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Remote Work: One Year Later

Remote Work: One Year Later

I started writing this piece in March of 2020. Now that it is finished, so is the lockdown, at least in some parts of the world, and many people will soon be returning to offices. What have we learned from our year of distributed work? And what will be its long term impact?

From Digital Natives to Distributed Natives

Companies can’t rely on existing productivity measures to define success in a distributed world. Just as organizations have engaged with digital transformation, it’s time for distributed transformation. I’ve laid out several starting points for this process:

  • Expect metrics for baseline productivity to drop for most employees.
    • This drop is expected, not evidence of worker failure.
  • Transition to metrics that measure adaptability rather than raw productivity.
    • Even better, leverage analytics that identify sources of adaptability.
    • Possible variables:
      • Type, duration, and number of employee interactions
      • Communication medium
      • Collective intelligence-related productivity metrics
        • Are individuals improving those numbers?
        • Interruption-related metrics and analytics
  • Include “face-time” metrics to track interactions between managers and employees
    • Explicitly balance engagement across employees to prevent promotion based on the availability heuristic.

While I don’t expect many large organizations to quickly transform into distributed work natives, many startups will. Much like digital transformation, those companies that engage early and make it an integrated part of the organization will experience outsized gains within their markets.

Optimizing Human Capacity

Don’t assume that standard onsite methods for supporting employees are still viable. People and their circumstances are different; treat them differently.

  • Balancers need structure, boundaries, and defined expectations.
    • Increase interaction with managers.
    • Leverage conspicuous monitoring
      • But don’t overdo it; monitoring just one dimension is sufficient.
    • Establish unambiguous structure to their workday.
      • This includes setting hours of regular availability that mimics a normal workday without social pressures to deviate from it.
    • Create a unique workspace that provides a multimodal signal to your brain that defines “working”.
    • Look for evidence of disengagement.
  • Synergists need autonomy and self-regulation.
    • Don’t layer one-size-fits-all expectations on top of their own self-management.
    • Give them more control over their own schedule and flexibility in their engagement.
    • Look for evidence of burnout.
  • Recognize that different personalities (e.g., anxious or conscientious) will have best fits to different types of distributed work (e.g., routine and modular vs. complex and collaborative)
  • Be honest with yourself and others about what you need.
    • Learn to recognize the clues that something is going wrong.
  • Reduce distractions by batching emails and leveraging “office hours”.
  • Invest in job training for idle workers.
    • Reap the human capacity benefits when demand for their labor returns.

One of the longer-term lessons from 2020 might be the importance of developing balancers into synergists. This lifts productivity, reduces mismatch, inefficiencies, and lagginess, and increases innovation. But this shift is effortful and might never include everyone. Those organizations that best support human capital development will see much stronger gains for distributed work.

Unfortunately, trends in automation and gig labor suggest that the greatest driver of adoption of remote work might be solely as a tool for cutting labor costs. For routine, modular work, the sort of work companies are already pushing into the gig economy, remote labor might become another means of lowering costs while also creating greater separation between “low-skill” workers and highly-valued “creative” employees.

Your Distributed Infrastructure

The transformation of companies from office-based to distributed organizations requires new tools and practices. It also requires a broad investment in the infrastructure that supports a distributed community.

