Companies looking to improve their work-from-home (WFH) productivity may want to adopt some of the principles of distributed work.
The most evolved version of work from home, distributed work refers to operations that are remote-first rather than office planned. Companies like WordPress and Zapier have been 100 percent distributed for years, with all of their employees — from their executives to HR to sales and marketing — working from their homes and offices around the globe.
Having entered this situation so suddenly, it's no surprise that many business owners have been winging WFH. But given that working from home and distributed workforces will continue even as we emerge from COVID-19, business owners can use the pandemic as a catalyst to permanently transform work for the better. According to a March 2020 Gartner survey of 317 CFOs, "74 percent of respondents said they will move at least 5 percent of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19."
Being strategic about distributed work demands a wider lens. Now is the time for businesses to adopt some of the principles of distributed to prepare for a remote-friendly future.
1. Get comfortable with managing remote teams.
To fully realize the benefit of distributed work, small-business owners must get away from a strong preference for employees to work onsite and use company space and equipment at scheduled times. If you only allow remote work in an emergency, you won't have the necessary infrastructure in place to support fully distributed work, and employee access will likely be slow and clunky.
Being comfortable with distributed work requires trusting your employees. You can cultivate trust by stepping up communication and letting your people know you support them and are giving them the freedom to do their jobs when and how they feel it is most appropriate and effective.
Boost your comfort level by tracking the productivity of WFH employees during the pandemic. You don't have to use software to record their every keystroke or micromanage their daily tasks — it's more about having a concrete idea of whether employees are achieving their goals as efficiently at home as they did in the office.
When it comes time to ease restrictions, seek employee feedback about an onsite schedule that makes sense. By using a survey tool or individual interviews to collect this information on a broad scale, you may find that some employees are more comfortable with returning to the workplace than others. This can help guide your decision regarding how distributed your post-COVID organization will be.
2. Embrace asynchronous work.
Accepting that closings will be long term, many companies have simply moved in-person activities online. Tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Hangouts facilitate real-time meetings. Employees can access share drives, email and company applications remotely, but everyone is largely working the same hours whether they have distractions (e.g. children doing eLearning) or not.
On a recent podcast, Automattic CEO and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg shared a secret for effective distributed work: a move from synchronous (everyone performs work tasks at the same time) to asynchronous processes (employees work on their own time). For instance, a synchronous process might require people to travel, sit in a meeting room and provide immediate reactions to an idea. An asynchronous process might involve presenting an issue via instant message, prompting team members to think through it in detail and then respond within a predetermined deadline.
Small businesses can shift to asynchronous processes by first evaluating whether set business hours are necessary, and if so, for whom (e.g. customer service staff). Consider how you might change your performance model to evaluate employees on the quality of their contributions rather than the time it took to produce them. For example, an agile performance management system relies on continuous feedback to establish, accomplish and reconfigure goals that align with business needs, and employees are measured on their progress against these goals in real time.
When you stop relying on synchrony, you have the freedom to source talent across the globe. Think about assembling teams based not on who is geographically proximal, but who is best for the job. This way, you can move operations forward 24 hours a day as employees "pass the baton" to overseas colleagues.
3. Invest in proper support.
If you're saving money on office and/or retail space, you may have extra funds to provide the proper equipment and tools to do distributed work right. Distributed work requires specific items such as solid audio gear, good desk lighting and reliable Wi-Fi connections for individual home offices.
In terms of team collaboration, keep in mind that some channels are best suited to synchronous work (videoconferencing), while others are better for asynchronous work (instant messaging platforms). Your unique mix will depend on the specific needs of your business, but some distributed organizations have already figured it out. Automation tool developer Zapier is fully distributed with workers spread across 13 nations.
“We keep connected on a daily basis with Slack for group chat, Google Docs and Hackpad for documentation; Trello for project management; and an internal blog (what we use in place of team emails)," CEO and co-founder Wade Foster writes on his blog.
Consider how you might change your performance model to evaluate employees on the quality of their contributions rather than the time it took to produce them.
You may want to beef up your online security because distributed work makes your business more vulnerable to bad actors. Also, since there are fewer opportunities to speak with people face-to-face, offer your staff training in written communication skills. And it doesn't hurt to boost their applied technology skills—employees should be able to identify software that can help them do distributed jobs more efficiently.
To maintain the necessary rapport and a rewarding culture, distributed teams must make the most of in-person gatherings once it is safe to do so. You can allocate funds for a future day of bonding at a fun and memorable location. In the meantime, informal virtual activities like Zoom Happy Hours are a good start.
Making the most of distributed work involves gaining comfort with managing remote teams, adopting asynchronous processes and investing in the proper resources and equipment. The current pandemic presents an opportunity to experiment with this way of working and to assess how it might work best for your organization.
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