In an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world, remote work and distributed teams just make sense.
Not all companies can work remote and distributed, but most can work at least partly distributed. If they haven’t already, it’s time to head in that direction. Even pre-COVID, remote work had been consistently on the rise. In the US alone remote work has increased 91% over the past decade and a dramatic 159% over the past 12 years.
With rapid technological advances and the need to continuously adapt to change caused by a world that has become exponentially more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VACU), the trend towards remote work and distributed teams is only going to accelerate. This is a positive change and one that’s been artificially delayed by our pre-existing collective beliefs as to how employees or any groups working together towards common objectives are most productive. Hint: It’s not co-located, open-plan offices.
Remote work done right has a multitude of benefits including but not limited to increased productivity, reduced facilities overhead, improved employee morale, talent attraction/retention, and the ability to hire the best people regardless of location. All of these benefits combined ultimately result in faster innovation, higher profits, and a happier workforce.
It’s not just individuals and product development teams that are going remote. All corporate departments and levels are making the move. HR, Finance, Marketing, Legal, even Executive Leadership Teams and Boards of Directors are now able to work both distributed and often entirely remote. An excellent example is HackerOne, which, in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, has become an altogether remote organization. In his recent article, HackerOne CEO, Marten Mickos, talks about why they transitioned from roughly a third of the company working remotely to a hundred percent remote.
“The Industrial Revolution brought us the idea that work is a place different from home and that work is done in physical proximity of many other people. It is the idea of the joint workplace that is the anomaly. Working from home is natural.” — Marten Mickos
Drawing from a decade of remote contributor experience and working both with and on many high-performing distributed teams, here’s a practical guide for organizations now being pushed to make the leap. I’ve broken it down to the three core areas necessary for success: people, processes, and tools.
Teams, departments, divisions, companies… it’s all groups of people collaborating towards a shared mission, purpose, and an ever-evolving set of objectives. While openness, transparency, and trust are important for any modern organization to succeed, a culture that embraces these values is critical to the success of a remote organization. This is especially so in an international company, with distributed teams located globally across different timezones, having different native languages, and their own national set of holidays and observances. It becomes even more difficult when you take into consideration that not all employees are ready for the responsibility and accountability that comes along with remote autonomy. A Remote First or even partially remote business must foster a culture of support, trust, and shared purpose in three ways.
As always, especially in agile organizations, keep your processes as simple as possible. This being said, in a remote organization, those processes now need to be very explicit, agreed upon, and concisely documented. Like a special forces unit, your teams will need to know how to operate independently and without supervision. Clear situational operating procedures and ways of working are essential. Leadership should be able to pass along intent, and thanks to well defined remote processes, trust teams to make it happen.
Team level — A daily standup or planning meeting to communicate progress towards committed goals.
Teams of Teams / Program level — At the end of each value delivery iteration, which should be every two to four weeks, review what was delivered as a team of teams, and based on stakeholder feedback, plan what will be delivered for the next iteration. Team retrospectives should also be held online to determine what’s working, what’s not working, and what improvements can be made.
Organization level — When working as a remote organization, the need to stay aligned as a whole needs to be ensured with regular company-wide online town hall style meetings. At least once every quarter, these synchs continuously provide top-level direction and provide for a necessary sense of we’re-all-in-this-together.
Most companies already have an overabundance of tools. Starting the move towards a Remote First or partially remote organization is the perfect time to re-evaluate the hardware, software, and SaaS tools currently in use. It’s an opportunity to modernize and simplify. Remove legacy software silos and remote islands of information created by different teams and departments using various tools. Agree on a much smaller library of vetted cloud-based tools and apps, which will make it much easier for distributed teams to collaborate regardless of team member location. For business-critical information, the ideal is to establish a single source of truth for the entire organization.
Video conferencing, online meetings, and webinars — Meetings at all levels of the organization and during all synchronization points will be dependent on your selected video meeting app. The enterprise tool of choice has recently proven to be Zoom. Encourage using cameras whenever possible for better communication.
General communications — For most organizations, email still reigns supreme for most written communications. A team-centric communication app like Slack or Microsoft Teams has proven to be much more useful for general discussions and decision making and essential for remote teams.
Collaboration and planning — Remote team members need to be able to plan and collaborate on commitments, deliverables, and tasks. They also need to track the flow of work from start to finish. That’s where an app like Favro comes into play. With Favro, real-time collaboration on actual work is done in team-based collections containing cards, boards, and backlogs that can be shared with other teams and departments for transparency and organizational flow. It’s also used for contextual communications where conversations take place on the cards that represent the work. This often establishes Favro as a remote organization’s single source of truth.
As with any transformation, it’s best to apply the concept of inspect and adapt to the journey itself. While the current crisis might be forcing companies to suddenly go all-in with remote work, it’s still a good idea to take an iterative approach. Moving forward, at regular intervals, take a look at what’s working and what isn’t. Keep the good and change the bad, continuously improving remote people, processes, and tools.
If there is any good to come out of COVID, hopefully, it will be a new way of working for many companies: organizations that don’t look at remote work and distributed teams as a short-term, crisis mode fix, but a new normal. Given the many benefits of Remote First both to companies and employees, the workplace as we know it may never be the same again. And that’s a change for the better.
Written in collaboration with Kirsti Wennberg, Maria Ingelsson, Patric Palm, and George Azzam.
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