  • Minimize the use of synchronous communications (and make them count!)
    • Ensure that people don’t need to ask for information.
    • Use collaborative knowledge repositories (e.g., wikis, Notion, FAQs, natural language searchable databases, etc) to make all information readily available online.
      • Never trapped in one person's head or permissions
    • Go even further by offering knowledge repositories with dynamically explorable structures.
      • These promote cognitive flexibility and improve creative problem solving.
    • Enforce the use of communication that matches the urgency of the message.
      • Remember that chat (and sometimes email) is largely synchronous and can add to cognitive load and anxiety, increasing distraction and overload.
      • Emails must always include sufficient background, required outcomes, and an explicit due date.
    • Set a specific agenda with desired outcomes pre-identified for all meetings.
      • (But still allow room for natural peer-to-peer engagement to build trust and support incubation.)
    • Please train your employees in video setup and etiquette63.
  • Invest in asynchronous tools.
    • Don’t force distributed teams to work as though they share an office.
    • Use asynchronous tools to develop superminds.
    • Minimize the use of tools that don’t allow direct collaboration.
    • Never allow personal (hidden) notes or unresolved forks.
      • Align your understanding right there in the tool.
  • Treat community broadband as a common good asset to your company.
    • Remember that variability in employee access is both beyond their control and a drag on your productivity.
  • Supply your workforce with high-quality equipment for at-home work.
    • Develop a standard package of computers, cameras, lighting, microphones, wifi, and more.
    • Treat an investment in their home office as an investment in your infrastructure.
    • Guard against the corrosive effects of attribution bias.
      • Provide multiple channels of communication.
      • Allow employees to contribute in whatever medium is most effective.
      • Invest in public infrastructure.

I don’t have much to offer as a prediction here. Infrastructure spending, including broadband, is already increasing, but it is unlikely to be either universal or robust. While it’s possible we’ll find ourselves in fewer meetings, haven’t we been complaining about wasteful meetings for decades? Why would this be the magical moment for change? People often look at moments of disruption as though they are the fertile grounds of a profound shift in society, but this largely only comes true when changes are catastrophic. The industrialized world has (so far) largely weathered the storm of Covid-19 without sacrificing pizza deliveries, movie nights, or all-hands meetings64. Development of distributed infrastructure has experienced a big bump, but I’m not convinced it will lead to the sustained changes that many hope for.

Distributed Culture

Whether the world is in lockdown or not, never let chance, laziness, or bad habits define your work culture. Improving your tools can help with distributed transformation, but the real solution is a culture that is native to distributed work.

  • Design teams based on core predictors of success.
    • Build teams around complementary diversity to maximize collective intelligence.
    • Keep teams small and nimble to prevent homogenization.
    • Maintain flatter hierarchies within teams to promote more equitable contributions.
    • Promote prosocial perspective taking to increase psychological safety and productive risk-taking.
  • Formalize goals, roles, and communication norms from the very beginning.
    • Review the specific norms I recommend in “rebuilding Culture”.
    • Use asynchronous tools to build superminds.
    • Promote norms that support individual differences.
  • Make role-modeling transparent.
    • Share stories of the actions, sacrifices, and successes of both leaders and peers.
    • Remember, role-models that would normally influence the community are often hidden in distributed work.
    • Emphasize stories supporting minority opinion and psychological safety.

Humans have a vastly greater capacity for expressiveness and adaptability than machines65. I expect new cultures and norms to develop native to distributed work. In the sci-fi series The Expanse, humanity expands beyond Earth to both Mars and the Asteroid Belt. Over generations the “Belters” have developed a unique culture adapted to spending extended periods in space suits. Unable to see each other’s faces, they develop exaggerated arm movements and speech patterns to carry all of the subtle information previously carried in facial expressions. Mediocre cameras, bad lighting, spotty broadband, and tiny screens have made us all Belters. We will inevitably find new ways to convey the meaning of a grimace or eye roll. Soon, video chat will have its own emojis66. Or perhaps we all just become Richard Harris or Ian McCellan on camera and emote for the cheap seats67.

As new distributed-native norms come to life, I suspect that they will follow the same rules I have identified of innovations: companies that use large, undifferentiated social networks will tend toward satisficing norms and ingroup-dominated cultures. The same tools we describe for engineering innovation can also be used to establish productive norms.

Innovation Engineering 101

Our year of remote work has revealed the unexpected truth that innovation is much more than density=serendipity. In fact, densely connected social networks and easy access to “answers” actually slow innovation. Whether teams are distributed or in-office, a dynamic allostasis between trust and diversity maximizes collective intelligence and innovation.

