I’ve been using this Distributed Work’s five levels of autonomy model since I saw it two months ago on the page of Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, the company that created the software behind a third of all websites on the web, WordPress (and the one I use for my page in Spanish since 2007).
The reason is obvious: besides following Matt since 2006 and holding him in the highest regard, I’m inclined to give a lot of credit to a distributed work model created by someone who thoroughly applies it to his own company, and that explains his ability to attract talent and create a highly competitive company. Automatic used to be housed in a lovely building in San Francisco until June 2017, when it decided to close it due to lack of use. If you want to know more about implementing distributed work, I would recommend reading Scott Berkun’s “The Year Without Pants”, which tells the inside story of Automattic.
The vast majority of people who started working from home in this first half of 2020 did so for one reason alone: the lockdowns decreed in many countries to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. This emergency situation has not allowed for overly sophisticated decision-making. Overnight, all of us who could — that is, those of us who were not at level zero in Matt’s model — found ourselves working from home, not under the best circumstances and trying to make the best of it. Many of us didn’t have a dedicated workspace at home, and given that we thought the situation was temporary, probably haven’t done much to adapt wherever we’re working from or buy new equipment.
Until that moment, almost everyone, except for a few privileged people like me, were at level 1 of the model: their company hadn’t made the slightest effort to encourage distributed work. In most cases, in fact, organizations had discouraged anybody who suggested working from home.
And suddenly, by order of the authorities, we all go to level 2: we have to stay at home and try to keep our companies productive. The adoption procedure is well known, and begins with adapting well established procedures and patterns to the new situation. Many people soon found themselves sucked into a succession of videoconferences aimed at recreating the type of contact that happens in an office, until they were burned out. At level 2, we are working in synchronous mode, and therefore our day-to-day is full of interruptions, which we accept because, on the one hand, we do not know anything better, and on the other, we have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Remember: we were locked up at home.
This is the end of the culture of presenteeism and micromanagement. Some companies may be tempted to use spyware to keep an eye on employees but they will quickly realize that it is deeply retrograde and makes no sense. The only alternative is a change of culture, with an intense focus on trust and empowerment that allows employees to make their own decisions: except for the hours when a meeting is set, the rest of the time must be self-managed. Whether I prefer to work in the morning, afternoon or evening is my business, as long as I meet my goals. If you expect me to answer a message immediately at ten o’clock at night and you get angry if I don’t, you are a fool — although that doesn’t mean I can’t do so sometimes, if I think it’s appropriate. A people-centered culture, with all that that entails.
From here on in, most of us were in uncharted territory: level 3, defined as “becoming remote-first, or distributed”, is what we are starting to see at technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter or Square, among many others: “don’t worry, we will continue to work remotely until further notice, or if you prefer, you can even continue to work remotely when all this is over, and come to the office only if you consider it necessary”.
What are we talking about? Nothing more or less than the much vaunted “new normality”. In Matt’s words,
“Any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed. It’s a moral imperative. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces are getting right now is one that inspires them to keep trying.”
We are talking about starting, consciously, to adapt how we work to the new situation. Among other things, this means avoiding the mistakes made in the first decade of this century, which led many companies to abandon remote working. Distributed work is nothing new, it already has a long experience from which to learn. Make it compulsory or exclusive, and you will lose the feeling of belonging to a particular organization and its culture. This is not about getting rid of offices per se, but rather redesigning them so they can function as places where employees can meet or a regular basis. I would not like to be in the real estate business in most cities these days: there is going to be a lot of free office and parking space.
Where are we headed? Toward levels 4 and 5, characterized by the optimization of working practices, which means changing the synchronous-asynchronous balance: fewer rounds of endless video conferences and more short videos recorded for later viewing, much more Slack and similar communication tools, along with less time spent sitting in front of a screen listening to other people. Shared documents people can work on synchronously — coordinating in the chat window — or asynchronously are infinitely more effective than a marathon video conference. A spreadsheet, text document, or presentation that requires input from several people is an ideal solution for Google Docs, Office 360, or any of their competitors.
When things start moving toward the asynchronous, the possibilities are limitless. Not only can we can save on the time spent getting to and from work, we can also organize our workplace at home, helped by our employers, and we can afford to be much more creative. In short, we will find that the distributed company not only attracts better talent by eliminating geographic restrictions, but is consistently more efficient than any organization with a face-to-face culture.
The companies that understand how this works, that are able to learn from what they have experienced during the greatest experiment in distributed work that humanity has ever lived, will be able to evolve into much more efficient structures and, above all, with more meaning for those who are part of them. Those that don’t… well, I’ve said it before: the future doesn’t belong to the biggest or the fastest, but instead to those that can adapt best to the new environment.