows teams to stay in sync everywhere and anywhere. The collaboration platform integrates cloud-based content, including Microsoft and Google products, plus an ecosystem of partners, including Slack, Zoom, and Atlassian, so teams have the content and tools they need in one place.
For Gormley, the pandemic has thrown the upsides of distributed working into relief. “For many businesses, these challenging times will bring a realisation that it’s possible for a much wider group of people to work remotely – and do so effectively – than many of us previously thought.
This could help create a new kind of workplace, where influence is not defined by physical presence. I’m already seeing ways in which all-remote meetings can be beneficial. Everyone is on equal standing, rather than having some team members in the room and others online, and we’re more thoughtful about making sure everyone is heard.”
Yet all-remote working also presents a number of challenges. How do you manage effectively when you can’t see your team? What’s the best way to communicate across time zones? And what can be done to prevent miscommunication? We spoke to five experts in the field, and asked them for their most valuable advice for surviving and thriving as a distributed company…
Embrace radical transparency
When a company doesn’t share a physical office, it’s easy for workers to get suspicious about each other’s intentions, create false narratives about what’s ‘really’ happening and for relations to break down. The social media management company Buffer has been all-remote since 2015, and tries to mitigate this risk through a policy of “defaulting to transparency”.
This is apparent in practically everything it does: every email sent can be seen by all staff, for instance, and salaries are publicly disclosed. As Buffer’s team engagement manager, Nicole Miller, puts it: “Transparency really breeds a higher level of trust. It will lead your workers to feel more comfortable if they know where everyone stands.”
Async, async, async
There are two kinds of communication. There’s synchronous communication, which is when people talk to each other at the same time (a Zoom call, for instance), and there’s asynchronous, which is when conversations are spread across time. To Automattic, the all-remote $3 billion company behind WordPress, asynchronous is exponentially more useful.
“What I find beautiful about async is it allows people to design their work day around when they feel like they’re going to be most effective,” says founder Matt Mullenweg. It also helps solve time zone problems and means people can give more considered responses to questions. Gormley, who has teams all over the globe, also relies on asynchronous work: “In a world of distraction, Dropbox is passionate about creating products – as well as a company culture – that enable people to respond, collaborate and contribute when it works for them.”
Focus on output not hours
One of the big questions managers in newly distributed companies ask themselves is: “How do I know if they’re actually working?” Dropbox, whose “smart workspace” is designed with such organisations in mind – and which has been all-remote since the start of the pandemic – says the key is to measure results rather than working patterns.
“Instead of looking at how long someone has been in the office or online, we have an opportunity to change our traditional ideas about productivity and embrace an output-based way of working,” said Gormley. “We can turn to what truly matters when it comes to our business goals: the end result. What has been achieved? How do today’s tasks take us closer to the ultimate goal? This moment should allow us to let go of the presenteeism we see in our meeting-heavy office culture in order to spend time on the work that matters. Let’s make it a permanent change.”
Establish a safe word for disagreement
Difficult conversations are often easier in person. Tone of voice, body language and physical setting can turn criticism into a constructive rather than destructive force. In a remote setting, however, the majority of communication is written, yet it’s still necessary to have disagreements. The product management team at the workflow automation app Zapier, which employs 300 all-remote staff, realised they had to solve that problem in order to work effectively. Their solution? “To ‘react’ with a pomegranate emoji in Slack to any projects they had a bad feeling about,” explains CEO Wade Foster. “This is a lighthearted way to start the discussion about a potential disagreement.” Think of it like a safe word.
What’s the “right software” for remote working? To Peter Jensen, chief brand and innovation officer of the stationery company Moleskine, it is simply that which the staff see the benefit of right away and start using organically. “Then you have a shared sponsorship of the technology,” he says, “and you have shared responsibility for making sure everyone’s on board with it.”
Moleskine was already in distributed mode before the pandemic, but its 500 staff are now all working remotely. It has put Dropbox front and centre of how it operates. The tool it uses most is Dropbox Paper, a collaborative document that functions as a workspace for creation and coordination. Moleskine employs this for everything from meeting agendas to product development. “What we love about it is its simplicity and its approachability – the threshold for entry is really low. I think it’s pretty much the closest thing to an online platform that you can operate without any instructions.”
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