In a world with scarce physical space, high cost pressures, long commutes and multi-national companies, it would seem like distributed work would be an obvious strategy. Yet, when COVID-19 forced the launch of remote work strategies, many companies were unprepared and went through many uncomfortable and unproductive periods. No matter the cause, remote or distributed work strategies are here to stay.
How are you affected by remote or distributed work? You might be about to switch your current job to remote status, either temporarily or permanently. You might be starting a new position which is on a distributed team. Maybe you're starting a new kind of work altogether because your in-person work went away. No matter your circumstances, it can be helpful to understand the different mental models affecting work across distance.
Shifting from "digital tools" to a "digital company" is easier said than done. Compare the statements "we're using digital tools" to "we are a digital company." Each indicates a mental model. The first indicates thinking about software as an enabler of our primary work. The latter reveals that a company's offerings, collaboration and operations are inseparable from digital technologies. Remote work is similar—there is a big difference between occasional accommodations for a coworker who is out of town and a company designed to be fully distributed.
Let's explore four models, or stages, of thinking about where work and collaboration occur. In analog companies, the workplace is physical and it may not even be possible to work remotely. In IT-enabled or hybrid organizations, only some of their work can happen across distance, and it may not feel equal to an in-person experience. Yet in digital companies, distributed work may be the default or even best way to get things done. Spotting which model you or your company are in will help you set realistic expectations for working across distance. Not every workplace will (or even should) operate as a digital company—it's not automatically a better model.
Analog companies are used to creative value in a tangible, in-person way. Work tends to be visible, and would be recognizable as 'work' to someone from a half-century ago. Most companies have at least some elements of their business digitized now, but it's important to spot our default thinking so we don't get too constrained by our biases. Look at the location and tools for each of the following categories to spot which mental model you're in. In an analog company:
Over time, companies started expanding their information technology (IT) strategy to create some ways to work across distance. Many companies are still at a stage where technology is applied primarily for a faster, better or cheaper version of analog work. Only a small subset of the company work directly on technology.
Hybrid companies support in-person work with substantial digital components. They may think of having moved their data and a few collaboration tools to the 'cloud.' While hybrid companies are less attached to old ways of working, they experience a constant tension between the lowest common denominator of thinking, tools, and skills for distributed or remote work. Some teams are vastly more advanced than others.
Digital companies are inherently ready for distributed work. Because many or all aspects of their companies are online, and not just a few datasets or tools, collaboration can happen in context in digital workspaces. The distance between 'meetings' and 'actual work' is much smaller. For example, rather than having a meeting about what do with content on the company website, a coworker might just comment on or co-edit another's draft directly in the website authoring tool.
As communication becomes more and more instant, and in front of increasing numbers of people, a subtle but powerful shift occurs. In analog, hierarchical organizations, the mental model for office collaboration is based on the idea that employees should "Work Privately." An individual or small group creates something and then presents it to a hierarchy. You can spot this model with language like "Who owns the file? Are we using my version or yours?," "I'll get it ready for review" and "I'm polishing it."
In a digital organization, it's more common to see a "Work in the Open" model. Everyone taps into a network of workspaces and colleagues and can see the current progress. Phrases like "check the finance channel" or "I updated the project plan" or "here's the link for when you're ready to contribute" are signs that your team is working in the open.
Let's explore some specific shifts needed for this transition.
In the e-mail approach, messages are drafted and edited until close to perfect and then sent, just like a paper letter might have been. Text is used to encapsulate (hopefully) complete thinking and convey a thought process from start to finish.
In chat, communication is immediate and bi-directional, like a conversation. This can be a challenging transition for leaders and employees who are used to having time to compose their thoughts. For this reason, and because of unconscious bias towards existing ways of communicating, new users of modern chat systems often use them like an abbreviated e-mail system at first.
Once the practice and mental model of direct messages (chat) is introduced to a team, the next stage is to introduce channels—chats organized by topic rather than by individuals. In a direct-message chat approach, the model is "I talk to you as an individual or group."
