The Five Levels of Remote Teams
COVID-19 has forced us into a global remote working experiment.
Companies were quick to download Zoom and Slack, but tools are only as good as how you use them.
When it comes to remote work, few companies do it better than Automattic—the company behind Wordpress, which powers 35 per cent of all websites on the internet.
Automattic has 1,170 employees across more 75 countries and is worth US$3 billion. And here’s the kicker: the company does not have an office; its employees collaborate almost exclusively online.
Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg (hence the double-t in the company’s name), sees five levels of sophistication when it comes to remote teams.
The Five Levels of Remote Teams
Level 0: Remote work isn’t supported
Think of a call centre with desktop machines, where employees don’t have the technical ability to connect to the company’s call infrastructure remotely. Calling and receiving customer service calls, in this case, can only be done while physically on-site. If you’re not physically present at a central office, you can’t get work done.
Level 1: Non-deliberate action
Nothing deliberate has been done by the company to support remote work, but employees can still keep the ball rolling somewhat if they’re at home for a day. They have access to their smartphone, and email. Perhaps they dial in to a few meetings. But they’ll put off most things until they’re back in the office and will be a shadow of their office-bound selves.
Level 1 is where the overwhelming majority of organisations were prior to the COVID19 outbreak.
Level 2: Recreating the Office Online
This is the level of remote working maturity that most companies are at today.
Organizations at this level simply recreate the office online, along with all its drawbacks. Instead of back-to-back meeting, it’s back-to-back Zoom calls. Instead of taps on the shoulder, we’re being interrupted by Slack messages and phone calls. And while working remotely offers us a chance to design our days, how it best suits our work rhythm, most of us are still clinging to the 9am to 5pm workday, a hallmark of the industrial revolution.
If you’re at Level 2, you still have a long way to go.
Level 3: Adapting to the medium
It’s at this stage that companies start to invest in better equipment for their employees as well, such as lighting for video-calls and background noise-cancelling microphones.
Teams also take advantage of the medium by taking notes via a shared screen in real time, ensuring everybody is on the same page and nothing is lost in translation.
With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim (and destroying people’s focus and productivity as a result) and a preference for asynchronous communication, effective written communication becomes key.
- Only hold a meeting if it is absolutely necessary and the same outcomes can’t be reached via a quick ad-hoc conversation, phone call, email, text or instant message.
- Set the meeting to 15 to 30 minutes by default. The shorter time acts as a forcing function and does away with small-talk and yet another conversation about the weather.
- Set a specific agenda and desired outcome going into the meeting.
- Invite only ‘must have’ people instead of the entire village.
- Agree on next steps, allocate responsible person(s) and set due dates (this is especially important to avoid boomerang meetings).
- Don’t use a meeting simply to communicate information when a company intranet, IM or email can do this for us.
Level 4: Asynchronous Communication
‘I’ll get to it when it suits me.’ This is the nature of asynchronous communication.
The reality is that most things don’t require an immediate response. For most things, a one-way email or instant message should do the job, with the recipient responding when it suits them. Aside from the obvious and massive benefit of giving knowledge workers time for focus and to spend more time in the flow state (a psychological state whereby we are up to five times more productive according to consultancy, McKinsey), asynchronous communication predisposes people to making better decisions. The better the decisions of our people, the better off our companies are in the long term.
Ensure that asynchronous messages:
- provide sufficient background detail, where necessary provide clear action item(s) and outcome(s) required
- provide a due date
- provide a path of recourse if the recipient is unable to meet your requirements.
Companies that truly practice asynchronous communication have stepped out of the industrial revolution, and no longer conflate presence with productivity, or hours with output, as one might on the factory floor.
Awaken the Night Owls
People’s preferred sleeping patterns—their chronotypes—are programmed at birth. We’re either night owls or early birds. In fact, approximately 40 per cent of the population are night owls, which means that the modern 9-to-5 workday is sabotaging the creative and intellectual efforts of almost half the workforce.
Night owls can experience ‘social jetlag’ if they start their day at 9am and show stronger focus and longer attention spans 10 hours after waking than early-birds. Asynchronous companies give night owls more flexibility to start their day later, so long as there is a workable overlap between them and their colleague’s day.
Level 5: Nirvana
This is where your remote team works better than any in-person team ever could. Mullenweg equates this level with having more emphasis on ‘environment design’, insofar as the organisation’s culture and the physical environment people work in is concerned.
Remote Working Challenges
Of course, there are pros and cons with almost any path we take in business and life.
Team bonding and building
Flip the script. Instead of going to an office eleven months a year, and then taking four weeks off, organizations such as Automattic, Basecamp and Zapier run events where their remote employees come together for, say, two to four weeks, over the course of a year.
Osmotic and office communication
We miss out on the learning that takes place through observation and osmotic communication when we’re all working remotely. Instant messaging tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are a good place to start, but Automattic uses an internal blog, called P2, a place where an incredible amount of conversation and activity is chronicled and captured without getting lost after a day or so, as is prone to be the case via Slack.
Endpoint security at the individual device is in many ways more secure than company firewalls, which represent a single point of failure. Once you’re over the wall, you’re in.
70 per cent of IT hacks using social engineering to get inside a company’s digital perimeter, so rather than over-emphasising technical access control, we need to be educating against malicious or careless behaviour.
Working from home is, for the moment, a privilege and not a right for many, and by being more intentional about how we work, we can cultivate a more productive and happier team, something that will benefit our franchises in the long run.
Steve Glaveski is CEO of Collective Campus, an innovation consultancy based in Melbourne. He hosts the Future Squared podcast and is the author of Time Rich (available October, 2020). Download the first chapter at www.timerichbook.com
Collective Campus is an innovation consultancy based in Melbourne that serves to unlock the latent potential of people at organizations to create more impact and lead more fulfilling lives.