The recent article “Can We Still be Agile?” examined two successful organizations that many years ago deliberately chose an all-remote workforce structure. Most of us have recently experienced unplanned and quickly implemented trials of all-remote work, so let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages when planned for and optimized.
All-remote organizations have no central hub(s) for workers. Instead, their staff all work remotely, as shown by the highlighted third element in the image below.
By being deliberately all-remote, there are no different sets of contributors (co-located vs remote) or different forms of communication (face-to-face vs dial-in). Instead, everyone experiences a consistent and universal interaction style.
Case Studies in All-Remote
A few organizations have been successfully using Type-3 (all-remote models) for years. They deliberately chose this format and believe it offers many advantages.
Companies like Automattic (which build WordPress and Tumblr) employ over 1,100 people in 75 countries using an all-remote model. GitLab (makers of source code repository and DevOps tools) has 1,295 team members spread across 67 countries using its all-remote work practices.
Automattic embodies some aspirational goals in the Automattic Creed that reveal some of its intent. These include:
- Never stop learning
- Do not just work on things assigned
- There is no such thing as the status quo
- Never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague
- Communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company
Similarly, GitLab has its own published values and manifesto. GitLab's “CREDIT” values are:
- Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging
The term CREDIT also describes the good-intent it assumes from its remote peers. GitLab also has a remote manifesto:
- Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location
- Flexible working hours over set working hours
- Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations
- Written-down processes over on-the-job training
- Public sharing of information over need-to-know access
- Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents
- Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication
- The results of work over the hours put in
- Formal communication channels over informal communication channels
1. Access better talent – Traditional co-located organizations rely on attracting the best local talent and those willing to relocate. This local and relocating talent pool gets further reduced to people who are willing and able to come into the office for the prescribed office hours.
- Human expertise and ability are globally distributed. The likelihood of having world-class professional talent in our home area is about the same odds of having world-class sprinters, pianists or painters. We may be fortunate and find one or two, but are much more likely to find the talent we desire in the rest of the world.
- All-remote organizations often also add the flexibility of allowing individuals to work whenever they choose. Now the collection of qualified candidates expands again to encompass part-time workers and those with personal or family health issues to attend to also first. Or maybe they have a passion for water skiing or gardening and prefer to work when it is dark.
- Since all-remote organizations work largely asynchronously, part-time and odd-time work can also be accommodated. You may be wondering how project managers track the hours? They do not; instead, they monitor results (which are what really matters anyway). These all-remote organizations are results-focused. As long as people get their work done, collaborate, contribute and help move the organization forward, nobody cares when or where people participate.
2. Reduced overheads – Remote workers can save on housing costs by living somewhere cheaper. They can also save on commuting costs and work clothes. All-remote organizations save on office space costs and relocation costs. In addition, there is a reduced overhead in materials and energy usage, helping the environment.
3. No “Us” and “Head Office” divisions – Without head office hubs and satellite offices, everyone is on an even playing field. This removes “fear of missing out” feelings and creates a more co-operative environment.
4. Free to travel and move – If someone wants to move or travel, then they can do so and remain productive. Changing health conditions and life priorities of workers and their partners are common reasons why people leave office-based jobs. Now they do not need to. This extra stability increases retention, accumulated domain knowledge and working relationships.
5. It attracts the self-motivated – Knowing you will be judged on your results, not your attendance, attracts self-starters who are motivated to deliver. There is no turning-up in the office and expecting someone to show you every step of your job. Onboarding and learning a role takes some self-starting skills. These are typically attributes employers are looking for regardless of the work environment.
1. Onboarding – Getting people acquainted with how things work is often best achieved through face-to-face interactions with someone who can answer the myriad of diverse questions that arise. Both Automattic and GitLab have extensive onboarding handbooks, videos and FAQ resources but still admit this process is a challenge.
2. Initial loneliness – Working without meeting your peers can seem isolating for some workers (and a blessing for some introverts). All-remote organizations build connections through their video meetings and work interactions. One policy of GitLab is to celebrate and learn from interruptions. Whenever a child, pet, or delivery interrupts a video call, there’s an opportunity to learn about the person. “Tell us about…”
3. Self-discipline – Some people struggle to maintain focus while working from home or their favorite coffee shop. People can use technology to filter out distractions (noise-canceling headphones, focusing applications), but it boils down to doing the work. Some people can do this; others struggle.
4. Stifled Innovation – Some all-remote critics claim without serendipitous water-cooler interactions, companies miss out on new product or improvement ideas. However, successful organizations such as Automattic have creeds that incorporate “Never stop learning,” “Do not just work on things assigned” and “There is no such thing as the status quo” to encourage innovation.
5. Communications – It is generally easier to call and work with people you have physically met in person. Before COVID-19, all-remote organizations still had meetups and gatherings where people got to meet each other.
6. Time zones – It can be challenging to find time for meetings when everyone is geographically distributed. People need to flex their schedules and make accommodations to have real-time conversations.
7. Tax and labor laws – It can be challenging for all-remote organizations to keep up with the local tax, labor laws and currency fluctuations. If Bob decides to follow summer surfing and works in Australia, Fiji, Indonesia and Hawaii, there is a significant amount of administration to do.
All-remote organizations used to be the minority—then suddenly, many of us were forced to work that way. This came with no deliberate choice or preparation, all while also dealing with homeschooling and a major health crisis. These circumstances are not the best way to experience and evaluate something.
Much like being hit by a car, taken to a hospital, or given a new food to eat for the first time, the circumstances likely influence our perception of the new experience. However, recent WFH experiences have shown it is possible and will change how many organizations attract, hire, measure, motivate and compensate workers in the future.