In a channel-based approach, the model is "we work on shared outcomes and come in and out of conversations as needed." Themes like "website design" or "finance" are established, and then conversations around those themes can happen over time. This allows both alignment and autonomy to occur, with transparency. In this approach, it's possible to scan a channel for weeks or months of messages and get context, to answers many questions without calling a meeting, and track prior decisions. Conversations that span multiple topics are often cross-posted or linked to from other channels, and sub-conversations nest in 'threads' similar to comments on a Facebook post, or 'fork' into their own channels. Channel-based approaches, when done well, can complement or even replace person-to-person chats and drastically lower the need for e-mail and meetings.
The shift from attachments to links is also a key part of working on distributed teams. In an attachment mindset, we're using the mental model of paper files, where only one person can be working at a time. Just like with paper, there is a file owner who sends (or broadcasts) a static object.
Conversely, in a 'link' mindset, many people at once can work on the same data and document, and there is no question about where to access the most current thinking. You can often spot this through language: compare working 'on' a document (an attachment or file mindset) versus 'in' a document (a shared link mindset).
Having a link to a document many people are editing at the same time can feel very chaotic or vulnerable, however. Consider a situation where you and your boss are in the same document—do you feel comfortable showing your brainstorming process? Do they? In this case, the new digital tool isn't enough. It's also necessary to build skills and norms around co-creation—and possibly unlearn tendencies towards perfectionism (or working right before a deadline!) It's important to note that learning and thinking differences can be brought to the foreground quite quickly in shared documents. Some people are comfortable with a 'blank canvas,' others might want a lot of different ideas to explore, and yet others prefer a linear outline of thoughts. At the same time, differences in (and accommodations for) writing capabilities are highlighted, like users challenged by spelling or living with dyslexia, or the rambling boss who is used to having a colleague clean up their thoughts before they are presented.
Sometimes simultaneous 'co-creation' is harder because the tool we are using is primarily designed for linear thought, like a word processor. So when someone edits a paragraph 'above' you in the document, everything you're working on may move. One of the best concepts for working across distance may be online visual 'whiteboard' software. At first, we might think of it as a single space where a couple of people can write or draw at once. While those are certainly common features, modern software like Miro.com goes further.
The software starts with an empty 'board' and several object types (like text, 'sticky notes,' and freehand drawing) to create visuals. However, unlike an analog whiteboard, that canvas can be infinitely wide and tall, and zoomed far in and way out, to allow a lot of ideas to co-exist. In our company, it's common for us to have one visual whiteboard with our clients' executive teams that we build on in each meeting, showing ideation and refinement of thought over a long period, ranging from the 'big picture' to very detailed ideas.
Even more fascinating, Miro and similar tools allow external content to be linked to, embedded and even edited directly in a 'board.' For example, a board focused on web design might have an embedded Google Document with copy for the site—which can be edited without switching to another screen or tab. In such tools, the line between ideation, collaboration and presentation becomes seamless, and co-creation can happen live or across a long timespan.
In an analog company, it was easy to know when you're at work or you're not. Your colleagues can see if you're in the office, shop or on the factory floor. It was an exception to call someone on their home telephone or to show up during their dinner time. Distributed or remote work boundaries are not so visible or clear, especially in times of crisis. This can work well in some situations, like when you get a spark of creativity late in the evening, or you're collaborating across time zones. In this way, distributed work can also greatly benefit writers and others who need focused time.
At the same time, because it's not possible to 'see' the context of your coworkers, or for them to see yours, it can feel quite hard to 'turn off' your work brain. With distributed team, especially in regions like the United States, where salaried employees may have no legal cap on the number of hours worked, it's important to attend carefully to your individual and team norms for distributed work. Consider that less visible work, like a salesperson's networking, a manager's impromptu check-ins over a meal, or personal work like childcare, must be accounted for and balanced carefully.
Just because someone is not in a shared office doesn't negate the fact that they need to have a functional workspace. Companies have widely varying strategies (and contractual or legal requirements) for attending to workspace needs. It's a good practice to consider that your colleagues will need at least the same standard of equipment, space and privacy that they would have in a shared office; digital hardware like high-resolution monitors, cameras, headsets or speakerphones, keyboards and trackpads are vital to lessen the barriers between an individual and their colleagues.
Design an online office together with your colleagues.
Create a sustainable "remote workplan" with a fillable template designed to help you establish your physical workspace and online practices quickly.
Create large-scale online events that go beyond "Conference TV"