As noted in the introduction, while costs are centered around interactions between multiple people, benefits are centered around individuals: you naturally get greater focus, autonomy, and candidate availability. How can we take advantage of the opportunities? As with the costs, we’ll look at organizations, teams and individuals.
Amplifying Benefits in Organizations
Ownership, Meaning, and Drive
A story you’ll hear from many people at Manifold and other startups is that they joined because they wanted to make a difference. They wanted to shape the product, the culture, the quality, and more, from the ground up.
Similarly, the book Drive centers around a basic equation. External motivators — carrots and sticks — can motivate when basic necessities are not met; but when people are able to move up higher in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, external motivators lose power. According to the research described in Drive, employees whose basic needs are met can find deep internal motivation, inspiration, or “drive” if they can fulfill three components together in their job: “(1) Autonomy — the desire to direct our own lives; (2) Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”
This leads to one of my personal favorite ways to organizationally amplify the benefit of remote work: build a team of people who are inspired. As we already noted, remote work naturally encourages autonomy. It’s hard for a manager to look over your shoulder if your shoulder isn’t in the same room. This can be a fantastic first step for building a culture that fosters intrinsic motivation.
To successfully leverage autonomy, you have to support and embrace it, so you aren’t working at cross-purposes to yourself; while also mixing it with company alignment, in order to have everyone rowing in the same direction. I think the Spotify model (though “there is no Spotify model,” per this video or summary) is fascinating to study in this regard, both in the importance of building a culture of trust and ownership for autonomy, and in how they pursue alignment. The Reinventing Organizations book I mentioned earlier takes a broader view of similar ideas.
It’s exciting and effective to take the inspiration further: incorporate autonomy with other sources of intrinsic motivation, such as the drives for purpose and mastery introduced above. Hopefully, you already have employees who feel connected to the purpose of your company, or their job within it. If not, revisit your approach to hiring, and work to let people explore and find new positions. To grow mastery, build a supportive culture, teach people how and when to give feedback, teach people how to improve and execute in a feedback loop, offer opportunities to explore new roles and responsibilities, provide learning and mentoring, and so on. I recommend exploring the ideas in An Everyone Culture, Principles, High Output Management, and many others to be inspired and challenged in this regard.
Building intrinsic motivation by embracing autonomy and growing it with purpose and mastery is a key culture decision. A couple of other smaller culture ideas are around team retreat locations and diverse perspectives.
First, amplify the benefits of a remote culture by looking for company (and team) retreats that can be unusual experiences. You might be able to fly everyone out to a fun off-peak location for less than you expect, and really give a memorable team-building experience. This can contribute to a culture of exploration, openness, and fun.
Second, celebrate different perspectives and diversity. Remote work can bring together people from all around the world, with a wide variety of opinions. If the organization successfully navigates the challenges of being open enough to integrate differing opinions, it can make it easier for the company to adapt to changes, get insights into different markets and market segments, and generate valuable ideas and directions that might not have otherwise arisen. Leaders can model and coach openness, establish a clear and enforced code of conduct, and incorporate expectations and goals in the hiring process.
Beyond culture, organizations can benefit from remote work with a couple of simple efficiency gains. First, you probably don’t need to have a central office in an expensive town like San Francisco or New York City. Your business might need a foothold there, the way Manifold does in San Francisco, but you can often find many less expensive towns with a lot of talent; or you can work farther on the outskirts of an expensive town than you might otherwise.
Second, if you need an on-call schedule with 24 hour coverage, or similar, consider taking advantage of the different time zones of your company to follow the sun, as much as possible.
To summarize, organizations can leverage the advantages of partially distributed teams by enhancing culture, and in particular engaging internal motivators; and by taking advantage of opportunities for increased efficiencies. Now we’ll take the next step to the smaller unit of teams.
Amplifying Benefits in Teams: Hiring
Hiring is the key team-level advantage for distributed teams. Therefore, the key way to amplify the benefits of supporting remote work in a team is to do a great job at hiring! Find the best fit for your roles within a much larger search area, and hopefully in less expensive markets.