  • Create a new role within your organization: innovation matchmaker.
    • Connect the right people and ideas, but only at the right time.
    • Build concept maps from asynchronous tools.
      • Use these to help prevent herding around easy solutions.
      • Connect ideas across innovation clusters.
      • Identify the right moment to make both social and informational connections.
      • Strategically regulate cross-team and cross-individual interaction.
  • Remix groups of collaborators based on personalities to maintain the critical allostatic tension between trust and novelty.
  • Make access to people and information intermittent to promote incubation and prevent satisficing solutions.
  • Commit time for inter-team maturation of novel ideas into full innovations68.
  • Engineer a synchronized wave of communication to successfully disseminate innovations both inside and outside your organization.
  • Leverage minority opinion incentives to drive collective intelligence.
    • Share incentives for “failed” innovations that laid a foundation for eventual success.
    • Avoid the herding and marginalizing effects of majority rule or prediction markets.

In many ways innovation over the last 20 years has stagnated. Distributed innovation can re-stimulate discovery and invention in our economy. I expect a substantial boost to innovation will also come from another source: secular reallocation. Over the course of the pandemic consumer spending and employment have both shifted dramatically away from certain industries towards others. Restaurants, bars, gyms, resorts, and even universities have seen dramatic reductions in their revenue and share of the labor pool. Companies like Amazon and Google received a great deal of the upside of that reallocation, gaining revenue and, in Amazon’s case, providing new sources of employment. There is an important pattern in this reallocation; the services provided by the “losers” have changed very little for 100 years, while the “winners” are some of the most efficient companies in the world. Spending $1000 on an iPhone will lead to vastly greater research and innovation throughout the economy than the same amount spent on meals at Cracker Barrel and visits to the gym. We might see a substantial lift in innovation over the next decade directly from this pandemic-driven shift in the economy.

Ending the Paradox

Diverse teams are consistently more productive when psychological safety is high, but when trust is low the contributions of diversity are systematically under-valued. Overcoming this paradox is crucial to distributed transformation as remote communication exaggerates the impact of ingroup-outgroup differences. Unfortunately, the roots of the paradox originate deep inside ourselves.

  • Recognize that our very neural architecture supports ingroup formation and outgroup exclusion69.
    • Online anonymity does not solve this problem.
      • It might even make it worse.
    • Promote interpersonal engagement to reduce outgroup bias.
    • Avoid majority rule (again) to prevent ingroup insularity.
    • Avoid massive, undifferentiated social networks for the same reason.
  • Use the “business case for diversity” as a call-to-action but not as the action itself.
    • On its own, the instrumental argument fails to consistently improve diversity, inclusion, or equity.
  • Practice fairness first: your teams are not qualified if they are not diverse.
    • Invest the time needed to discover candidates that are not just individually qualified but improve the complimentary diversity and collective intelligence of the team.

Neither Covid-19 nor the dramatic demonstrations for racial and gender equality around the world will “solve” the Paradox. I would love to be wrong, for this moment to be a catalyst for change, but no single event will truly bring a more inclusive society. We change with engagement and sacrifice. As the world returns to offices or adjusts hybrid work, a combination of cultural inertia and competing demands will sink the business case of inclusion just below the surface–visible but neglected. While nearly every public company has the goal of a diverse and inclusive workforce, few organizations are ready to place fairness first. The world will be transformed by those few that do.

A Perfectly Distributed Tomorrow

After a year of hand washing and false starts, some of us are finally returning to the office. But others are staying home, working from cafes, or “returning” to distributed officelets in formerly abandoned suburban malls. There will be much more to learn as we experiment with different versions of distributed and hybrid work. (For my money the future is hybrid quantum neural fuzzy distributed crypto work...in bed.) So, go forth and launch a Zoom meeting from your bathroom—just make sure you have good lighting and mute yourself liberally. Don’t accept a workplace where the level of ISP competition in coworkers’ neighborhoods determines the quality of the meeting. Do remember that lavishing praise on a female coworker you want to date doesn’t count as a minority opinion incentive. And find comfort in the tension between trust and difference, incubation and maturation, synergists and balancers, synchronous and asynchronous, brownies and broccoli, near-term productivity and long-term human capacity.

On second thought, don’t shit on camera.