Distributed Workforces – the new normal

The recent Covid-19 pandemic is forcing companies to think differently about their remote working policies. Some companies are already leading the charge with distributed workforces.

We have no choice, we’re distributed!

Covid-19 is sweeping across the globe at an alarming rate, and the only mechanism to slow the speed of this virus has been to separate the virus hosts (us) from each other. Over night, many of us have become part of what is knows as distributed workforces. Companies have had to quickly implement remote working systems, offering employees allowances to set up small home offices;  being more flexible on working hours and ensuring that their employees continue to feel included in regular activities such as coffee gatherings or fun Friday events. 

Technology is making this possible. Fibre optic data networks criss-cross the globe providing high speed connectivity to voice and video applications hosted in the cloud. Zoom, a fast growing meeting and conferencing application has, true to its name, zoomed into the mainstream with millions of new subscribers signing on to the platform each day. Zoom announced  in their blogpost in April that their maximum daily meeting participants jumped from 10 million in December 2019 to over 200 million participants in March 2020, as the the Covid-19 pandemic led millions of people to shift their daily routines to work from home. This uptick of new users on to the platform included 90,000 schools across 20 countries where Zoom offered assistance to help children continue their education remotely. A clever move by Zoom, as schools rapidly adjusted to a distributed operating model, followed by parents and families incorporating the popular video conferencing application into their daily lives. Right now, in a current state of lockdown, it’s not uncommon for our weekly family gathering to centre around a table quiz hosted on Zoom. WhatsApp is another familiar messaging application that has seen a 40% surge in usage during the Covid-19 Pandemic. WhatsApp has over two billion users on it’s platform. I always used WhatsApp for 1:1 video calls with family, and recently discovered that going into a WhatsaApp group and clicking on video allows you to connect up to four users instantly! If a large family are able to complete an online table quiz via a hosted Zoom video conference, or quickly get a few people onto a WhatsApp video call for a catch-up, then office workers are going to start questioning why they need commute to the office everyday to sit in meetings. As a result, we will see a rise in distributed workforces. 

So which companies are leading the way with distributed workforces?

Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, tumblr and WooCommerce was born ‘officeless’. With no physical Head quarters, Automattic employs 1200 people distributed across 75 countries, all of whom work from home. In their company creed, ‘Automatticians’ commit to communicating as often as possible, as communication is the oxygen of distributed workforces. Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic is so passionate about distributed workforces that he has launched his own Distributed Podcast where he interviews likeminded thought-leaders on the subject. Matt developed a model which he calls Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy, where a level zero job has no autonomy as you need to be physically there (firefighter, construction worker, barista) and level five is the ultimate Nirvana, where balanced people bring their best selves to their careers and out-peform in-person organisations.

Matt believes that with the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, many organisations are now at level two. These companies recognise that their employees have to work at home and have provided the technology to do so, but there is still anxiety around how to manage staff productivity; and the meetings and interruptions you would typically see in a office based environment still exist. According to Matt, for these companies to progress to the next level of autonomy, they would need to position themselves as ‘remote first’. They would have invested in robust audio visual equipment for their remote staff and ensured  that they were arranging face to face meet-ups once or twice a year.

Github, a software development and code repository platform acquired by Microsoft in 2018, hosts millions of active users. Only a third of its 1000 plus staff work in their San Fransisco Head office and the company advocates for it’s staff to work remotely. Apart from the benefits that Automattic believe make distributed workforces viable, Github also places a high value on it’s global community of users, so having their teams distributed across the world alongside their userbase makes hosting local meet-ups and community events more accessible.

Some companies have built platforms specifically to attract distributed freelance talent. Fiverr and upwork connect top freelance talent to jobs across the world. It’s not uncommon for a professional services firm in the US to outsource their design work to a freelancer based in Europe or their after-hours transcription work to a language specialist in Africa.

We get the pro’s, what about the cons of highly distributed teams? 

It’s important to understand that while technology is enabling more knowledge workers to operate remotely in different locations around the world, there are numerous benefits to companies (access to talent and building diverse teams, no offices) and employees (no long commutes, more flexibility, less disruptions), however, there are also negatives that need to be managed with care. 

Company culture is established over time and built around employees subscribing to a clear set of values. When teams are visible, they can communicate easily with each other. Distributed workforces can feel isolated, it will take longer to identify with the culture and companies need to be intentional about their communication strategies. Employees need to feel engaged and connected to the companies, so employers must over communicate events, news and information regularly to their teams. Good written communication and regular team meet-ups are important for employees to feel involved with each other. When possible arrange an annual company meet-up where every member of the team gets together to attend workshops, training or social functions. 

Watch out for a dip in work life balance. Not having physical distance between where an employees lives and works may make it harder for them to unplug. Companies that operate globally also need to be mindful of the timezones their distributed workforce are operating in. Employees love the flexibility of being able to take time off to watch kids compete in a sports event and are happy to make up that time after-hours, but scheduling a team meeting at 11pm in their timezone might make it hard to switch off at the end of a working day. Use collaboration tools like slack or trello that allow the employee to check in with questions or tasks in their own time. 

Remote working may reduce interruptions from colleagues but what about domestic distractions? At home, it’s easy to take a break, sit on the couch, turn on Netflix, and be distracted for hours. Every employee has a different work environment at home. Look out for distractions or dips in performance, and ensure that you have set goals for your remote teams, keeping them engaged, productive and able to work without supervision. 

Who are the best remote workers? 

If you are looking to set up a distributed workforce, then ensure you look for the following characteristics when hiring, or even selecting a team to trial remote working in your organisation:

  • Ability to prioritise – an employees that is a great multi-tasker, is not a great prioritiser. You want people who are decisive and focussed on one task at a time and are able to get the important work done first. 
  • Problem solvers – look for staff that are curious, and try to troubleshoot problems themselves first before asking for help. Being resourceful and skipping a few steps in solving a problem will lead to less distraction of other remote colleagues. 
  • Trustworthiness – a manager does not want to micro-manage their employee and the remote employee does not want to be micro-managed, especially when you do not meet face to face regularly hard. Establish trust and report early on in the relationship and be intentional about how you communicate tasks and deliverables. It’s very easy for tone to get misunderstood on a remote call or when sending an email to an employee that you don’t meet face to face regularly. 
  • Excellent written communication – this is important and ties in with the previous point. It’s easy to spend some extra time editing an email but employees will be communicating in real time via messaging collaboration tools. A great remote worker will express themselves clearly and succinctly in their written communication (read about picking up a good writing habit here)
  • Tech-savviness – your remote team may not be hot shot coders, but they should be able to solve common IT problems themselves. Many meetings can be wasted just getting headsets and microphones connected properly. You also want to avoid the awkward situations where an employee has the camera pointed in the wrong direction or sharing the incorrect screen during a virtual meeting!

Whether we like it or not, we’ve all been thrown into the distributed workforce deep-end. When this global pandemic passes many companies will be asking how their remote working experiment played out and how sustainable it would be to continue with this practice. Either way businesses will need to transform to adapt to this new normal way of working. 

Book a discovery session with Saltwater Consulting to learn how we can help your organisation set up a distributed workforce.

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