Clearly advertising remote support in your role is important — but also do it in a way that doesn’t lower the value of co-located workers. Our phrasing at Manifold right now is this: We believe in having people work from where they are most productive. If that happens to be in our offices in Halifax, Canada, or in San Francisco, welcome! We’d love to have you. If you are remote, you are also welcome!
The number of remote and remote-friendly job boards seems to be growing every day. A few highlights from my hiring experience are Remote OK, We Work Remotely, and StackOverflow’s remote jobs. You also might want to join remote-friendly company lists like this one. And some #remotework #hiring hashtags on Twitter don’t hurt.
Amplifying Benefits as an Individual: Location
The last stop in our tour of amplifying the benefits of partially distributed work considers the individual. I’ll focus on location.
As a remote worker, embrace the freedom of location. The fundamental expectations you must fulfill are to deliver your work and, at least from my perspective, to be regularly available for synchronous discussions. That generally means good internet, a time zone that fits sufficiently with your team, an environment conducive to professional focus, and an environment welcoming to conversations.
That’s it. Those are all of the basic constraints. What can you do within those constraints? I’ll give a few examples.
I have a home office that I love. It’s in a small separate building from my house, so it feels like going to the office, but my commute is 20 seconds. I work at a treadmill desk, with the sounds of birds and the wind around me, and the sun streams into my room. I usually head into the house for lunch, when I can sometimes check in with my family.
A highly regarded peer at a past job spent his first year at the company driving with his family around the United States, staying at state parks. He had gotten a map of cell phone coverage, and followed the comfortable weather around the country.
Several peers and reports over time have worked at co-working spaces. They enjoy being able to work with others, typically in a semi-urban area that has fun places to go for lunch and in the evening.
One very productive report had a basement office, with a set of four screens arrayed around his imposing Star-Trek-like office chair, whiteboards behind him, and soundproof tiles on the ceiling. He played his music very loud when he wasn’t on calls. You could tell because he sometimes forgot to turn it off when he first answered.
I joked with another report that he seemed to give me a different background for every meeting we had. He liked to work at coffeehouses and other locations around his city, and tethered when the free wifi was insufficiently reliable.
Even vacations are opportunities to take advantage of the freedom, and can be opportunities for co-located workers as well. Take a trip to family, or to another country. As long as it meets your basic needs, work part of the time. Explore the rest! I’ve worked from in-laws and vacation houses. Past reports have worked around Europe for a month.
An observation that could be applied to every one of these examples is that each location had exactly the amount of commute time that the person desired. They owned the decision. Use creativity and embrace the freedom to find a location, or multiple locations, that you love!
When I started writing this post, I thought it would be a summary of the general consensus on remote work. There’s a lot of it! Some examples are Gitlab’s handbook (free), Zapier’s remote work manual (free), IDoneThis’s manual (free), Trello’s guide (free), Basecamp’s Remote: Office Not Required book (paid), and a gazillion articles, blog posts and other sources.
In retrospect, that certainly describes part of my post. But other bits are personal reflections, and others are opinionated. I’ve touched on a larger world view that connects many of the aspects of remote work, and chosen sources that support that view; but it’s not the only way to assemble them.
I still have many questions. How can I successfully grow remote junior engineers? What’s the best way to handle fair salaries in the face of so many different costs of living and salary expectations? How can we reduce the environmental impact of remote work while still getting everyone together?
And the world, and our lives, constantly change. A friend and I recently had an interesting discussion in which he defended the right for employees to not have to constantly grow. If the employee is fulfilling expectations, why should they be expected to grow? Can’t they simply keep doing what they are doing, and invest their time and energy in other pursuits?
It seems to me that for awhile, we can remain in stasis. But change always occurs to our organizations, our teams, and ourselves; and I aspire to grow, rather than shrink, when it happens. If I merely change my metaphorical shape to accommodate the new situation, that’s fine as well, but the safer, healthier aspiration seems to me to be to grow.
In that context, I don’t have all the answers to remote work now, and I don’t even know what all the questions are. While I believe that the complexities of remote-reliant organizations can be successfully navigated by approaching the costs and benefits as I described them here, the complexities will almost certainly change and grow over time.
Don’t treat my opinions as yours. Listen, and then find your own truths. And I’d appreciate it if you’d share them back with me!