The New Future of the Distributed Workforce

Gustavo Grodnitzky Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had a series of discussions with organizational executives that feel very similar and that are based on some fundamental questions:

  1. When will I be able to have my employees in one place again?
  2. How do I manage culture with a hybrid workforce?
  3. How can I keep my culture going when most or all of my people are working remotely?

The first question comes from a CEO who is clearly waiting for the old normal to return. (Hint:  The old normal is dead! Welcome to the new normal.) The latter two questions come from CEOs who appreciate the power of culture but aren’t quite sure how to manage it during these “interesting” times.

Last week I found this podcast from renowned author Sam Harris interviewing Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic — the company that created WordPress, which powers 35% of all websites.

Automattic has about 1,170 employees across more than 75 countries, speaking 93 languages. It has a valuation of $3 billion. Along the way, it has also made significant acquisitions, such WooCommerce and blogging platform Tumblr.

The podcast is 1 hour and 45 minutes long, and while I would encourage everyone to listen to it, I understand most people will not do so. So here are two key takeaways:

  1. We respond to the world, not as it is, but as we are. If we tend to see ambiguous events as threatening, then we will be guarded with those around us. If we tend to see the world more as a place to experiment, then we will be much more curious and open to others.

The same can be said for this pandemic. If we see the pandemic as a short- to medium-term inconvenience, we are likely waiting for things to “return to normal.” If we see the pandemic as a new beginning, then we have likely already capitalized on opportunities and will continue to do so.

So the question becomes this: How do you see your workforce? While most people are discussing their workforces as being “remote,” Mullenweg describes his workforce as “distributed.” The former implies there is a central place of work to which people will be returning (i.e. the old normal). The latter implies that this is the new way to operate.

  1. Mullenweg also articulates an interesting model he calls the “Five Levels of Distributed Teams.” Here are the highlights:

Level 1:  Non-Deliberate Action

This is where the vast majority of organizations were prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.  Nothing deliberate was planned or executed by the company to support remote work.  So, when working from home, the employees’ job is to keep balls from dropping.

Level 2: Recreating the Office Online

This is where many companies are operating today. Employees have access to email, videoconferencing software like Zoom and instant messaging software like Slack. But instead of redesigning work, teams end up recreating online how they used to work in the office.

Level 3: Adapting to the Medium

At this level, organizations begin to adapt to working digitally. Investments and habits begin to change. Companies start to provide better equipment for employees, such as lighting for video calls and noise-canceling microphones. Work begins to get done on shared platforms like Google Docs that are visible to all and updated in real time during a discussion. Such tools create a common understanding and eliminate the risk of lost-in-translation errors.

Level 4: Asynchronous Communication

Most communications may be important, but are less likely to be emergent or even urgent.  For these types of communications, email or instant message is a more efficient tool, with the recipient responding when it suits them. If something is truly urgent, then the medium of communication should reflect that urgency – pick up the phone. By reducing interruptions, asynchronous communication allows people to work more efficiently.

Level 5: Nirvana

Here you will find your distributed team working more effectively than any in-person team.

At what level are you and your team currently working? Please let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

Let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!